Charities not investing enough in technology to inspire digital innovation

By Patrick Nash

A new survey has found that many charities are not investing enough in technology to keep up with digital innovations. This week, I explain how they, and other third sector organisations, can increase their reach online, while cutting costs.  

Digital communication is growing rapidly and multimedia channels have a large part to play in the future of promotion, advertising and fundraising. Yet, new research from online youth charity YouthNet has found that charitable organisations are not doing enough to maximise the opportunity.

Two thirds of charity owners (66%) say that all aspects of digital communications – from awareness raising to fundraising – is ‘essential’ to their charities, and that they couldn’t ‘function without it.’ Yet only one in five (21%) believed that they were ‘fully engaged with it as an organisation, from board members to junior staff.’

YouthNet says the sector should invest more in research and design in order to keep pace. Emma Thomas, chief executive of YouthNet, said “Because budgets are increasingly tight, charities often aren’t allowed the space to experiment and take risks, and this can prevent us from keeping pace with advances in digital technology and hinder innovation.

“We believe that greater collaboration between the not-for-profit and commercial world is vital to ensure that a constant cycle of research and design develops technical innovations that generate further social value.”

So is it just budgets that are restricting charities from investing in digital? I think it might run a bit deeper than that.

Expansion into digital media for charities constrained by tight budgets and user demands is a difficult development to prioritise. We often hear charities say they recognise it as a step they need to take, but simply don’t have the time or resources.

There is also an issue at boardroom and director level, as with so much choice available, boards can often find it difficult to decide which form of digital engagement will be most effective for their charity.

However, there is a growing body of evidence that demonstrates what charities can achieve by taking a proactive approach to digital communication.  In recent years, there have been a number of highly successful campaigns by charities that have dared to take the plunge into digital media.

It Gets Better campaign

A grassroots response to the suicide of a teenager in the US after being bullied for being gay, the It Gets Better campaign started life as a simple, viral message, reassuring young people that things can – and do – get better. A YouTube video posted by columnist Dan Savage grew into an international movement backed by Barak Obama, Hilary Clinton, Anne Hathaway and Colin Farrell.


Like Cadburys, who famously ‘own’ the distinctive shade of purple that adorns their products, donors can too be the proud owner of their own colour.  Teaming up with paint brand Dulux, Unicef is offering everyone the chance to buy one of the 16.7 million colours that make up the spectrum. For £1 donation, users can pick a shade, choose a name, explain why they have picked it, and give it a description.

Each of these campaigns were cost-effective, yet hugely influential, as their messages had been spread across social media, even generating support from the President of the United States.

Now, it must be said that not every campaign will get support from the White House or Parliament, but with that touch of creativity and verve, campaigns can go viral and attract the attention of thousands.

All it costs is time. With the right training and support, that could be time well spent.

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