Charities are falling so far behind in our digitally-led society that for a talented computer graduate, a job at a charity could be ‘career-destroying’ move. Henry Rowling says it’s time to radically rethink the sector’s digital strategies.
Last month I attended one of the excellent conferences staged by Re.Work, the platform dedicated to showcasing and exploring emerging technology. As someone who works in fundraising every day of the year (direct marketing specifically) I wanted to see how we can expect consumer behaviour to change in the coming years with a view to trying to future-proof fundraising in a fast-paced world led by non-stop technological advance.
I learnt a lot about how:
Kaspar the robot is helping children with autism to learn how to socialise with other children
the cognitive Internet of Things (the scenario by which data can be transferred between objects without human intervention) will help people with Alzheimer’s perform day-to-day tasks they can no longer undertake
virtual assistants will in the future know more about you and your life than even your partner or closest friend, so much so that when we die it is predicted we will bequeath our virtual assistant to a charity – it will be so valuable.
After the conference I was inspired and excited. But also a little frightened. How can charities make sure we are ready for the Internet of Things; and for virtual assistants that quickly understand how our children like to learn and help them learn more effectively? How will we know how or where to pin our limited resources when apps, platforms, social networks and online payment methods are born, die and become irrelevant in months, not years?
For a young person looking for a second job in coding, taking a job at a charity could be a career-destroying move
I’m now convinced after nearly 10 years in the sector that the way charities are set up structurally does not and will not attract the best young talent with degrees in computer science when we operate in a slow-paced environment reliant on, for the most part, outdated technology. For a young person looking for a second job in coding, taking a job at a charity could be career-destroying move if they have to de-skill or lose value in the competitive job market. That is a huge problem. Because we do not, for the most part, have strong in-house coding skills across multiple platforms and software languages: we are reliant on renting these skills from outside agencies when developing new digital fundraising campaigns. This structure perpetuates the digital skills-gap and increases the profit of digital creative agencies.
Some of these campaigns are highly successful and profitable, such as the Cancer Research UK’s Dryathlon, but many are not. When they are not – do we really learn from our mistakes? Or do we put it to one side and look for something else feeling despondent?
New blood needed to lead change
I refuse to believe young, talented tech graduates are not attracted to working for charities that put people and issues first, not personal or corporate profit. Why are we not recruiting them in their droves?
Our technology systems are under-invested in and ruled by bureaucracy that is slow to overturn. I asked a few people in the sector if they knew any charity chief executives that had come from a technology background. Or any on the management tier below ceos. No names came back. Yet we’re operating in a global environment for which technology is king among consumers below the age of 30 where offline is irrelevance; and in a service delivery world where technology could be the intervention at a programme level.
We are very poor at storytelling on digital channels. We caveat, water-down, anonymise and mitigate our stories so they can pass through risk-averse narcissistic sign off processes
With under-investment in technology infrastructure and tech equipment, how will charities attract young coders and programmers in to their organisations when effectively taking the job may mean they are de-skilling and losing value in their future careers? Why are more charities not designing all of their frontline service delivery digital first, mobile first or digital only? We sit on fantastic content that commercial organisations would kill to get their hands on. Every day our staff contribute to making life-changing stories – yet we are very poor at story-telling on digital channels. We caveat, water-down, anonymise and mitigate our stories so they can pass through risk-averse narcissistic sign off processes. We’re not keeping up and the reasons are structural, cultural and people-led.
Digital leaders with successful technology backgrounds should be fast-tracked in to senior leadership positions in fundraising and other areas of the charity
A radical rethink of how we organise and plan our various charities is required in order to not be left behind in an increasingly fast-paced digitally-led society. Is there an appetite for this among senior leadership figures? I don’t see any evidence there is. Digital leaders with successful technology backgrounds should be fast-tracked in to senior leadership positions in fundraising and other areas of the charity. Tech graduates should be recruited in to fundraising teams and supported to raise millions online from digital engagement. It’s possible. But not enough of us are doing it.
I predict that organisations that are prepared to do this – and invest in the infrastructure required to support their work – could see exponential gains over the coming five years. Is anyone bold enough to do it?
- Henry Rowling is director of individual giving at The Children’s Society.