Digital transformation in the charity sector

We were delighted to invite some of the brightest lights in third sector digital into the studio last Thursday to talk all things digital transformation. Rosie Slater of British Red Cross, Claire Hazle of Marie Curie and Bob Barbour of Shelter all participated in a panel discussion chaired by our own Jim Bowes in the second half of the evening. Before that though, Julie Dodd, author of The New Reality, gave a presentation on her much-talked-about research.

Update: A more recent post, Digital Transformation for the Charity Sector: 2017 update, covers the follow-up event we ran in March 2017, along with videos of talks from Julie Dodd (now of Parkinson’s UK), Jo Wolfe (Breast Cancer Care) and Pat Shone (Manifesto Digital).

The New Reality – How charities can use technology to really, genuinely change the world

That was the full title of Julie’s talk. She kicked off by telling us how she’s delivered it several times before and how, each time she delivers it, it gets more frank. (We’ve been banging the charity digital drum for quite some time so we can relate to her growing sense of urgency.)

First, some background on the research study. It involved interviews with 50 senior leaders at charities of all sizes, some large companies like Tesco and the odd tech giant like Google. The aim was to find out the lay of the land in charity digital at the moment and lessons to be learned from successful digital transformations. Download the full report here.

But why is digital transformation an important thing to talk about? Because the landscape has changed again, Julie explained. The digital transformation has already happened.


She went on to explain that there are three main factors at play: mobilisation, audience behaviour and new technologies. Touch screens are the new normal for example. Every new technology changes people’s behaviours and expectations.

Two-part definition of digital transformation

During her research Julie was looking for a clear definition of digital transformation and came up with the following:

To be real digital transformation it must use digital processes, tools or technology to do something that genuinely transforms the organisation, not just improves current practice.

To be real digital transformation it must encompass a broader definition of digital technology than just web.

Some real-life examples of digital transformation

3D printing has enabled the mass production of realistic synthetic white rhino horns. Engineers at Pembient are planning to flood Chinese and Vietnamese markets with them, bring the price down and thereby remove the incentives for rhino poachers.

During the ebola crisis the authorities were struggling to get information out to rural areas. The BBC launched a public health information service on WhatsApp to reach tens of thousands of people with potentially life saving advice. Often we try to fix problems by building something from scratch. Julie gave this as a great example where the service provider chose a technology they knew people already used.

The BBC used a platform they already knew people used to get public health information out during the ebola crisis.

Jun is a town in Andalusia where civic participation happens through Twitter. Every person has a twitter account and uses it to book doctors’ appointments, complain to the mayor etc. Julie presented this as an example of taking a digital technology and doing something people don’t expect it to do.

Low cost 3D-printed prosthetics are transforming the lives of amputees in conflict zones. Refugee Open Ware, based in Jordan, can turn around a limb in 24 hours for about £30.

Is your organisation making the most of this new reality?

That was the question that Julie asked next. The audience was made up of a range of people who work in charity digital, some of whom worked for orgs that were further along the digital transformation journey than others. But however technologically advanced their charity was, we’re sure that all could identify with the common reasons Julie identified for slow adoption of digital solutions:

Why aren’t we further along?

  • Risk aversion – investing resources in something new is scary…
  • Economic climate – …especially when resources are scarce
  • Departmental silos – keep digital in digital
  • Lack of examples – who’s shouting about their digital success?
  • Distractions – e.g. digital marketing, social media
  • Being too nice – slows things down as lots of stakeholders want to be involved/we need their buy-in

5 things that would make a big difference

Through the course of her research Julie identified 5 factors that could help charities use technology to deliver social impact.

1. Braver leadership

Julie said that leaders want to feel more knowledgeable, trustees need to be better informed. We need more inspirational leaders like Simon Gillespie at British Heart Foundation.

"I would find it difficult to find an area of our business where there's not potential for technology to improve what we do" - Simon Gillespie, CEO, British Heart Foundation

2. Put technology at the heart of your mission

Julie said that she doesn’t like ‘digital’ strategies – it allows leadership teams to think that digital is just another department. Whereas really digital should be on everyone’s agenda.

One of the 6 key objectives in British Red Cross’s corporate strategy 2015-19 is “Use technology to help people” – a huge step in the right direction.

Elsewhere, the British Library now refer to themselves as a ‘data institution’ – they’ve shifted without having to go through a large restructure. Just the term means they attract different people (staff) than they used to.

3. Start from the inside out

It’s really difficult to deliver digital success when the rest of the organisation doesn’t see the value. Collaboration is key.

Cystic Fibrosis Trust demonstrate this – they moved to an office designed around collaboration. It’s open plan and the architecture supports collaboration. They’ve also invested heavily in video conferencing to support flexible working.

Many who work for the charity have the inherited disease and live with a high risk of infection. Telepresence robots (a remotely controlled iPad on a Segway) lets them interact when they’re away from the workplace.

Cystic Fibrosis Trust built a workspace around collaboration.

In short, they set out to create a culture where their staff would feel valued.

4. Develop a culture of experimentation

Agile processes have helped get digital products out the door quicker but innovation can still lag behind when heart and soul goes into every project. A true culture of experimentation helps you find out what works faster and inoculates against feelings of failure.

This led Julie on to describe three ways to experiment:

  • Set up an R&D lab – bring talented people from across the business together (Shelter did this);
  • Find a partner – if going it alone is too much pressure, bringing in external agencies can help relieve that pressure;
  • Create your own start upFutureLearn is a MOOC platform launched by the Open University who had reached a point where they couldn’t move fast enough so created a separate startup to do it. The government did a similar thing with GDS.

5. Question whether people could achieve your mission for you

A hangover from the idea of charity in the past is the idea that charities do *for* people. Realising that missions might be achieved by people themselves is a major step. Julie said we need to stop taking agency out of people’s hands and instead give them more agency.

An example given of this was that Google found much more digital connectivity in the favelas of Brazil than they were expecting.

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

This is a quote from Kay Boycott, CEO of Asthma UK. Julie used it to round off the talk by making the point that digital technology affects everything, cutting right through any organisation. Back when electricity was first introduced may large companies employed Electricity Directors to help manage the change that the new technology demanded.

Today’s digital leaders are the modern-day Electricity Directors – it’s an important role but one which is working towards its own extinction. It’s only when digital stops being a department that we’ll have succeeded.

Digital transformation panel discussion

After Julie’s talk there was a brief intermission for people to recharge their glasses, have some cake and pick up a ’20 ways to achieve digital transformation’ poster (which is available on Julie’s website and well worth a download). During this time we also gathered charity digital transformation questions from our audience.

Manifesto CEO Jim Bowes asked the questions. On answering duty were:

Claire Hazle – Head of Digital, Marie Curie

Claire’s worked in digital for over fifteen years, in charity digital for over ten years, and met Jim while working on Race for Life at Cancer Research UK. She’s been Head of Digital at Marie Curie for 18 months and has been directing the charity’s digital transformation efforts.

Rosie Slater – CIO, British Red Cross

Rosie also met Jim while working at CRUK. She’s the British Red Cross‘s first Chief Information Officer, having joined the charity in April. Rosie has extensive transformational experience in the charity, consulting and public sectors.

Bob Barbour – Head of Digital, Shelter

Bob’s been leading digital strategy and development for UK charities for the past ten years, including CSV, The MS Society and the NSPCC. At Shelter, Bob is leading a digital transformation programme that uses an innovation model to tackle manageable pieces of work.

Julie Dodd – Author of The New Reality

Julie, who delivered the opening presentation, is former creative director at the BBC and Zone. She’s a digital strategy consultant who specialises in helping non-profit organisations use digital technology to deliver social value.

While I won’t go into great detail on the panel discussion here (mainly because I couldn’t type fast enough to take comprehensive notes), the night is Storified below if you want to read through some of the questions and answers. But there were some definite themes that emerged from the Q and A which are worth commenting on:

  • Most of our panellists have faced the challenge of bringing other departments along on the digital transformation journey and there was some discussion around how best to do this.
  • Showing rather than telling (e.g. by pointing out examples of where digital technology has been used to do something that couldn’t otherwise be done) seems to have been successful. This is why the charity sector needs to shout about its digital success stories more.
  • On a related note, bringing in outside agencies – one of Julie’s top tips for being more experimental – who work in non-traditional ways (e.g. by using Agile methodologies) can be a challenge, especially when getting sign-off from finance. This requires more conversations around how value is created by digital technology and how the new techniques stack up against the old.
  • The speed at which the digital revolution is occurring is breathtaking. Everything will end up digitised and we have no control over how fast that happens. Being experimental is key to keeping up with this change but it often requires a cultural shift to get there.
  • Choice of platform (for e.g. collaboration tools, content management) is largely irrelevant. Much more important are the relationships and quality of communication around implementation.

Overall it was a stimulating and illuminating evening and we’d like to extend our thanks once more to Julie, our digital transformation panellists and our audience for making it so. (And further thanks to Julie for sharing the above slides.)

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