Digital transformation for the charity sector: 2017 update

digital transformation for the charity sector

In November 2015 we hosted Digital Transformation in the Charity Sector, where some of the brightest minds in charity digital discussed the biggest challenges and opportunities presented to third sector organisations by digital technology. On Thursday 9 March, we invited everyone back to take stock of how far the sector has come in 16 months, as well as talk about measuring progress and implementing technological solutions.

We were joined by three great speakers with heaps of experience helping charities and not-for-profits use digital to change things for the better. Here’s what they had to say.

Digital maturity: big bang or sustainable change?

Jo Wolfe, Assistant Director, Digital, Breast Cancer Care


Jo, whose ‘logo soup’ contains the badges of National Literacy Trust, Mind, St Mungo’s and Girlguiding, among others, started her talk by defining the central challenge of digital transformation. We need to answer the question: how would the organisation look if we’d started it today, in a digital economy?

“Digital transformation is change management on steroids”

She outlined two broad approaches: the big bang model; and slow, sustainable change. Both have their drawbacks: big bangs tend to fizzle out; while slow, stalactite-like change can be indistinguishable from doing nothing.

Four necessities for a sustainable journey towards digital maturity

  • It has to be measurable – you need to be able to track where you are and where you’re going;
  • Digital maturity has to be embedded in the organisation’s vision and strategy;
  • It has to happen at a pace that is appropriate to the pace of change within the organisation;
  • The change must be sustainable over the long term.

Back in January 2016, Breast Cancer Care was developing their two-year digital vision. Struggling to find a tool for measuring digital maturity in the charity sector, they developed their own digital maturity matrix which measures capabilities across a range of dimensions.

Scoring themselves at 31% digital maturity at the start of the process, Breast Cancer Care set a target of 56% after two years. To benchmark these numbers, they asked several other charities to run through the same process. They released the tool to the wider sector in April 2016. The aim is empowering charity digital teams to generate their own measurements and assessments of their abilities, without the need for external consultants and agencies.

Use the Third Sector Digital Maturity Matrix

Biggest drivers of digital maturity at Breast Cancer Care

  • Moving to Agile development with a product lifecycle;
  • Introducing new product development;
  • Improving digital culture and skills.

Jo placed extra stress on the last of these, since the biggest obstacle to changing the culture of an organisation is people.

Finally Jo revealed that Breast Cancer Care re-scored their digital maturity just one year after setting their digital vision. They got a score of 55%, proving the value of setting a strong digital vision with clear goals that everyone can work towards.

Successful technology selection

Pat Shone, Technical Director, Manifesto


Undergoing a digital transformation – whether of the big bang, or slow, sustainable variety – inevitably involves selecting and implementing new technologies. During his career Pat Shone has been through this process many, many times, as a technology customer, vendor, implementer, digital consultant, engineer and as Technical Director at Manifesto. In his talk he shared some of the insights he’s gleaned from successful, and not so successful projects.

The typical process goes like this:

1. Kick-off and requirements definition

2. Market research and first filtering

3. Request for Proposal (RfP)

4. Evaluate responses

5. Proof of Concept (PoC)

6. Select vendor

We can do better

Pat thinks we can do better than this. Within the context of using tools which assess digital maturity and capabilities (like the Third Sector Digital Maturity Matrix), Pat suggests focusing on three pillars: audience, requirements and tools.


Who are we choosing for? Know your audiences as well as you can – a broad range of people will be affected by new technologies you bring into your organisation. You need to know who’s going to be:

  • using it
  • implementing it
  • administering it
  • paying for it


How will audiences benefit? You need to tie your requirements to the value generated for your audiences. Confronting long lists of wonderful-sounding product features can make you forget about the benefits you’re trying to deliver to your users.

There are tools which can help maintain a clear line between the features and the value created for users, like Vision Boards and Impact Maps. Putting requirements in the form of user stories makes sure the value is tied to the feature throughout the delivery process.


The process of comparing tools can help you decide what’s most important to your organisation: cost, ease of ongoing management, performance, security etc. But it’s important to remember that scoring frameworks for comparing different software products can be gamed by interested parties. And that the underlying weightings can have a big impact on the results.

External analysts produce great-looking reports, which give a good overview of the landscape, but they don’t know your organisation like you do. Pat stresses the importance of speaking to people who’ve been using the tool in a similar way, to help identify challenges that might come up further down the road.


Pat concluded his talk by saying that while it’s tempting to rely on the experience of third parties, your experience will almost always be better. For that reason, technology which allows you to experiment before committing is almost always preferable to that which locks you in from day one.

Reflecting on The New Reality

Julie Dodd, Director of Digital Transformation and Communication at Parkinson’s UK


Julie’s hugely successful 2015 report, The New Reality, aimed at discovering why the third sector was lagging behind and identifying the biggest obstacles to digital transformation. Since presenting the report’s findings at our first charity digital transformation event, she joined Parkinson’s UK as Director of Digital Transformation and Communication.

She kicked off by revisiting the following quote from Kay Boycott, CEO of Asthma UK:

“Having a digital strategy will soon look as ridiculous as having an electricity strategy.”

While things have moved on, there is still a temptation for organisations to put digital in a silo. They recognise that it’s more important than just the website, but there’s still a resistance to making digital a part of everyone’s role.

Drawing an analogy with the disruption that streaming services caused for the home video market, Julie put most charities on the Blockbuster end of the Blockbuster-Netflix scale.

In her role at Parkinson’s UK, Julie has had plenty of experience of trying to put the recommendations of The New Reality into practice. She presented five top tips for implementing digital transformation in the charity sector.

1. Be clear about exactly what you mean

Parkinson’s UK now has a clearly stated mission for digital transformation:

“Maximise the potential of digital technologies to improve the lives of people affected by Parkinson’s”

A clearly defined mission is crucial, but you also need to be able to say what that means in practice, and communicate it clearly both internally and externally (including to trustees).

2. Benchmark

Julie held up the Digital Maturity Matrix as a great example of how to do this.

3. Make people excited and more than a little uncomfortable

New devices and tools can excite people – even something as simple as real-time analytics on your website, which show how audiences are navigating through important life decisions.

Putting together a set of digital competencies challenges people to ask themselves where they fit into the big picture and forces them to try new things (rather than defaulting to asking for training).

4. Create visual difference

“Create an umbrella that protects teams and let them experiment with trying to break your business” is another of Julie’s favourite quotes from The New Reality.

Marking out an area within the organisation as a space for innovation lets the people who work there know that they’re protected. By making it look different you help make it a focal point and start conversations.

5. Trust teams to know the answer

Teams across the organisation know their day to day business and what the experiences of end users are like. So, once they understand the changing definitions of digital technology, they start coming up with great ideas.

You’ll need to watch the video for the full effect, as Julie backs up each tip with examples from her experiences at Parkinson’s UK.

It’s hard, but it works!

Julie rounded off her talk by saying that digital transformation is tough – even from the perspective of someone in a director’s role with more control over budgets and resources. But, perseverance does pay off. Digital technologies do have the potential to create huge social value and, while the not-for-profit sector may seem to be moving very slowly, it will get there.


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