Zoe Amar: Are we at a tipping point in charity digital?

The sector might be talking the talk, but it might not yet be walking the walk, writes our digital columnist

Zoe Amar
Zoe Amar

Something has shifted in how the charity sector is talking about digital. Back in 2015, working in charity digital meant fighting to get your voice heard. Julie Dodd’s report The New Reality kick-started a conversation that year about how non-profits could use digital. Three years on, we’ve seen a wave of reports from Lloyds and the Tech Trust arguing that the sector must adopt digital. It’s an issue that is top of my mind because we’re currently working on this year’s Charity Digital Skills Report. But are things really changing? And where do we go from here? I spoke to charity leaders to find out what they think.

Caron Bradshaw, chief executive of the Charity Finance Group, agrees that there is a growing appetite across the sector for digital, which has developed in tandem with the wider adoption of technology such as contactless debit cards and driverless cars. What’s more, there is a compelling reason for the sector to take a leading role.

"Digital technology is rapidly revolutionising the way the world works," she says. "The potential for using technology to disrupt our work in a positive way, to massively improve outcomes, is arguably the single biggest opportunity currently offered to us as a sector.

"There is an absolute imperative in supporting digital and IT colleagues in evolving to a more extroverted, forward-looking role in civil society. We can’t duck this opportunity – transformed lives are the prize."

Yet charities will need the mindset and the skills to seize this chance. Matthew Moorut, head of marketing at the Tech Trust, is concerned that the sector isn’t there yet.

"The majority of charity professionals still aren’t at a point where they’re confident enough to think strategically about the digital options available to them," he says. "In reality, most people understand that they need to get to grips with digital opportunities somehow, but don’t necessarily know what that entails and still need support to utilise that knowledge."

In other words, the sector might be talking the talk, but it’s not walking the walk.

If your charity wants to use digital to get ahead, leadership, talent and having the right structure are vital. James Gadsby Peet, director of digital at the branding consultancy William Joseph, says that leaders are the critical success factor.

"The place to start is, as ever, with people," he says. "We have to get senior leaders more confident in how digital can help their organisations achieve their goals more efficiently and more effectively."

Lisa Clavering, a digital fundraising consultant, feels that digital must be configured in the right way in organisational structures in order to maximise impact.

"To drive significant change, a role is needed with enough seniority to get past roadblocks and lead decision-making," she says. "A digital team isn’t enough without a strong voice at the table to push the digital agenda and ensure it is considered holistically and as a crucial building block for the future."

Who fits the bill for this in your charity?

Your charity’s culture must also enable digital. Ali Walker, director of digital strategy at the consultancy Open, warns: "The world is changing at an incredible rate, and charities aren’t currently structured to keep up. Decision-making is slow, risk is no-go and the technology and infrastructure needed to deliver an always-on, integrated marketing approach doesn’t exist in many big organisations."

Do your charity’s values, behaviours and ways of working need to evolve?

The level of change necessary to do digital well isn’t just about using the channels effectively. It’s reflective of a wider shift in how charities do business. Paul De Gregorio, director of digital engagement at Open, says: "A hypothesis we’re exploring is that the future of fundraising will be more community building and engagement and less broadcast advertising."

Just think of Movember and the Ice Bucket Challenge.

Alistair Lockhart, who was previously head of digital at Help for Heroes and is now a charity consultant, would like to see charities pooling skills to help tackle this challenge.

"There has to be a massive mentoring opportunity for digital marketing executives and managers in larger charities, or indeed private sector organisations, to pay it forward and help some of their less digitally-savvy peers," he says.

Whatever the sector decides to do next, it will need to move fast. Dan Sutch, director at the Centre for Acceleration of Social Technology, advises that "digital technology has had a huge effect on the lives, behaviours and expectations of the people and communities we're looking to support and, if charities are to continue to deliver vital support, then we need to respond more quickly".

Digital is the big opportunity on the table at the moment. Are we ready to take it?

Zoe Amar is the founder of the digital and marketing consultancy Zoe Amar Communications. She is working with Skills Platform on The Charity Digital Skills Report, a free resource to help track where the charity sector is at with digital, helping you to benchmark your organisation. You are invited to share your views by taking the quick survey to build the report (deadline is midnight on Friday 16 February 2018)

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