Technological drivers

Challenges of digital transformation for charity operations

When the first covid-19 lockdown started, charities had to quickly reinvent frontline services for digital delivery. This has included a wide range of activities (including online antenatal classes, virtual support services including webchats for parental advice, and chatbots for people with arthritis affected by covid-19) and allowed charities to respond faster to new and existing demands and cover greater distances.

The pandemic has hastened a long-term trend towards multiple charity operations moving online. Digital technology is likely to play a bigger role in volunteer recruitment, activities and management. Volunteer recruitment via charity websites continues to be complemented with digital brokerages like Do-It. The Royal Voluntary Service-administered NHS GoodSAM app offers valuable learning for the sector. Online volunteering is becoming more common, from text message-based personal support to mutual aid group activities being run on WhatsApp and Facebook.

Fundraising events have transitioned online with activities ranging from virtual pub quizzes to growing models like gaming via Twitch and Tiltify. Mind has started Switch Off, Game On for online and offline gaming while Comic Relief held a livestreamed celebrity Dungeons and Dragons boardgame event. Due to reduced footfall, some charity shops have moved to online sales.

This transition has been challenging for many charities, with some charity services difficult to replicate online. According to the 2020 Charity Skills Report, over a quarter (27%) of respondents have cancelled services due to the charity or users not having the necessary skills and technology.

Remote working and the importance of digital skills

The shift to online service delivery and remote working has highlighted a long-running digital skills gaps within the charity workforce. The 2020 Charity Skills Report highlighted that two-thirds of respondents were delivering work remotely and 61% intend to offer more online services in the future. However, 83% rated themselves fair or poor at digital service delivery, 80% the same for developing digital products and 60% for low skills in AI. With covid-19 accelerating the trend towards online services, charities need to find ways to invest in staff skills and digital infrastructure or risk being left behind, but lack of funding specific to digital is considered a major barrier (50%).

Bar chart of the top five internal barriers to getting the most from digital

Data protection poses challenges for online services

Data protection is proving an ongoing challenge for charities delivering services online - two years after the introduction of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR).

With covid-19 and the increased adoption of technology such as remote working software, databases and CRM systems, and the rise of volunteer-led mutual aid groups, there is a need for greater awareness of GDPR and other data legislation, as well as considerations on digital ethics, safeguarding and how to keep personal data anonymised during a public health emergency. A ProPrivacy report on charity website ad trackers showed 92 of the top 100 most popular charities did not fully comply with GDPR opt-out requirements while 84 loaded marketing cookies and other non-essential trackers before consent was given.

Data protection and cybersecurity will continue to be issues for charities, with about a quarter of charities experiencing a cyberattack last year and many rating their skills in this field as fair or poor in cybersecurity (76% compared to 54% the year before).

Data protection challenges are happening at a time when public concerns about data have continued to rise. While most governments have developed track and trace apps during the pandemic their uptake has been poor, which is likely linked to a lack of trust around data sharing. Civil society has a role to play in shaping debates on how data is collected, its purpose and who controls it. There have been calls for greater oversight via independent data trusts who could hold data on behalf of others to be accessed in an ethical, protected way.

Digital technology as a means to empower civil society

In recent years, digital activities have become central to social action (for example, the use of Twitter during the Arab Spring). Lockdowns and social distancing have accelerated this trend. Online activism has been key to movements such as Black Lives Matter and Extinction Rebellion with, for instance, livestreamed events that people can follow and join from their own home.

Digital technology has been crucial in mobilising the general public during covid-19. Mutual aid groups often organise entire activities via social media, particularly through Facebook and WhatsApp. The Taiwanese government’s lauded covid-19 response relied on a strong online civic activist culture and existing civic tech platforms such as vTaiwan, Slack and others to map information such as mapping facemask availability, and community-created apps to map likelihood of exposure to covid-19.

Digital platforms will likely play a bigger role as a result of covid-19, with devolved authorities such as Scotland and the West Midlands Combined Authority already having created platforms for the public to feed into recovery proposals.

However, civil society faces challenges around transparency and trust of social media platforms during times of crisis. As social media platforms start to clamp down on misinformation, charities must be careful about supporting and verifying facts that they post online. As a trusted voice connected to communities, charities have taken a leading role in challenging misinformation in the age of fake news especially during the pandemic. This can be done effectively through having a strong communications strategy, verifying content and evidence sources, and encouraging data transparency.

Charities getting the most out of data

For the first time, the UK government released a national data strategy which emphasises the importance of data to empower civil society organisations to better reach those in needs, decrease costs and make effective interventions for those in need. This could have implications for charities around data sharing and data quality especially in ensuring complete, unbiased, representative data to inform activities. The recent report by Danny Kruger MP also recommended that charities that benefit from public funds should be required to publish coherent, comparable data on their activities.

As charities move their services and activities online, engaging in data analytics and user research is becoming more important to help design services that reflect user experiences and needs. However, the 2020 Charity Skills Report indicates that charities are not confident with handling data, with 91% of respondents rating themselves fair to poor in understanding how their audiences use digital and 87% as fair to poor skills at conducting user research.

Yet, there are examples of good practice in user research in the sector. For instance, Parkinsons UK used user research, interview data and case management to understand needs and establish priority areas for its Parkinson’s Connect Service during covid-19. However, such examples likely reflect larger charities’ financial and staff digital skills capacity to do this, highlighting the gap with smaller charities.

Moving forward

Questions your organisation might want to consider:

  • Which of your charities’ operations could be delivered online? What activities would be better delivered face-to-face?
  • What are the implications for moving services online for people who use your services? Are some users likely to be negatively impacted on by this change? How can you address this?
  • What are the digital skills that your organisation and staff most need going forward and where are the current gaps? What opportunities are there for funding digital skills training?
  • How does GDPR, other data legislation and cybersecurity apply to your charity’s digital activities? What kind of processes do you have in place to assure your charity’s legal compliance?
  • How does your organisation use digital technology to influence civil society discussions and encourage mobilisation?
  • What kind of data will most help your organisation’s activities and demonstrate the impact you’re having? How can your data analysis capacity be strengthened?