Review: Digital Innovation in the Charity Sector - Prolific London Roundtable

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by David Prior

The Value of Digital Innovation in the Charity Sector - Roundtable Discussion, held on July 11th 2019.

Sponsored by Access and Acquia and hosted by Channel 4

Chaired by Adeela Warley, CEO, CharityComms


Earlier this month, Channel 4 provided the venue as Prolific London gathered together a number of key figures within the charity sector for a fascinating roundtable discussion about digital innovation.

Sponsored by Access and Acquia, the event provided an illuminating opportunity for charities to share best practice and consider the various ways they had sought to use digital as a fundraising and awareness generating tool.

Chaired by Adeela Warley, CEO of CharityComms, here's a review of the discussion that followed.

Innovative ways of using digital

Linda Liao (Mental Health Foundation) highlighted how the British Heart Foundation partnered with Amazon on voice-activated donations, using Alexa, while James Small (Anthony Nolan) mentioned that Breast Cancer Care has a breast-checking app.

Adeela Warley (CharityComms) said that Greenpeace was now having real-time text conversations with people, enabling a quick response and funneling people towards committed giving. It's been so successful that it is now testing for legacy campaigning.

Neil Gunn (Independent Age) cited Age UK, saying it had done lots of interesting work such as applying AI to its knowledge base to power a chat bot. 

Simon Landi (Access Digital) said Access was currently in the listening phase of a project with WaterAid to identity which people were coming to the site.

Dan Gray (WaterAid) flagged up the important of voice search and said WaterAid was hoping to do something unique in this space, a point backed up by Neil Gunn (Independent Age), who said that 20% of search was already voice, and that figure would be 30% in two years' time. Linda Liao (Mental Health Foundation) questioned whether that figure was accurate - it seemed a bit high.

Adeela Warley (CharityComms) asked how far companies around the table had managed to transform digitally.

Sam Afhim (Freedom from Torture) said that too many still saw digital as an add-on instead of a need to do things completely differently, and said that many charities were not well equipped to make the transition. Charities need a really forward-thinking senior management team willing to "put butts on the line".

Anjali Bewtra (Save the Children UK) said it came back to how willing the charity was to change its culture. It's difficult to make an old thing new. If you were set up today, you would look very different. 

James Small (Anthony Nolan) said that if you were looking to enact a proper transformaton, it had to be led by the senior leadership team. You don't just digitalise your existing operation. 

Sarah Williams-Robbins (Place2Be) said it carried out research with participating people to ask them what digital support they would want. Trust, not surprisingly, was a really big issue. She said she sits on the senior team but had also set up a digital group.

Sarah Jordan (Y.O.U. Underwear) said that charities in particular were incredibly siloed, and that you can't be audience-focused or be transformed until you change that. Usually actions were very tactical, e.g. we want an app.

Neil Gunn (Independent Age) said the ones really doing it don't talk about digital. It's more fundamental. There was no digital in job titles, for instance. He agreed it was a tough job to shift a more traditional company.

Sam Afhim (Freedom from Torture) said he had invented many digital products that have worked but ultimately they all fail. They do, though, help you to get better.

Adeela Warley (CharityComms) asked how many around the table had set up innovation labs. Neil Gunn (Independent Age) questioned what one of those actually was now - innovating what? Anjali Bewtra (Save the Children UK) said they did have one, but had faced challenges about what they were supposed to be innovating.

Sophie Castell (RNIB) said you need enablers, not a whole team. The difficult thing was not having ideas, it's bringing them to market. 

Sarah Jordan (Y.O.U. Underwear) pointed out that it was important to work out how to have a route out of innovation that doesn't work, and how to embed things that do.

How to attract and build trust with new donors and supporters

Sarah Jordan (Y.O.U. Underwear) said it was now all about the audience. Technology can help with trust. One charity she knew of was using Alice, the blockchain platform, to address transparency challenges. People can see where their money is going.

Sam Afhim (Freedom from Torture) questioned whether trust was a real issue in the sector? He said charities shouldn't always on the defensive - they need to spend more time telling the beautiful stories at the heart of their work.

Anjali Bewtra (Save the Children UK) said that charities try too hard to tell the perfect story. People like honesty, like Nike's Nothing Beats a Londoner campaign. The commercial sector is doing more cause-driven work, and the charity sector should be doing more of this.

Neil Gunn (Independent Age) said that what charities were selling was an issue. Smart charities are now letting people buy products rather than just donate money.

The roundtable was hosted by Channel 4 at its London HQ on Horseferry Road

Are charities using digital to personalise the customer journey?

Anjali Bewtra (Save the Children UK) said they were aspiring to do it, but legacy CRM systems were an issue and it's a huge piece of work to do. 

Emmanuelle Adam (Acquia) said that in her experience, segmentation for donors was a top priority for charities, but that it's all about data and whether it is structured. Charities need to be focusing more on delivering a holistic journey for each potential donor, and building a profile for each of those people.

Dan Gray (WaterAid) pointed to its recent launch of a product subscription box. A small project team had been assigned and it had generated really positive feedback. He said it was about opeing up channels for one-to-one communication channels and taking on feedback.

Sam Afhim (Freedom from Torture) said that people don't want to have a fully broadcast experience with charities anymore, they want to feel like they're part of the journey and charities need to recognise that.

He cited an example when he worked at Crohn's & Colitis UK and the steps they had taken to address predatory behaviour on a 40,000-strong peer-to-peer forum. The 'get your belly out' campaign - women showing their colostomy bags - had led to the predatory behaviour and he described the work they had undertaken to root it out.

At one point they had even gone so far as closing live posting on the forum for four days while they wrestled with the issue. The answer was to introduce voluntary moderation and make sure it was everyone's job to moderate across both the digital and supporter engagement team. They also did a lot of safeguarding training internally. He said that there wasn't an easy answer, just hard work.

Street League were cited as an example of a great charity who has a live dashboard linked to the impact of their charity, direct from their database and CRM, using Microsoft's Power BI. It was a fascinating model that had fundamentally changed the way they operate as a charity and how they communicate with their trustees. You can see what people interact with - their rule is that if one of their KPIs doesn't get interacted with, they take it off and stop reporting it completely.