Charity Digital Trustee Zoe Amar looks towards the future - to see how the long-term effects of the COVID-19 pandemic will shape the charity sector for years to come
Zoe Amar Digital, Skills Platform and The Catalyst are tracking how digital is changing the charity sector during COVID-19 in The Charity Digital Skills Report. Share your views by 15 May.
It seems unthinkable, but one day we will leave our houses, get the train to work and meet friends for dinner. The rhythms of everyday life will resume, yet everything will have changed. What does that mean for the charity sector?
With NCVO predicting that charities will lose £4 billion over the initial 12 weeks of COVID-19, the £750 million government support package for charities is a good first step but will leave a significant shortfall. Yet people and communities need help from charities more than ever. Charities are managing a drop in income and heightened demand whilst increasing digital fundraising, online service delivery and remote working.
This is enormously challenging and I’m as worried as you are. Yet I’m heartened by the inspiring stories I’m hearing daily, from the umbrella bodies collaborating in tirelessly making the case for government funding, to charities’ creative digital service delivery ideas.
With such accelerated digital change, what will the future look like for charities after Coronavirus? To understand this I spoke to several charities across the UK.
Clare Cook is CEO of Soundabout, a charity who empower people with severe and profound learning disabilities through engagement with music. Cook told me that whilst she and her team were appalled at the impact of the pandemic on the people they help they saw it as an opportunity to try new things. She and her team quickly developed virtual events on Facebook. They’ve gone from seeing eight people plus carers in face to face group sessions to reaching a cumulative total of 12k via Facebook live broadcasts and doubling followers on the platform. Daily visitors to Soundabout’s website (where families can access these events afterwards) have quadrupled. Cook told me that, ‘Ironically, the new situation has opened up for us exciting new avenues of service. In the past, people either had to attend events, often a distance from where they lived, or our dedicated music practitioners were required to visit families frequently far apart from each other.’
Whilst offline services will still be an important part of the new normal, charities are experimenting with digital, unlocking the benefits of scale and engaging with some hard to reach groups.
PLAN AHEAD: Don’t innovate for its own sake. Build on what you know works with users. Lynn Roberts, Assistant Director of Digital & Innovation at Action for Children, counsels charities to scale tried and tested approaches. When things improve digital teams are likely to be busier than ever and there are lessons to be learned from the crisis. Roberts says, ‘We haven’t all suddenly got bigger digital teams, or more hours in the day, so I think the real challenge is keeping focus so we can get things done at pace.’
Individual giving has declined over the last few years and COVID-19 could be the moment when fundraising changes forever. Ayman Agabani, Muslim Hands’ Communications Manager explained that the pandemic has radically changed how they operate, pulling outdoor ads until 2021 and postponing events whilst increasing investment in PPC, social ads and live streaming. Agabani advises charities to become ‘digital and mobile-first’ to take advantage of opportunities post-crisis.
It’s not just about shifting channels. We need to change our entire approach. The crisis has unlocked massive appetite for collective action and shared experiences, from community groups helping isolated individuals to the 750K NHS volunteers and even family pub quizzes on Zoom. Post-crisis we will see more online communities built around causes. Fundraising freelancer Nikki Bell thinks that, ‘There’ll be more Facetiming, live streaming and digital communities through things like quizzes, events and conversations - and this is a huge opportunity to expand our network whilst saving on time and resource.’
PLAN AHEAD: Your donors’ needs are changing rapidly and will shift again post-crisis. Learning about their behaviours and needs, whether it’s through user interviews on Zoom or a closed Facebook group will strengthen relationships and ensure they stick with you after COVID-19.
Many charities will ask why they invested in expensive offices, and more employees will have seen the benefits of flexible working. Wayne Murray, Strategy Director at Audience says, ‘Not only is it viable, we switched it overnight. If we can switch our entire working methodology in a few days, what other things can we change if we put our minds to it?’
PLAN AHEAD: Engage staff by asking them what aspects of remote working are good, and what could be improved. Think about how your recruitment and policies need to change if more candidates expect to work remotely, and how you could draw on this wider talent pool.
Those difficult conversations about support for digital projects will get easier. Georgie Wishart, Senior Digital Officer at Mayhew believes that ‘this period of ’digital-only’ is going to be very valuable to digital teams in showing senior management just what a key role digital plays in their organisation, and why digital needs to be included as part of the organisational strategy.’ Wishart thinks that digital budgets could be increased long term and online will become a key consideration in projects.
COVID-19 requires leaders to adapt quickly to new digital models whilst holding on tight to their values and vision. The crisis will create accountability for the leaders who didn’t attempt this transition. Kate Mroczkowski, Head of Strategy at fundraising agency Supercool, believes that: ‘When we come out the other side of this, Boards, SMTs and leaders will need to demonstrate how their organisation worked together on a unified mission and vision during the crisis. Those that can’t demonstrate this will struggle to come out on top.’
PLAN AHEAD: Your senior management team will be leaning on you for support with digital. Make the most of this opportunity to be seen as the expert and win their trust. Offer to share insights and guide them on the pros and cons of different approaches.
The sector has moved fast to deal with the crisis by necessity, but could this have an impact on how we work in the future? Laura Dawson, Director of Data and Technology Services at The London School Economics and Political Science (LSE) points out that, ‘Often, as a sector, we are accused of being overly bureaucratic and collaborative in our decision-making. We have proven that we can respond quickly, and extremely creatively.’
Your charity will be on a steep learning curve with digital and will have had to make decisions rapidly. Expect this to continue at every level of your organisation. Stephen Bell, CEO Changing Lives says that charities have had to increase their digital risk appetite and become more agile. ‘Governance will need to adapt in response to this, and charities (and their boards) will need to upskill in order to be able to assess the risk and reward of trialling new technologies.’ This could change the culture of the sector as we know it into something more dynamic, iterative and digitally driven.
PLAN AHEAD: Dawson advises charities that, ‘Celebrating the successes achieved on the back of fast, agile, needs-driven decision-making could also transform the ways in which charities operate.’ Look at how you can recognise and reward this behaviour change so that your charity grows in confidence with agile working and quick decision making.
If there is one thing we’ve seen since the crisis began it’s how tenacious and innovative charities are. We need to remember this as we face the tough road ahead, and to be bold, brave and ambitious about how digital will shape our future.