Going Digital: Transforming The Third Sector


As wave after wave of new digital technologies crash down on society, changing the behaviours and expectations of consumers and creating new opportunities to engage audiences, many charities are struggling to keep up. A lack of resources, legacy IT systems, densely layered organisational structures and internal cultures that are traditionally resistant to change are some of the barriers which prevent organisations in the third sector from exploiting the possibilities which digital creates.

However, there are always exceptions that prove the rule. By starting small, measuring the impact of their experiments, and transforming the culture by starting with leadership, some trailblazing organisations have found that they can further their reach, raise more funds and increase supporter engagement through continuously improving digital strategies. And it’s these organisations that are pointing the way forward for the rest of the sector.

The Real Costs Of Poor Digital Strategies

A recent report by The Guardian revealed that the issue of digital is firmly on the agenda for most charities. Even though 50% of those surveyed reported not having a digital strategy in place, 80% wanted a clear vision from leadership on digital, which shows that those working in the sector are calling out for change.

However, just like the big corporates that want to increase their digital capabilities, charities often struggle to attract digital talent away from start-ups, as their own digital strategies (and ambitions) can be quite basic for the digital native. By failing to come up with a compelling digital vision, charities may find themselves stuck in a cycle where it’s difficult to attract and retain the best people.

This issue isn’t just an internal one, however; consumer spending behaviour has also changed drastically over the last ten years. The introduction of online shopping, contactless payments and next-day deliveries means consumers now expect instant access to information and a variety of payment options.

A great example of a charity embracing consumer technology is Cancer Research UK. In February of this year, it introduced the first ‘Smart Bench’, a bench that allows people to donate £2 to the charity via their contactless debit or credit card while enjoying a sit-down. With this approach, the charity is using contactless payments to make it as easy as possible for its supporters to donate, and distinguishing itself from competitors that don’t attempt to offer new solutions.

But Where To Start?

Digital transformation has been described as change management on steroids. A big bang approach can be taken, where an external organisation is parachuted in to embed its way of working with a team. It can work – particularly if the organisation is in a rapid growth phase and is hiring new team members. However, the risk is higher and for most, particularly where the organisation is well-established, an iterative, sustainable growth model is more likely to succeed. While big bang changes can work for some organisations, those who view the transformation as a continuous journey tend to reap the greatest rewards.

Either way, the first step is to consider how to make the transformation measurable. Like with any change, it is important to benchmark the starting point, so that any improvements can be measured accurately. The Third Sector Digital Maturity Matrix is just one of many tools that have been developed to help measure the change. The tool was developed by Breast Cancer Care to help with its own digital transformation. The organisation scored 31% at the start of its transformation and after two years reached 55%, which validated the change and helped the charity to evaluate its progress and plan for the next stage in the process.

Of course, for digital transformation to truly work, it needs to be embedded into the organisation, and everyone needs to buy into the journey. For many organisations, this will require learning from all levels of their workforce to make sure everyone is at a basic digital level. It is also important to consider the pace of the transformation; going too quickly can risk alienating people from the process, but going too slowly will cause people to lose interest.

Lead By Example

Unicef, the world’s leading organisation for children, took the decision over a year ago to update its digital presence, as it wanted to raise awareness and maximise its fundraising abilities. To this end, the charity developed a user-centred content strategy based on extensive primary research for its new website, weaving its core story through every item of content, and ensuring that it is tailored to a specific audience and drives supporters into taking positive action.

Unicef’s digital team had already taken the decision to move to a ‘hub and spoke’ model of introducing digital into the organisation beforehand. This meant that when the redesign project started, a more digitally savvy organisation was ready to maximise the benefit felt by the project.

A month after the new site launched in December last year, Unicef saw a massive increase in online donations compared to the previous year – setting a new record for the charity for the biggest number of online donations ever – and providing proof that going digital does indeed pay off.

Stories like these are inspiring, but even if a more big bang-style approach is taken, it’s important to remember there is no quick fix. Digital transformation is by no means an overnight job, or one with a clear end point; it is an ongoing journey that will equip an organisation with the skills and capabilities necessary to compete in the new digital landscape and offer ever-greater value to supporters, service-users and stakeholders. The ultimate goal should be to reach the point where no separate digital strategy is needed, where instead the focus is on how digital can enable the organisational strategy.