How technology has changed charities in the last decade

Coming to the charity sector from private industry requires some adjustment.  When I joined Charity Technology Trust at the beginning of this year from an IT firm, I was already aware that there are many charities – particularly small ones – which were still being hampered by a creaky old IT infrastructure.  As small charities are habitually constrained by a lack of time, funds and often a deep enough understanding of the potential of IT, this is a common problem.

At the same time, in some areas such as communications and fundraising, the sector has been an enthusiastic and highly effective adopter of new technology. Ten years ago, the majority of charities were still contacting their supporters by post and receiving almost all small donations in the form of cash or cheques.  Mailings were slow and expensive because of print, paper and postage costs. They also had a very low success rate – even the most willing donor had to make an effort to return their donation to the charity.  Sponsorship drives seldom delivered more than a percentage of the pledges made because it was always such a hassle to collect the money.  The same was true of raffle tickets.

One of CTT’s earliest offerings was a software package which allowed charities to manage their mailing lists and contact supporters via email.  This simple piece of software resulted in huge cost savings for our customers, and the uptake was swift.  Before long there were more low-cost commercial solutions on the market, and all of us are now used to receiving email shots from the charities we support.

For me, online payment has to be the other single most important technological development for the third sector.  Not only for the now ubiquitous sponsorship sites, from JustGiving to Everyday Heroes, but also in the transformation of many other traditional fundraising activities.  Raffles can be conducted online, “virtual” badges can be attached to Facebook and Twitter accounts, and even auctions can take place virtually. Bucket-shaking on behalf of the RNLI or the Poppy Appeal attracts our attention partly because we now see so little of it.

Just as the major supermarkets of the world led the IT revolution that has brought debit and credit cards to corner shops, so the giants in the charity world are leading the way for their smaller cousins.  As Oxfam sets up its online vintage clothing store, even the smallest charity can now send out an email newsletter easily, and all of us can direct our friends to a website – possibly our own personalised website – to sponsor us online.  The challenge for the next decade is for those of us in IT to make sure that charities are aware of what’s out there and how they can put it to good use so that we can give the commercial world a run for its money.

Richard Craig is CEO of the Charity Technology Trust