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There is no digital revolution in charities*. And probably never will be.

In this week's blog, Joe Saxton argues that the charity advancements in digital we have seen are not enough to warrant the use of the word 'revolution'. What do you think?
Joe Saxton

There has been much talk about the digital revolution in charities recently. There is a new code of practice on using digital in charities amid much hand-wringing about how far or how little digital has progressed in charities. The reality is more simple. I think the digital revolution has passed charities by almost entirely. While our personal lives and the business world have been transformed by digital, charities remain largely untouched. A few enhancements and improvements for sure, but revolution or even transformation certainly not. Let me justify that with a few simple acid tests.

There are no digital charity equivalents to Amazon or Facebook

The commercial world is now dominated by digital giants – the so-called FANGs (Facebook, Amazon, Netflix, Google) have transformed our personal lives. Apple and Microsoft are vying to be the most-valuable company in the World and top the £1 trillion dollar market value. Almost every aspect of business life is dominated by the need to succeed online or fail, and it seems that all of the most successful are new digital start-ups - not old companies who have adapted.

Now try and name a single charity which is a product of the digital age, or even one which has grown big on the back of great digital technology. The closest I hear of is ‘Charity Water’ in the US.

Digital fundraising remains a tiny portion of the total fundraising income

Digital fundraising, raising money online or using digital technology, is an area that ought to be a litmus test for any digital revolution. While mechanisms for accurately measuring fundraising and digital income are under-developed, there is little evidence that more than around 10% of fundraised income (and less for total income) comes from digital sources. There are a couple of exceptions to this gloomy assessment – fundraising for events (driven by Justgiving’s extraordinary functionality) and for emergencies/disasters where digital has played a significant role. Nice little earners – yes. Revolution – no.

Name a charity that went out of business because digital had changed the world

The flipside of the digital revolution is those companies which have gone out of business because their business model has been undermined or made impossible by new technology. From Encyclopaedia Britannica to Kodak, from Videos, CDs, DVDs and cassettes, the list is long. One estimate is that half of the largest 500 largest companies in the US have disappeared because of digital. And some organisations which pioneered the digital revolution like Nokia, AoL, Yahoo and MySpace have already been over-taken.

Now name a charity which has been put out of business because digital has made life impossible.

Even campaigning and charity service are still largely untouched by digital

If fundraising has seen acceptable if not spectacular income from digital, what about other areas? Well, alongside the lack of digital fundraising is the lack of digital service provision. While many organisations have successfully provided information online, there is still a dearth of services from charities that are transformative, let alone revolutionary. Indeed whether it is fundraising, volunteering, campaigning or service provision, the public largely engage with charities as they did 20 or 30 years ago.

Don’t get me wrong. Digital has made a difference to charities, and that difference has been largely helpful, but it has not been transformative, and certainly not a revolution.

So the question is - why have charities been largely untouched by the digital revolution?

If there has been no digital revolution in charities, the question is why, and most importantly - is there anything we can do about it? So first, what are some of the reasons why digital might not have taken off in charities?

Engaging with charities is largely reactive.

People give because they are asked; they don’t necessarily wake up in the morning thinking I must give, or volunteer, or campaign today. But they do wake up thinking I want to book a holiday, buy a house, go the cinema, or order groceries: all of which are now easiest done online (along with a host of other things). The most successful forms of donor recruitment are those that literally or metaphorically stop people in their tracks – street fundraising, door to door fundraising, the telephone or postal appeals. And online anything is poor at stopping people in their tracks and making them think about something that wasn’t in their head already.

There are few disruptive technologies or innovations for charities.

There are no burning platforms (to use the jargon) which have to be jumped off in order to survive. In the business world, those who don’t keep up with technology will fall by the wayside – the examples are numerous. But for charities, they have been able to survive with mediocre websites, indifferent social media or people-centred fundraising.

We are not alone – just look at government services.

It could be argued that without the profit motive, digital is unlikely to really flourish. Few would say that government is particularly good at digital. The big NHS database projects all seem to be late and over budget. Universal Credit has not worked well. And if you want to sort out a tax problem you still need to call HMRC and listen to music for ages. Government may be making more of a concerted effort than charities, but I am still not sure they have got very far.

Who in the sector is responsible for driving use of digital?

It is easy to answer which sector body is responsible for driving fundraising, communications, finance or leadership; but who is responsible for driving digital? As far as I can see, there is no sector body for digital. Indeed, the torch of championing digital is mostly taken up by a few entrepreneurial individuals like Zoe Amar and Kirsty Marrins.

Bringing about any major changes is only going to happen because of a new technology or innovation that hasn’t yet been thought of, or because of a co-ordinated and resourced strategy to improve digital usage, or both. But as it stands there is no revolution in charities, and after 25 years since the revolution started in the commercial world, I don’t think there ever will be.

*Joe Saxton’s views do not reflect those of all of us here at nfpSynergy


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