While we have seen some truly innovative campaigns from charities in recent years, Joe Saxton is largely correct in saying that the third sector has been slow in embracing the digital revolution. However, I am not convinced by his statement that problems persist because few people wake up with ‘donating’ on their morning to-do list. In my opinion this is the wrong way for charities to approach digital strategy and an incorrect starting point when creating a meaningful, enduring supporter experience.
Many charities have struggled with digital precisely because they have seen online channels primarily as an avenue for fundraising. When the essence of a charity’s digital strategy essentially consists of "shaking an online tin", a huge disservice is done to those whom the charity seeks to serve, as well as supporters.
Instead, charities must use digital channels to reflect their organisation’s aims and activities, not just their news. This is happening in small pockets – a notable example is CoppaFeel’s "Digital Boob Team", who use digital channels to reach millions of people with educational messages around self checks for breast cancer.
Secondly, charities need to see digital channels as an opportunity to forge strong, ongoing relationships with their natural supporters. Digital provides an unrivalled, personalised environment to touch the heart of supporters and invoke longstanding relationships – all through the devices and channels that the supporter chooses to use. I work across charity and film marketing campaigns and believe there’s much for the third sector can learn from the film industry here. Yes the budgets often differ wildly, but movie marketers approach a campaign looking to connect with personalisation and create deep, meaningful engagement that will sustain a campaign from initial announcement to theatrical release and even beyond to DVD release. Many charities digitally promote events such as bike rides, marathons and sponsored walks, but haven’t been successful in following up to convert these events into ongoing relationships.
In my experience, the call to action, whether this involves donations or support, is far more natural and successful when it is sensitively integrated into a well thought-through and balanced digital offering that puts the cause and relationships first, and the "ask" second. Offering web users the opportunity to support work locally is much more effective than a "Donate" button slapped onto the menu of a website.
Digital strategy should also be embraced as a tremendous opportunity to deal with upcoming changes in the third sector. Opt-in regulation changes should be a catalyst for improved engagement with a smaller number of heavily-engaged natural supporters. Our shifting demographic also presents challenges and opportunities – the baby boomer generation, relied on by many charities for support, are now in the main very technically savvy. Millennials, the first generation of ‘digital natives’, have been traditionally harder to engage with, but charities can unlock this new army of advocates by creating meaningful and enduring online campaigns.
The third sector has been slow to adapt to changes in the online world, but I expect this to change rapidly as charities recognise the importance of aligning digital with their overall organisation. Given the powerful winds of change currently blowing through the sector, a progressive approach to digital is no longer simply a nice option but a necessity for the modern, successful charity.