How charities must transform for the digital age | Zoe Amar

Technology is not just about more digital tools and skills. It raises big questions about how we see the future of the voluntary sector

From self-driving cars to Hyperloop and using AI to prevent suicide, technology is transforming the world around us. Isn’t it time we asked what the future could look like for charities?

In a recent digital skills report, 68% of charities said that digital will change the voluntary sector by 2027 – more than believed the same thing in both the public and private sectors. But we’ve got a long way to go yet.

The biggest skills gaps are in fundraising, where 61% of charities rate their digital fundraising skills as fair to low and digital strategy (63%). Yet charity leadership and governance also need to change in the digital age. More than 70% of charities rate their board’s digital skills as low or with room for improvement, and 80% of respondents want their leadership team to provide a clear vision of what digital could help them achieve. Everyone, from volunteers to trustees, needs to embrace digital; it must become part of everyone’s modus operandi from day one.

There are signs of progress. Lloyds Bank research indicates that 51% of charities have basic digital skills (a 9% increase on 2015) and some large charities are now hiring chief digital officers, indicating their willingness to invest. But we don’t yet have the comprehensive momentum that will be required to move things forward, and without that we risk becoming a sector of digital haves and have-nots.

We must think big with our solutions. In Scotland, the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations has galvanised charity leaders with a digital call to action. Do we need a similar call to arms for the rest of the UK? Perhaps even a digital code of practice or skills framework?

While an obvious quick win is investing in digital fundraising skills to open up new income streams, there are further opportunities. Dan Sutch, director at the Centre for Acceleration of Social Technology, urges charities to consider more digital service delivery. “Habits and expectations for how we find resources and support have changed; digital is often the first channel people use. If important charity services aren’t accessible via digital, they’ll be hidden by the services that are – making our depth of expertise invisible and inaccessible.”

Take the Royal Society for Blind Children’s Wayfindr app, which has evolved from a product to help young people navigate indoors into the Wayfindr Open Standard, a benchmark to guide tech companies in how to build accessible indoor audio navigation. It’s a perfect example of how a digital service must begin with understanding your audience’s needs, and how partnering with the right people (Wayfindr was funded by Google) could get your charity’s expertise in front of a whole new audience.

Since the need for digital skills entails asking what a modern charity leader looks like, it is also redefining how we think about social change. Simon Hopkins, chief executive of Turn2Us, believes that “the next urgent challenge for charity leaders must be to exploit the potential of digital to enable a major step up in collaboration. That collaboration should have one purpose: to get more help, more quickly, to people who need it, the first time they seek it and without them having to contact multiples agencies”.

At a time when the sector is facing multiple challenges, using digital well could help charities be more sustainable, relevant and reach more people. Digital is not just about tools and skillsets. It raises big questions about how we see the future of our sector, and how we could transform it.

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Zoe Amar

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