Digital future

I have watched charities change, innovate and evolve over some fifteen years of judging the Charity Times Awards ‘Best Use of the Web’ category.

It all began in 1999, when Contact-a-Family became the inaugural winner for a site that set the standard for digital community engagement at the turn of a new millennium. Since then, we have awarded charities for daring to innovate as the web has spread to new platforms and you continue to surprise and impress us with your commitment to innovation even during financially-straitened times.

Year-on-year the bar for excellence is raised a notch or two higher, not by our panel of expert judges but by charities whose work continues to impress. We are proud to shine a spotlight on charities whose websites generate outstanding return-on-investment (ROI). The sector is proving itself able and willing to make digital channels integral to your central strategies enabling you to continually improve upon what you do best: inspire, inform and involve those in greatest need.

Future change

Does every charity charge into the digital future without fear of alienating themselves from donors or making costly mistakes? Not if the volume and range of entries in recent years is our guide. Some years we are overwhelmed with high quality projects. Some years only one or two demonstrate true innovation, courage and risk.

When times are tougher innovation is harder to find. In other sectors the opposite is true. Most companies understand that a recession is the best time to take creative risks and those that do often survive as a result. For charities, accountable for the way every pound of public money is spent, there is clearly a feeling that now is not the time to be flashy with cash.

Fortunately, innovation isn’t necessarily dependent upon big budgets. The 2013 winner tore up the old rule book. It wasn’t even a website. Refuge UK stepped forward with an innovation of which any corporate organisation hoping to prove its ability to stand head and shoulders above the competition would be proud.

Don’t Cover It Up is an eye-wateringly simple one-and-a-half minutes of innovative genius. On identifying an emerging online trend, Refuge UK forged a partnership with one of the UK’s most popular YouTube beauty ‘vloggers’ Lauren Luke (Lauren’s YouTube channel has half a million subscribers). Without prior explanation Lauren posted a powerful 90-second tutorial in partnership with Refuge UK demonstrating how to use make-up to ‘cover up’ bruising that may occur as a result of domestic violence (the video ends on a tense note before it is revealed that it is linked to Refuge UK’s campaign).

Since July 2012, the video has been viewed one and a half million times and generated five and a half thousand comments from the public. While these numbers sound impressive, without knowing how much Refuge UK spent on creating the campaign they don’t tell us anything about the project’s ROI. Here comes the game-changer: Refuge UK spent nothing at all on this campaign. The idea, the outstanding execution and the timing were the innovation.

The ROI — measured in impact and reach — demonstrates that in the digital economy it is the brightness of the idea accompanied by the tenacity of the charity that raises the bar. An element of luck is still involved. Some ideas catch light and go viral, others fall flat, but as Refuge UK’s example shows success can be about timeliness and courage rather than budget.

Innovative design

Creating a presence on emerging platforms is one way to innovate, but what else is there? Leonard Cheshire Disability (LCD), whose newly upgraded website is shortlisted for the 2014 Charity Times Awards, directed £160,000 (a proportion of which covered the costs of an additional digital team staff member) towards digital innovation including BSL (signed) video versions of key pages, increased use of high-impact imagery (rather than block after block of text), and new functionality that enables LCD to experiment with different content types.

For LCD, demonstrable return-on-investment is of central importance. “The new site generates lots of useful data but there’s no point having metrics unless we can act on the results”, says LCD’s digital media manager Will Howells.

“We have very clear conversion goals to ensure we focus on outcomes that support LCD’s activities as a whole. Each page on the site gets a score based on how much it has contributed and we use this data to identify which pages are working and which need improving or even removing. We have recently added functionality to run ‘content experiments’ and this allows us to do even more optimisation.”

Site key performance indicators for the first three years include increasing campaign newsletter sign-ups by 100 per cent, service enquiries by 25 per cent and online donations by 1,000 per cent. In just four months, LCD achieved its target for newsletter sign-ups, smashed its target for enquiries by more than 300 per cent and donations are up 250 per cent compared with the same period the previous year.

“There are lots of ways the site adds value”, says Howells. “To quantify it we assign a value to each goal, starting with an average single donation of £50. We then work with colleagues to assign a relative value. Using Google Analytics we get an idea of the value the website contributes to the organisation beyond just the business case targets. We calculate that it has averaged a ‘goal value’ of £18,000 a month. By this measure the site will have paid for itself within the first year of operation.”

Chilterns MS Centre, a smaller, regional charity with a budgeted income for 2014 of £750,000 may not have the capacity to devote as much money to developing its online presence but this is not to say its ambition is small.

Social media

Focussing on social media, and from a standing start, the charity increased its Twitter following to 282 and its Facebook fans to 561 in just four months. Although the numbers are not huge, even this level of participation has enabled the charity to achieve a number of wins. For instance, it has attracted runners to take part in the British 10K, secured raffle prizes and galvanised followers to nominate the Centre for a donation of £500 during National Small Charities Week (which it subsequently won).

Hannah Asquith of Chilterns MS Centre says: “Innovation is important to us because we want to reach a younger demographic and a strong digital presence enables us to communicate with our supporters in ‘real time’.”

You will not find examples of innovation for innovation’s sake in this sector. Charities do not seek to update or upgrade their digital activity every time trends change. Innovation tends to happen when a site refresh is scheduled rather than when there is a new social media bandwagon to catch.

There is no doubt that charities of all sizes are getting smarter about how and when to use digital channels and it is very pleasing to see Charity Times Awards winners holding their own in mainstream competitions.

While we may not innovate at the same time or for the same reasons as for-profit corporations there is a determination to use new technology and emerging digital channels for the benefit of service users and, as 2014’s crop of entries shows, plenty of enthusiasm for taking calculated risks where they promise to deliver substantial ROI.

Julie Howell is an IT consultant and sits on the judging panel for the Charity Times Awards

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