Zoe Amar: Charities must be ready to embrace new and emerging technologies

The pandemic has shown us that change is inevitable, and we must not expect the sector to look the same in 2032

I’m writing this on the day that Covid-19 restrictions are, once again, lifted in England.

We may have started the first lockdown in March 2020 bound by the same rules, but we are emerging from the pandemic with varying circumstances and preferences. This is also true of charities and technology.

I consider this the parallel universe phase of the pandemic, when on the same day I can talk to one charity whose database is falling apart and another that is investing in artificial intelligence.

Both of these things are the right priorities for them, and neither choice is better than the other.

But with some organisations pushing ahead with emerging technologies and others at earlier stages, charities need to be aware of the options available to them so they can make informed choices about what to pursue.

One new technology that I’m hearing some charities talking about right now are non-fungible tokens, or NFTs – units of data, often associated with images, stored on blockchain, which is a shared, digital ledger.

Other technologies include Web3 (the next phase of the internet, built around decentralised platforms and blockchain), artificial intelligence (technology that enables machines to simulate human behaviour, also known as AI) and the metaverse (3D virtual worlds).

All this tech has been around for a few years, but it is getting attention now because, after a period of rapid digital adoption, people are asking: “What next?”

Some charities are already benefiting from these technologies. Last summer Edinburgh Dog and Cat Home began accepting cryptocurrency donations as a way to develop new fundraising streams and engage with different demographics.

The organisation has developed partnerships with token and NFT projects and received a cryptocurrency gift of 26 ETH (£87,000 at the time) last November to fund its pet food bank for a year.

It is thought to be the biggest cryptocurrency donation given to a Scottish charity and the home hopes to grow this income stream by hiring a digital fundraising lead.

Nicola Gunn, EDCH’s director of development and external affairs, thinks that cryptocurrency could be a gamechanger for charities of all sizes.

“There is a whole new young, wealthy, tech-savvy, global demographic to be tapped into and even small and local charities will be able to expand their donor base well beyond their usual audiences and generate substantial income with a relatively small budget,” she told me.

Over at the British Red Cross, technology innovation and futures lead Ben Holt and his team are working on aspects of emerging technologies that include building software robots to carry out routine tasks, so that colleagues can work on issues and new ideas.

They are also looking at how AI can help extract insights and patterns from data to help frontline staff, and beefing up their use of insights, data and predictive modelling to assist their work.

How will these trends change the sector by 2032? Such technologies are likely to be used much more widely by then, with significant implications for how we interact with the people we support, donors and staff.

Rhodri Davies, voluntary sector emerging tech expert, believes the sector could look radically different.

As well as a range of new skills and functions being required, such as virtual event fundraisers, the impact of automation and more distributed teams on roles could lead to a workforce that operates across networks rather than within organisations.

“Organisations may therefore need to stop thinking in terms of permanent employees and long-term supporters, and instead adapt to working with time-limited teams or engaging with supporters on specific campaigns but not expecting any longer-term organisational loyalty," he says.

To plan for this, charity leaders need to be aware of emerging tech trends and build them into their strategies.

What we can’t do is assume the charity sector in 2032 will look as it does now.

As the pandemic has shown us, change is inevitable and charities need to be match-fit to embrace these new technologies as they are more widely adopted.

Zoe Amar is founder of Zoe Amar Digital

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