Zoe Amar: How small charities can use digital to punch above their weight

Smaller charities face a challenge with digital, but they should not let it scare them

Zoe Amar
Zoe Amar

A few days ago I saw first hand how small charities exemplify grit, determination and courage. I was at a Hertfordshire Community Foundation event where Emma Power, who leads Home Start Watford and Three Rivers, shared the powerful and moving story of how her charity had reinvented itself in challenging times. Emma spoke passionately about how digital had helped her charity save money and reach more beneficiaries.

Emma’s story struck a chord with me as I was at the event to talk about The Charity Digital Code of Practice, the new framework that we’ve developed with the Small Charities Coalition, the Charity Commission, the Office for Civil Society, the National Council for Voluntary Organisations and more. The aim is to help charities of all shapes and sizes use digital to increase their impact, develop skills and improve sustainability, and it includes best practice for both small and large organisations. I am a great believer that doing digital well should be open to everyone.

Yet small charities have faced many challenges with digital. Mandy Johnson, chief executive of the Small Charities Coalition, says: "Small charities haven't always had the resources, budget or time to improve their digital skills. Too many have been unable to utilise the opportunities technology brings simply because they lack access and guidance. That is why we have worked with organisations across the sector to level the playing field. With the new code we hope to give new opportunities in digital to the 97 per cent of charities in the UK that are small."

I asked four leaders of small charities how digital has helped them. Kara Lee, volunteer centre manager at Bexley Voluntary Service Council, thinks that digital can help small charities save time and money: "Digital can be an easier, quicker and more cost-effective way to promote services, raise awareness, engage supporters and manage work."

Lee sees digital as essential to her charity. "We couldn’t be without digital," she says. "We have a CRM system and a website that holds all our data, including our work, to help us report to funders and keep up to date. We use social media to share messages, news, jobs and events. Attendance at our volunteer fairs doubled once we started sharing on social media, and it can be free."

Yet the barriers to going digital can seem huge to small charities. Anne Fry, marketing and communications manager at Vonne, the organisation that supports charities and social enterprises in north-east England, says: "‘Digital’ can be a scary word, conjuring up images of expensive software and technical skills that might be beyond many small charities, which are already stretched in terms of time and resources."

Jemma Mindham, chief executive of Rainbow Services in Harlow, offered this advice for small charities that find themselves in this situation: "Don’t be afraid of it, or feel that it is too expensive to apply – talk to your local Council for Voluntary Service about what support there is to access equipment and increase skills."

All four of the small charities I spoke to had big ambitions for digital. David Stockdale, chief executive of the British Tinnitus Association, worked closely with his team to develop Take on Tinnitus, an interactive way for people new to the condition to learn more about what it is and how to manage it. The charity also uses Google Classroom to connect its support group leaders around the UK. Stockdale feels that this has helped them increase their impact.

He says: "It’s proving to be a great tool to tackle some of the disconnect that group leaders felt from both one another and the organisation as a whole. It allows leaders to share experiences of what works and what doesn’t, give tips for meetings and discuss future speakers, as well as other regular challenges all support groups face."

This shows how digital can widen the horizons of any organisation.

These four leaders are all intending to use the code. "We’ll be using it to look at how we use digital as an organisation and to give us some insight into areas where we could do better or that we need to focus on more," says Lee. "As a CVS, we’ll be using it to help other organisations to do the same and share what we learn through training and group support sessions."

We hope that small charities will use The Charity Digital Code of Practice to help them take their use of digital to the next level. And we’d love to hear what you think of it as part of the consultation.

Zoe Amar is the founder of the digital and marketing consultancy Zoe Amar Communications

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