Stronger charities for a stronger society Contents

Chapter 6: Charities and digital technology

The potential of digital technology

353.The integration of digital technologies into people’s lives and the changing nature of communications, particularly through social media, have significantly changed the environment charities operate within. These changes present new challenges but also considerable opportunities for charities.

354.Nick Pickles from Twitter told us that there were a growing number of small charities and social enterprises that had been established and were only possible as a result of digital technology.448 On our visit to Manchester, the Greater Manchester Centre for Voluntary Organisation said that small, local charities that had been the “well-kept secrets” of the charity sector were now a bit less secret, as a result of a growing trend towards having an online presence.449

355.David Robb from OSCR said that:

“The realities of operating in a digital age mean that most charities have a website, although not all; we have lots of Brownie packs and mother or parent and toddler groups, and for them maintaining a website might not be realistic. However, for single-instance charities, it would be pretty unusual to find one without a website these days.”450

He also noted that: “A lot more charities have Facebook accounts than have websites.” 451

Digital fundraising

356.Many of our witnesses talked about the potential for digital technology to assist with fundraising.452 David Skelton from Google said that: “In terms of fundraising, a really strong benefit of digital is that you can reach a bigger audience more quickly, more widely and in a more scalable way.”453 Charity Checkout spoke about the potential for online donation systems to increase charities’ revenue.454 Chester Mojay-Sinclare said:

“We have seen examples of charities increase their overall giving from donors by up to 600% purely through adopting digital fundraising methods, the basic and essential fundraising methods being a mobile-optimised website, an embedded payment system within their site enabling them to accept online credit and debit card payments, direct debits and various methods such as those. Digital can play a huge part in helping charities to be more sustainable, to raise more income from their local communities, but also in service delivery.”455

357.The Charities Aid Foundation said that their research had found that “young people are much more likely to engage in digital giving than older audiences, with a particular appetite for donating through apps as well as demonstrating their support for causes via social media.”456

Awareness raising

358.Digital technology and especially social media were also seen as powerful new tools for charities to gain attention and promote their cause.457 Helen Milner, from the Tinder Foundation,458 said that digital technology meant relevance and reach, in a world where many people expected to run their lives digitally and use their phone for all kinds of services.459 Nick Pickles said that it was:

“an opportunity for charities to communicate with the world on whatever issue they are working on without intermediaries. Ten years ago, you might have needed to know someone at a newspaper or to be invited on television, or you might have needed an advertising budget. Now you can jump that, so it levels the playing field for small and large organisations.”460

359.The Centre for Philanthropy at the University of Kent similarly noted the power of social media to open new opportunities for more specialist causes, such as the “ice bucket challenge” campaign for motor neurone disease.461 Nick Pickles added that it had changed the ways that charities campaign:

“It is about constantly educating and persuading people. Rather than spending all your energy on an awareness week in one week of the year, you are now working every day to try to change the social conversation. While a lot of charity work is focused on fundraising and awareness raising, there is also an opportunity for digital and social media to help drive social change, not just to raise awareness but to try to deal with some of the underlying issues.”462


360.Digital communications also allow for better engagement with existing supporters, volunteers and beneficiaries.463 Community Links Bromley said that:

“Engaging in communication with your supporters in a direct way releases a world of opportunity. Not only is it low cost compared to traditional media, it can also reach out to a far wider range of people, of all ages, in different countries around the world. Keeping social media up to date is key to keeping people interested in the content you have to share.”464

361.Devon Air Ambulance noted that it allowed charities to “build more trust and showcase the impact of their work,” although they noted that this “works best for causes that are generally attractive to the public.”465 Alzheimer’s Research UK suggested that greater use of digital services increased the pressure to show that donations were being used appropriately.466

362.David Skelton from Google and Nick Pickles from Twitter noted that not only did digital technology help to demonstrate impact to the public and to funders, it could help charities understand their own impact through the use of analytics.467 Chester Mojay-Sinclare said that technology helped charities with service delivery468 and RSM UK said that it allowed them “to manage data and processes more efficiently and effectively.”469 We heard that charities could use technology to reduce costs, and improve their finance and administration processes.470

363.Citizens Advice told us that:

“The shift to a modern technology approach has required investment from our reserves, to cover double-running of services while we moved on from traditional approaches and suppliers, but has significantly reduced ongoing operating costs.”471

The challenges of digital for the charity sector

364.Some of our witnesses said that charities were lagging behind on digital technologies and not making the most value of them. Asheem Singh said that: “If you are asking me, however, whether the charity sector as a whole is one of the leading industries in the use of the internet and social and digital technology to drive efficiency within its organisations, regrettably the answer is probably no.”472 said that: “The sector as [a] whole is lagging at least five years behind the corporate sector in terms of utilising digital tools. This is a great concern as technology evolves at an ever faster pace.”473

365.Charity Checkout reported that:

“A recent in-house study conducted by Charity Checkout of 500 recently registered charities from May/June 2016 showed that, of the 60% with websites, 45% were not mobile responsive and over 85% lacked ‘an attractive and professional design’ in the view of the assessor.” 474

They also noted that 62% of the charities they examined did not have a regular giving option within their online donation system and were therefore potentially missing out on income.475

366.Helen Milner said that it was important to understand that there was a continuum of usage of digital technologies by the charity sector, from digitally immature charities, through to the digitally innovative. She cited the Lloyds Bank UK Business Digital Index, which found that “49% of charities are digitally immature” and had “no skills whatsoever, no confidence and no awareness.”476 This compared to 38% of small businesses.477

367.The Cranfield Trust also noted differences within the charity sector between charities of different sizes: “With a far more competitive funding environment and many more communication channels open through social media, small- to medium-sized charities are racing to catch up with marketing and communications skills in order to compete with larger charities with established marketing activity.”478

368.A range of issues were highlighted as constraints for charities, particularly smaller charities, seeking to exploit fully the value of digital technology.479 Localgiving told us that “many small, local groups lack the capacity, skills and confidence to fully benefit from this technology.”480

369.A lack of funding and resources was another reason for charities not being able to fully embrace digital technology. The Foundation for Social Improvement said that:

“Small charities often face a difficult trade-off, [they] want to innovate but if innovation requires investment they are often not able to move forward as they have minimal resources for development [and] instead the majority of their income is needed to cover service delivery. This suggests small charities are still far behind in the digital arena in comparison to larger charities, who are more likely to be able to afford to direct resources to this area.” 481

370.The Cranfield Trust pointed out that: “It takes a lot of time and energy to remain active and afloat on social media, and to take advantage of profile raising activities as soon as they arise.”482 Survivors UK noted that: “There is a high pool of talent in the not-for-profit sector in this field but salaries are not competitive with the commercial sector and so turnover can be high.”483 Other concerns raised included expensive and poor quality broadband access and digital exclusion.484

371.We also heard that risk aversion and a lack of organisational flexibility were a problem.485 NAVCA said that “charities need to be bolder, and boards need a greater appetite for risk, if the sector is to adapt and deliver greater impact in a changing world.”486 Rebecca Bunce from the Small Charities Coalition highlighted the consequences that resulted from trustees not understanding digital technology sufficiently.487 We discussed trustee skills further in Chapter 3.

372.Helen Milner said that trustees who were risk averse on digital tools were approaching the issue from the wrong starting point:

“If they are saying, ‘Digital feels like a risk’, they are asking themselves the wrong question. They should be saying, ‘What is our strategy? Where do we want to be in three years’ time? How are we going to get there? Do we want to help more people and how are we going to reach them?’ Digital ought then, naturally, to become part of that solution.”488

373.Chester Mojay-Sinclare added that:

“By far the biggest risk that is posed, if we continue the way we are with the lack of digital adoption in the charity sector, is to small charities, which potentially could become obsolete without the funding and the ability to access the funding that they need through their supporters. I would urge charities not to be too cautious, although I understand why they are.”489

374.Nick Pickles suggested that it was not necessarily small charities that would struggle with adapting to digital technology. He said that it was “sometimes harder for larger organisations that are more hierarchical and that have staff who have been working in a certain way for a long time, to change, whereas smaller and newer organisations can embrace technology quicker.”490

Helping charities to embrace digital technology

375.We were told that more training was needed to help charities develop digital skills. suggested that more digital training should be facilitated by the Government.491 Alzheimer’s Research UK said that: “Greater learning from the private sector could support charity innovation, given the right culture of support for charitable risk-taking.”492 We also heard about the training and resources offered by Google, Twitter and the Tinder Foundation, among others, and that many free tools and training exist.493

376.Home-Start Slough suggested that more could be done to co-ordinate the development and promotion of software for the charity sector.494 ACEVO said that there was a role for infrastructure bodies in the sector to do more to co-ordinate the technology and tools available to the sector.495 David Skelton emphasised that such tools need not be expensive for charities.496

377.While there were calls for more money to support innovation, we heard that there were already a range of bodies with funds, such as Comic Relief’s Tech for Good fund, Nominet Trust’s Social Tech Seed Fund and Nesta’s Impact Investments.497 Helen Milner said that charities struggling with digital should seek to employ people who already had the skills to help bring about a culture change in their organisations:

“I do not mean just employing some young people who can do the social media for them. I mean absolutely bringing people in who understand the transformational effect of digital within helping them to achieve their strategic goals and strategic vision.”498

378.She added that such people “are not expensive. You just have to know where to find them.”499 NACVA made a similar argument, telling us that the sector “needs a more diverse trustee base, and new skills such as expertise in digital, if organisations are to thrive in the modern world.”500

379. Chester Mojay-Sinclare from Charity Checkout said:

“I would like to see that every new charity has a technology trustee or a digital trustee, much in the same way that the majority of them have a treasurer or something like that. That would do several things. It would bring a focus to digital. It would create a role to which younger people would be drawn, and younger people would lean towards trusteeship more. That could be quite a simple way of attracting more of these skills, because there are a lot of digitally savvy people out there and, if the path into charity was clear and open, we would see many more such people taking leadership roles.”501

380.The capacity of the charity sector to embrace digital technology varies considerably, and while some are at the cutting edge of the use of technology, others risk organisational stagnation and decay by not embracing it successfully. This is a risk to the charity sector.

381.Charities should actively consider including a digital trustee role on their boards. We note the potential benefits to board diversity that would be likely to result from adopting such an approach.

382.We recommend that infrastructure bodies share knowledge and best practice on innovation and digitisation across the sector and co-ordinate training opportunities, at minimal cost, for charities with limited digital experience. We recommend that the Big Lottery Fund provides support to enable this.

383.The technology sector should work to ensure that charities can develop the skills and capacity to fully engage with the digital realm. This may include the more widespread promotion of training and development opportunities, particularly to smaller charities with limited experience of digital engagement.

448 Q 164 (Nick Pickles)

449 Note of meeting with Greater Manchester Centre for Voluntary Organisation, Appendix 6

450 Q 108 (David Robb)

451 Ibid.

452 Written evidence from Alzheimer’s Research UK (CHA0074), Localgiving (CHA0016) and RSM UK (CHA0120)

453 Q 161 (David Skelton)

454 Written evidence from Charity Checkout (CHA0051)

455 Q 133 (Chester Mojay-Sinclare)

456 Written evidence from Charities Aid Foundation (CHA0089)

457 Written evidence from Sense, The National Deafblind and Rubella Association (CHA0040), RSPCA (CHA0070), Community Links Bromley (CHA0100), Comic Relief (CHA0126), RSM UK (CHA0120), Visionary (CHA0174), Sheila McKechnie Foundation (CHA0184) and Foundation for Social Improvement (CHA0057)

458 The Tinder Foundation has since been renamed the Good Things Foundation.

459 133 (Helen Milner OBE)

460 Q 160 (Nick Pickles)

461 Written evidence from Centre for Philanthropy, University of Kent (CHA0072)

462 Q 160 (Nick Pickles)

463 QQ 160–161 (David Skelton)

464 Written evidence from Community Links Bromley (CHA0100)

465 Written evidence from Devon Air Ambulance Trust (CHA0083)

466 Written evidence from Alzheimer’s Research UK (CHA0074)

467 Q 160 (David Skelton) and Q 163 (Nick Pickles)

468 Q 133 (Chester Mojay-Sinclare)

469 Written evidence from RSM UK (CHA0120)

470 Written evidence from Churches’ Legislation Advisory Service (CHA0098) and Wales Council for Voluntary Action (CHA0097)

471 Written evidence from Citizens Advice (CHA0177)

472 Q 25 (Asheem Singh)

473 Written evidence from (CHA0046)

474 Written evidence from Charity Checkout (CHA0051)

475 Ibid.

476 Q 133 (Helen Milner OBE)

477 Lloyds Bank, UK Business Digital Index 2016 (October 2016): [accessed 14 March 2017]

478 Written evidence from The Cranfield Trust (CHA0103)

479 Written evidence from The Brain Tumour Charity (CHA0145), Foundation for Social Improvement (CHA0057), National Village and Community Halls Network (CHA0086) and St Ann’s Hospice (CHA0167)

480 Written evidence from Localgiving (CHA0016)

481 Written evidence from Foundation for Social Improvement (CHA0057)

482 Written evidence from The Cranfield Trust (CHA0103)

483 Written evidence from SurvivorsUK (CHA0169)

484 Q 25 (Rebecca Bunce), Q 135 (Helen Milner OBE) and written evidence from Bolton Community and Voluntary Services (CHA0064), Community Southwark (CHA0075), Charity Checkout (CHA0051) and National Village and Community Halls Network (CHA0086)

485 Written evidence from Alzheimer’s Research UK (CHA0074) and National Village and Community Halls Network (CHA0086)

486 Written evidence from National Association for Voluntary and Community Action (CHA0076)

487 Q 25 (Rebecca Bunce)

488 Q 134 (Helen Milner OBE)

489 Q 134 (Chester Mojay-Sinclare)

490 Q 162 (Nick Pickles)

491 Written evidence from (CHA0046)

492 Written evidence from Alzheimer’s Research UK (CHA0074)

493 160 (David Skelton), Q 164 (Nick Pickles), Q 134 (Helen Milner OBE), and written evidence from Wales Council for Voluntary Action (CHA0097)

494 Written evidence from Home-Start Slough (CHA0068)

495 Q 25 (Asheem Singh)

496 Q 160 (David Skelton)

497 Q 136 (Helen Milner OBE)

498 Q 134 (Helen Milner OBE)

499 Ibid.

500 Written evidence from National Association for Voluntary and Community Action (CHA0076)

501 Q 134 (Chester Mojay-Sinclare)

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