Technology drivers

Digital transformation in the post-covid world

The covid-19 crisis and resultant lockdowns forced charities to adapt their services and processes rapidly, both on the frontline and in the back office. As we highlighted in last year’s Road Ahead publication, charities responded with a range of new digital approaches.

As society begins to re-open, organisations are now faced with decisions about which elements of their operations will be continued to be delivered digitally, which services will be used, and how the organisation will develop its digital capacity going forward.

At a strategic level, it is essential that charity leaders are confident knowing what their options are, and how they can maximise the benefits that digital technology can provide their organisation. 

The 2021 Charity Digital Skills report found that over two thirds (67%) of charities said that digital was a priority for their organisation, but 58% reported that their board has low digital skills or room for improvement.

This may even be an underestimate, as there is a difference between digital skills required for delivering current operations, and the digital skills for understanding and identifying potential areas of development as technology advances.

Trustees are disproportionately likely to be older and retired – with an average age in the 60s – and may be less familiar with recent developments in workplace technology.

Cyber security and the remote working environment

One of the most common changes organisations reported during Covid was an increase in remote working. While initially, lockdowns forced this as a necessity, it has opened up huge opportunities for the sector.

Remote working can substantially reduce the cost of transport for organisations and their people, reduce the need for expensive physical space, and support equality and diversity goals by making life easier and significantly less expensive for disabled people or those with care responsibilities.

This increase in remote working creates serious cyber security risks. Workplace information technology (IT) often makes use of physical security features, such as locating computers and servers in locked rooms. There are also technical solutions, such as firewalls and blacklisted IP addresses.

When staff are at home and using their home networks, these layers of protection are no longer as easy to ensure. Staff and volunteers may also be using their own personal devices for work.

This means that there is a greater risk of sensitive data being transferred into insecure environments or shared devices. There is some evidence that over the last year there was a substantial increase in phishing attacks - suggesting that criminals are already exploiting these risks.

Organisations will need to make sure that their cybersecurity measures are robust and that staff and volunteers are appropriately trained to undertake remote working safely. This may include implementing new measures like:

  • two-factor authentication
  • providing new devices
  • offering additional IT support and guidance
  • thinking about their backup processes
  • or changing service providers.

Small charities may wish to refer to the National Cyber Security Centre’s Cyber Security: Small Charity Guide.

Potential for reforms to data protection

The General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) continues to be a major challenge for many organisations, with some small organisations adopting very – and sometimes excessively – cautious approaches to data management out of fear of the substantial fines that mistakes can cause.

Following Brexit, the UK government has announced its intent to move away from the European Union regulation, promising to limit ‘box-ticking' by moving away from cookie popups and consent requests.

Consent requests have been a particular challenge for organisations that need to share client data – which includes anything from social services organisations working with vulnerable clients, to services who require the data to conduct impact evaluations.

The recent DCMS consultation Data: A new direction highlighted the risk of excessive regulation leading organisations to miss the full benefits of data and expressed concerns about the unnecessary burden on organisations.

It is likely that any changes will be some time in the making. Crucially, any reforms will need to be deemed adequate by international data protection regimes, including the European Union, or data transfers between the UK and other countries could be prevented.

So, while it is possible that the proposals could make the data regulations less onerous, voluntary organisations should not expect too fundamental a change.

5G wireless technology expanding access to artificial intelligence and machine learning

5G, the new generation of wireless technology, has been rolled out by the major mobile networks across the UK, and 5G-enabled devices are readily available.

5G is up to 100 times faster than 4G and means that thousands of devices will be able to connect at once in small geographic areas.

This has enormous positive implications for industries that rely on the transfer of large amounts of data: for instance, the use of live video feeds for autonomous machinery. 

5G is expected to make the use of technologies like artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) much more accessible over the medium and longer-term.

Examples of how voluntary organisations might be able to use these combined technologies include:

While in the short term most voluntary organisations are likely to be restricted more by digital skills capacity than by the quantity of data they can transfer, boards and leadership teams should keep an eye on the rapid increase in availability and accessibility of these tools and consider how their organisation might make use of them.

This will require considering both the huge potential benefits, but also the challenges around understanding data, identifying unreliable data or weak analyses, and using data in a scientific way. 

Crucially, organisations should be aware that machine learning (ML) and artificial intelligence (AI) can amplify the weaknesses and biases of poor data: unreliable data will lead to unreliable conclusions. The use of ML and AI, therefore, requires careful consideration and understanding.

Volunteer passports back on the agenda

Concerns about digital skills capacity have led to a renewed interest in the idea of the 'digital civic passport'.

Last year, then-Bank of England chief economist Andy Haldane wrote that there were 'digital skills surpluses' in some sectors such as IT and professional services, but a huge deficit in the voluntary sector.

He argued that there are huge potential gains to be made if volunteers with digital skills can be matched to organisations needing them and suggested that centralised matching services could present a way to both record volunteers with specialist skills as well as make it easier to reward them.

This idea is not new: Volunteer Development Scotland launched a 'volunteer passport' in 2007 targeted at young people and issued awards at certain volunteering hour milestones. 

More recently the Department for Culture, Media and Sport issued a study it had commissioned in April 2021 investigating different models of volunteer passports, but it stopped short of independently evaluating existing programmes and did not make recommendations about what approach government should adopt.

NCVO have partnered with Volunteering Matters to explore the role of volunteer passports.

We do not think there is currently enough evidence about how such a scheme might work effectively, and whether it is the most efficient use of limited government resources to support volunteering. 

It remains unclear whether government has an appetite to move forward with the scheme.

Blockchain: Just a fundraising opportunity, or something more?

Blockchain is a type of database that stores data by 'chaining' it to existing data, forming an unchangeable and transparent public ledger. Its main purpose is to allow information to be recorded and shared, but not altered. 

While blockchain has many potential uses including for smart contracts, healthcare, and supply chains, it is most famous for its use in cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin, which have experienced huge growth over the last few years.

There is a clear potential for charities to attract significant donations from financial asset types that are performing well – and several cryptocurrencies have already introduced transaction fees that are donated to charity.

Similarly, a number of major charities within the UK accept donations in various cryptocurrencies.

Cryptocurrency has interesting potential for charities working internationally in that it can limit the necessity to transfer money through intermediaries, although charities should inform themselves of some of the legal and governance issues surrounding cryptocurrencies before getting involved.

Aside from the donation potential, the extent to which blockchain will become an important feature in the charity world remains unclear.

The main appeal of cryptocurrencies for instance, relative to cash, is the ability to keep tabs on where funds go. In other words, it is not so much an issue of ease of donation as a transparency question.

For instance, several years ago St Mungos experimented with a blockchain-based tool that freezes donations until the charity demonstrates social goals set at the start of the appeal. 

This can work to provide donors reassurance of the charity’s effectiveness, but it also raises questions about the challenges of raising core funding (the value of which is harder to measure directly), as opposed to project funding.

Social media

For many voluntary organisations, social media is an essential part of their communications, marketing, and fundraising approaches. It provides a means to mobilise support, reach service users, and support operational delivery. 

Social media also allows for the creation of online communities which can channel into local activities or online forms of democracy, making it a crucial tool for communities and civic engagement.

However, governments are starting to take the regulation of social media platforms more seriously. There are concerns about how platforms push and curate news to users and how this can spread fake news and malicious content with alarming speed.

This is because platforms typically monetise users’ attention through paid advertisements and are incentivised to keep users online as long as possible – which in some cases means showing increasingly extreme content.

In the UK, the upcoming Online Safety Bill is reported to include criminal penalties for those causing 'psychological harm' to others on social media, in an attempt to control abuse and harassment.

There are indications that ending anonymity on social media is under consideration. Similar debates are occurring in the USA, where repeated social media scandals have resulted in growing calls for regulation around third party content.

This has significant implications for campaigners, whistleblowers, and the public who use anonymous accounts to protect their personal and employment identities, especially those living in regimes where communications are monitored or restricted. 

Moreover, there may be implications for organisations using social media functions to target posts to specific audiences or communities.

Given the early stages of these debates, it remains unclear what exactly will happen, but organisations may wish to keep an eye on debates in both the UK and the USA, where many tech giants are headquartered and the debate about social media regulation has been very politicised.

Questions for your organisation to consider

  • Do you have fit-for-purpose digital skills currently in your organisation? Have you considered what skills you need now and in the future?
  • Have you considered how technological changes may affect your organisation in one, five and ten years’ time?
  • Do your trustees have a solid understanding of technological advancements and the opportunities that new technologies present to your organisation?
  • Have you ensured staff and volunteers have access to the right equipment for remote working?
  • Have you considered and mitigated cyber security risks, especially in relation to home working?
  • Are your data collection, analysis and presentation processes operationally and legally adequate? Have you considered whether these processes can be automated?
  • Who might be impacted if you start delivering more services online, and how?
  • What do you need to do to make your digital products and services more inclusive?
  • What are the barriers that stop your digitally excluded beneficiaries from accessing digital resources?
  • Could you benefit from a 'digital champion' within your organisation?
  • Have you considered how you can best attract, recruit and onboard volunteers, using digital tools if they are available?

Further information