Zoe Amar: Why small charities are winning at digital

The ability of small organisations to run with new ideas has come to the fore during the Covid-19 pandemic

If you want to find inspiring examples of digital innovation from the pandemic, you need look no further than your doorstep. 

From mental health support groups meeting on Zoom to volunteers co-ordinating food deliveries via Facebook, small charities were quick to use digital to adapt, mobilising to support communities like the one you live in. 

We can all learn a lot from the speed and creativity small charities displayed with digital during the pandemic. So I was intrigued to read a new report from the technology charity Cast and the Institute for Voluntary Action Research, called Response to Change, about how small voluntary organisations have been using digital over the past year. 

What makes the achievements of small charities and community groups shown in this report impressive is that they were starting from a very challenging place. 

The report highlights the lack of infrastructure and resources available to such charities and the competing demands they face as small teams. Yet these constraints became an advantage. 

Small organisations have prioritised their technology choices by tapping into their grassroots knowledge of the people they support.  

Annie Caffyn, researcher at Ivar, says: “It was inspiring to see how so many have come up with bold, creative and thoughtful ways to maintain contact with users and stakeholders digitally, from simple regular phone calls to launching an online tutoring scheme and an online subscription box service.”

The inbuilt agility of small charities really comes into its own when digital is part of their armoury. 

Small organisations are by their nature nimble and, once they have the confidence, skills and tools to use digital, they can create flexible solutions. 

For instance, Saving Lives is a sexual health and bloodborne virus charity, but when the pandemic happened it pivoted to repurpose its online blood test kit-ordering system to manage the Covid-19 screening programmes of the lab it worked with. 

This theme of reappropriating and reusing existing digital tools is a recurring one in the report.  

Unhampered by the bureaucracy that can go with the territory of larger organisations, small charities were able to change direction quickly and be part of a much larger social impact. 

Small charities are also at the coalface of dealing with digital inclusion issues. 

If you were a small youth charity that had to move to online service delivery, you will have witnessed at first hand the catastrophic impact on young people and families who did not have access to devices and data. 

Integrate, a youth-led charity based in Bristol, spotted that the young people it worked with did not have access to technology when lockdown started. 

But the charity secured a grant for 17 digital kits so that the young people who did not have devices were able to engage.  

Once this was in place, Integrate felt confident to expand its digital offer, giving the young people weekly pastoral calls, online music recordings, adapting its school workshops to be delivered online and launching a tutoring scheme, which saw one participant go from a grade four to a grade nine (D to a high A*), while another one went up two sets in school. 

These sessions also provided much-needed social interaction for the young people when schools were closed and they were unable to meet their friends. 

What marks out the success of these small charities from others is that they were experimenting even before the pandemic, and many had access to peer support and digital experts through the digital support network Catalyst

This collaborative approach and the resourcefulness and insight gained from being close to the ground are principles the whole sector should consider when planning the next stage of their digital journey, even if your charity is a huge national organisation. 

Ellie Hale of Cast, which is part of the Catalyst collective, advises charities of all sizes to “be just as resourceful as an organisation with limited resources”. 

She says: “Being small means you often have to start small, using what you already have – and in digital, that’s ideal.”

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

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