According to last year’s Charity Digital Skills Report, 66 per cent of charities were delivering all of their work remotely, with many pivoting to provide services online so they could continue their vital work during the pandemic.
But one of the challenges was providing safe and effective services, while grappling with digital for both organisations and beneficiaries alike.
With such a significant amount of digital service delivery going on over the past year, we’ll be tracking charities’ progress in this area and others through the survey to build this year’s report.
In the meantime, I wanted to find out what charities have discovered from a year of offering online services, and what these learnings mean for how they will operate as the path out of the pandemic becomes clearer.
Digital service delivery comes with risk
While the charities I spoke to had grown in confidence during the pandemic, they all outlined the complex risks that come with digital service delivery.
Oksana Zharinova-Sanderson, director of music services at the music therapy charity Nordoff Robbins, feels that some of the greatest risks that come with digital service delivery are hiding in plain sight.
You don’t know who else may be in your beneficiary’s home, and what their intentions are, for example, she says.
In addition, some people were unable to access online services during the lockdown.
Zharinova-Sanderson says that she and her team “learnt that we need to be particularly vigilant when working with anybody online, and when somebody who has not attended any service for a while comes back, such as children returning to school.”
They had to be proactive in collaborating with the organisations they work with, so that any potential safeguarding risks were flagged.
Data protection is a challenge
Protecting confidential data is a challenge with so much information flowing electronically between the charity and beneficiaries.
Ben Calverley, director of grants services at the grant-maker the Family Fund, worries that there are also risks when charities deliver services directly from and to locations where they have less control.
“People are working at home in environments that may not be secure when it comes to phone calls being overheard, for example,” he says.
“You need internal data protection impact assessments and training of delivery staff to minimise the risk of breaches.”
Charities that continue to deliver digital services in the future might therefore be investing less in overheads for buildings, and more on staff skills and compliance.
There is a growing awareness that organisations also need to think about digital safeguarding risks for staff, especially at a time when they could be at risk of burnout.
Leandra Box, programme manager at the Race Equality Foundation, says delivering services online from home can lead to screentime overload.
There is also a risk that staff will feel “overwhelmed by the complex and upsetting information that is being shared with them and without the usual support networks in place from colleagues to help manage that”, says Box.
It’s important, she says, that staff are offered opportunities to debrief and access help.
What does this mean for the future?
The charities I spoke to were looking at hybrid business models and were armed with the knowledge they had gained over the last year in preparation.
If your charity is planning to deliver services both on and offline, it’s important to think through the appropriate role for different methods in order to manage risk.
For example, Box feels that digital services are “a really gentle engagement and introductory tool” that can help develop relationships with the people her charity supports.
But charities might need to allocate resources to help beneficiaries access the data and tools required to get online.
One of the biggest risks that lies ahead is an increased dependency on digital, and the growth of channel choice and innovative technologies.
Calverley warns that as automation, including newer tools such as chatbots, grows, “It is vitally important this risk is monitored and mitigated to ensure those in real need do not fall through the cracks.’
All the charities I spoke to had considered many aspects of digital safeguarding and considered the situations of the people they need to reach.
This is the unique ingredient that charities can bring to digital service delivery: empathy. It is hardwired into everything we do as a sector.
It will power our commitment to getting digital safeguarding right, evaluating all the different risks where we interact with beneficiaries, and testing and sharing learnings about the new methods of delivery that lie ahead.
Zoe Amar is founder of the digital and marketing consultancy Zoe Amar Digital @zoeamar