‘We can’t define digital’: Highlights from the Charity Technology Conference 2017

14 Nov 2017 Voices

Last week Civil Society Media hosted its annual Charity Technology Conference. There were sessions on improving digital leadership, cybercrime, blockchain and everything in between. 
Here are some of the highlights.

‘What does digital mean?’

During the opening plenary Steve Armstrong, head of digital at Marie Curie said that “We can’t define what digital is because it will be out of date”.
He added that his charity now thinks of digital in terms of enabling change and as “as a way of building value for our supporters, patients and employees”.
During the same session Jane Collins, chief executive of Marie Curie set out her top tips for managing a change programme.

  • Don't call it transformation
  • Don't enforce change
  • Resist temptation to do too much
  • Work incrementally
  • Keep any change close to the heart and soul of the organisation

Read more from their session here.

At another session one delegate said that quite often when we talk about “digital transformation” what we actually mean is “modernisation”.  

How to build an app

Nicola Harwood, from homelessness charity Depaul UK, explained how her charity had worked with KCOM, to develop an app to improve delivery of its Nightstop service to find accommodation for newly-homeless young people.

She talked about the process of developing the app and how it changed from their initial proposals to something more simplistic, with the intention of adding further functions later on.

The app aims to help potential hosts log when they are available to take someone in, so the charity can only contact those who are available when they hear of a young person in need of accommodation.

Trying out virtual reality

Letizia Perna-Forrest, head of patient and family support at Royal Trinity Hospice, talked about her charity’s work with Flix Films to develop virtual reality (VR) services for its beneficiaries.

She said the charity had invested in VR headsets and plays films, selected by Flix Films, for its palliative care patients, based on their particular interests.

The charity has also produced its own VR film of the charity’s offices for marketing purposes to show to potential clients.

Speaking from the audience, a delegate from Sue Ryder said her charity was also considering investing in VR for its beneficiaries.

‘The golden age of the charity IT department is over’

The “golden age” of the charity IT department is over and technology professionals should adapt and work more collaboratively with other departments if they are to remain relevant, the Charity Technology Conference heard last week.  -

Read more about this session here.

‘Stop using so many pdfs’

Jo Wolfe, digital strategy expert at Breast Cancer Care, gave an update on her Third Sector Digital Maturity Index.

According to the index, used by 800 charities, the average digital capabilities of organisations in the sector is 50 per cent, with the target for this to increase to 88 per cent in the next few years.

She also called for charities to improve presentation of their annual reports by making them more searchable online. “There should be no PDFs on charity websites in two years’ time,” she said.

Top tips to avoid fraud 

In a session on cybercrime and fraud John Unsworth, chief executive, London Digital Security Centre (LDSC) offered delegates some top tips:

  • Criminals follow patterns of entrepreneurs
  • One in ten people suffer online crime each year - just because there has been an attack doesn’t mean there has been an impact
  • We have skipped the evolution of online – a lot of us just embrace it and have gone with the flow
  • We’ve not reached the level of saying it is the simple things that matter
  • Criminals have stepped up the game far quicker than we have as individuals
  • You are either the greatest vulnerability or the strongest defence
  • You’ve got to be careful about what you do online, we generally trust – what we say online is not to
  • Encourage people to use password managers
  • Don’t use the same ones and don’t reuse them
  • Use breach ware
  • Don’t assume an email, text or call is authentic: just because someone knows your basic details, doesn’t mean they are genuine
  • Establish which of your devices are connected to the internet, and ensure they are kept up to date with the latest security patches
  • Know where your data i8s shared and back it up regularly
  • Train your staff in online safety
  • Enable SPF and DMARC


'Not all charities should be digital by default'

Not all charities should be rushing to adopt a digital-by-default approach, the chief executive of Asthma UK told the Charity Technology Conference. Kay Boycott said she felt there is a “little bit too much talk of digital by default” when actually charities should be focusing on what is best for their beneficiaries.  

See more on the story here

Can technology boost trust?

Paul Vanags, Oxfam’s head of public fundraising, said he thought technology could only go so far to improve the public’s understanding of overheads. 

He  was answering a question from a delegate on how technology can help charities tainted by scandal. Chair of the panel Tris Lumley, director of innovation and development at New Philanthropy Capital, widened the question to refer to the broader “overhead myth”. This is the idea that low overheads equals high efficiency, which has been strongly disputed by much of the sector.

Vanags said that technology, including the advent of blockchain, can help trust, but only to a certain extent.

He said: “On the overhead thing I personally don’t see that technology can help a tremendous amount in the overhead myth at all, because you are trying to change an emotional view that is probably bound up with somebody’s values and all kinds of their personal experiences by giving them a very straight rational argument. And if we have learnt anything over the last two years it is that that simply does not work.”

Vanags said that one way technology can help charities is because it can “help to demonstrate that charities do what they say they are going to do”.

He said that people trust charities and other brands for a number of reasons, one of them being having some form of prior knowledge of them, even if it is just knowing the name.

He said: “When you talk about blockchain and transparency, and the idea that you can tell a donor down to the single penny what their money has been spent on, I think that is only a partial answer to the trust question, but it also ignores the much bigger questions about why people trust charities and brands”. 

Rosie Slater Carr, chief information officer, British Red Cross, was also speaking on the panel about trust, and said that in the aftermath of the Grenfell fires, her charity had used a drone to fly over donations to explain why the charity had to move. 

She said there was suspicion of the charity’s motives. “It’s not just us, it’s us as part of the PC system,” she said, but there was concern that “we might be stealing donations”. 

“It was really important to see what we could do that would suggest otherwise,” she said, and by filming the scale of it was able to show why they needed to move the donations. 

“That is where technology can bring something,” she said, and “be much more powerful than words.”

Blockchain is here

Rhodri Davies, programme leader of Giving Thought, a think tank at the Charities Aid Foundation (CAF), ran a session on what blockchain technology could mean for charities. 

He stressed that this technology was already being used and that charities needed to start getting their heads around it. 

On a simple level blockchain is a system of contracts that are held on a distributed public ledger, rather than by a third party. This makes them more secure and theoretically could be used to fundamentally alter how organisations are run, and our relationships with them. 

Davies said that “at the very least organisations on a strategic level should be having conversations”. 

He said the pace of change is so fast that “we don’t have the luxury” of time. 

Recruitment model has completely changed

 Zoe Amar, digital consultant, said that the “recruitment model has completely changed” as a result of digital.
She said it was important for charities to “build up their employer brand online” so that there is a “strong pipeline of potential candidates” who are already enthusiastic about the charity when vacancies arise.
But Stephanie Wilson, partner and head of technology and transformation at Gatenby Sanderson, said that while technology is “playing a much bigger part” in recruitment, she does not see it will “replace the human layer” entirely”.

‘Being a digital trustee doesn’t mean being an expert’

At  a session on improving the digital skills on the trustee board, Megan Griffith Gray, head of planning, digital and communications, NCVO, said: “trustees make decisions around investment and budget and therefore having someone that understands the role that technology can play is critical.

“That is what being a digital trustee is - it’s understanding the potential, they don’t necessarily need to be experts.”

Jamie Ward-Smith, co-founder, Do-it.org & chair, Co-op Foundation, added that: “Part of the role of a good trustee is future proofing the organisation.” 

He said that even if digital isn’t relevant at the moment “it will be in the future”.

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