The top ten digital challenges facing the charity sector

Published on
April 7, 2020
in
Perspectives
David Ainsworth
Our analysis of the major digital problems that charities are facing, in the face of the COVID-19 lockdown.
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This article was based on research and insight from Nissa Ramsay of Think Social Tech, with further contributions from the insights team at Catalyst.

Over the last couple of weeks, charities have been forced into adopting digital practices faster than ever before. We’ve seen a huge amount of fantastic work across the sector as staff have got themselves and their teams set up for remote working, and begun to make sense of life in a new world.

Catalyst is working to understand the problems charities face. We’re talking with workers on the front line, and with those helping them, and we’re looking at all the data that’s coming in. We’ve had almost 20 different data sets, based on the needs of around 1,000 charities.

It’s felt as if charities are facing up to the new reality of their funding environment, and working out how to manage in the new reality. They’re lacking funding, struggling with reduced capacity, and the focus is still on contingency planning and firefighting. Some are beginning to emerge from that fog and focus on how they make best use of the resources they have in the new reality, but this is very dependent on each organisation’s individual situation.

Some needs from digital technology are beginning to emerge. This blog is an attempt to capture the shape of those problems. In future pieces, we’ll try to think hard about solutions.

We found charities expressed ten needs in particular, in three main groups.

Technology

The first big group of problems was around technology — either hardware or software. The three main things we heard were:

1. HELP! Something is broken!

We heard a lot from charities that it had taken quite a while to simply get the technology up and running to operate remotely. Often the problem was gathering data or understanding the picture. A surprising amount of charities are still paper-based. Suddenly, customer relationship management (CRM) systems became a lot more important. We’ve long observed that charities often begin their digital journey wanting to move forward with better services, and then find they have to go back and fix fundamental tools like CRM. The crisis seems to have thrown this into relief, and a lot of charities are trying to work out how to work around these challenges.

2. What’s the best platform to use to keep in touch?

Three in ten charities we spoke to were specifically interested in building expertise in video calling. In the slightly longer terms, we’re going to see people thinking about online platforms and forums. For many charities, even getting the organisation’s internal phone system effectively transferred to workers’ homes has been a challenge. Getting up to speed on tools like Slack and Zoom has been a first priority, although charities are now questioning whether these are right tools for external audiences.

3. How can I get better at…

Charities need to boost their online presence, either on their website, or social media, or they need to move from face-to-face or events-based fundraising to digital. Many charities have traditionally had very basic websites which are essentially static brochures, and are not designed as a main point of contact. Suddenly these sites, and Facebook and Twitter, have become key points of contact. Charities have seen a huge surge in traffic to their websites as demand for services — particularly advice — has risen sharply, and many are seeing a huge impact as a result.

Services

For charities which have managed to maintain access to information and build the infrastructure to communicate with one another and their users, the next question is how to actually continue to help beneficiaries.

4. How can we deliver our face-to-face services at a distance?

Charities have traditionally delivered huge amounts of advice and support face-to-face. Even offering training in digital skills has often been done in person. So we are struggling with this question ourselves. Do we simply replicate our face-to-face services exactly? What adaptations are necessary? What can be preserved, and what must be lost? (I’ve written before that something will be lost. We must acknowledge this. But with luck, something can be gained, as well. Digital service delivery comes with new opportunities to connect with people who need support.)

5. What new services are needed to deal with the situation?

It would be hard enough to be simply delivering existing services, all online, all of a sudden, in familiar circumstances. But charities are adapting to a changing need. There’s a huge need for data on what the new needs of the beneficiary group might be, and what services might best meet them. This, again, is a challenge we’re facing ourselves — what does the data tell us our beneficiaries now need? Is it the same as before? And to a certain extent, this blog is an attempt to answer it.

6. How do we reach and protect vulnerable beneficiaries?

Many charity beneficiaries are in vulnerable groups. If your beneficiaries are looked-after children, or the homeless, living in abusive relationships, or refugees, it may be extremely difficult to reach them digitally. If someone doesn’t have a computer or a phone, digital service delivery is going to be an almost insurmountable challenge. It’s clear that this is a significant problem that is keeping many charity leaders awake at night.

7. How do we effectively safeguard service users?

This was raised as a very significant challenge, with different elements to it. Charity workers were concerned about confidentiality over Zoom, but also about how to effectively monitor contact between staff and vulnerable service users. If, for example, best practice is that in normal times, staff should not be left alone when in contact with vulnerable individuals, how could that be implemented in digital service delivery?

Ways of working

The final big section was getting staff to adapt to the practices which are needed to work remotely. This is a big and often underappreciated area.

8. How can we give our staff confidence and training in digital tools?

If the first set of needs, mentioned above, was just about getting the right digital tools, the bigger problem is developing the ability of staff to use them. Remote working requires comfort and familiarity with the tools involved. Tools such as Slack and Zoom are relatively easy to use, although they come with many features which aren’t immediately obvious. But still, staff need to have confidence that they can use them, and use them well.

9. How do we enable staff to work effectively at a distance?

It’s not just familiarity with the technology itself. It’s more about the way staff communicate with one another. Will staff engage with one another when remote, to the same extent that they did in person, or are they likely to isolate themselves and not ask for help? Is everyone familiar with the etiquette needed to make remote meetings function?

This knowledge doesn’t necessarily emerge. It needs modelling. It’s not possible to precisely replicate the in-person working environment when moving remote. So what has to be maintained, and what can be lost, and how do the staff work together to make that happen?

10. How do we manage staff wellbeing?

The other element to working at a distance is that it can become harder to ensure that staff wellbeing is monitored. This is an issue at all times, but obviously becomes particularly problematic during lockdown, when staff face unfamiliar and stressful circumstances at work, and potentially a difficult environment at home — whether those either living alone during lockdown, or those living in a small house with several children.

And a bonus question… what next?

The last question facing charities is “What do we do next with digital?”

Many charities have faced up to a new reality in which services are likely to be delivered digitally for some time — and in which a return to normal may not be possible even after the crisis. We’ve often observed with charities that when they start on a journey to a digital-first approach, it opens a can of worms. There’s a sudden realisation that there’s not one problem, but several significant interconnected problems. For these charities, this can lead to difficulty in working out what to do. What do they prioritise? What problem do they try to solve? What does their roadmap look like?

We’re very interested in understanding what the picture looks like for your charity, and whether these needs fit in with what you’ve found. We’ll be working with digital agencies and other charities to try and find solutions to these, as fast as we can, and we’d also love to know what help you think would be most useful.

One final thought

This article is about the challenges that charities face, but let’s not forget all the things you’re already doing well. We’ve heard loads of stories of charity staff, in difficult conditions, working incredibly hard to protect and support vulnerable people. Charities are making huge strides with their digital development and doing all they can to keep people safe. To all of you who are doing your best, every day, to make our country a kinder and better place, we offer you our admiration.

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