Zoe Amar: What does digital disruption in charities really look like?

It's not always about big organisations with huge budgets, but also individual charities seizing opportunities

Zoe Amar
Zoe Amar

What’s big and scary, yet no one knows what it really means?

The answer is surely digital disruption. The term has been defined as "a transformation that is caused by emerging digital technologies and business models", and if I asked you to name some examples of it you’d probably say Uber or Airbnb. But are these really the best examples for the charity sector?

I don’t agree that disruption is always a seismic event. Of course, companies such as Amazon have changed the game in how we live, work and shop. Yet some of the most telling examples I have seen are where disruption is hiding in plain sight, invisible until an event reveals how people’s behaviour has changed.

Take Grenfell, where, according to the fundraising platform JustGiving, crowdfunding kicked in before charitable giving, including one instance in which a teacher, Hayley Yearwood, raised £1.4m. I think crowdfunding is a really exciting innovation, but we must consider as a sector what it says about how and why people want to give. Last year, JustGiving predicted that if it took the previous two years of data and projected it forwards, crowdfunding could be bigger than any individual charity in the UK by this year.

And that’s the key point. We need to stop talking about digital disruption in terms of big companies with huge innovation budgets. It’s really down to an organisation or individual noticing how behaviour is shifting and seizing that opportunity. How many examples can you name of charities that have done that?

Dan Sutch, co-director and founder of the digital-for-good organisation Cast, argues that disruption is already happening.

"More than 250,000 apps are available to support people to have better mental health," he says. "They’ve been downloaded more than 3.2 billion times. Those figures should give us a hint that a service traditionally offered by charities is now being disrupted by digital start-ups.

"The challenge here isn’t the lack of examples of disruptive approaches. The problem is that, within those figures, UK charities barely figure."

Putting digital to one side for the moment, the irony of not yet seeing a charity equivalent of Netflix is that our sector excels at disruption, whether that’s campaigning for change, fundraising for new causes or offering services to those who have been marginalised. And if we combined digital innovation with the huge amount of expertise that charities have, and the public trust and accountability that is so essential to the sector, then the potential is really exciting.

Sutch believes that when charities embrace technology they’re able to scale innovative solutions to social problems. He gives the example of Seap, a medium-sized advisory charity based in Hastings. It developed an online tool named C-app to help increase people’s confidence when they went for disability allowance interviews. Almost 200,000 people have now used C-app, multiplying the charity’s reach by 1,500.

Jamie Ward-Smith, chair of the Co-op Foundation and founder of the Doit Foundation, points out that the sector embraced digital early on, citing how JustGiving transformed how people give and how Do-it (first piloted in 1999) changed how people volunteered. He thinks one of the challenges for innovation is getting it funded.

At a time when the sector remains under scrutiny, perhaps we also need to think of radical solutions for the kind of support charities need.

Ward-Smith says: "I’d like to see something in our sector like Mumsnet, which has hundreds of thousands of members and is seen as an influential and independent lobbyist that has the ear of government and which also provides support to its member base.

"A similar model would have the potential to enable mass-sector participation and could be truly representative. It would be able to consult and stay ahead of sector opinion and trends as well as provide leadership to ensure its members are more digitally relevant."

If we’re sitting it out for the charity sector equivalent of Skype, we could be waiting for a while. But that doesn’t meant disruption hasn’t happened. It’s already here, and savvy charities will reap the benefits. What are you doing to prepare for this brave new world?

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

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