At the most recent Net Squared Midlands meeting, we discussed whether or not charities need Customer Relationship Management (CRM) systems. As a developer of an open source CRM system, it probably comes as no surprise that we are firm believers that they do.

As the discussion developed we moved onto the consideration of how the adoption of systems, to manage the interactions with clients, is symbolic of the digital maturity of the sector. We visit many voluntary and community organisations to talk about adopting digital tools and invariably the discussion gets passed to the person in the office that understands computers.

This seems to indicate that digital transformation isn’t embedded in organisations. Obviously, our anecdotal experience of meeting a limited number of organisations isn’t robust enough to call for a revolution in approach. 

To get a more evidence-based approach it is worth looking at the Lloyds UK Business Digital Index 2017. This annual survey looks at Small to Medium Size Enterprises and Charities to assess their basic digital skills. In the four years since the survey’s inception they have seen year on year improvements in the charitable sector but with only 20% of charities achieving full basic skills there is clearly a lot to be done. 

Since looking at these figures I’ve been thinking about what can be done to improve digital transformation in the voluntary and community sector.

There are a number of barriers that pose a challenge to the sector: –

• Digital transformation is not considered core business
• It is difficult to recover the costs
• The benefits are often not articulated

Essentially these all boil down to one common problem in organisations; digital transformation is not driven at board and trustee level. Too often the potential benefits to an organisation are obvious to staff but this understanding is not reflected in the governance of organisations. 

Age is always a dubious proxy for digital skills but with the average age of a charity trustee being 61 we wonder if this is a factor in the lack of drive towards digital transformation in the sector.

One of the things all voluntary organisations can do is ensure that there is one person on the board that is responsible for digital. That individual can hold the organisation to account for three areas of development: –

1) Digital infrastructure and processes
2) Use of data
3) Social media and marketing

All of these areas contribute to the bottom line of an organisation. Digital processes can directly contribute to cost savings whilst infrastructure, and keeping it up to date, can keep an organisation operating legally.

All organisations that work with individuals generate data in some form. Even those working with digitally marginalised communities need to ensure data is secure and useful in order to understand the people they work with.

As funding becomes scarce then organisations need to promote themselves to others who might want to access their services or even those that might fund them. Social media is one to tool to do that. At a relatively low cost, this sort of promotion should be a key element of business plans.

It’s worth remembering that digital is just a means to an end. There is nothing in the three priorities, highlighted above, that require a deep technical knowledge. In some respects, passing the responsibility for digital off to the technical person is exactly what has made it a marginalised activity.

Our challenge to the sector is to look at the people on boards and ask the question, “who is driving digital in this business?” If the answer is “no-one” then a vacancy has just popped up.