How digital will influence the future of charities

How digital will influence the future of charities



Chris Heg explores emerging digital trends, challenges and opportunities for charities


Having worked with all size and scale of charities at different stages of their digital maturity, it’s clear to me that the charity sector undoubtedly faces its own unique challenges in managing digital change, whether it equates to transformation or evolution.

The first set of challenges links in with how the charity sector itself is advancing. There is more demand than ever for charities’ services, and with funding from government, business and individuals becoming increasingly difficult, there is greater pressure to ‘do more with less’ – deliver more funds, supporters and results.

If we really oversimplify the picture of charities in the world, we have ‘people’ and ‘causes’ (that people may or may not relate to). In the middle, connecting them, are a lot of intermediaries ranging from technology providers to large established charities – but they are all catalysts for connecting people and charities/causes/issues.

This collection of intermediaries is bigger than it’s ever been, and the space is increasingly competitive. Everyone’s vying for people’s support, actively promoting themselves through new, fragmented communications channels. New techniques are facilitating regular giving – but at the same time are enabling people to just do small chunks of giving that makes them feel like they’re ‘doing their bit' for charity.

Added to this is the impact brands are having on the charity sector; brands keen to attract customers with a clear and concise CSR programme and large budgets to put behind their cause – and this is further diversifying the space. This greater diversification is creating more of a divide in terms of those charities who are excelling in digital and pulling ahead, and those who are struggling with the pace and scale of change (or who lack the vision) and getting left behind. This fragmented landscape is undoubtedly changing the way people interact with charities.


Cultural shift

The second key set of challenges is coming from cultural change, and can be broken down loosely as follows:

• Brand vs cause affinity: With so many services available in today’s society (not the handful there were in bygone days), it is interesting to understand whether an individual relates their experiences to a specific charity, or to the cause as a whole. This is significant as people concerned with the cause as a whole aren’t likely to display loyalty to one organisation. This poses quite a threat to charities trying to maintain a loyal supporter base.

• Brand detachment caused by simple wins: While social media has undoubtedly driven greater awareness of those giving money and time to charity, and indeed raised the level of one-off gifts in many instances, it often removes the direct interaction between consumers and charities, which decreases the emotional attachment and therefore the engagement a consumer has with a charity.

• Skepticism: With the rise in the number of organisations, a trend had emerged whereby people are now questioning how their money is being spent.

• Message fatigue: Whether out on the street, in your letterbox or sent via email, communications with consumers need to be carefully monitored. A company that may have many messages coming from various sources needs to ensure the targeting entices consumers, and doesn’t alienate them with saturation. For example, signing a petition several years ago and continuing to receive emails about it can deliver a negative brand experience.

Thirdly, data use and data legislation can be a big issue for the charitable sector – in particular where data has been gathered from disparate places over a period of time and not maintained in a central system. In a recent talk, Dave Henson of Communicator highlighted that while charities are missing a huge trick in terms of using this data to capitalise on digital opportunities, this is set to become a threat to the sector when the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) clamps down on poor processes around data collection and management this summer.


Digital storytelling

So, given all of these challenges, how might digital enable us to succeed in a changing climate? More than ever before, charities need to be able to stand out and be relevant; and our extensive research shows that what can set you apart is your holistic view, from people to action to impact. This is a real opportunity for charities, and the role of digital is to strengthen those bonds and use storytelling to your advantage.

The idea of storytelling is not a new one. Stories, when used as a persuasive tool, are just as relevant online as they are anywhere else. The advantage that they have is that they can help to connect consumers and causes on an emotional level in a way that most other methods can’t.

Another thing to consider is that positive change doesn’t necessarily happen by asking for more money, but by using digital to spend it differently. For example, digital can be used to help devolve some of the actions that a charity has previously considered as its responsibility. If these actions can be undertaken by other people, through digital means, an organisation can concentrate on other areas to achieve its goals.

So, having identified some common challenges facing the sector, let's now look at what emerging trends might help charities counter them, considering best practice from outside the sector as well as some new techniques currently working for forward-thinking charities:



1. Service first

We’re often guilty, as marketing types, of putting acquisition, data and money ahead of everything, and channeling our digital efforts in this direction. And that makes sense. Digital investment has to demonstrate value. But there is a great opportunity for charities to think beyond fundraising and consider digital services as part of their achievements.

One of the big trends in digital is My Quantified Self. Thousands of consumers are collecting data about themselves, to improve and contribute to their daily lifestyles, facilitated by apps like Map My Run and My Fitness Pal and gadgets such as the Apple Watch. While there are some good examples of organisations doing this in the charity sector, where conditions are being monitored daily to generate greater insight, I do think there is a huge opportunity to do more.

A service-based approach to digital innovation is about value, not money. It delivers value to the people charities actually represent, as well as to the people we need help from. By gathering real data through technology, we can not only build relationships and opportunities to learn, but this large-scale insight can be used by scientist and analysts to support research initiatives and clinical trials.

Not only that, if we gather amazing data it also helps to tell the story of the illness. Plus, people are willing to pay for services if they have value to a condition or need.


2. Matchmaking

Another trend is to use digital to create a fuller understanding of an individual to better serve them content. For charities, turning the question ‘what do we need from people?’ it on its head and asking ‘what do we know about this supporter to best cater for their lifestyle, location and preferences?’ could create better quality supporters, not one-off gifters.

A matchmaking approach is about quality, not quantity, offering people relevant ways to get involved with a charity, tailored to their individual preferences. The online dating market is a great example of how this can work, with the newer, more sophisticated sites now able to offer a ‘better date’ through insight and intuitive systems rather than a huge number of irrelevant matches.

Integral to matchmaking is a digital platform that allows organisations to think about how the user experience feels, and tailor the experience to that individual.


3. Organised chaos

Watching and taking part in demonstrations, I’m always struck by the incredible mix of organisations and individuals that come together around a common cause. It certainly delivers greater impact than a number of disparate bodies all doing their own thing. How about applying this in the digital world? A ‘Comparethemarket’ approach to bring together like-minded charities.

Our insights into supporters’ digital preferences highlighted that people often think ‘issue’, not ‘brand’ – particularly in relation to environmental or political matters. For example, if my cause is cancer, where does my money go? I have to choose, but it’s quite a minefield out there to know whether it’s best to help people with cancer, or support research, or whether a political pressure group would do most good.

Imagine if digital unified them in their common cause, which would help the individual to make an informed choice, but could help the organisations too?


4. Give and take open data

The concept of open data is pretty scary to a lot of governments and organisations. But it’s a huge opportunity for charities: Data can tell the story of your impact and open people’s eyes to the amazing things your charity is achieving; to see the reality of your operations, offering reassurance that the money they give actually reaches those in need. And it encourages people to create their own stories.

It sets you apart from a mere facilitator or technology provider and on a practical, operational level, it could deliver better co-ordination of services and responses with other organisations. Just think: what could scientists and supporters could do with your data if you made it more available?


5. (Inter)national localism

Charities are increasingly looking at ways to use digital to bring global and national issues into supporters’ local space, to inspire and engage.
Physical-digital can help to build connections locally by being hyper relevant to ‘me’. The use of augmented reality or iBeacons for campaigns could motivate people to change their behaviour, bringing consumers closer to a cause that may be further away, increasing engagement by making it feel more real.

Similarly, delivering services at a local level (for example using iBeacons on the tube to help the partially sighted get around) could deliver a huge impact to the overall work of a charity.

We live in an age where like-minded people can live in the same street or work in the same office for years and never get to find out how similar their interests are to their neighbor. Simply by people’s personal mobile phones talking to each other – much like dating apps such as happn and Tinder do – highlighting common charitable interests could help supporters meet like-minded people to come together on a local level to implement action and change.


6. Being social

During a recent seminar, Jonathan Waddington of JustGiving made some excellent points about the importance of social within a digital strategy. Making the point that social ‘likes’ aren’t as valuable as ‘shares’, he explained how inspiring your followers to share content among their peers and friends is one of the best ways for charities to use social channels.

Think also about ‘how’ you enable sharing. All too often charities use the simplest methods – clicking the Facebook icon offers a simple box which you can tailor to work harder. Think about pre-populating the feed with your brand message – and think about testing those messages.

Jonathan talked about how testing your social messages and calls to action can increase sharing by eight-fold; which in turn had a demonstrable impact on the bottom line.


The right conditions

What conditions are required for a digital step-change to happen? Delivering digital change within typical charity structures and with limited resources is challenging, but not insurmountable.

When looking at the opportunities and trends charities can embrace, it’s important not to overlook some common wider changes and conditions that are required to facilitate this step-change.

As topline observations, these include:

• Strong leadership. Someone within the charity to make the digital vision happen, with clear objectives and a clear means of demonstrating impact and value, supported by a culture that enables digital teams to get things done.

• An innovation culture. This includes a willingness to use people, not just your own resources; de-centralise operations that can be passed to teams and to locations who can be closer to people.

• Experimenting. The thing about innovation is that it doesn’t have to be expensive or polished; ‘rough and ready’ sometimes adds to its charm, and if you do small changes that work, do more of these.

• Reviewing your IT legacy. Don’t let your digital platform hold you back. To enable a digital shift you need the right technology that will actually cut costs in the longer term by delivering time efficiencies (but as well as investing in tech, work with external experts who can provide advice on how best to manage systems).



Implementing multiple touchpoints to engage with consumers can be highly effective, but if not coordinated properly it can get confusing. Choosing the right technology platform is essential, because the infrastructure it provides will be the central element that brings everything together and will future-proof a charity to the ongoing changes and challenges it will face.

So while these aren’t step-by-step guidelines, or by any means definitive, I hope my suggestions of how digital is likely to influence the future of charities against the backdrop of the sector’s challenges can maybe inspire organisations to think about their current situation and how best to manage digital change – be that building on a current infrastructure or introducing a technology platform that can allow organisations to keep up with the market. Giving consideration to the many challenges that charities face allows them to assess how they can make interesting connections, to ultimately join up challenges with digital solutions.


Chris Heg is planning director at digital agency Code Computerlove whose list of charity clients includes Amnesty International, Woodland Trust, Oxfam, Refuge, Greenpeace and Chester Zoo.

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