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How to create a digital strategy for your charity

Over the past few months, thousands of charities have been exploring and trying to use digital to ensure they continue to deliver value to the communities they serve. Given all this work, many are now at the stage to reflect and consider a more strategic approach to digital. Dan Sutch, director at CAST, shares advice on strategising your approach to digital.

A narrated version of this blog is available at the bottom of the page

Over the last year, a lot of charities have found themselves thinking a lot more about digital technology and how to use it. For many chief executives and trustee boards, it’s gone from one thing on a long list to a very high priority.

At Catalyst, our work is all about building an enabling environment in which it’s easy for charities to develop their digital capabilities. We do a lot of work with digital agencies and funders, as well as with digital leads within charities.

One question we get asked a lot is whether you need a digital strategy, and what should go into it.

Do you need a digital strategy?

The answer is maybe.

Nissa Ramsay, an independent researcher, interviewed a number of charities on behalf of Catalyst last year. She mapped out a digital journey, starting with those organisations which felt they were real beginners, through to those who felt they were making good progress.

She found that the most successful charities started not with an overarching strategy, but with a desire to change a single tool or function – often something relatively small. This led to the creation of a dedicated role for digital within the organisation – a digital lead.

So the best first strategy for digital is often to explore, and understand the key concepts, on a small scale, to build internal skill and capacity.

Usually, it was useful to set an overarching strategy for digital only when the digital lead had successfully carried out more than one project. By this point, the charity had started to uncover the key issues that digital needed to address and areas of strength and weakness. Attempts to set strategy much earlier in the process were often unsuccessful. Charities didn’t know enough about their needs, and those of their service users, or about their capabilities, and they often did not know enough about what digital could and could not do for them.

Even at the point of setting a strategy, it remained questionable whether a stand-alone digital strategy was the way forward. Many charities we spoke to said it had been more useful to take all the elements of their organisational strategy and look at them through the lens of digital. (More on this below.)

Let’s assume that you feel you’re at the right point to set a strategy. What’s the next step? What goes into a digital strategy? What should it achieve?

What does a digital strategy affect?

The simple answer to this is “Everything” but that’s maybe not very helpful. We think there are some specific parts of your operations that it’s worth pulling out and looking at separately.

Internal systems

One area that digital can really help is with core functions like finance and HR. If you can streamline systems and improve processes, this can be a real time saver and lead to better information across the organisation.

Similarly, charities run significant numbers of projects, often with multiple complex requirements. Digital tools for project management can make a big difference here.

And digital tools are a vital way of helping staff interact with each other. They help staff understand what one another are up to and transfer information within the organisation.

Data and CRM

Nowadays, one of the most important tools for any charity is information about partners and service users. Digital tools are vital for gathering data, interpreting it, sharing it and storing it.

Digital tools are great for analysis of what is happening and why, to help staff and leaders understand what’s going on.

Communications

Digital is inevitably a tool for communicating with all stakeholders – service users, donors, partners. The charity’s website is often the primary window into its existence as an organisation, and its social media presence and email communications are also central. All of this requires digital skills.

Service delivery

Last but not least, digital is a tool for direct service delivery. Charities increasingly deliver services online, via chatbots, video calls, information websites and many other things. So digital as a tool to reach users is absolutely vital.

What to consider when writing your strategy?

The first thing to say is that digital strategy is like any strategy. It is about identifying where you are, and where you want to be, and how you’re going to move between those two places.

To identify where you are, it’s often good to look at a digital maturity matrix. There are many of these around, including one produced by NCVO. Typically they will assess you against a few key areas of digital competency, and give you a framework for identifying both your current position and where you want to get to.

There are a number of things we would recommend you consider when developing a strategy.

Understand your community

To develop a good digital strategy (indeed, any strategy, one might argue) you need a good understanding of your service users. Who are the communities you serve? How do you interact with them? What do they need from their interactions with you?

The best way to find this out is to ask them. So a successful digital strategy is usually based on a significant period of user research.

We tend to favour approaching smaller numbers of people and doing in-depth, qualitative research. This is so that you can respond to what you hear and work in-depth with more small groups (rather than trying to do one big survey at the start to inform decisions). 

Don’t think that just because you spend a lot of time with your service users, you don’t need to do the research. We’ve worked with many, many charities over the years, and many of them have been high performers and real experts in their field. All of them find something useful and new in user research.

Don’t just focus on external service users, either. Your own staff are users of your digital tools, and they too have jobs they need to do. Their needs must be understood and met, just as much as any external stakeholders’.

Make it agile

There’s a lot written in the digital world about “agile”. It’s become a buzzword, and it can be off-putting and disheartening.

It’s a pretty straightforward idea, though. When you’re developing a new digital product or service, the result isn’t necessarily going to look the same as you thought when you started. So make progress in small stages, review regularly where you are, and change direction as needed. Don’t set a strategy with no room for change. Make sure there’s space to iterate. Indeed building an organisation that can be responsive to change is at the heart of strategic approaches to using digital.

This also involves testing assumptions. All strategies contain assumptions about how things are going to work. But where possible, test that things actually work the way that you expect.

Focus on culture

Success with digital is often not about understanding technical stuff. That helps, of course; it’s important to know what’s out there and how you can use it. But a lot of it is about culture. It’s about being willing to embrace new things, and develop new structures. As you progress through your digital journey, you’ll want to make changes to your ways of working. So make sure that a human element is built into your planning.

Focus on reuse

This is a bit of a Catalyst obsession. Because too many charities, when faced with a problem, insist that they need a bespoke and individual solution. But this comes with significant disadvantages. Sure, it will be made for you, but it will also have only a handful of experts who made it who really know how it works. So keeping the solution up to date and fixing problems with it will be expensive. And if you discover you actually need something slightly different at some point in the future, change will be difficult.

So the best thing to do, when possible, is to take advantage of what’s already out there, either by adapting existing commercial solutions, using NoCode tools, or by adopting something another charity has already built.

Align it with the rest of the strategy

Digital technology is a servant to the rest of your strategy, and the link between that and the needs, behaviours and expectations of your community. And so a digital strategy needs to mesh with the rest of your strategy. It needs to help you get more quickly to where you’re already going.

Ask if you’re still doing the right thing

The phrase digital transformation comes up a lot. We’re somewhat sceptical of it. Digital change is a process. But from time to time, we see organisations who’ve been through the process of user testing and checking their assumptions, and come to a conclusion that they need to deliver something different. Either because they come to realise that the problem they are addressing has been solved elsewhere, or because they learn that the solution they’re offering is not the thing people need.

Particularly at this time where so many charities have had to use digital to deliver value to their communities and where there are hopes of some return to ‘normality’ – now is the time to reflect and consider a more strategic approach to digital, one that supports charities to become more responsive and resilient, and to rebound from the past year.

ACEVO members: join us on 6 May to hear from Dan Sutch and Chris Thorpe from CAST. Book now.

Narrated by a member of the ACEVO staff

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