The biggest digital challenges facing the charity sector
28 May 2020by Paul Rubens
We examine the key obstacles charities face on their digital journey
Charities of all sized are facing huge – and in some cases existential – challenges. The current ‘new normal’ has highlighted the importance of digital, and some of the specific digital obstacles that many charities need to overcome.
Here are the of the most significant ones, along with some possible ways to tackle them.
The 2019 CAF Charity Landscape Report highlighted a stark fact: "Over four in five charity leaders state that demand on their organisation’s services had increased over the last 12 months". In many cases, the pandemic has raised demand even further. That means that charities need to secure more funding than ever to meet the demand.
But the virus has put a stop to many traditional fundraising sources such as face-to-face collecting, charity shops, and mass-participation events. That means that digital fundraising has become a lifeline for many charities as the sole fundraising channel until some form of normality returns.
- Obvious digital fundraising routes include replacing charity shops with online sales and substituting face-to-face fundraising drives using email and other digital communications to solicit donations.
- More ambitious projects aim to replace large-scale fundraising events with online events which can either take place as a "real-time" event on a specific day, or run over an extended period with participants taking up a challenge for a week, or a month, or even longer.
- Some charities are having success using social media to reach existing and new audiences and raising funds very quickly using text to donate.
- Matt Haworth, Tech for good expert and co-founder of Reason Digital, has also created an online digital fundraising guide for smaller charities.
Digital service delivery
The COVID-19 pandemic has thrown a spotlight on digital service delivery, and although in some areas it has been very successful, it has also become clear that in many areas it cannot replace face-to-face delivery.
One particular digital challenge that many charities have faced is how digital service delivery can be achieved when the target service users cannot easily access online services. This may be for financial reasons, or age-related, or due to disabilities or circumstances such as homelessness.
- Some charities use smartphone apps, chatbots, YouTube videos and webinars or Zoom video conferences to deliver services digitally to service users, though these may not be accessible to all.
- For that reason, some charities are looking to much simpler digital technologies such as text messaging to provide information or reminders to service users who may not have access to a laptop or smartphone but who can use a basic mobile phone. For example, homeless charity Depaul UK’s Safe@Last service uses text messaging to allow vulnerable young people to access their advice services
Digital technology skills
It’s likely that an increasingly large proportion of charity staff will be working from home in the future – a trend kickstarted by the pandemic.
But this poses a huge number of technology challenges: many charities are having to adopt a range of new technologies to enable home working and staff need to learn a host of new digital skills to use these technologies.
New digital fundraising and service delivery channels will also require new technologies and the digital skills needed to set them up and operate them. And to oversee all of this trustees with the right digital skills will also be required.
There is also a need for digital security to ensure that staff can work from home without running a high risk of falling victim to cyber criminals who may look to steal confidential data or carry out ransomware attack.
Finally, charities need to avoid breaching data protection regulations such as the GDPR which can impose severe fines on organisations including charities which fail to protect customer or service user data adequately.
- Many charities are upskilling their staff digitally using online training. This can range from informal remote training using screen sharing software such as TeamViewer or Screenleap, or through learning management systems (LMSs) such as cloud-based services like Skillcast and Talent LMS.
- Basic security for staff working remotely can be provided by endpoint security software which includes anti-malware software as well as enhanced firewalling, intrusion detection and data loss protection.
- The Institute of Fundraising offers free guidance for charities about GDPR compliance in its recently updated GDPR: The Essentials for Fundraising Organisations. This includes the latest tips and advice since the guide was first published in May 2017 (a year before the EU data protection law went live) as well as information on minimising data protection risks and advice about appointing a data protection officer.
- Video conferencing tools like Zoom are allowing many charities to hold online trustee meetings. This should enable them to draw from a very wide talent pool which includes people with valuable digital skills who would not normally be able to attend trustee meetings in person.
The Charity Digital Skills Report 2019 showed that 52% of charities did not have a digital strategy, and perhaps the biggest digital challenge facing these charities is how best to position themselves to take advantage of digital over the next five to ten years.
- Many charities are in the same boat, and the good news is that there is plenty of help available. A good example is Charity Digital’s ebook: A Simple Guide to Developing a Digital Strategy
- As part of a comprehensive digital strategy, some charities are making a conscious effort to adopt a data-driven approach to operations by making data central to all decision-making processes.