Digital inclusion and transformation – a critical priority for Australian charities

The gap between where charities are and where they might like to be can only ever be breached if more resources are allocated to bridging the digital divide between charities and between communities writes CCA CEO David Crosbie:

Digital inclusion and transformation – a critical priority for Australian charities, Pro Bono News, 4 November 2021

Two years ago, when CCA was first developing a roadmap to strengthen the charities sector, use of technology was one of eight key priorities identified by sector leaders. Technology and how it might be applied was seen as being critical to enhancing future contributions and sustainability of the charities and not-for-profit sector.

Most of us are aware how the digital divide at a community level exacerbates and complicates disadvantage. Never has this been clearer than during the pandemic when access to reliable usable internet connections and appropriate devices were an obligatory starting point for home schooling, shopping, obtaining health care and other services. 

The digital divide in Australia means around 10 per cent of us or 2.5 million people are highly digitally excluded, and many more do not have the resources or skills to effectively navigate their way in a digital marketplace or even on the myGov website.

We have yet to fully realise the impact of the digital divide on our communities during the pandemic, but many are concerned that a significant percentage of marginalised people who withdrew from community engagement will not reconnect. This includes some at risk school students. 

Charities often work with individuals, families and communities where digital exclusion is a factor. In some cases, getting people connected is a fundamental process of empowerment, a process that can make a huge difference in the kind of lives people have access to.

There is also a digital divide between charities – some are much better resourced and connected than others. There are still many charities where the technology is largely about email, spreadsheets, and filing multiple hard copies of key documents. Other charities are already drawing on the capacity of robots, avatars and remote connections to machines controlling all manner of functions and activities.

When thinking about what is needed to strengthen the way charities use technology, a good place to start is with some understanding about where the charities sector currently is.

As highlighted above, generalisations across the charities sector can be problematic, and the level of information available about the use of technology by charities is limited, but this week we have been given an important glimpse into the current state of play across the Australian and New Zealand charities sectors.

The Infoxchange Group has released its sixth annual review of Digital Technology in the Not-for-profit Sector drawing on the experiences of over 600 charities. 

Key findings include:

  • 25 per cent of not for profits felt they were completely or largely unprepared to support staff working from home.
  • Only 5 per cent of respondents said that COVID-19 had not affected the way they deliver services, with 33 per cent of organisations saying that COVID-19 had significantly altered the way services were delivered and 8 per cent completely suspending services. Significant differences were noted between Victoria, NSW, the rest of Australia and New Zealand.
  • Almost 50 per cent of organisations do not have an effective information security plan in place. There is an urgent need for improvement in information security practices including the use of multi-factor authentication and security awareness training for staff.
  • Survey respondents spent on average 6.4 per cent of their operating expenses on digital technologies, a small increase from 6 per cent in 2020.
  • 44 per cent of not for profits said improving their website was a top priority. 
  • Only 38 per cent of organisations reported that their primary information system allows them to understand the impact of their service.

But there is some good news:

  • Despite the continued impact of the pandemic, the sector’s ability to deliver critical services improved this year following accelerated digital transformation in 2020 and 2021.
  • This year’s report shows a significant shift in the number of not for profits who have implemented cloud technology to improve productivity and collaboration – an increase from 58 per cent last year to 69 per cent this year.
  • 41 per cent of not for profits adopted at least one type of new or emerging technology with an increase in the use of artificial intelligence and machine learning technologies.

While few people ever factored a global pandemic into future planning, the past 18 months have been important in compelling an accelerated increase in technology uptake across the charities sector. This has been a key aspect of the charity sector response to the restrictions on face-to-face services and events.

We now know the charities sector has been advancing its use of technology, but in some ways the bigger question is what we want charities to be doing in relation to the strategic adaption and adoption of technology.

While we cannot prescribe a level of technological use for every charity in Australia, we can make statements about the kind of improvements we would like to see across the sector.

As a judge in the Connecting Up Not-for-profit Digital Technology Awards I have seen some outstanding examples of what can be achieved when an organisation drives its mission through engagement with their community, informed by outcomes and powered by digital transformation.

Most people would agree that if we are to engage in positive digital transformation, more Australian charities should have access to the technologies they require to better achieve their mission. This means not just thinking about how technology can improve the delivery of existing programs and services, but also how emerging technologies may offer a better way of serving a community. This doesn’t mean just buying a new set of laptops or hoping the accidental IT worker has the expertise to come up with a plan. We need to encourage and support charities to draw on real expertise and technology that delivers improvements in the way they engage with and serve their communities. 

There is a very clear imperative here; the gap between where charities are and where they might like to be can only ever be breached if more resources are allocated to bridging the digital divide between charities and between communities.

This is why CCA has so strongly supported the Digital Transformation Hub. It is also why digital transformation has to be on the agenda of every charity as an integral part of improving the way charities serve their communities and achieve their mission.

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