Charities have a problem, but it's not what you think
There’s no shortage of opinions about the future of the third sector and how charities should be preparing and responding. Many say that charities need to transform their use of technology and become more future-minded. But if the sector is so behind the times, why aren’t we seeing more cracks appear?
I've worked in fundraising for years and hearing these opinions can be frustrating. I'm sure I’m not the only one who has felt the burden of wrestling the fundraising operations of a large charity into the 21st century. But that doesn't mean we should forget about the amazing work that many charities are doing.
Within the sector there seems to be a quiet confidence in the steps that are being taken to embrace the future. At a recent industry event, 85 per cent of attendees felt they were doing digital either 'really' or 'reasonably' well. And, in a sector report from Blackbaud, 79 percent of charities felt they’d been at least 'fairly' successful with their social media efforts.
Is there a problem or not?
Despite challenging economic times, the sector has fared pretty well so far. The public are still giving in their millions – to the tune of more than £10 billion a year. Individual giving remains consistent and healthy. And, despite recent scandals, public trust remains high – above that of politicians and the media.
‘Futurologists’ often forget that charities (particularly large ones) are very resilient organisations. In recent years, many commercial brands have struggled and failed. But there have been no similar announcements of a major charity going bust!
Charity vs commercial
Most companies aim to sell a product to net a profit. A charity has to go one step further and use those profits to achieve impact in line with their charitable aims. So, if targets are not met, it’s common to reduce spend (and resulting impact) on projects and programmes to balance the books. Not an easy decision, but it can be a matter of weighing up a reduction in immediate impact and surviving to make a difference in the future.
This option leads to a huge amount of flexibility in financial planning. The ability to offset expenditure against income creates an inherent resilience and this has enabled many charities to survive economic difficulties in the past. I once worked at an INGO where we would stop everything in Q1 and spend weeks re-forecasting for year end to help us manage challenges.
The hidden cost, and the true problem
This option for flexibility does have consequences aside from the reduced impact. It can cause a lack of urgency and impact the necessity and/or speed of change within the organisation.
From the outside, it’s easy to compare the fast-moving commercial world with charities who seem content to maintain the status quo. This results in a dialogue painting the future as some distant utopia with the not-for-profit sector behind the curve.
The result? Imminent change for charities feels unachievable and investing in complete transformation seems to be the only answer. I’ve seen the downsides of this – some charities try to do everything at once and struggle to make it work. Or, they keep postponing all digital innovation because they don't know where to start.
Both are understandable when the current dialogue about change is so full of rhetoric. Neither are helpful in the long term.
We need a better dialogue about change in the sector
Realistically without commercial urgency, the funding and commitment to drive wholesale change isn't there. But it’s also not immediately necessary. We have to stop assuming that not-for-profits will follow the same path as the commercial world. We have to stop predicting the success (or failure) of a charity based on their digital transformation.
We need an approach to change that respects the incredible resilience of charities rather than one that rallies against it. An approach that enables charities to maintain, even improve, their current fundraising operations while also innovating for the future. An approach where change works with the people and tech that charities already have in place. Where change is possible despite budget limitations and driven by something other than shareholder value.
Every charity I’ve worked with over the years had a unique context and varying budgets. I know there’s always a way to meet today’s targets while making progress towards the future.
It’s not always easy, but it’s definitely good fun, and isn’t that a much better driver for positive change than the fear of being left behind?
Mark Dibden, Senior Planner at Cello Signal