Experience gained during the lockdown can ensure charities emerge more resilient and better prepared for a digital future
The charity sector has just endured an enormously difficult three months, but there is one huge positive to come out the experience: the digital skills gained while coping with the pandemic will hold charity digital leaders in very good stead for the future. They will ensure that the majority of charities affected by COVID-19 come out of the lockdown more resilient and better able to face the challenges of the future.
The main reason for this is that many of the skills acquired, and lessons learned, will continue to be important in a post-pandemic world. Regardless of how quickly life starts returning to normal, there is no reason for charity digital leaders to abandon many of the new ways of working – from digital fundraising to digital service delivery – that have been adopted. Rather, they can work in tandem with pre-existing ways of working if there is a benefit in doing so, or replace these pre-existing ways if they prove to be more effective.
In many cases charities have indeed found that digital service delivery has been as effective - or even more effective - than the physical service delivery methods that were employed previously. That seems to be the case for Soundabout, a charity which helps people with severe learning disabilities using music.
Before the pandemic, the charity was seeing eight people, plus their carers, in face-to-face sessions. But after introducing live broadcasts on Facebook it is now reaching a cumulative total of twelve thousand people on the digital platform. The number of people visiting Soundabout’s website has also quadrupled as families go there to access replays of the Facebook events.
This is quite a profound and positive change for Soundabout, which will continue to have ramifications long after the pandemic has subsided. Not only has it discovered a demand for its services delivered digitally that it was previously was unaware of, but it has also significantly expanded its reach into the community it is trying to help. And of course, the charity still has the option of running physical group sessions alongside its digital service delivery broadcasts in the future.
Children’s charity Dingley’s Promise’s experience echoes this. When the pandemic struck, the charity was forced to make a speedy transition to digital remote support and information sharing. What it discovered was that it was reaching more people, and having a bigger impact, than ever before. Again, when the lockdown eases the charity can continue to benefit from the increased reach and impact that its digital service delivery operations contribute even as it resumes its face-to-face activities.
These two benefits – extended reach and bigger impact – are incredibly valuable to the charity sector, and what has been established is that they can be realised by a move to digital service delivery channels relatively quickly and easily. In the coming months, many more charity digital leaders will likely go down that route.
It turns out that the financial arguments for "going digital" in this way are compelling. Facebook live broadcasting, for example, requires very little financial outlay. The same is also true for many other digital service delivery methods. For example, at the height of the lockdown, Refugee Action switched to delivering training online using a cheap-to-purchase and easy-to-deploy plugin for its WordPress-based web site.
Thanks to the pandemic, many other charities affected by COVID-19 now have enough experience and confidence with digital service delivery to provide new digital services which are cheap and easy to deploy.
Charities can only benefit from the low costs and greater reach that digital service delivery offers if potential service users are willing and able to access these digital services. Before the lockdown, many service users were slowly becoming accustomed to using digital channels, but the evidence suggests that this willingness to move to digital has been accelerated massively by the lockdown.
Electrical retailer John Roberts, chief executive of AO.com, says that the coronavirus pandemic has seen five years’ worth of behavioural change occur in just five weeks That means that charities should see the level of usage and acceptance of digital service delivery now that they might otherwise not have expected to see before 2025.
One thing that many charities have proved during the lockdown is that it is possible to move away from face-to-face service delivery without completely excluding those service users who have difficulties using digital technology – perhaps because they lack the digital skills or because they do not have the digital devices needed to access them. For example, Age UK’s Silver Line service uses nothing more complicated than a conventional telephone line that few will be unfamiliar with.
And another positive to come out of the lockdown is that many senior citizens are now in possession of digital skills that previously might have been extremely rare among people in their age group. Having learned how to Skype a grandson or join a yoga session held over Zoom with confidence, they are better equipped than ever to take advantage of charity services which may be convenient to access digitally.
The lockdown halted many traditional fundraising initiatives in their tracks, with events cancelled, charity shops closed, and collection tins removed from the streets.
That has forced many charities to reassess their views on digital fundraising methods and - with few other viable fundraising options available - many have embraced them wholeheartedly. For a large number of charities, the results have been unexpected: digital fundraising has enabled them to reach a new and often younger audience than was previously the case.
The British Red Cross provides a good example of this. The charity focussed some of its digital fundraising efforts on the TikTok online video sharing platform, launching videos and using a "donate" button to make it easy for people to become supporters. The platform has 800 million active users worldwide, and, crucially, 41% of TikTok users are aged between 16 and 24. A further 27% are aged between 13 and 17. That means that the British Red Cross now has an effective way of reaching an emerging generation of young adults.
The exploration of new digital fundraising opportunities is useful for charities as a way to reach new, younger audiences, but it will also be progressively more important in the future as this younger generation becomes more accustomed to transacting online and cash becomes increasingly irrelevant. UK Finance forecasts that half of all payments will be made by debit card by 2024: if charity fundraising mirrors this trend then donations made through TikTok, or other services such as the Twitch livestreaming gaming platform, are likely to become important sources of funds for charities and the experience gained by charity digital leaders during the lockdown will not be wasted.
The lockdown has accelerated changes in consumers’ retail behaviour, as mentioned earlier. That means that all bricks and mortar retail operations – including charity shops – are likely to become less important relative to online stores.
The good news is that, with their high street shops closed, many charities have begun to gain a significant degree of expertise in raising funds by selling goods online. Rather than build their own online stores, the overwhelming majority – 97%, according to the Charity Retail Association – use the eBay auction and sales platform. Others have been experimenting with Amazon to sell donated books, DVDs, and video games. Second-hand clothes selling and swapping apps like Vinted and Shpock and websites like Re-fashion and Thrift+ have also proved popular with charities looking to tap into a growing consumer awareness around fast fashion and ethical consumption.
The lockdown restrictions have led to a run on exercise equipment such as indoor bike trainers and treadmills, as well as outdoor gear like bikes and running shoes. There have also been plenty of well-publicised fundraising "challenges" to raise money for the NHS, such as the 99-year old Capt. Tom Moore’s 100 laps of his garden.
As a result, people are now well aware of the concept of virtual events and that is very good news for charities. That’s because virtual fundraising events offer significant fundraising potential: they allow large numbers of people all around the country – and indeed the world – to participate in a sporting event without the costs associated with running such an event in the real world. Thanks to the pandemic, many of the barriers to virtual events such as people lacking the necessary equipment and being unfamiliar with the whole idea have been removed in one fell swoop.
Virtual events don’t have to be sporting events, however, and many people have got used to participating in virtual quizzes and online games during the lockdown. That is likely to make it much easier for charities to emulate the likes of Comic Relief, which recently ran an online Dungeons and Dragons virtual event on fundraising platform Tiltify, and Bone Cancer Research Trust which holds a weekly online quiz every Friday evening. Virtual activities such as quizzes may well prove to be easy to organise and high grossing charity fundraising initiatives in the future.
Finally, it’s important to consider how significant – and indeed how positive – the experience with remote working during the lockdown is likely to be in the coming months and years.
Many charity leaders and workers have had a crash course in the use of remote working and collaboration tools - such as Zoom for video conferencing, Asana for project planning and management, and Microsoft Teams for collaboration - and remote working has been proven to be viable and effective. Indeed, some organisations have reported that communication and collaboration between staff members has actually increased, thanks to the use of some of these tools.
Perhaps the biggest long-term benefit of this to charities is the fact that the talent pool from which they draw employees, and even trustees, is now potentially much larger. Without any geographical restrictions, employees and trustees no longer have to live within commuting distance and can continue to work with the charity even if they move away.
The coronavirus pandemic has been an anxious and trying time for most charities, and the disruption to their activities has been immense. But as the dust settles and restrictions ease, many of these charities will stage strong recoveries and emerge more resilient and better prepared for a digital future than would ever have been considered possible at the start of the year.