Why should the internet and social media matter for charities? Giving to a charity or getting support from one has been going on for hundreds of years. However, there are some distinct opportunities for third sector organisations to get online and further their work towards their charitable objectives.
A new report from Nominet Trust, Charities' use of the internet, was released on Thursday, 10 Nov, revealing that the internet presents significant opportunities for charities, but also significant challenges if they are offline whilst their donor-base (and indeed service users) require others ways of communicating.
How 'traditional' organisations present themselves online is key in order to resonate with modern donors and volunteers. This is becoming increasingly important in relation to the 'next generation users' identified by the latest research survey from Oxford Internet Institute.
Unprecedented levels of data capture and interrogation are shaping charities' strategies as well as their day-to-day operations. Many are also using social media to better understand the needs of their service users. However, with this increased knowledge comes a new level of responsibility. There are some good examples of charities using the internet to establish new levels of transparency and develop lasting trust relationships with donors and other stakeholders. For example, Action on Hearing Loss (formerly RNID) has been openly engaging with critics in the public sphere and engaging them in constructive dialogue via social networks. This also allows service users, members and supporters to intervene on its behalf.
The internet has also shifted the relationship between charities and those who fundraise or donate for them. Donors are no longer seen as being 'owned by' a particular charity but instead as 'clients' who need to be 'incentivised' or 'rewarded'. This is often in relation to a short-term project - rather than a life-long commitment - and applies similarly to volunteers.
When it comes to providing support services, the internet really comes into its own for a whole swathe of third sector organisations. One examined in the research, YouthNet, is able to offer services to young people on a scale that would be impossible without online capability.
However, the research does also raise a caveat. Data security is an issue which requires close attention from charities. As well as conducting a literature review, the research also included an expert group and a focus group made up of charity representatives. All believed that there is not enough attention paid to information assurance. Charities are responsible for a large amount of data, much of which is personal, and which is often shared across organisational boundaries. They need to ensure that this data is protected. This is so important, not just because charities have a duty of care to their service users and donors, but because these people may have no idea how their data is being used.
Obviously many charities are small and do not have access to the necessary levels of knowledge or expertise. This is where grant awarding bodies, service purchasers and other funders could offer a 'strategic lead' to third sector organisations by encouraging ICT costs to be built into funding bids. The cost of data security is not the only issue, but financing the infrastructure as well as training for staff will go a long way towards resolving this.
However, this isn't to frighten charities away from embracing the opportunities presented by the internet. The internet provides an opportunity to radically and positively disrupt the ways in which we work. The more charities use the internet to its full potential, the better.