Zoe Amar: Charities should not be afraid to demand more from their tech suppliers

Clashes in culture and values are inevitable when working with big companies – but charities can recast these relationships

Big tech news stories are back on my radar. The US National Rifle Association (the NRA) was recently revealed to be a long-term customer of the fundraising software provider Blackbaud.

This story came hot on the heels of the news that Salesforce, another provider of software to the charity sector, will continue to work with the NRA despite 4,000 of its employees calling for an end to the relationship.

The Chartered Institute of Fundraising subsequently paused sponsorship relationships with both Salesforce and JustGiving (whose parent company is Blackbaud) as sponsors of its upcoming annual convention.

It was only a matter of time before we saw stories like this. If you are a charity big enough to need enterprise-level software, it’s likely you’ll be working with a large tech company. Inevitably this can lead to a clash in culture and values.

Tech companies are not all inherently bad, and realistically charities cannot stop working with them. But I hope these stories lead to charities reflecting on who they work with, how they work together and what accountability in the relationship looks like.>

Historically, some organisations may have seen working with tech suppliers as a transactional arrangement, perhaps because digital was peripheral for them. But after two years of intense digital adoption, tech is no longer an arm’s-length activity. Instead, it is a core part of business.

Anyone who has been through the process of getting a new website or CRM will know how closely you have to work with the provider. You’re collaborating on something mission-critical. You’re solving big challenges. You’re talking to each other constantly. Honestly, you may as well be married.

This is why the quality of the relationship and having shared values is so important. How else can you achieve a successful outcome together?

Charities shouldn’t be afraid to demand more from the tech suppliers they work with, or to lobby for change.

When we were developing The Charity Digital Code of Practice in 2018 I spoke to charities about their relationships with providers. While there were many successful partnerships, I was so concerned about some of the stories I heard that we wrote additional provisions into the Code to protect charities, including obtaining due diligence and taking informed advice.

Simon Hopkins, director of finance and corporate resources at Versus Arthritis, agrees that charities should expect more from suppliers, and that they should be accessible and role-model equality, diversity and inclusion as well as environmental, social and governance principles.

He advises that charities do “a thorough reputational audit as part of a tender exercise, insisting on added value on social mission, setting clear expectations at the tender stage on what values we want to see mirrored”. Asking for these things may feel awkward if you haven’t done it before but, as Hopkins says: “Their responses to that ask will tell us a lot about their values.”

It can be liberating to recast the relationship in this way, leading to far more openness, trust and transparency on both sides, and deeper collaboration and shared learning. It also offers better value for charities. One of the chief executives I have worked with calls this way of working together “the team around the team”.

To achieve this you might need to reconsider how you procure. Yasmin Georgiou, strategy lead at the digital agency William Joseph, thinks that procurement should be more than a transactional exercise.

“Tender processes often focus on the technical requirements or the budget envelope instead of the suppliers’ values, how they work, and how that dovetails with your own organisation’s culture and values,” Georgiou says.

How might an organisation ensure it is screening for a good relationship and shared values with its supplier as part of the process?

Wanting the same thing and having a shared ethos and approach is an excellent foundation for any relationship. Charities and tech suppliers must make this the bedrock of how they work together if they are to unlock the full potential of technology to increase their impact.

Zoe Amar is founder of the digital and marketing consultancy Zoe Amar Digital @zoeamar

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