Skip to content Skip to footer


Charity doesn’t end at home: understanding digital disruption in the Third Sector

by Redweb, 12 October 2021

Read Time: 5 minutes

There is an old adage that “although charity begins at home, it should not end there”.

The phrase speaks to the roots of caring and giving. Most people absorb their ideals and learn the importance of love and compassion from their family. The adage teaches us that while these values are born from our homes, they should follow us in our lives as we move into the world.

For much of modern history, charities and non-profit organisations have counted on the generosity of the general public through physical cash donated in face-to-face interactions. But in our current era - this has changed dramatically.

COVID-19 has radically altered the landscape of our lives and shifted our habits dramatically. So although charity still begins at home, it is now much easier for it to stay there. People are moving around less. They are more hesitant to engage in conversation with strangers. And they are carrying far less physical cash.

This sudden shift in our social context has slammed the accelerator on the digital transformation of society. Charities need to quickly adapt to the new codes and conventions of consumer behaviour in order to future proof their work and continue to fight for their causes.

How has the landscape changed?

There are multiple forces changing the way we act and donate.

Charities that are not always front of mind, like the RNID and Hearing Link, rely on generating empathy and building connections in person. Now, with concerns around social distancing, in person donors are at risk of becoming viewed as social pariahs - even more than they already were.

Equally charities are competing with a reduced share of wallet. Whilst the short-term impact of COVID was felt predominantly through social change - the long term financial repercussions are still to be felt. Furlough schemes have helped keep money flowing through the lockdown periods. But as these cease at the end of September, charities and businesses alike will likely see a significant reduction in revenue.

Amidst this economic uncertainty, the power of a charity’s brand and communications becomes paramount. The emotional connection to the cause has to be clear and profound. And the route to action must be intuitive and seamless.

Habits and confidence in engaging and spending through digital channels has proliferated across demographics through COVID-19 - alongside the mass penetration of digital devices such as smartphones.

People are more comfortable with engaging through digital than ever before. This naturally presents an opportunity for charities to grow their presence and revenues in these spaces. But there is a critical challenge: they aren’t just competing with each other.

Donors won’t just compare their online experience with other charities - they compare it with any digital experience. They are competing with Amazon, Netflix, Boots. Digital disruption sets standards that span across categories. To effectively capture attention and spark engagement online, charities need to deliver experiences that meet the expectations of their audiences.

This requires a significant leap in thinking. Many charities are historic, and consequently slow moving, organisations. They are not structurally designed for ‘disruption’. But the risk for these brands does not come from evolution as much as it comes from inaction. Changes are inevitable for the sector - and if charities do not move quickly they could be left behind by innovations elsewhere.

Disruption works differently in the third sector. Now charities have to view their digital aspects as more than a single channel - it has to connect all aspects of the business and help deliver a unified brand.

How can charities respond?

Transformation isn’t about technology. It’s about people. Necessity is the mother of invention - and behaviour is the father of action.

How we think, act, socialise, and shop has been slowly morphing since the turn of the century. COVID-19 has ignited the pace of change driving these behaviors and accelerated the adoption of habits. Charities need to adapt to human behaviours in order to protect their brand and the people it serves.

Digital transformation is about taking a human first approach. Charities cannot simply use technology to digitally replicate current tactics. You need to address new habits with new tactics - this is not a case of lifting and shifting strategy.

At Redweb we help charities deliver service design that aligns with modern consumer habits and expectations. It isn’t about asking: “how can we make this digital?”. Instead we explore “what drives action in people? What makes them donate?”.

People want to feel like they are making a difference. Charities need digital solutions which address simple behavioural elements - like how the contactless donor machine doesn’t get heavier the more you donate compared to a bucket. Contactless means nothing physical has been given. This affects the true sense of giving and is less satisfying. The weight of the bucket is only noticed by the bucket holder.

These things can seem intangible but it matters because it can leave people feeling disconnected. Technology is meant to support the person making the change. Digital should be about enhancing the human experience, not replacing it.

What does the perfect solution look like?

The perfect solution for digital transformation in the Third Sector is yet to be discovered. Instead, charities should look to discover it and develop their offer with an experiment first mentality.

This is best described through Jim Collins ‘Bullets then Cannonballs’ analogy. First, you fire bullets (low-cost, low-risk, low-distraction experiments) to figure out what will work—calibrating your line of sight by taking small shots.

Then, once you have empirical validation, you fire a cannonball (concentrating resources into a big bet) on the calibrated line of sight. Calibrated cannonballs correlate with outsized results; uncalibrated cannonballs correlate with disaster. The ability to turn small proven ideas (bullets) into huge hits (cannonballs) counts more than the sheer amount of pure innovation.

Donation driving digital experiences for Guide Dogs

As Guide Dogs’ digital partner, we ensured every action we took moved them forward as an organisation and empowered their teams. We acted as a catalyst for change, providing expertise and education across an array of digital disciplines.

Having helped teams across the charity to identify and document key barriers, we formed a strategy to then overcome them. A digital roadmap, campaign, and reimagined website later, the charity went on to have its highest income on record – putting Guide Dogs in a great position to weather a turbulent 2020.

The pandemic era has meant we are all spending more time at home and in digital spaces. But it does not mean that charity has to end there.

Charities need to adopt an experiment first mentality which reflects the new habits and behaviors of donors, and identifies new ways to drive conversations and engagement wherever they are. In the digital space, customer experience is the only competitive advantage. This means charities have more ‘rivals’ than ever - but also an incredible opportunity to radically shorten the gap between giver and receiver.

This isn’t about digital. It’s about adapting to the lives of the things that are at the core of every charitable organisation: people.


Insights straight to your inbox

Sign up now to be the first to know when our experts publish a new article.

Your information helps us monitor and improve our content, we will never share it with anyone else. We only send emails we think you’ll find valuable – you won’t hear from us more than once a week. You can unsubscribe any time.