Digital technology has changed the world, so why is the third sector so resistant to it?

Campaigning and communications have been enhanced, but not transformed, and services are barely touched, writes our columnist

Joe Saxton
Joe Saxton

The lives of most people in the UK have been transformed by digital technology. Few of us are without a smartphone, let alone a mobile. We have multichannel digital TV. We shop online for almost every conceivable product. Many of us check social media last thing at night and first thing in the morning.

And a host of companies make the digital revolution possible. There are those, such as Amazon and Airbnb, that have transformed the industries in which they operate. There are the technology suppliers, such as Apple and Samsung, whose products so many of us use. There are the service providers for social media, such as Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat and YouTube, with which so many engage daily. There are many more companies for whom digital is a key part of their success and technologies that have been transformed (music, news).

Given this transformation in our personal lives and the commercial spheres, why has the not-for-profit world been so stubbornly immune to the impact of digital? There will be those who disagree with my analysis, but just try these simple tests.

First, where are the new entrants to the charity world that have sprung up thanks to digital fundraising or digital services? I challenge you to find a new digital entrant in the top 50 charities - and possibly the top 500.

Second, which ways of working has digital transformed? Our recent research with the PayPal Giving Fund shows digital income is about 10 per cent of individual giving income. Campaigning and communications has been enhanced by digital, but not transformed, and services are barely touched. Third, which not-for-profits have disappeared because of digital or been reduced to shadows of their former selves? I can't think of the equivalents of Kodak or Encyclopaedia Britannica in our world.

I am not saying digital has produced no change in the not-for-profit world. What I am saying is that change has been incremental, at best, and far from transformative. If this is the case, the question must be: why? Why are charities the world that digital passed by?

There are two broad possibilities. First, that there are some inherent reasons that digital won't work in our world. The only area where this might be true is that online commerce mostly depends on people waking up in the morning and deciding to book a holiday, buy a present or indulge in some retail therapy. Very few people wake up in the morning and put "make a donation" on their to-do list. They need to be asked, and the internet is not so good at that.

The second possibility for the failure of digital to transform the charity world is a deficiency in leadership and management. It's probably true that few charity chief executives are young enough to really get and drive digital change, and most trustees certainly aren't. It's also true that there is no organisation whose central job it is to make charities adopt digital: in our recent survey, JustGiving came out top. It has done some amazing work in digital fundraising, but its role is very different from that of actual charities.

Whatever the reason, the failure of charities to be transformed by digital is bad for beneficiaries. The next question is: how can we bring on the revolution?

Joe Saxton is the founder and driver of ideas at the research consultancy nfpSynergy

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