Helping your charity have better conversations about digital

By Chris Flood
29 May 2019

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We often hear how people ‘get’ digital, or they don’t. But what people don’t often talk about is how charities can bridge this gap and help the whole organisation have joined up conversions about what digital means for them.

Back in May, we invited senior leaders in the sector to join us at the London Roundhouse to hear examples from charities big and small, and connect with their peers to discuss what ‘digital’ really means for charities. With a focus on how our sector can move from having silo’d conversations about ‘digital’, and into a space where we’re working together to drive real change in our organisation.

Justin Cooke, Vice Chair of UNICEF UK introduced the session by talking about the seismic shift in communications, where it’s no longer enough to think about channels, we have to think about mobile-centric individuals. It’s required a shift in thinking from the organisation, and UNICEF UK has made many changes, bringing in external talent, and sponsoring new ways of working such as ‘special purpose vehicles’ like Socceraid. Justin invited all of us to share and to listen to the new experiences and approaches of our speakers and each other.

Stephanie Borne, Head of Digital at Shelter, talked about her origins in marketing agencies before joining NSPCC at the very beginning of digital fundraising, and how she has helped her teams and peers work through the myths of the digital team. Stephanie emphasised the very different digital mindset, which thinks about behaviours rather than profiles, frameworks before strategy, and agility over process. Shelter now works in a ‘devolved’ model with digital skills embedded and integrated in each part of fundraising. This model facilitates an ‘incubator’ approach to new ideas like ‘Virtual Rush’ which trialled this year. The model is predicated on senior management buy-in, and Stephanie spent some time on the ‘Hype Cycle’, emphasising the importance of helping leadership team understand what digital can and cannot do, whilst simultaneously delivering early ‘trojan horse’ projects that will excite internal stakeholders and win support, and bringing new people in to the organisation who bring with them the case studies of their success elsewhere.

Dr Raven Bowen told a striking story of how a well-intentioned but poorly thought-through digital project became an awful example of what can go wrong when the pursuit of technology is separated from the organisation’s stakeholders and objectives. There’s a particular danger when it’s a small charity. Since the temptation is to use technology as a replacement for a core service, rather than as something that supplements and enhances it. Especially when that technology is being offered at a discount or with strings attached, like a lack of a viable support model.

In some ways we can see Raven’s and Stephanie’s stories as being at the extreme ends of the spectrum of digital adoption in UK charities. In the round-table discussions after the presentations, there was earnest and open discussion about how to provide resources and sounding boards for charities at the start of their digital journeys, as well as how to help larger charities open themselves up to new ways of working.

There’s a lot that cuts to the heart of how charities conventionally plan and operate. And whether a large or small charity, a digital native or digital notice everyone recognised the need for better ways of building these connections. And there was a real enthusiasm to continue the conversation.

If you’d like to hear more about the digital charities council, including our future events you can sign up for updates on the council website.

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