Embrace disruption and ride the digital wave

Zone alumnus Julie Dodd, author of a groundbreaking report on the take-up of digital in the charity sector, gazes into her crystal ball to look at the future of pro-social...

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The internet revolution and the disruption it’s caused in everything from travel to journalism are well documented. But digital disruption hasn’t ended yet, and my report The New Reality  reveals that charities are next in line to face dramatic change.

Thanks to contributions from the likes of Martha Lane Fox, British Heart Foundation CEO Simon Gillespie and Steve Rogers, Google’s director of EMEA, plus views from the Government Digital Service and RSPB, I found there is still distance to go before pro-social sector leaders fully understand and are ready to back this digital transformation, even though they fear ending up with services – and a workforce – that are not fit for purpose.

The study discusses specific barriers like these and offers potential solutions, but also paints a vivid picture of what the third sector could look like if it embraces this disruption. So let’s jump ahead to 2020 and see how different things might look...

(c) Moyann Bren

2020 vision

It’s not quite flying cars and robot waiters, but the changes that have happened in the third sector have been pretty radical.

Health causes have seized upon the revolution in care brought about by wearables and trackers. People know so much more about how their minds and bodies work thanks to these new kits, and GPs increasingly prescribe apps instead of pills, for conditions from diabetes to depression.

There’s still work to do on the education system, but parents don’t worry so much about the curriculum because education-focused charities have partnered with digital learning platforms such as FutureLearn to give kids as broad an education as they want, from botany to robotics. Many children study part-time at online international institutions such as Harvard and the TED Institute, facilitated by virtual reality classrooms. The automatic translation software in the Facebook VR headsets has broken down national boundaries, and some of our children’s closest friends now live in Japan, Korea and Brazil.

International development has seen some of the most sweeping changes. Since the launch of the Google internet satellite programme, developing nations have started to leapfrog the West in speed of tech adoption. When emergencies strike, there are now few areas in the world where critical supplies can’t be 3D-printed locally and drone-dropped where they’re needed, saving the hundreds of thousands of pounds we used to spend on airlifting supplies halfway around the world.

Rattling the digital tin

In fundraising it took us until 2017 to hit the tipping point where digital fundraising consistently brought in more income than some of our older methods. One of the big shifts was in frictionless giving. The average on-the-street event now raises 20 per cent more than it used to just by switching from shaking tins to shaking contactless payment devices... (although it was only when we added back in the noise of coins being shaken that the public really took to it).

None of us expected these changes to happen so quickly – but we had underestimated how fast our beneficiaries and supporters would adapt to these new technologies.

There’s also been a lot of little improvements: for example, we've regained the 11 minutes a day that we all lost to connectivity errors and battery issues on our devices. When added up, that’s nearly three days a year each we got back. I’d like to think that my fellow 2020-ites are using those days well. However, I suspect they’re still using them to watch videos of cats...

A final note: Many of the ideas above are possible right now – but digital transformation in the sector is being hampered by a lack of pioneering leadership. Now is the time to act, and if organisations don't, they may find themselves upstaged by more digital-ready competitors.