We offer advice to charities looking for external help for their digital strategy
For many charities, COVID-19 has acted as a catalyst for some degree of digital transformation. Where digital service delivery had been sitting on a lot of to-do lists, the lockdown and social distancing restrictions have forced it to the very top.
Despite 61% of charities saying they will be offering more online services due to COVID-19, there’s been just a 1% increase in the number of charities with a digital strategy in place.
That’s a concern, but understandable in light of how quickly organisations had to pivot in challenging conditions. Some charities have been genuinely able to innovate but, for others, it’s been pure fire-fighting. It’s now important to rein in these tactical developments and re-evaluate them through a more strategic lens.
Digital strategy can mean different things to different people. For some, what they actually have is a digital marketing strategy – which may be fine, but for most charities will offer too narrow a view.
There’s also a strong argument that instead of a standalone digital strategy, digital should permeate the overall organisational strategy.
Your priorities might be around reaching more service users, engaging with supporters to drive fundraising, growing your army of volunteers, or automating back-office processes. Digital could be the answer to any or all of these.
To quote Principal 4 of the Charity Digital Code: “Charities’ strategies should be ambitious about how they can use digital to achieve their vision and mission.
“By understanding their stakeholders’ digital needs and how to meet them in a way that is aligned to the charity’s goals, they will be able to improve their organisation’s relevance and sustainability.”
Accountability for the digital strategy should sit at the top of the organisation, even if responsibility for executing it lies with a ‘digital’ team.
But many trustees still don’t have the skills needed to create a digital strategy. This is where an external consultant can help to bridge that knowledge gap.
As someone who isn’t immersed in your charity every day, a digital consultant will be able to look with fresh eyes. They’ll have the time to give your strategy the focus it deserves, without the distractions of managing ‘business as usual’.
A good digital consultant will be able to look at your data, understand your audiences, map your existing processes, and create a roadmap for change.
They’ll also identify ‘broken windows’ – systems and processes that really need fixing, but that you and your team have learned to work around and ignore.
Remember that digital transformation can be as much about organisational change as it is about platforms, so find someone that understands the human side, too. They should be able to challenge assumptions and at times even navigate your internal politics.
When looking for a digital consultant, decide what’s important to you. Do you need someone with deep expertise in the charity sector, or even in your particular niche? Or are you keen to bring in wider experience from other sectors, such as retail?
Also, consider whether you need a supplier with particular technical expertise. If you’ve already made some big technology investments you might specify someone with experience integrating with those. Otherwise, a consultant that isn’t wedded to any particular product sets will keep your options open for longer.
Questions like these will help you to narrow your search and craft appropriate qualifying questions.
The CharityComms Freelance and Supplier Directories can be a useful place to start when forming a longlist of suppliers. These are all organisations that work in the charity sector and often come badged as ‘Recommended by a charity’. Some offer discounts for CharityComms members.
Tap into your networks and ask for recommendations from peers. For example, the CharityConnect discussion hubs are full of people willing to share advice, and your LinkedIn network is another great place to ask about potential candidates.
Google is a great source of additional names, as well as to research your longlist. Check out consultants’ websites, read their client case studies, and check for any reviews.
Charities are increasingly aware of the responsibility to widen representation, and choosing suppliers based on recommendations alone could perpetuate inequalities.
Consider the importance of including minority-owned businesses in your selection process. Looking for consultants with both the digital skills you need and lived experience in your field could also prove rewarding.
Selecting a consultant can be a challenge if you don’t even understand the basics. By familiarising yourself with the seven principles of the Charity Digital Code, for example, those qualifying conversations will be easier.
Remember that at the strategy stage, specific technologies are irrelevant. And while every charity’s digital strategy should be bespoke, you can find some great digital strategy templates online to give you a basic framework.