Zoe Amar: How charities can build digital sustainability in 2022

Sustaining the innovation of the pandemic means growing digital skills – and knowing what we may need to trade off as a result

There’s a new theme to the conversations that I’ve been having with charity leaders recently.

At the start of the pandemic the big question was: “How can we make the shift to digital as quickly and effectively as possible?” 

Now, as leaders look to 2022, they want to know how they can sustain this for the long term – from continuing to offer digital services to changing roles and responsibilities and where to seek funding. 

Making digital sustainable in this sector can be challenging. My peers in the corporate world focus on revenue growth and profitability when assessing sustainability.

It’s more complicated for charities, because the way we deliver value includes our social impact.

For example, if a mental health charity has developed a brilliant online service which supports thousands of people, but it’s struggling to break even, what should it do? 

I asked three organisations for their advice on securing a digital future.

Firstly, know what success looks like for you.

No-one wants to get to the point where you are faced with getting rid of a popular digital product or service because the financial pressure is on.

Instead your leadership team needs to agree what digital sustainability really means to your charity, and what criteria will be used when making decisions. 

For Emma Reynolds, head of innovation at the suicide prevention charity the Campaign Against Living Miserably, sustainability is getting the balance right between innovation and ambition while having the right infrastructure in place. 

“For us, next year will be about getting our data and digital foundations structurally sound, setting us up for greater success in the year ahead,” says Reynolds.

"Through being holistic, insight-led and with user needs at the forefront, this will collectively drive us towards achieving our overarching vision of suicide prevention."

Being ready to take advantage of new trends is as much part of sustainability as having the right platform, resources and strategy in place.

Before a big idea gets off the ground, have a frank conversation with your team about what the business model could look like in the long term, and how it will be funded. 

For many of the charities I speak to, a significant level of external investment will always be required, whether it’s from corporates, grant funders, or commissioning organisations.

That’s what makes the question of how we establish a long term shift to digital across the sector so critical to our future. 

Charities should also get creative about where to invest.

One of the long-term effects of the pandemic is that you might not need an office to be your centre of gravity, meaning that you can scale your social impact more easily.

The NGO Go Dharmic has done exactly this. It developed the Go Dharmic app that brings together a thousand people who distribute food to the homeless and to schools with high levels of child poverty, and who also work together on global social action campaigns.

Founder and chairman Hanuman Dass says the app is “at the centre of the organisation, helping us to not be reliant on physical spaces”. He adds that the app will be “central to our digital change strategy in 2022". 

Finally, as well as considering existing resources and skills, organisations that want to digitally succeed should think ahead on recruitment.

One of the major dependencies we have as charities is on people. With current labour shortages it can be hard to find digital talent, so you may need to hire for potential, not experience. 

Zoe Wallace, director at Agent Academy, a social enterprise that upskills future digital talent for new roles, points out that this also creates an opportunity to be more inclusive. 

“The demand for digital talent means that companies are reassessing their entry requirement for roles; there is a big opportunity to bring fresh perspectives of people that might not ordinarily have had the opportunity in the past,” says Wallace.

“With more charities committing to digital transformation, I recommend revisiting succession planning regularly. Some of the tech organisations I know do this continuously as digital skills are at such a premium.” 

Sustaining the amazing digital adaptation and innovation we have seen during the pandemic is one of the biggest questions facing our sector in 2022.

To answer it, we’ll need to ask ourselves how we can maintain and grow our use of digital successfully and what we may need to trade off as a result. 

Zoe Amar is founder of Zoe Amar Digital

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