information for transformational people

Digital 246Charity digital journeys 

From a report by Catalyst

Over the last year, COVID-19 has forced charities to move to remote working, deliver services online, invest in new tech and upskill staff faster than they ever anticipated. These changes are hard at the best of times and to shed light on the reality of digital transformation: what works and what doesn’t, Catalyst interviewed 15 digital leads working within small, medium and large charities about their digital journey between November 2019 and February 2020, prior to COVID-19 affecting the UK.

The resulting report sets out a single generalised journey based upon their experiences. It is framed around three key stages which describe the mindset and approach to making progress with digital: curious, starting out and advancing. At each stage, this report sets out a range of common patterns in the organisations’ experiences and steps, drawing attention to the learning, pitfalls and safety nets which helped them move forward, as well as case studies.

An overview of a common digital journey

Stage 1: Curious

Charities were curious when they were actively exploring how they could do more with digital. Most had limited budget and capacity but were looking to understand what was possible and where to start. They were largely paper-based at this point, but some would have digital basics in place such as email, a website or social media. Moving on from business as usual was one of the hardest stages of their journey. This typically involved the following:

  • An internal staff member took the lead and started to explore where digital could help their charity. Some of these staff had a digital role, but most did not. They were unlikely to have experience leading digital change and many had limited digital skills. Their commitment, enthusiasm and internal role was vital, but they needed support from multiple sources to make progress.
  • A call to action instigated change, such as a new CEO, a crisis, funding for digital, growth or losing out on funding. This helped overcome any internal complacency, resistance or fear, but there was still a long road ahead.
  • Starting to fix or change something was the first port of call. Examples included replacing an inefficient paper-based process, building a new website or moving file storage to the cloud. Bigger projects at this stage (particularly a new CRM) proved tempting, but risky. Any practical advice was invaluable here. Those able to start small, pilot tools or talk to users and engage with staff were much better placed to move forward. 

In order to move forwards, at least one of the following needed to be in place:

  • Internal buy-in to do more with digital in the organisation
  • Additional capacity from back-filling a member of staff’s role or creating a new role to lead on digital
  • Resource for a digital project (a grant or internal reserves)

Stage 2: Starting out

Charities were starting out with digital once they had some resources, capacity and internal buy-in needed to pursue a tangible goal, such as a new website, service or CRM. They did not typically have a digital strategy in place and digital was largely still seen as a ‘nice to have’. External support was crucial to moving through this stage. Common approaches included:

  • Developing a digital project marked the first big step forward. In most cases, this required a digital agency. A good relationship could help build digital knowledge and capacity. A poor relationship could result in a solution that did not meet their needs, and which stalled their journey. Those who undertook discovery research found this stage easier, as did those with funding. Support could prove transformational in getting to a place they were proud of.
  • Getting internal buy-in from staff was vital, because digital tools and new processes challenged conventional ways of working. Many wished they had prioritised this earlier. CEOs and boards needed to engage more at this point to give the right capacity and support needed for key projects.
  • Developing a strategy for digital became necessary when charities were alive to the possibilities, but struggled to prioritise and identify the extent to which they needed to change. A digital maturity framework could help. Boards and CEOs often needed external advice here for reassurance and support to set a strategic direction.

Milestones included:

  • Experience developing a digital project
  • Greater ambitions for digital in the organisation
  • The staff team engaging more with digital and seeing the value in it
  • A strategic direction supported by trustees, whether a digital strategy or part of their organisation strategy

Stage 3: Advancing

Charities started advancing once digital became a strategic priority. They had aspirations to embed digital change across their organisations. They also had experience developing digital projects and working with digital partners. They were likely to have some digital skills in-house and a formally recognised and dedicated digital lead (or team). Progress in this stage slowed again, as the need for significant funding and investment in digital across organisations became clear. This took a number of forms:

  • Building internal digital capacity required all staff to develop digital skills and confidence. It was also the start of a culture change process, encouraging staff to adopt digital design practices, such as acting on user feedback. Digital leads also looked to improve their own knowledge and practice through professional networks and Tech for Good communities. 
  • Vital upgrades to older systems and existing digital services were needed before advancing any further. This required significant investment and meant resourcing digital properly became a key sticking point. 
  • Looking ahead to new projects or technology was common, but digital leads still felt uncertain about how to progress. With limited resources, this was dependent on funding, support initiatives, volunteers and pro-bono advice. The risk here was a fragmented set of digital projects. It will be a long time until they see themselves as advanced.

Milestones included:

  • Digital ways of working starting to become part of the culture
  • Outdated tech or legacy systems being replaced
  • Key services being redesigned to meet user needs
  • Learning shared openly and actively
  • Accessibility and inclusion prioritised
  • Developing advanced digital skills and projects

As they moved into the advanced stage, organisations also recognised the need for:

  • Significant funding or internal resources for digital roles and infrastructure
  • Active work to address the implications of digital, design and data
  • More focus on collaboration, shared standards and open source

The report then goes on to identify success factors and barriers.

Read the full report here.

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From a report by Catalyst, 19/01/2021

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