Mark Dewell: Digital transformation for charities

28 Feb 2019 Expert insight

Mark Dewell reimagines a more successful and prosperous future for charities.

The past few years have been tough for charity fundraising with increased regulation, cuts to traditional funding streams and more competition, combined with higher expectations from donors. This stream of day-to-day operational challenges also means that many not-for-profits (NFP) fail to take the time to assess their long-term strategy. A recent survey by the Weston Charity Awards found most spent only a few days a year on the task, with 13 per cent spending no time at all. Consequently, three out of five small and medium-sized charities acknowledged they do not have the skills required to prosper in the next five years.

So what action can charities take to not only survive in these difficult times, but thrive? Technology has undoubtedly driven demand from donors to be able to engage with charities online, from any device and at any time. Can it also be the route to deliver success for charities who manage to reimagine the way they respond to these threats?

Digital transformation certainly has the potential to transform the way the charity sector works, enabling it to do more with less. It can turn the disruptive challenges of new legislation, such as the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), into an opportunity to engage with donors more closely, and provide fundraisers with a connected view of real-time information. While this requires charities to be open to rethinking the way they operate, the benefits are clear – improved productivity, a recharging of intelligence across the organisation and a charity ready to be reshaped for future change with an ecosystem of innovation and integrated technology.

Rethink processes to drive productivity

Charities often have complex workforces. As well as their own employees, many have hundreds, if not thousands, of disparate volunteers working remotely. With this in mind, data fragmentation can be a real threat. Charities have the opportunity to reassess possible disjointed processes across the fundraising journey and unlock silos of information that act as blocks to the way they work. The benefits are compliance and productivity gains.

Having a fragmented system with possibly unprotected and mismanaged data that is not being stored in line with latest GDPR guidelines is a risk no charity can take. Investments in the latest digital technologies, such as mobile and cloud, will not only overcome such data hurdles but create a culture of inclusion, where people work together – making informed decisions from the one source of fundraising data for example – to ensure effective and legal engagement with donors. It also helps to encourage fresh and innovative ways of thinking, allowing fundraisers to succeed in a more agile environment.

One of the big benefits of cloud services is that systems can be accessed anywhere. Secure access can be gained by volunteers whether they are working within a small branch, from home or after fundraising on the street. Graham Kelly, director of fundraising at Beating Bowel Cancer, says: “Web integration and online services are crucial to us. We simply could not manage community fundraising without remote access for our fundraising staff. As the charity grows, we can continue to recruit more staff on the ground and be confident that they have the necessary support and infrastructure at their fingertips to ensure they can do their job effectively.”

Recharge your donor intelligence

An impact of GDPR means charities can no longer rely on acquisition through direct marketing, and so must move to new forms of donor engagement to identify and target new income channels. For many, this is about focusing efforts.

Carrying out regular audits to ensure data is GDPR compliant should provide insights to charities about where donations are coming from, so they can concentrate acquisition plans on those specific areas. In the UK it’s estimated that a quarter of charitable donations are made online, with 21 per cent on mobile devices. It’s therefore vital that charities understand this, seamlessly connecting such information so it can be used to maximum effect in personalised communications.

Adoption of digital technology allows charities to engage supporters in new ways. For example, in 2017 RSPB decided on a fully consent-based opt-in campaign that was available online. Hilary Mackenzie, manager of the supporter data management unit at RSPB, comments: “The campaign resonated very well with supporters who responded really positively to our decision to give them control of their data.”

It’s all about rethinking your organisational intelligence. In the words of Chris Webb, supporter relationship manager at the Woodland Trust: “The deficiencies of our legacy system required a number of convoluted workarounds. In addition, our data was fragmented across a plethora of satellite systems and silos. In this situation, there is always a danger of under or over-communicating with members and supporters. We were certainly not able to make an informed ask based on supporter’s interests, giving history and giving preferences. Without a unified set of data and a single supporter view to pore over, you can’t begin to explore the opportunities for targeting.”

Charities can use insight from predictive analytics to recharge the organisation by creating a culture of enhanced intelligence. With this knowledge at their fingertips, they can focus on making decisions that are grounded in facts, and it helps to pre-empt problems and spot opportunities.

A joined-up, 360-degree view of data not only helps charities to better engage with its supporters, it also provides a number of additional benefits. For example, it assists them in identifying potential cross and upsell opportunities, to create a deeper causal awareness, and driving opportunities to engage the supporter in new areas, like signing them up to volunteering. This can build a more informed and involved relationship, as well as more revenue in both the long and short term. Ultimately, such insights also help to reach new audiences: if you understand existing donors better, what triggers them to act, you can in turn identify associated audiences that you are not already talking to, or perhaps weren’t even aware of.

Reshape into a framework of acquisition

Of course, digital transformation goes beyond front-end fundraising. A digitally powered charity creates a framework for acquisition – including all the back-office functions – so make sure you’re ready to have a charity that is joined up in everything it does. After all, you can’t deliver as well on the front line unless you have the back office synched. However, according to research conducted by Charity Finance, 63 per cent of charities believe their core functions, such as finance, human resources, IT, safeguarding and legal support, are under-resourced. Smaller charities were hit even harder, with 81 per cent of those with income below £500,000 saying their core functions were under-funded.

This can have a profoundly negative impact on an organisation. Without effective systems in place, problems can be missed and quickly escalate. Outdated IT equipment means work is done more slowly while in addition, under-resourcing of IT functions can affect the functionality required to comply with regulations. The impact of this is that a charity’s valuable supporters may have to be deleted from databases to err on the side of caution.

Many charities have complex procurement needs, particularly when dealing with a crisis and purchasing large amounts of emergency supplies. By integrating and automating procurement processes, organisations can drive efficiencies through increased visibility of the entire system, leading to the procurement of items at the very best prices.

In a similar vein, streamlining solutions can remove administrative burdens for HR staff within charities, ensuring processes comply with legislative changes whilst enabling key payroll documentation to be completed online.

Embracing new digital trends such as robotic process automation (RPA) and artificial intelligence, including services like chatbots, can encourage a charity to work smarter. By reducing lengthy administrative processes, and providing analytics to support decision-making and future planning, this helps charities reshape more easily – delivering a more agile organisation that is in better shape to introduce innovations, retain and attract donors.

Eradicating tedious processes can also ignite the loyalty of staff – RPA enables charities to automate certain types of work processes that tend to be the most mundane. Minimising multiple data entry, and in some cases automating this fully, speeds up processes. It also reduces the likelihood of human error and allows staff to spend more time doing what they are usually most passionate about – raising awareness of the charity’s fundamental causes and building a loyal following of engaged donors. Allowing staff and volunteers to instead concentrate on such value-enhancing activities enables them to reimagine the potential of their charity – and the culture within it – in a fresh and bold new way, to create an ecosystem of innovation for future success.

Don’t just survive, innovate and thrive

In this age of disruption and uncertainty, charities are under more pressure than ever before. It is therefore vital that they have the space to think differently and look afresh at their systems and working practices. However, while most UK charities understand the role that data and digital plays in the future fundraising landscape, most still need to rethink their current digital strategy. Because it is those charities that embrace digital transformation as an enabler of change – boosting productivity, opening up new channels for engagement, improving agility and increasing fundraising – that will prosper and thrive.

Mark Dewell is managing director, public, private and third sector at Advanced

Charity Finance wishes to thank Advanced for its support with this article

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