Last night’s meeting of the charity digital leads was one that really got my brain turning and even as I sat down to blog, I think I may still have more questions than answers (but that would be the sign of a good debate). The topic for the evening was the thorny old subject of fundraising online; in my experience the scene for more than a few dust-ups between the different divisions within charities as power and responsibility become separated.

Katie kicked us off, reminding us that digital punches way below its weight as a mechanism for bringing in the donor cash and that far fewer of us donate online than shop that way. What lies beneath that statistic and what, if anything, can the digital leads do to change it was the evening’s topic.

We started off in fairly familiar territory – the nervousness of the Individual Giving teams about disturbing existing revenue streams and worries  around upsetting ‘Dorothy Donor’. There’s much hard graft going on to increase the level of digital understanding within fundraising but, in many places, digital remains the bolt on bit that you sort out after you know what your offline pack will look like.

There’s also a lot of selling in going on around engagement as a long-term investment, that doesn’t have a quick win measurable R.O.I. but which we all agreed was key. Universally there was lots of enthusiasm for digital coming from the fundraising teams and much of that centred around the acquisition of a younger supporter to add new blood to databases full of older supporters.

There was also talk of user research methods being brought in and the need to embed understanding of that sort of thinking throughout organisations.

We then got to what was, for me, the area I was most interested in, which can be summed up as follows: are we not getting the money in because we are operating as though the internet never happened? Of course, we have all added landing pages to our sites, replicating offline DM packs, and many of us have been involved in the creation of ‘ethical gift’ type sites. But largely these take offline thinking and extend it with an online presence. It’s still the same old tin rattling it always was.

But all of us have seen how digital can change ways of working and Kiva, Kickstarter, Idealist were all mentioned as sites which link supporter to supported in very real ways. The generation brought up on this kind of thinking will not slip easily into being asked to give to unrestricted funds where someone else will do the choosing about how best to spend their money.

Earlier in the year there was an article in The Economist talking about a correlation between the size of a charity’s social network and its online revenue.

“The charities that raise a lot from social media vary widely in size and budgets. But each has an average Facebook following of nearly 100,000, more than 15 times the norm, according to the NSNB report. They also now dedicate lots of staff time to social media and have carefully followed the success of their fund-raising.”

One of the implications is that it is a numbers game and building your numbers will equate to a rise in cash. A different argument could be made that says you can only get to 100k on Facebook if you are a very digitally engaged organisation and the examples they give are ones who offer transparency back to their supporters.

Where all that got me to, as I walked the dog this morning, was is that there is, in my opinion, a far bigger task that digital leads face than integrating with their Fundraising teams successfully and enabling the best DM online. They must also start the thinking at the top of the organisation that looks at what the organisation is trying to achieve and with whom and works out how to deliver that in the most cost-effective and engaging way possible.

As a group we talked about how difficult this is when the larger and more successful your organisation is the more infrastructure and legacy issues it brings with it.

I ran a strategy day aimed at trying to get this sort of digital thinking in place just before I left Age UK and, in the workshops, when everyone was encouraged to think as though they worked for a start-up virtually everyone suggested that producing digital platforms that enabled service user and supporter to come together was how they would develop. When they were asked to put their Age UK hats back on the constraints around what could be achieved started to come with them.

And that takes us neatly back to an issue that came up at the first meeting, that Charity Digital Leads are really leading organisational change. Without support for that sort of change at a very top level it requires amazing political skills to even engage people in that debate and as you do it you may be seen to be treading on some very big toes.

Every digital lead I have spoken with has more demand than they have resource and has a big hamster wheel to turn just to keep the show on the road so how we go about leading this innovation is a major question. Large charities, as a couple of people round the table noted, also have large systems, find agility difficult and can have processes that actively prohibit innovation.

I thought it worth asking how many teams have innovation budgets. I know I have bid for them in the past and, whilst patted on the back, I never actually got the cash. Innovation, where it exists as a department, often sits with non digital folks.

I don’t think anyone at the table was suggesting we throw the baby out with the bath water and stop using existing models of fundraising online but there was a strong sense that we must look at emerging models of engagement and commerce and at least be in a full debate about what they mean within our sector. We should definitely not just be looking at our traditional competitors and thinking we’re doing well if we are doing the same or better. Otherwise we will go the way of the travel agents, book sellers and insurance brokers that used to fill up high streets before the likes of Expedia, Amazon and the Meerkats turned up.

Thanks, as ever, to CharityComms and CogApp for organising the event, the level of discussion showed again how much a Heads of group has been needed.  Thanks as well to the folks on my table for the lively debate, under the rules I can’t name you, but you know who you are.

Thoughts, comments, criticisms, whatever welcomed!

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