Technological drivers

The importance of being strategic about digital

Over the last couple of years, there has been a lot of talk about digital transformation in charities. While some believe the digital revolution – the shift to digital technologies – is transforming the way charities work, others have been sceptical, claiming that the digital revolution has passed the sector entirely and that charities are not influencing technology enough or the policies around them.

According to the Digital Skills Report 2019, the number of charities that don’t have a digital strategy has increased from 50% to 52% in the last year, while 10% of charities have been through a full digital transformation process – 5% less than in 2018.

Reflections from the National Lottery Communities Fund offer some insights into what digital means to charities. Following the launch of the Digital Fund, they were surprised about the differences in charities’ understanding of the word ‘digital’ and how many applications did not meet their criteria. While they were looking to fund projects in the area of organisational transition, digital innovation and good leadership, the majority of applications were about basic digital infrastructure, digitising processes, creating new services, or digital engagement. The findings suggest the digital revolution is not a reality for many charities.

For organisations who want to progress in digital, developing a digital strategy might be helpful. However, even without a full strategy, being specific about what digital is able to bring to organisations, can provide greater clarity about what organisations need and where to start. For charity leaders it is important to understand how digital is changing the needs, behaviours and expectations of their users and supporters. Tools like the digital maturity matrix can help organisations to find out where they currently sit and identify specific goals. Keeping up to date with new technologies and developments on the horizon is as important as thinking about what has to be in place first.

GDPR and cybersecurity remain a high priority

According to a survey from the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), one in five charities experienced a data breach or cyber-attack in 2018, with phishing emails being the most common attack reported. Unsurprisingly, a majority of charities reported cybersecurity as a priority (75%), however only a few had provided training or invested in cybersecurity. At the same time the Lloyds Charity Digital Index 2018 found that cybersecurity was the most sought after digital skill in charities.

Cybercrime will continue to be a huge risk and email fraud is predicted to become even more sophisticated. In order to protect their valuable funds, assets and good reputation, it will be crucial for charities to have greater awareness of cyber-attacks and put a range of security measures in place. These include:

  • regular software updates
  • malware protection
  • password policies
  • staff training.

Many charities need to update their systems and tools

Technology will continue to have an impact on the way charities work. For example, offering flexible working opportunities supported by the effective use of technology has become more and more important for charities in order to recruit and retain staff.

Technology has also changed the way charities connect with and engage beneficiaries, volunteers and donors. Being asked to give on the street is still the most common way people give to charities, but numbers have been declining. At the same time, the proportion of people who give online has been fairly stable.[1]

Digital platforms and apps have made it easier for people to come together and organise direct social action. From using live translation tools when working with refugees, to applying AI in the development of diagnostic tools, some charities have tapped into digital technologies with the intention to benefit society.

But a lot of charities are still working with outdated tools and systems that don’t support these developments. Money is one of the main barriers and many charities would update their IT infrastructure if they had sufficient funds. Cloud services can offer great alternatives in terms of cost savings, flexibility and scalability – about two thirds of charities are already using them. Charities can also make use of discounts offered to them by many software providers.

Using the latest technology is not just about innovation and growth. Outdated tools can also lead to security risks exposing organisations to data breaches. For example, when Windows 7 runs out in January 2020, charities might risk leaving their systems and information vulnerable to cyber-attacks.

Generating insights from data, not just generating data

One of the biggest buzzwords of the 2000s – big data – will continue to make headlines. Internet users today generate more than 2.5 quintillion bytes of data each day. Many organisations have started setting up systems to store the vast amount of data available to them. While storing data might be easier, generating insights from that data seems to be more challenging. According to the Lloyds Charity Digital Index, using data and technology to solve problems and make decisions is still the lowest skill area for charities.

Charities wanting to make more use of their data, should start with assessing what data is available and where the gaps are. Collecting data for data’s sake won’t lead to useful insights. Instead, organisations might want to develop data standards and make sure data is kept up to date so that it can be used effectively. In light of the climate crisis, there is also a growing concern around the energy required to store and process vast amounts of data.

Today there are a range of analytical tools that have free versions charities can tap into (eg Google Analytics, Tableau, Microsoft Power BI). However, charities might need to upskill staff in analytical areas or make use of technical volunteers (see next section). Charities often help the most vulnerable and marginalised, so they also need to think about data governance and ethics, especially since the introduction of tighter regulation around data. They need to ensure that proper guidance and safeguarding is maintained in the data that is gathered and processed about their beneficiaries.

Creative and flexible ways to improve digital skills

According to the Lloyds Charity Digital Index, 99% of charities are now online compared to 76% in 2014 and fewer are lacking basic digital skills. However, digital is still challenging for many charities, especially when it comes to more advanced technology.

In the Charity Digital Skills Report 2019, almost half (47%) of respondents were concerned that they did not have the right digital skills in their organisation, with artificial intelligence and data handling being common missing skills. In addition, organisations are finding it hard to attract or retain staff with the right digital talent. The Employer Skills Survey highlights that digital skills are one of the main skills missing from applicants.

When recruiting technical staff, charities should consider how they can get skilled staff and be clear about their needs and how they’ll work with technical staff. Instead of full-time roles, new models might be better suited, eg ‘a week of a month of a data scientist’ or ‘a day a week of a developer’. Charities should also be aware of some of the challenges for technical staff, as many organisations are more likely to employ solo experts than big technical teams. This will have an impact on employees’ ability to learn and progress, and stay motivated, as well as implications for the ability of organisations to review the quality of their work. In such cases, charities might consider tapping into external networks (eg social data society by Datakind UK) or look for external mentors for their staff.

When commissioning technical projects, charities will need to gain understanding of what it means to manage tech experts and tech projects. This includes agile project management techniques and using digital design principles.

Using technology to distribute power

We are seeing increasing political protest, a crisis in representation and governance, and start-up businesses disrupting traditional industries. While some are optimistic that digitally enabled actors are changing the way the world works and disrupting institutions that once held a monopoly on power,[2] others are more sceptical, pointing out that the powerful are only getting more powerful.[3]

It can seem like technology is a tool that can be used both to distribute power as well as maintain and grow it. The much quoted Heimans and Timms claim that only combining new power methods with new power values will lead to true power distribution. New power models (or methods) tap into people’s growing capacity – and desire – to participate, and new power values support these expectations of participation, including through informal networks and decision making, crowd wisdom,[4] and transparency. Many digital tools could contribute to this new power by enabling sharing, collaboration and taking ownership.

To engage meaningfully with society’s diverse communities and meet people’s expectations of participation, charities should consider putting shared and distributed models of decision-making in place, and think about how they might harness the potential of technological tools to enable these processes.

Source: Heimans and Timms

Moving forward

Questions your organisation might want to consider:

  • Is your organisation making most of technology? Are you aware of the expectations and/or needs of your users in terms digital? Does it make sense for your organisation to think about advanced applications or do you need to get your infrastructure in place first?
  • Are you aware of cybersecurity risks in your organisation and have you put security measures in places, including regular software updates, malware protection, password policies and staff training?
  • How is your organisation using data? What data is available, what are the gaps and what can help you to generate insights from data?
  • What is the level of digital skills in your organisations and what skills are missing? How can you address potential gaps, for instance through recruitment or training?
  • Are you harnessing the power of technology to engage with your users and communities? How could you start putting shared and distributed models of decision-making in place using technology?


  1. CAF (2019) UK Giving Report 2019

  2. Crowd wisdom is the collective opinion of a group of individuals rather than that of a single expert. This process has been pushed into the mainstream spotlight by social information sites such as Wikipedia, Yahoo! Answers, Quora, Stack Exchange and other web resources that rely on collective human knowledge.