Just over 20 years ago I started to work on digital in the charity sector. A lot has happened since then. I wanted to share some highlights. A lot has changed, and a lot hasn’t.
It feels as if I’m not old enough to write my memoirs. Yet I always felt a digital year was like a dog’s year. So I’ve had a long digital life.
The story starts 25 years ago, when I built my first web page and set up the first web agency in my home town of Dijon (France). Except, no one was interested in the Internet (in the old days we capitalised it). Local companies, wine producers (Dijon is the capital of Burgundy), government institutions. All of them told me this Internet-thing would go nowhere. So, I moved to the UK.
I came to join the dotcom boom, but that didn’t last long. Instead, I joined a charity.
British Heart Foundation
Our story really gets going two decades ago. January 2001. In the basement of an old mansion near Bond Street station, where a storage room, between IT and Finance, was turned into an office for a brand-new role at British Heart Foundation: online manager (a condition for accepting the role was to avoid ‘new media’).
I was BHF’s whole digital team. Today there are more than 60.
It’s strange to think back to those days, when internal memos in orange envelopes circulated through the building because back then, few people had the internet and emails. Here is just a small selection of interesting moments.
The medical team was not keen to provide content for the first website because it would impact negatively on the number of calls to the helpline. (Solving that was an easy one. The new buzzword at the time was KPIs. So we added website stats to their KPIs.)
The fundraising team was sceptical about the willingness of fundraisers to set up fundraising pages. We built a bespoke system, and raised £90,000 in six months. We were also the first charity to set up an online direct debit form. That took a few memos in orange envelopes.
The team grew slowly. Eventually I had enough staff that it was worth organising team meetings. One day, we discussed a new video sharing website. Could we get on there and be early adopters? We decided it was pointless because apart from a few DRTV ads, we had no video content.
The website didn’t make much of an impact. It was called YouTube.
When we launched our first website, we went around the other departments to boast about the fact it had more pages than War & Peace. Eventually someone (I think, in the Education Dept) asked if that number of pages was actually a good thing. We agreed it actually wasn’t and we worked on improving the user experience.
We launched a banner campaign (not managed by my team I must say) when the agency forgot to make the banners clickable. “It doesn’t matter,” we were told. “It’s for brand awareness”.
We built the charity sector’s first mobile game (for Nokia). It was called Fatris and was adapted from Tetris with blocks of fat blocking arteries. It got thousands of downloads.
One day I got a call on a Friday 4pm to make sure that the new online shop built by a third-party agency would be “integrated on the front page on Monday”. “What do you mean by new online shop?!” I replied.
We launched our first email newsletter… that people got by subscribing… for FREE!!! (I don’t think we were allowed triple exclamation marks.)
We launched our first Search Engine Optimisation strategy (in reality a list of optimisation tasks) based on the first published Google algorithm (Florida update).
Sadly, I also had the job of featuring the late, great DJ, John Peel, a hero of mine, on the homepage, after he died of a heart attack.
I had five mostly brilliant years at the BHF, working with talented people. We still see each other and have done okay, although only one of us got to become BHF’s new CEO. After that, I moved to Breast Cancer Care (now part of Breast Cancer Now).
Breast Cancer Care
It was 2006, Online was changing to Digital and the internet had lost its capitalisation. Breast Cancer Care had great ambitions about digital.
We launched a series of online services integrated with the website (forums/community, live chat, email service). We got some video testimonials produced by beneficiaries. We were on Flickr and MySpace. We briefly explored (and ignored) SecondLife. Obviously we created Facebook Groups (so many groups) and we got involved in Twitter.
The trouble with Twitter was the character limits, which prevented us from having @BreastCancerCare as our handle. But our brand guidelines strictly forbade us from shortening Breast Cancer Care to BCC.
I had to use the “my Director says” card to get @BCCare as our handle, rather than @BreastCancerCa.
It was exciting to get 600 followers after a week. And we put a plan in place to get over 50% of staff from different teams, regions and nations, tweeting for work. It involved an internal leaderboard with a weekly email and an award consisting of a toy bird named Twevor.
Another early content design success was increasing the number of clicks of the donate button by adding “Please” in front of “Donate” (disclaimer: the baseline was very low and still very few people click on these buttons).
I spent another six years at Breast Cancer Care. But after working in-house for 11 years, I decided to work as a freelance consultant, which is what I’ve been doing for the past 9 years.
One of the reasons behind my decision was that I wanted more influence.
I realised quickly in my career that whilst my colleagues listened, with interest, to my suggestions about digital tactics, few were agreed and implemented until someone external had made exactly the same recommendations. External consultants seemed to have more impact. So I decided to become one.
I can confirm that external consultants still have more influence; that hasn’t changed.
Let’s take a look at what has.
How digital has evolved in the past 20 years
Digital teams have moved out of the basement
Not just figuratively. There’s still no standard place in the organogram but teams have moved out of IT and are now in Comms, Marketing, or Fundraising. Increasingly, digital teams sit in Digital. For the last eight years, I’ve been tracking this for the CharityComms Digital Benchmark. And the teams are getting bigger, with an increase of specialists.
Everyone is an expert
It started with social media. I remember a meeting where my team was told not to bother with Facebook because Fundraising Anna (name changed) was always on Facebook, making her the expert. I thought, but refrained from saying, that probably because I ran every day I could manage the Great North Run.
Digital expertise is starting to be recognised
But it took a global pandemic for this to truly happen. For years we tried with a succession of buzzwords: digital first, digital by default and digital transformation.
Not including trying to get French wine makers online in 1997, or fundraising departments to test peer-to-peer fundraising in 2003, I think I must have worked on more than 60 “transformation projects”. To be perfectly honest, I don’t feel I’ve really transformed an organisation.
It’s refreshing to see organisations bringing in trustees with a digital background or expertise. But this has led to some interesting discussions and disbelief about technology and its limited investment.
Some organisations have equipped staff with lots of digitals skills that they sometimes use. If you ask me ;-) that’s not always brilliant idea, it depends on the skills but content production... Would you train staff to operate your helpline?
Technology has evolved
Most charities have moved to open-source CMS/web platform. Often technical changes are handled in-house with less reliance on agencies. The three-yearly cycle of “website relaunch” has stopped and it’s usually a refresh. Other specialist tools have been in place for a number of years now (email also called Marketing Automation, social media…). There’s a lot more to do (I’ll come back to that in ‘what has not changed’).
Analytics has become insight
Back in 2006, I joined the founders of the Institute of Fundraising Insight Special Interest Group as a digital ‘expert’ (not just because it would fill two lines of my LinkedIn profile). We started looking at web analytics, conversion, email attrition rate etc. It’s probably the area that has evolved the most, especially in organisation where digital analytics has moved under the insight team.
Ethics has gone a bit backwards
I am, obviously, being a bit provocative on purpose. But it’s surprising how happy charities are to engage with social media.
It is shocking to see not-for-profit organisations using donations to pay for ads and staff time to populate commercial social media platforms that pay little tax and that have been associated with highly unethical practice. That could be a long article in itself.
I worked for organisations which initially refused to take part in a charity lottery because gambling was addictive, and against their core values. And others where staff vetoed the charity of the year fundraising of a company linked to the arms industry. Can we agree the sector has come a long way (to the dark side) and compromised its values to acquire new donors? Don’t get me wrong; it’s not just charities; it’s governments too.
How digital has not changed in the past 20 years but must / should / could / won’t
(you’ll get the joke if you’ve worked on a few website redesigns)
Digital teams have moved out of the basement… and everyone is an expert
Well-staffed digital teams still operate as a copyshop (see my disclaimer about working with organisations that need help). By that I mean, digital is seen as a service. The expertise of digital departments is often ignored and I still hear about decisions being made by senior managers, who pull rank.
That continues to puzzle me. No one outside a PR team would write and send their own press release to the media. No one outside a Corporate team would come back with a signed company partnership contract. Many people work from home at the moment but imagine ordering your own stationery… bypassing Facilities?! There’s still some work to empower digital teams to plan and execute digital campaigns.
Digital campaigns are exceptional
As in rare. We still adapt offline campaigns and use digital channels to promote it. Two years ago, I helped an organisation with their strategy to make sure it was digital enough (I don’t believe in stand-alone digital strategies. That’s another story). We looked at adapting their services: when digital can be used to promote and to support. We discussed new digital services but their audience “wasn’t ready”. I was pleased when they emailed me last year to say they had adapted their services to digital, in a month, because they had no choice. And are now thinking of new online services because they realised it works with their audience.
We need more purely digital campaigns made for an online audience That’s mostly everybody nowadays.
Personalised user journeys are exceptional too
Digital transformation includes digital principles and experience maps. That’s the plan. But in practice, I rarely see good website journeys where the user is truly considered.
I have too many examples but let’s talk about donation journeys. I still see websites that send me to the donation form when I click donate (or “please donate”). Imagine sending a direct mail with just the donation slip, no letter, just a form. The same principle should apply online. We’re talking about a gift, not a home insurance. And the thank you journeys… So much to improve there. An automated personalised thank-you email from your CEO sent to the donor seconds after the payment is made is unlikely to be received as proper thank you. An automated receipt followed the next day by a thank you email would.
I wish donors were treated like social investors with regular (automated) engaging journeys, updating supporters about what their donation helped with, progress being made, success stories… Not a monthly newsletter but a truly personalised journey/parkours encouraging a beneficiary to donate or campaign or volunteer. When was the last time you made a live donation on your website?
Digital is not enabling collaboration
The journeys mentioned above won’t work if teams don’t collaborate (I’m not talking about sharing plans at the start of the financial year). Another anecdote. I was recently invited to talk about the most innovative project I had worked on in the past year. They were expecting a blockchain pilot or Artificial Intelligence Chat Bot. But my truly most innovative project was to get the Digital, Fundraising, and Advocacy teams of an international NGO working together. Obviously, it wasn’t innovative enough for a conference - they did like my “Ménage à Trois” title though. Unfortunately, buying a CRM doesn’t come with a pre-built CRM mentality and cross-organisation user-centred culture.
Culture and processes remain problematic
In truth, there’s been a lot of evolution in digital culture thanks to Digital Maturity Audits and Frameworks. I do a lot of these digital maturity assessments. By a lot I mean 95 projects where I interviewed an average of 12 staff, plus 50+ staff surveys, over 21,000 answers… I have yet to see an organisation where everyone is clear on who has the final say, and who is accountable for digital. If the question was about the annual accounts, I’m confident the answer would be known. I also realise how few people outside digital are aware of the average traffic and income raised online. And I have yet to come across a documented digital production workflow that is used consistently. Another thing technology can’t give you.
In short, we still need to put just as much effort into engaging internal stakeholders as we do for external audiences.
The passion for the cause hasn’t changed
One thing which never changes with charities is the passion for the cause. I see it in every member of staff I work with. I just don’t see that passion reflected in digital channels.
Let’s hope it’s not going to take another 20 years to fix that.
I’ll have retired by then.