OPINION: Sleepwalking to irrelevance – fundraising’s digital skills gap

Henry RowlingCharities 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talent with degrees in computer science when we operate in a slow-paced environment reliant on, for the most part, outdated technology.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.

7 thoughts on “OPINION: Sleepwalking to irrelevance – fundraising’s digital skills gap”

  1. Entirely agree. There’s a huge gulf in income/activity between what charities are doing in the digital space and commercial players, and it can’t only be explained by our predilection for chasing “dorothy donor.” In fact there are some charities – charity:water being the stand-out example – who are digitally minded and are highly likely to eat the laggards lunch!

    And it’s not just digital – the same is true of data; most organisations still have home grown, and to be blunt untutored, data geeks running what commercial outfits correctly recognise as a critical asset. At RNIB, we try and take bright young maths interns/graduates into our analytics teams, and I’ve previously taken bankers and engineers across as a career change, as well as analysts from commercial agencies.

    Digital has changed everything – what we know about customers, how we test and learn, the arrival of agile and “fail fast” strategies. Adapt or die…


    1. Thanks Nick. My thoughts are not watertight by any means but we must start taking this problem seriously. We can’t use organisational size as an excuse. A lot of the issues stem from personnel & mindsight. Your approach at RNIB re: data sounds very good!


  2. I’d agree there aren’t enough senior charity staff with sufficient tech management experience (ideally gained in various sectors).

    Sadly, the situation you describe now could describe the evolution of charities’ use of digital tools over the last 20 years. Tenner a month dial-up for UK consumers kicked off in 1992 – anyone guess how many charities started testing the waters after that? You can work it out – find out in which year your charity even registered its domain name for the first time.

    Mobile has been “the next big thing” for several years, so why now, with my newly acquired reading glasses, do I struggle to read many charities’ websites on my phone?

    As you suggest, there have always been some visionary and technically able charities, who leave the majority way behind. I don’t have a solution for that, but would love to see the shake-up you advocate.

    What would effect the big change necessary? Perhaps the signal failure of one or more charities due to disregard for technical advances. (Not that I’d wish that on any organisations’ beneficiaries or service users). But has that happened in the last 20 years? If so, then tech has been just part of a wider organisational failure.

    I’m less convinced about the need for in-house technical skills like coding. It’s the wider skills – data, analytics, agile development – that should be encouraged in-house, combined of course with some hands-on fundraising experience and knowledge.

    Maybe new tech graduates are not being effectively attracted to a job in a charity. But a good number of them are jumping in and building apps, tools and platforms themselves, so end up working with charities, occasionally dragging some along with them.

    Perhaps that collaborative approach is desirable. Charities can’t spot and react to all the huge digital trends occurring, but if they adopt a more collaborative approach with other charities and other providers, they might stay on the crest of at least some of the key waves.

    To some extent this has parallels with charity supporters. Nowadays charities have to recognise that their supporters will never *all* be on their databases – many of them will donate or join in on an occasional basis, when motivated to do so via digital/social channels. In other words, many partnerships are now much more fluid.

    And managing that well is a whole new challenge.


    1. Thanks for the interesting thoughts Howard. Completely agree on your points re: collaboration need and there are some great start ups & tools/platforms being built by tech entrepreneurs. I still think we could save ourselves some £ & move faster – by taking strong tech skills of graduates in house. By doing so – we would also force the pace of change essential if we are going to properly evolve beyond the old donate now button.


  3. Totally appreciate that there may well be a digital skills gap, but I think this is a much wider issue.

    As a director and front line relationship fundraiser I am constantly disappointed and concerned about the lack of exciting new major donor, corporate and community specialists coming through the ranks. Certainly, things have improved over the last few years, and there are undoubtedly some stars around, but I still doubt that a career in the third sector is viewed as viable alternative for talented graduates entering the market place.

    Remuneration may well always be a barrier to some extent, but I can’t help but think we need to think along more commercial lines and work harder collectively to shine a light on one of the most rewarding and stimulating careers on offer.


  4. Nick is right; part of the problem is that we’re all chasing Dorothy Donor. But she and her kind are our best supporters and who else are we going to go for the bulk of our income?

    I was a fundraising director for many years and I know from experience that to angle for a big digital development budget or for new technology with uncertain payback is hard– and I mean very, very hard – because every pound here is a pound less to vulnerable users of the charity’s services. The pressure to raise money and save costs in the very short term comes in large part from an urgent need to fund vital work in the here and now.

    Contrast this with a commercial firm with long term investors who can take the very long view because they‘re not fettered by a legal and moral imperative to maximise immediate returns. And unlike many charities, lives don’t depend on them squeezing every penny out of this year’s budget.

    I don’t have the magic bullet for this I’m afraid. But the sector does attract a lot of very clever people anyway – charity direct marketing has some of the best professional brains in the country for example. Perhaps we could put some of these very bright people through an intensive technical up-skilling on their way to senior roles. Or offer tech grads the same in non-tech skills that will add value to their CV and put them on the road to the top as well.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.