Daniel Ferrell-Schweppenstedde

Policy Manager
Charities Aid Foundation

T: +44 (0) 3000 123 206
E: corporate@cafonline.org

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Charities have embraced digital during this crisis

But many are still struggling  - so what next?

CAF recently issued the fifth edition of our Charity Landscape report, which captures the views of charity leaders about the key challenges they face. While Covid-19 has dominated this year, one issue that we have tracked for several years has seen a notable change, namely technology and digital transformation.

The enforced pivot to digital that many organisations had to make during the pandemic has brought new challenges, but has also opened up  opportunities for new ways of working and delivering on mission. Yet when we look at the adoption of technology across the sector, and preparedness for the future, the picture is very mixed.

Digital donations and fundraising

Fewer than one in five (18%) told us that they feel their organisation knows how to effectively fundraise online.

However, this likely reflects a mixed picture of the sector in general. A third of surveyed leaders (34%) agreed that they are increasingly adopting online fundraising, whilst a third (33%) disagreed with that statement.

This echoes an earlier survey CAF conducted in which roughly a quarter of charities (23%) said they cannot take digital donations. It also reflects the findings of the 2020 edition of the Charity Digital Skills report, in which digital fundraising showed up as one of the weakest skills for charities. If the pandemic leads to a longer-term shift of emphasis towards digital channels and non-cash methods for giving, those charities that lack the required skills to harness them may find life increasingly difficult.


Wider service transformation and resulting challenges

Many charities are changing their processes and organisational set-ups in response to the pandemic, although this has been more of a challenge for some than others. When we asked charities earlier this year how they have adapted to the crisis, two fifths (39%) said they had found an alternative or innovative way to deliver a service. A quarter (25%) reported that they had found a new way to reach their beneficiaries, largely by relying on technology to keep in touch. But the Charity Digital Skills report also showed an increase in the share of those charities that said they felt they were fair to poor at digital service delivery. As we begin to move beyond the crisis period of the pandemic, the question for many organisations will be how to strike a balance between retaining new ways of working or going back to what was done before.

Covid-19 has magnified the digital divide in society and is changing the nature of many of the challenges we face, as well as creating entirely new ones. Not all service delivery is conducive to a digital first principle and there could be examples where it might actually reduce quality, or even widen digital exclusion. There is also a growing danger of platform dependency for charities, as we all become increasingly reliant on digital infrastructure that is owned and operated by technology companies over which charities and their advocates may have little influence (a theme we recently explored in Alliance).

What can be done?

Digital transformation requires a supporting environment across the charity sector and civil society, as most organisations simply don’t have the resources to drive change alone. A number of funders and other stakeholders have already produced good work in this area, but many more need to join them in order to accelerate this process.

Charities will clearly need to invest resources, and to make digital transformation a priority when it comes to developing their own resilience. But there needs to be demonstrable support for charities engaging with technology coming from government, grantmakers and the private sector.

Government could help lead on the exploration of the impact of technology on civil society and provide additional funds for charities to help them adapt successfully to technological change. Policymakers could also ensure that civil society organisations are brought into debates about the development and impact of new technologies, and supported ─ where necessary – to engage so that they can provide perspectives from the people and communities they serve. With unique on-the-ground experience, the sector can lend a voice to the marginalised groups that are likely to be affected earliest and hardest by the societal impacts of technology.

Grantmakers and other funders can support forums and infrastructure that enables collaboration and knowledge sharing; and give charities the time and space to think through the impacts of technology. They could also be more actively engaged in shaping the development of new technologies, as well as their uptake in civil society, by providing funding and partnerships with the private sector that enable charities to bring their voices and perspective to the table.

Tech companies, meanwhile, could reach out to experts in civil society to collaborate on understanding how we can better develop and use new technologies so that they benefit society in the recovery phase (something we have repeatedly called for here at CAF).

A combination of government and sector-led initiatives, funding programmes (in particular for smaller charities), expert service providers with a focus on civil society (like CAST and Reason Digital), collaboration and partnerships with businesses, as well as strong champions in government and civil society for a digital switch can help to drive change in the sector while building on the Covid-induced innovation that is already taking place.

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