Experts from Catalyst break down the key steps on a charity’s digital journey
This article appears courtesy of Catalyst. Part One of Two
Earlier this month, Catalyst published new research, looking at the key points in a charity’s journey to digital maturity.
The research is based on interviews with 15 charities who’d taken significant strides in building their digital capabilities, although all of them said they were still on the journey.
Through talking to these charities, we identified a number of consistent staging posts, common obstacles, and things that charities could do to make the journey easier.
Here, very briefly, is a summary of the key findings.
We mapped out a journey that started with “curious” charities taking their first steps with digital, then “starting out” charities who were moving along the journey, and “advancing” charities, progressing through later stages of planning and development.
The “curious” stage was all about the challenge of getting going and knowing where to start, particularly with no money, limited capacity and low levels of digital skills amongst staff.
The “starting out” stage was defined by a clear goal and a digital project, often with an external agency. By the end of this stage, there was usually a move towards tackling digital strategically.
Finally, the “advancing” stage was about embedding a digital culture, digital expertise and a digital strategy, as well as tidying up legacy issues and replacing “good enough for now” solutions from earlier stages of development.
We found consistent steps that charities passed through on the journey, although each of course faced different challenges at slightly different times. The journeys were not linear or simple, and there were many individual wrinkles for each organisation, but we were nonetheless surprised by how much the overall arc of progress had in common.
When we talk about a charity’s digital journey, to a great extent we are describing the progress of an individual leading that charity’s digital journey. They are often fairly close to one and the same thing in the early stages.
The biggest issue for many charities was simply getting started, and the reason most charities got started was because a single person was either given or took responsibility for change.
From what we heard, complacency and concern were a big issue here. When systems were functioning well enough, or staff had got used to work-arounds, there was not much appetite for change.
We came across many charities where staff had been burned in the past by expensive projects that had been financial black holes. In other places staff felt they lacked the skills, or were worried about the impact of service users, who were often at risk of digital exclusion.
The only way to overcome this was an internal staff member taking the lead to explore where digital could help their charity. In most cases, this was not someone appointed to a digital role. They were unlikely to have led digital change and some had limited digital skills. Digital leads ranged from youth workers to communications managers to operations managers.
The key was not their skills, but their commitment, enthusiasm and their knowledge of their own organisation.
Digital leads struggled with a number of challenges, from confidence to money to time. Support was crucial - from line managers and senior figures, and often from other charities who showed what could be done.
Tech for good communities were crucial here, They offered guidance, advice, and the ability to learn from others at a practical level.
Like a classical work of fiction, the protagonist’s journey often began with a sudden change which put pressure on the organisation - often, this was something unplanned.
This could involve a new project, a financial crisis, the collapse of a fundamental system, or the arrival of a new individual at a senior level who was keen to provoke change - most often a Chief Executive. It is easy to speculate that the arrival of COVID-19 may have sparked this journey for many.
In a lot of cases, the change provoked a need for an instant solution. The hurdle this created was pressure to go digital, quickly. Solutions were introduced that did a patch job. Often this created problems down the line, but it often proved a learning experience.
In the next pattern, we move onto a more conscious period of trying to create change. Often that first change provoked an understanding that there was more to be done, and different ways to do things.
Unfortunately this period was often characterised by false starts and circling, as charities attempted changes that didn’t work, or ran out of momentum because of time, money and resource. Many digital leads were still trying to cope with digital transformation on top of their main job. As a result, this period could last for a long time. Digital leads often reflected that at the time, they felt as if this period had been wasted, but that in retrospect, it had enabled the charity to understand itself and its needs, empowering it for future progress.
To move forwards at this stage, the charity needed at least one, and preferably more than one, of several factors: internal buy-in to do more with digital, additional capacity from creating a full time role to focus on digital, and a grant or other funding. It also really helped if the charity had a tangible goal it wished to achieve.
For most charities, the digital journey really started in earnest with the launch of the first major project. This usually involved bringing in external figures such as digital agencies for the first time.
But this was all still very new. Few had any experience developing a digital project or an in-depth understanding of their user needs. They needed to learn a whole new language and way of working.
In most cases, creating a positive relationship with an agency or a mentor was key to overcoming this. Many, though, ended up with unsuitable solutions. And others saw relationships with agencies fall apart, with disagreements over scope, requirements and approaches to projects. Support was absolutely vital here.
A few charities chose to go it alone at this stage, using tools that did not require coding skills and learning how to develop solutions themselves. This was often a very successful approach. Although it could be slower it was arguably better for building confidence and skills.
Once a digital project was in place, getting internal buy-in from staff often became a priority.
As new digital tools and new processes were introduced, they challenged conventional ways of working and required staff to learn and change, which generated resistance, and required digital leads to make the case for their approach. Many wished they had laid the groundwork for this earlier, and got staff more engaged at earlier stages.
The digital leads we spoke to started upskilling everyone and getting them involved in digital decisions. This included their CEOs and boards. As this started to work, they increasingly found themselves pulled in lots of different directions, from presenting at a board meeting to advising staff on setting up laptops.
It would be around this time that they realised digital was becoming a priority for the organisation and they could not do it alone for much longer.