Ellie Hale: The big digital priority for charities in 2019 should be services

23 Jan 2019 Voices

Last year was an amazing year for charity digital. But for many organisations there’s still a way to go, writes Ellie Hale.

People taking part in a workshop for the ten digital design principles

Charity digital is no longer a ‘nice to have’ or niche idea. Over the last year, we’ve seen reports from the likes of Skills Platform, TechTrust, the Weston Charity Awards and Lloyds Banking Group, showing growing recognition and understanding across the sector of the importance of digital.

 

Sector-wide initiatives including the launch of the Charity Digital Code of practice, SCVO’s three-year reflection on Creating a Digitally Confident Scotland and the government’s Civil Society Strategy have all placed a strong emphasis on building the sector’s digital capacity. And a growing number of grant funders are now actively supporting digital, with ever-growing pots of funding.

 

What’s more, there’s been a clear shift in how the sector talks and thinks about digital. As Matt Haworth of Reason Digital told the Charity Digital Conference last November, "we’re now in the age of digital service delivery".

 

Delivering core mission

 

Charities are now embracing digital design practices not just for awareness campaigns and donor engagement but to deliver their core mission with greater focus, impact and reach than ever before. They’re providing direct support digitally, responding to the shift in their communities’ behaviour and expectations (whatever their level of digital savviness, most people now first turn to Google for information and advice rather than a community noticeboard).

 

2018 brought accessible resources to help the sector manage this shift such as the BetterDigital.Services design principles, and the TechforGoodHub from Comic Relief and Paul Hamlyn Foundation, which is jam-packed with guidance and examples of how to run a successful ‘tech for good’ project. And several larger organisations have been documenting their progress by ‘working in the open’. Reflective blog series from Cancer Research UK, NCVO, NSPCC and Big Lottery Fund (among others) chart their challenges and successes in embedding digital into their organisational culture and mindset.

 

But the majority of the 160,000 charities in the UK are still at a much earlier stage. Although many use social media and sites like JustGiving to spread campaigns or engage donors, they’re largely missing an opportunity to use digital to better understand and respond to the changing needs and context of the communities they serve. They haven’t yet entered this new age.

 

Over half the 2018 Charity Digital Skills Report respondents said their digital service delivery - including user research skills, a vital component of this - was fair to low, while 51 per cent had low to very low understanding of digital product development.

 

At CAST, we’ve helped over 300 charities over the last three years develop their digital culture and create brilliant digital services.

 

Services like Breast Cancer Care’s BECCA app and The Well’s Warrior Down peer support chat, which are right now helping thousands of people cope with life after cancer and struggles with addiction respectively. What makes these services effective isn’t the particular tech they’ve used or the charity’s size or their level of digital expertise, but rather that they’ve been built through an iterative, test-driven process that responds to service users’ real needs and (digital) behaviours, and fuses this with the charity’s understanding of the social value being created.

 

It’s not the same as co-design or co-production. This is about taking what we know about how to make a positive difference and combining that with digital tools and techniques that help us cheaply test our assumptions and respond quickly to change.

 

Finding help

 

We know it can all seem a bit overwhelming. We get questions ranging from “What does ‘digital’ even mean? Is digital different to IT? Is it the same as ‘tech’?” to “Do I really need digital services? Who funds this stuff and can it be sustainable? What tech support do I need and who can provide that? How much will it cost?”

 

The good news is that 2019 will be a bumper year of training and events to help answer all of these. Look out for meetups, conferences and webinars with a theme of using digital to enhance service delivery.

 

For starters, we’re running a series of free, half day Design Hop workshops that introduce charities to digital service delivery in an accessible, practical way. They’re in partnership with local voluntary groups and community networks around the country, from Newcastle to Brighton. The four-hour session helps you unpack and prioritise your ideas and identify the next steps you need to take to make them a reality, as well as signposting the funders and tech partners who can support your ambitions. You can find out more on our website and sign up directly at http://bit.ly/CASTDesignHops.

 

Charities urgently need to prioritise their services this year when considering digital, as everything else should stem from that. There’s a strong appetite for this in the sector already. Hopefully by this time next year we’ll be looking back and saying 2019 was the year charities en mass started building great digital services.

 

 

Civil Society Media's next Charity Technology Breafast Briefing is on the subject of digital transformaiton. For more information, and to book, click here.

 

 

 

 

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