Going "digital first" sounds like a bold, exciting aim. But underpinning this is something a charity leader I know calls "the pain of transition".
If your charity uses face-to-face services and manual processes, then questions need to be asked about whether a move to digital is the right choice and, if it is, how to take your beneficiaries, donors and other supporters on that journey with you.
Children’s University has been working towards this aim over the past two years. Staffed by a core team of just four, it is a small charity that helps children engage with learning beyond the classroom by encouraging them to undertake extracurricular learning, improving their ability to learn and attain.
Historically, these activities were logged in a paper "passport" document for each child, with entries validated by Children’s University or partner organisations such as schools, universities and local authorities. The charity reaches 100,000 children a year, who do 3.6 million hours of learning.
The first lesson of shifting to digital is not to make the move for its own sake but as a strategic way of overcoming specific challenges. Children’s University had a big problem it wanted to solve: it couldn’t access all the data from the paper passports.
The charity recognised that if it moved the passport system online it could evidence its impact, show what the children had achieved and draw out actionable data.
Liam Nolan, head of communications and stakeholder engagement at Children’s University, told me that it wanted to "get a picture of how children are doing nationally" by moving the data online.
"For example, are there lots of STEM opportunities in the south west but none in the north east?" he said. "We can then ask organisations to provide services in these cold spots."
The gathered data can then go even further, informing government policy around character education.
The new digital passport system is now live, partner organisations are logged on and children will start using it over the summer. Children’s University aims to reach 30,000 children through the platform over the next academic year.
For a small charity that hadn’t worked on many design-and-build projects before, Nolan stressed the importance of charities planning how such a project can be managed.
"Completely agile product management doesn’t fit with the way charities fund things," he said. "We couldn’t do eternal ongoing iterations and fixes, so we had to learn about digital project management and then figure out a way to move the passport online within a fixed price."
Nolan also pointed out that there isn’t enough funding out there for charity digital projects. Children’s University was too far along in its thinking to need an accelerator programme, but too small for some grant-makers to fund.
In the end, it funded the platform from reserves, but if your charity falls into a similar grey area you might need to think creatively about how to resource your project, perhaps through corporate funding or social finance.
Finally, if your charity has a big-ticket digital idea, then you’ll need shared aims with your trustees. Children’s University's trustees were keen to make the right investment decisions and ensure the platform was launched successfully, while Nolan wanted to help them understand the scale of organisational change that would be required to embed its use. Undertaking a session with your board to agree shared goals and what success looks like is vital.
A clear sense of the problem you’re trying to solve, along with the right project management style and approach to funding – as well as getting trustees on the same page as staff – could help your charity make the shift to digital.
Zoe Amar is the founder of the digital and marketing consultancy Zoe Amar Digital @zoeamar