The effects of digital technology cannot be underestimated, says Richard Tyrie, chief executive of the social enterprise Good People and author of the "digital fluency" section of the Dame Mary Marsh-led review of skills and leadership in the charity sector, published in May. "We are seeing people come together and self-organise in ways that would have been unimaginable a decade ago," he says. "We've seen regimes topple overnight, based on people being able to connect with each other this way."
It may seem a long way from Tahrir Square in Cairo, Egypt, to a trustee meeting in the UK, but Tyrie says that charities risk becoming isolated and irrelevant if they do not adapt to the unstoppable march of new technology. Increased digital fluency is an absolute necessity, Tyrie argues, if the social sector is to cope with the funding pressures it faces.
The term digital fluency refers to an ability - far from universal in the sector at the moment - to be comfortable with different forms of digital communication and their inevitable evolution. It means understanding and selecting from a vast array of communication platforms, from the ubiquitous Facebook and Twitter, but also YouTube, blogging and podcasting, embedded video, Google+, Instagram, Spotify and QR Codes.
There is a consensus that the primary use of social media and digital technology lies in telling stories about a charity or the experiences of its beneficiaries. Jude Habib, founder of digital media training company Soundddelivery, says: "I think charities have got to go back to basics and ask 'what are we trying to do and say and what is the best platform we should be using?'"
Tyrie says that an increasingly savvy social media donor base wants to see the story of where their donations are going. If they don't get that, he warns, they will vote with their feet and support other organisations able to supply this connection.
The international medical relief charity Merlin, which is in the process of joining Save the Children, has improved its social media presence in the past few years. It now has more than one Twitter account, which enables both fundraising outreach and a rolling commentary on global issues. Deniz Hassan, digital marketing manager at Merlin, says: "It has given us access to a whole new set of supporters. There is a much younger group of people who want to be charitable and get enjoyment out of it."
Through 'likes' and 'shares', digital technology can spread charity communications and fundraising appeals rapidly and at low cost. Hassan cites the example of Merlin's 2013 'plumpy nut challenge' (right), which raised £40,000 from people who ate nothing for 24 hours but a food given to people suffering from malnutrition. News of the challenge spread widely on social media. "In no other way could we encourage the level of viral spread," says Hassan.
In the Marsh review, Tyrie alluded to a scepticism and lack of personal experience among sector leaders that stops them providing the necessary impetus to digital experimentation. Marsh, too, has referred to an "intergenerational gap in digital fluency".
"The proportion of trustees between 18 and 25 is 0.5 per cent," says Tyrie. "The people who understand these tools, how to make them work and how they can benefit charities are not even around the table at a strategic level."
Karl Wilding, director of public policy at the National Council for Voluntary Organisations, refers the over-40s who supply the bulk of the sector's senior strategists as "digital immigrants". "The digital natives are the ones who've never known anything different," he says.
Chrissie Wright, director of training services at the Directory of Social Change, says she has noticed a generational divide. "We are beginning to get two extremes - people who know nothing and younger ones who can really run with it." The DSC offers introductory courses on social media, but Wright says that despite a "steady stream" of people signing up for this type of training, beginners courses are needed for those who are out of their comfort zone with digital technology and don't know where to begin. They need a different kind of tuition that requires more one-to-one coaching and explains the functions of social media, she says.
Training is no panacea
But formal training is not seen as a panacea. Tyrie recommends looking within organisations for expertise or, if that does not yield results, getting pro bono support from outside. "This is exactly the creative type of volunteering that people are really interested in doing, but there simply aren't enough opportunities out there to do it," he says.
Wilding says that there are probably too many expensive courses on digital technology and a better, more cost-effective route for charities is peer-to-peer support, such as the Social Media Surgery or NFPTweetup. These organisations run events that help not-for-profits explore digital technology. "Free advice and support that is tailored to our sector is available," says Wilding.
But practitioners agree there is no substitute for learning by doing. "You'll make a few mistakes along the way but, unless you go crazy, nothing particularly bad can happen," says Hassan.
- We speak to four charities to find out how they provide staff with training
- Read our interview with Keith Mogford of Skills – Third Sector
- See our article on how to get financial training on a shoestring