I was a magazine publisher when consumers and the print industry started shifting to digital technologies and strategies. The shift in that industry in the ensuing decade was painful. One lesson I learned from that experience is that you should run towards change, lest it swallow you.
This attitude applies to the shift to online fundraising today—especially for small charities.
Historically, fundraising relied on the hard work of volunteers hosting events in community centres and church basements. Typically, people gathered for food drives, dinners, auctions, golf tournaments and other ticketed events to raise money. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic ended in-person events, charities were slowly shifting from in-person to online, including to digital fundraising. Now, they have to shift more quickly. Speeding up and expanding this change is crucial.
In the past year, all of us have learned how to operate differently in the world, sometimes radically so (the pandemic gave us no choice), and for many charities, this meant being forced to adapt quickly to digital. Most challenging, though, was that this transition came at a time when charities’ resources were strapped while their services were most needed.
With the pressure to fully embrace digital—almost overnight—it wasn’t easy for charities to know where to begin. It still isn’t. While larger organizations have big budgets and professional fundraising staff (and have been moving to digital platforms over the past couple of decades), many smaller organizations haven’t made similar shifts—and certainly not at the speed required today.
We recently conducted research with 1,440 charities from across Canada about their openness to adopting digital tools and about the barriers they face. We found that more than 80% were aware of the importance of online fundraising and that, overall, they’re primarily interested in digital tools that empower fundraising and that reach and/or engage their supporters. However, many charities can’t transition due to lack of funds, staff and/or expertise. We also found that knowledge of newer digital tools was much lower, at 20-40% of those surveyed.
Charities appreciate that online tools can help them, but they don’t see the connection between the tools and delivery of their mission. The smaller charities are even less aware or convinced of the necessity for digital; the challenge is one of adoption, and priorities are likely related to their lack of trust in the benefits.
Digital transformation involves using technologies to create or modify business processes, but it also involves culture changes and big-picture thinking. Transformation also requires deep changes organizationally and in terms of leadership, changes to help charities to recognize the benefits to their mission and to guide them through the adjustment during necessary disruption.
Change, which is an ongoing journey and is often iterative, requires coordination across every part of an organization and should be championed by senior leadership. It requires new skills and behaviours, and new ways of working and collaborating. It means looking at your user experience and at the capabilities of data and analytics. And it means integrating technology with data-driven decision-making during the transition—and, overall, requires a coherent organizational strategy and vision to anchor the efforts.
Small businesses faced similar challenges when they shuttered their doors during the pandemic and moved to online services. Resources like Digital Main Street offer a suite of free, industry-leading courses about digital transformation and strategies to relaunch a business. Small business owners learn how to adopt digital tools, technologies and services. For the charitable sector, we fill this need by offering white pages, webinars, how-tos, digital tools and a Donor Management System. Charities need support during this time of rapid change.
It’s better to run towards change proactively than be swept away by it. Ultimately, digital transformation isn’t about technology, as countless surveys attest; transformation is about organizational culture and a mind-set that prioritizes change management and embraces disruption as opportunity. Without it, any acquisition of hardware or software, or even hiring of digital talent, or working with external consultants, will be short-lived.
For a new and rapidly expanding online world (catalyzed to transition faster due to the pandemic), charities need a wholesale commitment to change—and short sprints from there.