Ross McCulloch says charities need to start thinking about how they can provide more digital services to improve people's lives
I’ve been spending the last few months working with Scottish charity chief executives and senior staff on the OneDigital action learning programme. It’s one of the most exciting pieces of work I’ve ever been involved in.
Many of the charities participating are taking a fresh look at the fundamentals of how they work. Their starting point is service users and supporters, not digital tools. They’re making simple changes to transform the way their staff work, and allowing them to get excited and empowered about the vital work they deliver. One organisation is now delivering more counselling sessions using online channels because they’ve listened to people’s needs. They’re now reaching a much broader cross section of the local community as a result. Another charity has freed up staff to collaborate across teams, utilising working methods usually associated with big tech firms. We’re talking about digital transformation in the truest sense of the word.
All of this work is propelled forward by the broader OneDigital programme and the Scottish Government’s digital strategy. However, having worked with these charity leaders over the last few months it’s clear that we need radical change if the sector is ever going to truly embrace digital.
We need to move away from seeing data as a tool to win and report on funding - it’s about delivering the best services we can, when and where people need themRoss McCulloch
Effective leadership needs to be the starting point. The charities taking part in our action learning sets have embraced change because they’ve got passionate, effective leaders. Senior leaders and trustees can no longer rely on junior staff to make key strategic decisions about digital. It’s not just about social media, it’s not just about the server that sits in your cupboard and it’s not just about your fundraising database. This is about looking at what you do with a fresh pair of eyes, experimenting and empowering staff and service users – it needs to be about real culture change. Digital could be the answer to your charity supporting many more people in the future, without necessarily having to source more funding. We’re only starting to scratch the surface of digital as a service delivery tool.
For many organisations all of this leads to one fundamental question: is your chief executive or chair ready to fundamentally reassess how you do things in light of the potential offered by digital?
Charities need a new relationship with technology. We need to focus on nimble, modular, cost-effective, off-the-shelf solutions and ditch one-size-fits-all IT behemoths. Let’s end the age of the giant IT infrastructure system and aim to get to the point where IT becomes invisible.
Another key theme emerging from OneDigital is the need for the third sector to get a better handle on data. As part of the action learning programme we’ve spent time speaking to people at the likes of Uber and Skyscanner – alongside workplace culture, data is the driving force behind these multibillion pound businesses. We need to ensure all decisions we make are based upon effective use of data. We need to be geared up to spot societal trends. It’s vital that we respond quickly to the needs of our communities and we need to be able to truly measure the impact we have.
Unfortunately most charities make little use of data because resources and skill-set are minimal to say the least. Add in to the mix the limited access charities have to external data and you’ve got a real problem. Perhaps the large third sector umbrella and membership bodies need to take more responsibility for thematic and regional data to ensure charities continue to truly meet local need. We need to move away from seeing data as a tool to win and report on funding, it’s about delivering the best services we can, when and where people need them.
Funding is going to be key to all of this. That doesn’t necessarily mean more tech-focused niche funding streams. In fact it would be much more productive if funders simply encouraged more people to make digital-first grant applications to mainstream funding streams. That’s probably going to mean training grants officers to assess projects where digital is key, and we need more funders challenging charities to think about where digital can improve outcomes.
Alongside the OneDigital team, I’m currently working on a charity senior leaders' digital call to action. This will be a blueprint for change, shaped by those taking part in the action learning programme. Hopefully this will kick-start a wider conversation about the need for effective leadership, culture change, flexible technology, smarter funding, and collaborative data. Less strategy, more doing.
The Call to Action will be launched on 2 November at the Senior Leaders Digital Unconference – 3rdsectordigicamp. This event is open to senior leaders and key stakeholders from across the third sector.
Ross McCulloch is director of Third Sector Lab.