The digital divide between charities

COVID19 spurred a burgeoning digital revolution. Many charities will build on this to better serve purpose. Others are being left behind. Ignoring the digital divide between charities should not be an option for our sector writes CCA CEO David Crosbie in Pro Bono News, 14 January 2021.

The digital divide between charities, Pro Bono News, 14 January 2021

“Soon the digital divide will not be between the haves and have nots, it will be between the know-hows and the non-know-hows.” – Howard Rheingold

At the start of a new year many charities allocate some time for planning, setting goals and priorities for the year ahead. Given what was in 2020, and the looming challenges of 2021, this process assumes even more importance this year. 

The drive for charity forward planning, development and reform is not only internally driven. Charities are often pressed by governments, funders and others to review their organisational capacity including: their effectiveness in achieving their mission; their evaluation and performance feedback processes; governance structures; finance management, investment and procurement practices; staff selection, development, retention and training; communications and marketing programs; partnership building; investment and social enterprise activities; community engagement; advocacy and change strategies; etc. 

Most charities do not have the time, expertise or resources required to engage in all these desirable forms of organisational enhancement. Given these limitations, how do charities choose what to invest in, how do they prioritise organisational development? The answer will always depend on the needs of each charity – what is critical in one may not be so critical in another. 

One area that cuts across many aspects of organisational operations within a wide range of charities is the adoption and adaptation of digital technology. Over the past year, many charities have had to devote additional resources to building their technological capacity in response to COVID-19 impacts. But there is still considerable potential for most Australian charities to make better use of technology. 

The Digital Technology in the Not-for-Profit Sector 2019 report from Infoxchange, Techsoup and Connecting Up outlined the challenges being faced by not-for-profit organisations in undertaking this journey: 

  • Nearly two-thirds of organisations surveyed indicated they are less than satisfied with the way they use technology. 
  • Only 56 per cent of small organisations (up to 20 staff) are making use of cloud technology. 
  • Only 37 per cent of organisations reported their information systems allow them to understand the impact of their services and outcomes. 
  • Key barriers to digital transformation include budget/funding, staff/volunteer capability and access to affordable and skilled technical resources.

The follow up 2020 Infoxchange survey of almost 500 charities and not for profits found that over two thirds of the organisations participating in the survey did not have the digital capacity they needed to be able to respond to the organisational challenges of COVID-19 including having staff work from home and transferring face to face services online. 

The chief economist at the Bank of England Andy Haldane recently wrote

“With the demand for their services set to remain high, while finances remain tight, there is a pressing need for organisations to find ways of continuing to do more with less. The COVID crisis has provided the blueprint for doing so: digital transformation… Most well-functioning markets rely on well-functioning infrastructures. In the 19th and 20th centuries, this meant things like public road and rail; in this century it means digital infrastructure. But the charitable sector often lacks the digital frameworks needed to unleash its full potential. In most countries, for example, there is no effective digital means of recording, much less rewarding, those engaged in voluntary activities. This constrains the supply of volunteers, especially among less well-off individuals, and limits the enormous value they are known to create.” 

COVID-19 is one of the drivers of digital reform, the shift from face to face to online shopping and giving is another, as is the increasing need for flexibility in areas like health, education and training, workplace reform, etc. 

Haldane and others have pointed out that over the last 12 months, the impact of COVID-19 has effectively highlighted the digital divide within the charities sector. There are some charities that have embraced change, built digital capacity, expanded their services and capacity. There are also thousands of charities in Australia that have found themselves unable to transform in ways that would enable them to keep serving their communities. Many of these charities have had to put some of their programs and services in hibernation.

CCA and the Charities Crisis Cabinet recognised the urgent need to address the digital divide in the charities sector and are supporting efforts by Infoxchange and others to build digital capacity, particularly for smaller less well-resourced charities. The push for a national charity and not-for-profit transformation fund is part of this work. 

The NSW government has already acknowledged this issue in its recent budget, allocating $50 million to a fund for small and medium sized social support organisations to modernise including adoption of new technology. Unfortunately, many charities who most need access to this kind of funding operate outside the parameters of this fund.

As we enter another year where COVID-19 will have a major impact on charities, and forward planning has become more complex, it has never been more important to make the time for active reflection within charities about how to fulfill their mission more successfully and better serve their communities over the coming 12 months. Charities could do worse than begin this reflection by asking if they might be able to benefit through more effective use of technology in the way they go about their work.  

Hopefully, over the coming 12 months, new resources will be made available to enable enhancements to digital capacity that will significantly improve the productivity and effectiveness of the charities sector in Australia. Ignoring the digital divide between charities should not be an option for our sector. 

Read on Pro Bono News: the-digital-divide-between-charities