October/November 2013: Technological engagement

Written by Antony Savvas
October/November 2013

Technological engagement

Antony Savvas says charities are approaching the opportunities offered by new technology with caution, but they shouldn’t be put off from testing the water



CHARITIES ARE often seen as IT laggards when it comes to adopting the new systems and practices that promise to improve operational efficiency and cut costs, but is the third sector making any progress on the IT front?

In business IT the hottest areas are cloud computing, mobile, social networking, and data analytics. All these segments, according to the hype, promise ways of working that allow organisations to increase productivity and cut costs.

Cloud computing allows organisations to move from capital expenditure (Capex) to operational expenditure (Opex) and save into the bargain, by not having high fixed costs for systems that are not used to capacity. Cloud computing does this by allowing organisations to use applications and services through a scalable and on-demand basis.

Need some extra servers to handle your increasing data demands? Well don’t buy them and the software that runs on them, instead hire the capacity and software you need from a cloud provider, that will host the hardware and applications in their own data centre for when you need them.

The same goes for desktop productivity software. Instead of using something like the Microsoft Office suite installed on every computer, why not use Microsoft
Office 365 or Google Apps for instance, hosted in the software supplier’s own data centre.

Not only is this way of working cheaper, it allows your staff to use those applications on any desktop, laptop, tablet or smartphone wherever and whenever they like.

There are of course connectivity and security issues when using the cloud and these concerns show up in every business survey of companies and other organisations when measuring actual cloud take up.

If a charity connects to the data centre of a cloud provider to get a service, it will usually be that charity that is responsible for making sure the network they use is up to scratch with the right bandwidth, to get those applications and services from the cloud provider before distributing them to their users.

Some applications take up more bandwidth than others and if the network is not configured in the right way, then users will experience frustrating delays in downloading apps and completing tasks. And with security, even if strong systems are in place at a charity there is no guarantee that the security is as good at the cloud service provider. Cloud security is an end-to-end process so all cloud customers have to ask the right questions about data security and service level agreements (SLAs), to make sure data leaks don’t happen at their cloud provider and the risk of a service outage is kept to a minimum.

Cloud benefits
Social welfare law and technology charity Lasa recently surveyed nearly 160 charities and not-for-profit organisations in the UK about the use of cloud technology. The research confirmed there was a perceived lack of security with cloud services, which was proving to be an important factor for slow cloud take-up in the sector. Maybe this isn’t surprising considering many charities hold a considerable amount of sensitive information about their service users and donors.

But respondents were also asked to highlight what benefits they thought the cloud offers. The vast majority (84 per cent) suggested that being able to access information and data from anywhere with an internet connection was a key advantage. There was also the perception that the cloud could save time and money.

Lasa chief executive Terry Stokes says: “When charities make the most of technology it means better services for the people they support. Although many cloud applications are low cost, funding cuts mean charity workers don’t feel they have time to try new things.”

But, he adds: “Despite the pressures of the recession, charities need to make the most of the resources they have to provide the best services to their clients.”

Peter Chadha, founder of DrPete, which is involved in IT project work at various charities, says the savings that can come through the cloud can reach as much as 80 per cent, mainly through lower infrastructure costs and cheaper software.

Chadha says: “The cloud is an absolutely amazing opportunity for charities. Normally charity IT budgets are constrained and the hardware and software put in consequently suffers. But with the cloud there is a much more level playing field, because hardware resources and software updates are all centralised and managed by external companies that have scale.”

He says: “The likes of Microsoft, Amazon, Google, Rackspace and countless others ensure that charities do not need to have the IT expertise which was once required, and neither do they need to invest in huge data centres, or have massive capital expenditure costs to get good systems.”

With the cloud, he says, charities with distributed and remote offices both in the UK and around the world, can genuinely communicate and work as one organisation with vastly reduced costs, as many of the systems essentially rely on just an internet connection.

Big Data and analytics
A buzz term across government, the public sector and business is Big Data. It covers the vast amounts of data generated by organisations in emails, databases, spreadsheets and documents, and the challenge it poses in gleaning the best bits to improve operations, in terms of sales leads, marketing, research and other intellectual capital.

It’s something that Medway Youth Trust, which tackles youth unemployment, has focused on in particular. Graham Clewes, CEO at Medway Youth Trust, says: “In our experience, the digitisation of charities is about cultural change within an organisation rather than the implementation of an IT programme.

“The first step is to be clear about initial goals for the work and to ensure
that all staff are part of the journey and are involved. It must not be something that originates and happens in an IT department somewhere. This requires engagement and sponsor-ship from the senior level and I don’t think this is any different in the commercial sector.”

The importance of Big Data has not been lost on the UK government. It recently opened its Open Data Institute in “Tech City”, east London. The Institute, whose founders include Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the “father of the web”, have assembled a team to help the public sector and business identify commercially valuable public data that can be efficiently shared over the cloud.

The UK government is working with the Institute to make data more readily available and accessible and to maximise its potential for stimulating growth. The government is already commmitted to releasing key open datasets on health, transport, weather and welfare. The government has already released thousands of datasets which companies, the public sector, charities and non-profits can access to help run their operations.

Social networking
The requirement to use social net-working is now a given in any organisation, and many charities have less catching up to do than in other areas, it seems. Blackbaud, a software and IT services firm for the charitable sector, recently published research in the area.

It found that 80 percent of non-profit organisations used social media of some
sort over the past year, with Facebook (87 per cent) and Twitter (84 per cent) the most popular for communicating with supporters.

Martin Campbell, Blackbaud Europe’s director of strategy and innovation, says, “Social networks are where people share information and chat with their network of contacts, so are not only an effective way for charities to raise overall awareness and help with fundraising, but also a powerful way for event organisers to drive participation and engage supporters.”

Natasha North, marketing manager of Pancreatic Cancer Action, says, “Pancreatic Cancer Action is very active on social media. Currently, we’re looking at tools like Hootsuite to help us manage the various channels available and improve our presence online.

“As well as being a cost-effective way to spread the word about the charity with our marketing activity, it also helps us keep in contact with supporters and fundraisers.”

Hootsuite, Falcon Social and other social media management tools from the likes of Google, Salesforce and Oracle, are increasingly necessary for organisations to use to get a full handle on their social media presence and success.

They can be used for instance to quickly discover and react to any bad publicity about the organisation on a social network, and chart how problems are addressed and rectified in response.

Mobile tech
On mobile, Blackbaud’s Campbell says: “The rise of social networks is also a major factor in why not-for-profits must get their mobile strategy correct. “Facebook recently released its number of daily users in the UK for the first time, and the figures revealed that four out of five of the 24 million Britons who log onto Facebook each day, do so using a smartphone or tablet computer.”

With so many people using Facebook via their mobile it stands to reason that any not-for-profit Facebook pages have to be mobile-optimised to ensure the message reaches the intended audience. Cambell says: “Our research shows
nearly half of not-for-profits surveyed can now facilitate mobile SMS-giving, but mobile needs to go much further — emails and web pages must be mobile-optimised to help create a truly mobile experience for supporters.”

But charities shouldn’t beat themselves over the head about a lack of progress here. Recent research from the Internet Advertising Bureau UK reveals that just 11 of the UK’s 100 highest spending online advertisers — very large companies — now have websites designed to automatically display content in the most appropriate way, for whichever device a consumer is using.Called “responsive design”, such content is optimised to reflect whether a consumer is using a PC, laptop, tablet or smartphone to visit a website.

Getting the online content right
The value of charities getting content right is plain to see, even though large companies are struggling to do it. UK charities could generate £35.5 million more if they provided “better online engagement” with the public, according to research from YouGov.

The research revealed that 17 per cent of 2,000 consumers questioned would donate up to £15 more per month if a charity provided a more personal approach via their website or email. This could include remembering which
content has been seen on the website, viewing preferences (“responsive design”) and charity campaigns of interest.

“Consumers increasingly expect good online interaction with websites because
the likes of Amazon have done it so well,” says Haylie Oriot, charity sector manager at Eduserv, the non-profit public and third sector IT provider, which commissioned the research.

“Genuinely good web engagement, which understands a donor’s previous
interactions and uses this information to provide a more bespoke experience, has yet to take off in the charity sector,” says Oriot.

Many charities are approaching the opportunities offered by new technology with understandable caution, but as most of it is online now, they must realise there is a more level playing field when it comes to adoption, so they shouldn’t be put off from testing the water in all areas.

Antony Savvas is a freelance journalist



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