Rhodri Davies: When it comes to technology, do charity CEOs think the glass is half full?

01 May 2019 Voices

Rhodri Davies from the Charities Aid Foundation looks at what some recent survey results tell us about sector leaders' attitude to technology.

Every year for CAF’s Charity Landscape report, we ask CEOs of UK charities a range of questions to gauge their mood about their own organisation and about the sector more broadly. When it comes to technology, this year’s results paint a fascinating picture: of a sector that, whilst increasingly recognising the importance of technology, is not sure whether to be optimistic about the potential for innovation or pessimistic about charities’ ability to adapt.

The most obvious immediate impact of technology for many charities is in their communications (through the rise of new forms of social media) and their fundraising (through new online tools and methods of donation). Looking specifically at these two areas, the survey results give cause for both optimism and pessimism. 

Whilst many organisations were clearly sold on the value of social media – with 62 per cent saying that they were currently in the process of increasing their social media presence, campaigning or activity and 22 per cent saying that they had already done so in the last 12 months – not all agreed that they currently use new technology or social media effectively. Interestingly, this concern was more pronounced among the biggest charities (those with an income of £15m or above), where only 50 per cent agreed they use new technology or social media effectively. This compares to 71 per cent of those with an income between £5m and £15m and 59 per cent of those with an income under £1m.

Giving gap

In terms of online giving, there appears to be something of a gap between theory and reality. On balance, the charity leaders surveyed were more optimistic than pessimistic about the ability of the sector as a whole to use technology to drive giving, with 29 per cent agreeing that charities are using new technology effectively in this way, compared to 23 per cent disagreeing. 

However, a third disagreed that they were increasingly adopting online giving in their own organisations, compared to a quarter that agreed. And 39 per cent disagreed that they understood how to do online fundraising effectively, with only 15 per cent claiming that they did.

Investment hurdle

One of the key barriers often identified in terms of charities’ ability to harness technology is investment – whether that is investment in the technologies themselves or the skills to use them – and our survey brought to light some interesting findings. 42 per cent of CEOs said that their organisation was currently investing in new IT or technology, while 25 per cent said that they had done so in the last 12 months. 

However, there was a significant difference between large and small organisations, with 85 per cent of the largest charities (those with incomes of £15m+) saying that they were investing now or had done so in the last 12 months, and 55 per cent of the smallest charities (those with incomes under £1m) saying the same. Perhaps most worryingly, 31 per cent of organisations said that they didn’t have the time or money to look at new opportunities.

Given the pace of change of technology, it is important that we don’t just look back or focus on the immediate here and now. That is why this year, for the first time, we asked some questions designed to gauge charity leaders’ views on how technology might affect the sector in the future.

And they certainly do see it as an important factor: the vast majority of respondents thought that technological change was relevant to them, with 89 per cent disagreeing with the statement that “technological change is irrelevant to my organisation” (many disagreeing strongly, at 73 per cent); whilst only 8 per cent agreed. Perhaps unsurprisingly the likelihood of thinking  that technological change will be irrelevant was inversely related to organisation size, with 56 per cent of those agreeing with this statement coming from charities with income of less than £1m and none coming from organisations with income of £15m+.

Broad impact 

In terms of what technological change will actually mean, it is clear that charity leaders think the impact is likely to be broad. There will be opportunities: 87 per cent of CEOs agreed that technology will allow charities to open up new and innovative ways of doing social and environmental good. 

There will be challenges for organisations: 87 per cent of leaders said that technology would change the nature of the workplace for charities, while 78 per cent agreed that it will change the legal, regulatory & financial environment for charities. And there will be challenges for the people and communities that charities serve: 73 per cent of CEOs agreed that technology will change the nature of the problems charities have to address or create entirely new problems.

It is clear that charities believe technological change will play a major role in shaping their future. Yet 41 per cent of charity leaders said that their organisation does not have a strategy in place for dealing with technological change. This is perhaps not that surprising when we have seen that many organisations struggle with the immediate short term challenge of ensuring they have the skills and resources to use existing technology effectively, let alone getting to grips with the longer term challenges of understanding and adapting to emerging tech trends. 

Reason to be optimistic

Maybe we should be optimistic. After all, charity CEOs certainly seem to be: with more than half (54 per cent) optimistic about the future of the sector as a whole and 75 per cent optimistic about the future of their own organisations. 

Our findings suggest that if such optimism is to be warranted, there is far more work to be done to give charities the knowledge and tools they need to use technology effectively.

But if we do, then civil society could play a vital role in shaping technological development so that it benefits society as a whole. So let’s get cracking.

The full Charity Landscape report is online here.

Rhodri Davies is head of policy at the Charities Aid Foundation

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