In the third sector, when the going gets tough, the tough get digital!

With government cuts again increasing demand on the resources of the charity sector, media fury over fundraising methods and stricter regulations on how charities can contact possible donors, is now the time for charities to increase investment in digital?


Before I put forward my admittedly biased stance on this question I should put it in the context of some commentary that I’ve heard at various events and which are littered through social media streams. The response to the use of digital in the third sector seems to be as follows:

“Digital is not cheap. Making it work for you is not quick. A simple online presence is not enough. A website won’t increase donations. The personnel/time/budget just aren’t there. We don’t really need it. There’s other, cheaper, quicker ways of raising funds and awareness.”


An experience with the old

Earlier this year, after watching an advert on T.V, I made a quick charitable donation by sending a text. More recently I was contacted by a caller, on behalf of the same charity, to follow up. I was told that they weren’t phoning to ask me to set up a direct debit but instead to let me know how grateful they were and to update me about the plight that was still ongoing.

I felt a bit sorry for the caller as (like a vastly growing number) I too have worked in a call centre. At the end of the call I was offered a new service: a monthly text from the charity which would update me on the cause and give me the opportunity to automatically donate unless I opted out by replying “no donation”.  The next month I would be updated again and again I could either allow an automatic donation or opt out and so on.

I asked not to be put on that service and wished them all the best. Would I text again? Probably. Would it be to that same charity? I honestly couldn’t tell you – I’ve already forgotten the advert that got me to text in the first place. It obviously engaged me at the time but there was never the sort of personal connection that tends to make things stick.

The third sector under attack

In the air a stigma has been growing in regards to calling for donations. Scathing reports from certain media has progressed to ever higher levels with attacks, almost like campaigns themselves, against charities and their fundraising.

Combining this outrage with the natural susceptibility of politicians (as well as animosity towards some charity activity) leading to a Parliamentary inquiry into fundraising and proposed legislative changes on how charities can contact people, we get a sense of how the landscape is changing in both perception and reality. The third sector is being hit. Hard. And at a time when it’s expected to step up and fill the gap left by cuts to public spending.

Digital is underused in the charity sector

The recent NCVO Financial Sustainability Review spelled out the trend towards charity sector investment in digital:

“The increase in the use of social media by the voluntary sector has been well documented in recent years, but sector investment has also increased in websites, online giving systems, data insight and digital delivery (e.g. webinars and video conferencing). This is another example of voluntary organisations trying to do more with less. However, these changes have not been evenly spread across the voluntary sector. The Lloyds Bank UK Business Digital Index which measures the use of and attitudes towards digital technology found that 58% of charities were without basic digital skills, compared with 23% of small businesses. Given the potential for technology to help charities generate and use their resources more effectively, it is important that skills in the sector are improved.”


To my mind it’s no wonder that there’s been an increase in using digital as a platform to connect. Its ability to engage, increase and retain donors is powerful. Get it right and it’s invaluable.

But the Lloyds Bank UK Business Digital Index also gave some interesting insight noting that:

“Over half of all charities do not believe that having a website would help increase their funding and nearly 70% state the same about social media.” Which echoes the comments I mentioned at the start of this blog. That’s a shame as the report also claimed that “the most digitally mature charities are more than twice as likely as those with the lowest maturity to see an increase in funding. ”

Why I think digital is the future of the third sector

As the NCVO review points out, digital helps you “do more with less” which is critical given that traditional fundraising and campaigning channels are under attack from both the media and legislators. But digital isn’t just replacing these traditional channels by virtue of being more cost-effective. Digital also helps charities leverage the emotional effects of networks.

The digital scene is spreading a positive image, a proactive “we can do this” type attitude to connect with people. When people connect with content online, share the content and spread the good word for charities (online or offline) they becoming advocates proliferating the cause. And, in my opinion, they do it in a much more honest and trusted way than a call centre operative or street fundraiser ever could.

The effect of positive emotion was gaged recently in an experiment by Facebook and, although the ethics of the experiment are questionable, the results help to highlight how positive (or negative) emotion attracts more engagement. Perhaps this helps to explain why people are going back time and again to donate money to causes with positive, actionable campaigns.

Another good example of the changing landscape is highlighted by eBay’s new charity giving mobile app feature – more positive news on how the digital world is creating new potential for the third sector.

The list of possibilities goes on, but my blog must end soon, so…

How can a charity make digital work for them?

There’s been quite a spate of blogs, articles, commissioned reports, white papers, events (we’ve done a few), talks and conferences on digital transformation for charities recently. We regularly talk to charities and offer advice and help on articulating, achieving and surpassing their digital aspirations. But as shown throughout this blog this task does need buy in and that can be difficult. Much of the time a battle for a new approach, brave thoughts and organisational change will be met with a raised eyebrow or two. Thought leaders are needed to help push the organisational change that’s necessary to really drive through digital success.

In conclusion, let me respond to my earlier simplifications on reactions to digital:

It’s not cheap

Let’s hit this cliché with another: good investments rarely are. But with the right approach it can be affordable and certainly improve campaigning, fundraising and provide a platform to changing attitudes. The use of open source technologies can also help curb such costs but ultimately it’s about creating realistic, sustainable goals and working towards them. Also, if you know what you’re looking for there’s help out there, for example Google Grants.

It’s not quick

Getting people to see the importance of digital and transforming an organisation to be able to make use of digital can take some time. But with Agile methods it’s possible to make useable products one chunk at a time and start realising the value sooner.

Resources are always sparse

They are. Especially if they’re pointing in an old direction. Digital isn’t the answer for everything and everyone. Who your target audience is matters immensely. But be prepared to challenge the status quo. Resources deployed via digital can have a much greater impact than they could concentrating on traditional channels.

Perhaps the best piece of advice I could give (that fits into this blog post) would be: If you fancy a proper chat about it over a cuppa get in touch!

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