This article in the Third Sector by John Simcock outlines the challenges facing charities as they embrace new forms of technology. Here John outlines the case for closer working between those from IT and HR backgrounds in charitable organisations to ensure that the results of investment in digital technology is “new, smarter way of working and [and understanding of] what digital transformation should really mean for the charity”. For those of us that have looked at the issues facing HR professionals (see articles here for example) in other sectors this issue will perhaps not come as any surprise.
John cites research that highlighted the majority of charities were focusing on the use of digital technologies in fundraising but the implications for other activities were being neglected. Interestingly, a report from this research suggests that those involved in digital projects rate HR leaders in their organisations as those with the least understanding of the potential and challenges of these sorts of IT initiatives in the charitable sector. John also highlights the case study of the cystic fibrosis trust whose digital strategy has involved innovative ways of bringing employees, volunteers and beneficiaries together; which is particularly critical given the risks of infection for those living with this genetic condition.
In the case of HR, this highlights the importance of thinking beyond the traditional concern with employees of an organization to a broader concern for all those who are involved in, and essential to, the aims and objectives of the charity. Understanding volunteers involvement and experience of their ‘work’ in the third sector and how they are using various digital media is a key focus of our own research and we hope to be able to contribute more to the debate as our research progresses.
Looking across twitter today it seems as though opinion is divided as to whether the voluntary sector is ready to embrace the digital age. Here is is suggested that we might be stuck in the stone age:
Whilst others are highlighting that technology is moving on and there are new opportunities such as virtual reality to be considered:
We’ve recently been talking to stakeholders across the sector as part of our research and have found that often organisations experience both a sense of moving forward and of being stuck in the past – sometimes at the same time! Different technologies, applications and uses make digitization in volunteering a complex issue. We hope to share more with a summary of our findings soon!
The Arts Professional recently shared this case study of digital volunteering in Birmingham Museums which highlights the range of activities that might be involved. Perhaps unsurprisingly there was an initial focus on involving volunteers in social media activities. Here there is some acknowledgement in the article that it might be rather daunting for a new volunteer to take on the role of being a public voice of the organisation, though in this case with support it obviously seems to have worked well. It would be great to see more detail about the sort of support provided to volunteers and how this helped with different types of issues the volunteers encountered – we will try and find out more to share on this blog!
It was also great to read how digital volunteering here had gone beyond managing social media accounts and that the Museums are thinking of new ways, such as managing digital archives, that more volunteers can get involved.
As Rebecca Fletcher says in the article: “Plans for the coming years will see us developing these roles further and responding to current technologies to engage with more people. As an organisation we feel that museum volunteering should be for all and working with volunteers digitally allows us to engage with more and more people“
This story in the Guardian, How data science is helping charities to fight hunger in the UK, highlights the potential of emerging technologies within the voluntary sector. What’s more, as in the great example of mapping hunger and food banks undertaken by the Trussell Trust, there is great potential for Third Sector Organisations (TSO’s) to work together and share data.
This is not however necessarily a straight forward process. There may rightly be concerns about data protection and the ethics of sharing data even when this has been collected for a good cause. Moreover, organisations will have developed specific forms and categories of data for their own use, which may actually mean very little to other organisations even in the same sector. Sharing data is therefore more complicated than it sounds and looking forward at how new data might be collected and shaped to enable future sharing is critically important for TSOs. There are other concerns here too. When funding is tight, information might be seen as critical to an TSO’s chances of securing a grant or as a case for fundraising. Keeping hold of data might therefore seem to be the sensible thing to do from a political perspective. But as in the commercial world, partnerships and joint ventures are increasingly important in the voluntary sector too.
It is really interesting to read about the move towards embracing ‘big data’ analytics by TSOs, and the work by the Trussell Trust is a great example of good work here. However perhaps we also need a note of caution about the seducing nature of infographics and data maps and the need for these to be accompanied by a depth of analysis. As the Guardian article reports: “Data can provide new insights, but how do you act on them? How can you change focus, practice or even business model to respond to the issues?”
For us, it was intriguing to see that it seemed that the impact of digital media and technologies on volunteering seemed to be dismissed in the article as a “nice to have” yet if TSOs want to move to act on the data, it is likely to be through volunteering that such action is achieved. Perhaps then volunteering should be seen as the real game changer after all?