How can charities overcome the challenges of going digital?

When national charity Carers UK wanted to reach more people, in a simple, practical and affordable way, it created ‘Jointly’. Jointly is an app designed especially for carers and it combines group messaging with other useful features including to-do and medication lists, calendars and much more. Today, the app has been downloaded more than 2,000 times and 12 employers and service providers are now offering Jointly to their employees. One carer remarked: “We used it a lot when Mum felt unwell a few weeks back. We could report back to each other with no need for phone calls or texts. We really saw the difference it made that week.”

Carers UK are a great example of how charities can harness the power of digital technology to have a greater impact on the people they help. The increasing take-up and reducing cost of smartphones and other technology presents a great opportunity for charities to reach more people and deepen their services for existing users. Along with increasing reach, digital tools and services can be cheaper for people to access, personalised to specific groups, and delivered in ways that fit with people’s lives – so on their phones or online.

So, given all the benefits, why aren’t more charities developing innovations that digitise their products and services? A quick scan of the sector reveals that whilst some charities are leading the way in areas such as digital fundraising and social media (think #nomakeupselfie, the Ice Bucket Challenge, or the new #wakeupcall), relatively few are actually adapting their delivery models to digital.

Yet this isn’t because charities are simply not interested or behind the times.  Our new report, ‘Going Digital’ explores the unique set of challenges that charities face on their journey to digitising components of their work.  Key issues include how to develop or bring on board new skills, having a clear idea of the audience the tech is aimed at, keeping focused on strategy, getting input from partners, and knowing where to go for additional funding.

Some tips for charities considering developing digital innovations include:

  1. Get the support of your Board as early as possible – no Board likes surprises, not least when it takes them out of their comfort zone, so get peoples buy-in from the start. You might want to consider getting someone with specialist experience involved to guide the Board as things progress.
  2. Find a developer who shares your values – it’ll save you time, money, and patience in the future if you take time to find someone you really want to work with and who understands your ultimate goal. Don’t just pick the first techy you find!
  3. Keep your eyes on the prize – it’s easy to get distracted by developing the app itself, but don’t forget that technology is a means and not the end.  At the end of the day it’s more important that the technology really works for people than if it takes one click-through or two.
  4. Reach out for help when you need it – there’s support available in this space from advice through to incubators, so ask around and find out what’s out there that could help you.
  5. Plan the funding to avoid losing momentum – you’ll need funding for each stage of development from working up the idea, through to developing the prototype and beyond into mass scale-up. So work out how much you’ll need and where it might come from as part of the planning process.

The rewards for charities making the most of the digital opportunity are potentially great. But it’s not an easy journey to get there, so we need to pull together in sharing our knowledge, resources and experiences so that it’s not just a handful of charities leading the charge, but the norm for the sector.


By Isabel Newman, Nesta Impact Investment Analyst