How COVID-19 drove the charity sector to embrace tech

Before the pandemic, the vast majority of the charity sector primarily relied on traditional methods to fuel fundraising, such as generating donations through physical events and awareness-raising campaigns. While these tactics were effective, the onset of the COVID-19 crisis, and the resulting mass move to online, meant that every sector – including charities – had to rethink how they worked. Many businesses in the corporate world were unprepared, having to rapidly accelerate their digital transformation initiatives in a matter of weeks. The same applied to charity and non-profit organisations. Back in 2019, a Charity Digital report identified that 63% of charities lacked a digital strategy, demonstrating the tech gap that those working in the sector were left to bridge when the virus hit.

At the same time, the pandemic increased demand for charities’ services. Organisations working on the front line to support people most affected by the crisis had to pivot quickly to use digital tools for fundraising purposes. This shift to online was a positive one, opening up new avenues for charities to raise funds. Yet in many cases, getting digital right was challenging. Many organisations – particularly small and medium non-profits – found it difficult to acquire the right skills and resources to make the move successfully.

Looking ahead, the sector will be challenged to continue building on the digital strategies implemented during the pandemic, striking the right balance between in-person and digital methods to generate funds.

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The move towards digital engagement and fundraising

The last year and a half has driven non-profits, charities and grassroots organisations to dramatically re-assess their existing approaches to generating funds. Amid national lockdowns, methods such as face-to-face fundraising and in-person events were not an option. Digital engagement and digital fundraising therefore became the tactics of choice for many to help provide vital support to communities – and it paid off.

The impacts have been startling. The most recent COVID-19 Voluntary Sector Impact Barometer, released in July 2021, found that 81% of charities changed how they use digital tech during the pandemic.

By moving towards online storytelling and fundraising strategies, such as digital marketing and engagement campaigns via social media, charities were able to reach audiences they were not previously able to target with traditional approaches. Crucially, the move to digital has the potential to serve as a great equaliser for charity organisations. While being a well known name will get you to a certain point, with a smart digital strategy, any organisation – no matter the size – can showcase its individuality and illustrate the impact of their fundraising campaign.

Recently, the M+R Benchmarks Study found that smaller non-profits in the UK and US saw a 32% increase in online revenues during 2020. This rate of growth demonstrates the potential for digital to open up new channels of unrestricted funding for smaller organisations which can be spent as they see fit – and contribute to a real shift of power towards locally-led interventions.

For many small and medium organisations in the charity sector, however, the move to digital is easier said than done. Challenges arise when it comes to these non-profits not having access to the necessary tools and training for digital transformation and, in turn, online fundraising. Opportunities to learn essential skills can be limited. Often, they are faced with a choice between using expensive and inaccessible training programmes or generic online courses, putting a lot of pressure on the sector as a whole.

Digital training for reaching global audiences

One example of an organisation that navigated the shift to digital and trained their staff to engage new audiences online amid the pandemic is AdvocAid. Working with women and girls caught up in Sierra Leone’s unjust legal system, the non-profit provides holistic access to justice through free legal representation, educational empowerment, support for women in detention and a ‘moving forward’ programme, ensuring detainees leave as stronger women with brighter futures.

A report by UN Women found that the impacts of COVID-19 are exacerbated for women and girls simply by virtue of their sex. AdvocAid knew it was vital to find ways to respond to the crisis and for those reliant on their services.

With a small team working to support clients across the country, alongside the added pressure of COVID-19 limiting access to their clients, the team had to find a solution to reach and support marginalised women. Having developed strong relationships with core donors at the start of the pandemic, they were able to amplify their key stories and secure mobilised emergency funding quickly in early 2020 – but longer-term funding was harder to access.

As many services shifted online, AdvocAid saw this as an opportunity to increase digital fundraising efforts, targeting more individual donors, as well as continuing to work with institutional funds. Through an innovative partnership with Global Giving, AdvocAid joined the Lightful BRIDGE programme, which allowed the team to learn new ways to reach a global audience through digital marketing and engagement campaigns, offering the potential to supercharge fundraising.

With the appropriate training, they were able to target donors more effectively by adopting audience personas. Effective storytelling proved to be an essential way for AdvocAid to capture the attention of new donors and build long-term relationships. In fact, its new digital fundraising strategy enabled the organisation to raise 151% more than a tracked control group of similar-sized non-profits over a period of 12 months. Not only that, the team achieved widespread audience growth on their social media channels.

In a time where charities found themselves struggling to reach their audiences, digital fundraising tools and social media campaigns were essential for helping the sector overcome key obstacles. In the post-COVID “hybrid” era, digital will remain an important part of fundraising strategies, with organisations looking to deliver a combination of online and in-person engagement.

The latest COVID-19 Voluntary Sector Impact Barometer found that more digital skills are urgently needed for the sector, and we passionately agree. Provided that organisations of every size have access to the right tools and training, digital storytelling and fundraising have the potential to break down barriers, delivering greater accessibility and opportunities for smaller charities and nonprofits. Ultimately, the sector can have a bright future ahead – the key now is to keep up the momentum and continue building on the progress that has already been made.

Written by Vinay Nair, CEO and co-founder of Lightful

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