By Marina Glogovac
COVID-19 has forced many charities to begin or accelerate their online fundraising and activities. This shift includes small charities that may have been slow to adapt, as well as large charities that were already online and need to ramp up operations. Today, however, most organizations still lag behind when it comes to digital transformation more than a year into the pandemic, and with no clear end in sight, it’s never been more critical for charities to focus on digital.
In a recent survey by CanadaHelps, more than 1,400 Canadian charities were surveyed on their digital skills and adoption which reports that a large number of charities are behind when it comes to needed knowledge, and skills. For example, the majority of charities rate their digital skill level as “fair” or “poor” when using 13 of 15 basic software tools, even though many respondents believe that they’ll soon find it harder to fulfill their mission if they don’t improve their digital capabilities. While about three quarters of smaller charities with annual revenue of $500,000 to $1 million are integrating digital technology into everyday activities, only 42 percent of small charities with annual revenue less than $100,000 are doing so.
Why are so many charities far behind?
This is surprising and alarming. Online donations have been rising for years as Canadians of all ages — especially the younger ones — increasingly use their devices for daily activities, including online giving. In 2020, 1.1 million Canadians donated more than $480 million through CanadaHelps, a huge increase in online donations during a time when total donations (both online and offline channels) are projected to have declined.
So, why are so many charities still far behind when it comes to digital adoption? The short answer: lack of resources, expertise, staff — and, perhaps, a lack of understanding as to how urgent it is. As one leader of a small charity told us, “We are perpetually understaffed (with COVID, down to just the Director/Curator), so researching and implementing new technological tools, even though I know they are important and a priority, just doesn’t happen.” The same struggles are also felt by staff and volunteers in thousands of other charities across the country.
But digital transformation is not only necessary, it’s mission-critical. In other sectors of the economy, digitization is clearly understood as key to survival in the rapidly expanding digital economy and it’s being prioritized as such in organizations small and large. The concept of digital transformation can be defined as the process of using digital technologies to create new — or to modify existing — organizational processes, culture, and experiences. The end goal for a charity should be to create mission-driven change faster by dramatically expanding its capabilities to be effective in the digital world. Beyond software and hardware or its ability to improve operational efficiencies and accelerate fundraising, digital transformation allows charities to better measure and evaluate program delivery, improve fundraising and communication with supporters, and demonstrate impacts to donors.
Start shifting your organizational culture
The key to achieving these goals, especially for smaller charities, is to first start shifting your organizational culture and staff mindset.
This is more than using hardware and software. A path to digital transformation first starts with culture change.
Charity leaders and boards of directors need to first change their organizational, strategic, operating and donor-facing norms and processes. This is as much about creating a culture that is conducive to a digital environment: one that is agile, learning-in-action, participatory and collaborative. Rigid hierarchies and layers of approval will slow down or disable organizational learning that is so critical. Staff productivity and communication tools need to be implemented to empower staff such as Slack or project management tools such as Asana to keep teams working closely together. This is as much about creating a new kind of an organization while integrating it with the old one. It is a change management effort at its core.
Of course, charities also need to master the necessary digital expertise or invest in building expertise among their staff — digital transformation efforts are far more likely to succeed when organizations invest in digital talent. Here’s how you can start:
1. As a start, focus on basic tools for office and financial operations. These are foundational, digital tools.
2. Next, add online donation tools to level up your fundraising.
3. Event hosting, social media management, email marketing and websites are then added or upgraded to improve supporter engagement, as well as to increase fundraising and acquire more donors.
4. Software for data management and Customer Relationship Management (CRM), as well as peer-to-peer fundraising tools, become priorities further along the path of digital transformation.
Not just about technology
While organizations are in different stages of their transformation journeys, these steps are typical of most. Those early in their journey must start with clarity around the gaps, needs, goals, and benefits of digital transformation for their organization. The story of why is just as important as the question of what. After all, this isn’t just about technology. This is about a deeper organizational retooling for the digital age.
Marina Glogovac is president and CEO of CanadaHelps.org, a non-profit foundation which provides fundraising and donation technology to other charities and donors. Through CanadaHelps, 1.1 million Canadians donated more than $480 million to charities online in 2020. Glogovac has been a technology and media executive for more than 25 years, including roles at Kobo, Lavalife Corp. and St. Joseph’s Media.