Digital – The Whole Truth

14th September by Deniz Hassan

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It’s time us fundraisers were honest with ourselves – we’ve really dropped the ball on digital.

And what’s worse is that we don’t even know how bad it is.

Here’s a fun little example just to illustrate. TPX Impact recently conducted a survey about digital transformation where a whopping 53% of organisations reckoned they’d class themselves as ‘digitally mature’; only 11% thought they were ‘immature’. At the same time nearly 60% ‘feel they feel they do not have the tools, resources and capacity to achieve their goals’. So we’ve basically got nearly 90% of organisations (that took the survey, I know) who essentially think they’re doing a half decent job but at the same time don’t feel they have the right tools to do a decent job.

When I say ‘behind’ I don’t mean that the actual state of digital in the sector is worse than it has been. Far from it. Organisations are doing more than ever. We’re doing ok tactically for sure (masked a lot by exceptional 2020 results which were obviously much higher across the board). But what I’m saying is that that we’ve moved far too slow and while digital has advanced massively on the whole, charities haven’t. They’re still doing the bare minimum. And the time is getting close to where we’ll stop being able to get away with it.

The holes are everywhere. From our understanding of technologies to how we plan and measure; from skills gaps at both leadership to a lack of talent coming through at operational level; from creating organisational structures that enable digital growth to embracing organisational cultures that allow it to thrive. A bit like the UK under the Tories… everything seems to be in decay.

Let’s start with technology… it’s getting dangerously away from us. While other, more forward thinking sectors are developing technology that brings value across the customer lifecycle, we’re still talking about CRM. We’re still stuck using archaic, monolithic platforms. And our version of a technological silver bullet is to just put a more modern version in. We’re thinking in outdated paradigms and we’re relying on the people selling us products to do the thinking for us. As a result we’re left with siloed data which we can’t accurately report on or segment (to name just two things).

Now let’s come to team structures and cultures, which goes hand in hand with the well-publicised digital skills shortage in the sector. First of all, yes there is a skills shortage. But why? We always assume it’s because ‘all the digital experts out there want to work for the big tech companies for more money’. Well that might be one reason but the elephant in the room is that, as a sector, we simply are not offering the correct cultures and structures that would entice people with these skills into our organisations. Let me ask you, as a budding data scientist, would you rather work in an organisation where you’re surrounded and supported by peers and more experienced leaders all working to achieve the same goals vs being ‘the data guy’ in a charity where nobody really knows what you do, nobody is there to advance your knowledge and you never really get to see the impact of your work?

Which takes me onto leadership. The people that make it all happen. Frankly a group of people who need much more support than is on offer. Support to understand a completely new set of rules; support to understand how to make the right decisions; support to know it’s ok not to know; support to know that it’s ok to try something and fail miserably in the knowledge that you at least did something. Because without this support our tendency is to avoid risk; we trust the wrong people and we make decisions that are short-term.

And because of this, there’s a big old vacuum to fill which is often done by agencies. We see it time and time again… we send out that RFP which we think is going to solve all of our problems. The RFP that says ‘Digital Agency Wanted! Must be able to do absolutely everything with next to no support from us’. And the agencies come knocking. They come armed with creative and spreadsheets alongside big old costs. And they say, ‘we can build you a digital strategy!’ and ‘it’s ok, we’ll do all the measurement for you!’. And then say ‘it’s not working because your content isn’t good enough’ and ‘your website experience isn’t good enough’ and ‘but our figures show it’s all going great’ and (my fave) ‘IT’S IOS 14’S FAULT!!!!.

And then, after 2 years and £megabucks we say the relationship wasn’t working and we publish the same brief again without even considering what the underlying issues were (see above).

And all of this is why the answer to our digital woes is often to bang in a new CRM, recruit a mid-level manager and sling money at an agency. And why we will continue to fail until we can fail no more.

Note: I realise this view may not be for everyone and I do invite constructive debate. In fact, we are looking to host a round table of Senior Charity and Digital Leaders in November (London, UK) to try and find a way forward. If you are interested in coming a long do drop Fliss a line at fliss@aawpartnership.com