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Digital Technology Is the Only Game Changer We've Got for Delivering Greater Social Impact

22/09/2015 09:26 BST | Updated 21/09/2016 10:12 BST

Times are tough in the non-profit sector. The combined pressures of recession-recovery and the new wave of scrutiny on traditional fundraising tactics have created a world where non-profits are increasingly expected to do more with less. Yet the needs that these organisations serve have not diminished - from life-threatening illnesses to international aid projects, from child protection to social inequality - sadly these issues are no less pressing than they ever were. However, there is potentially a digital light at the end of the tunnel.

Across the sector a growing movement is emerging around digital transformation. Fuelled by the high profile success of the Government digital service - there is a dawning realisation that digital technology may be the only chance the sector has for tackling these weighty challenges. Some forward-thinking sector organisations (often those with substantial coffers) are starting to re-shape themselves around digital-first principles - but this is not yet a majority position. Many non-profits are struggling to keep up with the rapid pace of digital change, and others continue to underestimate digital's significance - pigeon-holeing it as just another marketing or fundraising channel. But as the digital disruption that has happened in other industries has shown, ignoring it is a dangerous game.

Any period of rapid change creates new opportunities. For organisations that have the right mindset, the opportunities on offer are tantalising. Here are three of the biggest opportunities identified in The New Reality - a research study based on interviews with over 50 senior executives and experts from within and outside the non-profit sector:

The chance to go back to basics

In research interviews for The New Reality many forward-thinking CEOs saw digital technology as a lens through which to reassess their organisation's effectiveness. In doing so, some exciting but potentially uncomfortable questions emerge around whether digital tools and processes offer more efficient and effective ways to deliver both external services and internal operations than traditional ways of working.

The British Red Cross are among the growing number of non-profits that see digital technology as a lynchpin rather than an add-on. Their 2015-2019 Corporate Strategy 'Refusing to ignore people in crisis' places "Use digital technology to help more people" as one of their six strategic pillars that will be used to guide the whole organisation through the next 4 years.

The possibility to reach and engage new and different people

The current raft of sophisticated, and high quality, digital communication tools are opening up new ways to talk to, and engage, people in both UK and international markets.

The BBC achieved something that many established aid organisations were failing to do when it launched its Ebola Lifeline Whatsapp service in late 2014. In response to the vacuum of information around how to safely control the spread of the disease, the BBC managed to gather over 20,000 subscribers to their text, audio and infographic-based advice service in areas of West Africa (principally Sierra Leone) that on the ground teams just couldn't get to. It's an important example not simply because of the impact on Ebola awareness, but because it was delivered using existing technology to do it. Whatsapp offered rapid, low cost access to people whom non-profits have historically found it hard to reach - demonstrating that there is no longer the need to invest in expensive, custom development.

The chance to give people tools to help them help themselves

Digital offers people an unprecedented opportunity to self-serve and solve their own problems. This has been illustrated umpteen times through: Sharing Economy services like Airbnb or Casserole club; through crowdfunding platforms that help people with anything from product launches to medical treatment; and even more simply through providing online access to crucial things like benefit applications. It certainly appears that when you give people the chance to do things for themselves via digital - they take it. Perhaps then non-profits could deliver more value by providing the tools people need rather than hand-holding? Digital transformation offers an opportunity to ask what it might be like to empower people to achieve our mission for us and with us instead of naively assuming they want non-profits to do it on their behalf

Seizing the opportunity

Digital transformation cannot be created overnight. It requires commitment from the highest levels of an organisation, and a significant shift in culture, resourcing, processes and tools. But if sector organisations are serious about delivering greater social impact in the current climate - digital maybe the only game changer we've got.

Find out more about how digital technology can impact the future of the non-profit sector in this Wednesday's free Change.org webinar 'Digital is not a channel', featuring further findings from The New Reality report, insights on digital leadership from Branislava Milosevic, and what the new shape of supporter engagement looks like from Change.org's Ben Carter.