Technology is, in many ways, a charity’s ideal partner – allowing organisations to run services in previously unimaginable ways, or reach previously unreachable people. Think of the Vodafone Foundation’s TecSOS, a mobile handset enabling victims of domestic abuse to speed-dial emergency services. The phone provides emergency teams with the victim’s history, their location and records the call for evidence. And that’s just one of hundreds of extraordinary examples.
Yet, plugging into the benefits of today’s digital environment requires a broad and often tangled range of skills, from basic computer literacy right through to strategic-level insight about the latest digital developments (such as social media or cyber security). So, are tech skills strong enough in the voluntary sector? And if not, what’s holding charities back?
I spoke with Richard Cooper, director of programmes at the Technology Trust, an organisation that has helped more than 17,000 charities access technology and software, often donated by large companies such as Microsoft. Such tools can be transformative in the way a charity works, but Cooper says that when it comes to uptake and integration of technology, three barriers still exist: cost, strategy and skills.
Interestingly, a deficit of the latter at the top level can be most counterproductive. “One of the biggest issues we see is managers and trustees who don’t know what technology can do for them,” he says.
“Lots still view technology as a necessary evil, rather than something they can exploit. Their expertise probably lies in their mission. If you’ve got a strategic-level person who understands tech, it’s normally by accident, not by design.”
Issues around expertise and financial strategy are interlinked, he adds. “It’s a chicken and egg thing – if you don’t understand the benefits of technology then you’re not going to justify the cost. Who wants to be seen spending money at the back end that could be spent on the frontline?”
Going Digital, a new report from Nesta Impact Investments, backs up many of Cooper’s observations. It highlights the need for charities to keep up with an increasingly digital world, yet found that even forward-thinking organisations experience challenges that prevent them using technology to its full potential. Such challenges include funding, trustee and managerial buy-in, and the need to commit to bringing in or training up the necessary skills.
To read the full Guardian Voluntary Sector Network article click here.