It’s get smart or die for charities

From gathering data in the field to fundraising at home, charities’ use of technology is enhancing their operations


It sounds simple: if you want to maximise the value of your crop, sell it at the market offering the best price. But until recently, lack of real-time information about maize prices meant farmers in Niger tended to use the closest market and swallowed the loss.

In 2010, Concern added technology into their strategic plan, focusing on two main aims: to enable the charity’s staff to do their work better and to put technology into the hands of beneficiaries.

“Technology is often top-down,” says Bernard Gaughan, Concern’s head of IT. “We decided not to do that. We sent out a survey to 26 countries asking for suggestions. We grouped them into five themes and out of that we came up with initiatives and secured funding.”

It’s as easy as SMS
One of the initiatives was a market information service for farmers in Niger. Farmers can now send a free SMS to Concern and receive a text containing the prices in different markets, which are gathered by crowdsourcing, before deciding where to sell.

“Mobile phones are prolific in Africa and Asia, ” says Gaughan. “SMS is easy to use, can be in the local language and is no work.”

Another initiative has been to equip staff with tablets to help gather data on their activities in the field, capturing detailed information on everything from a cholera epidemic in Sierra Leone to malnourishment in Sudan.

Because the data is all in one place and accessible online, it can be analysed immediately which helps teams to formulate a quicker response.

The technology has now been rolled out to 12 countries as well as Concern’s street fundraising teams in Ireland.

Although the benefits of successful innovation are often significant, the decision to invest in new technology and ideas can be difficult in a sector where risk-taking is not part of the culture.

“Once you have a charity number you become a steward for the public’s money,” says Deirdre Garvey, chief executive of The Wheel, a representative body for the charity sector. “You’re holding money in trust. Therefore we’re very risk-averse; it’s in our DNA.”

However, she says that current financial pressures are highlighting a need for charities to take a different approach. “People are trying to be smart and innovative and trying to cut costs but are also facing an increase in demand. It’s very difficult for those organisations to figure how to get more for less.”

In 2012, Focus Ireland set up an innovation group to encourage staff to propose, explore and develop new ideas. “Innovation has been recognised as key to our strategy,” says Noel Sherry, services manager and lead officer for innovation. “We’re tapping into existing resources; everyone involved has another job.

“The trigger was that we are a homeless organisation and also a corporate organisation that recognises the value of processes. It’s not about looking for a big idea; it’s about understanding what the problems are.”

Focus received support from CitiBank, which ran a one-day workshop on innovation for the group. “It’s given us a different lens to look through,” says Sherry. “We’re changing behaviour within the organisation of how to address problems.”

Among the initiatives to emerge so far are podcasts to improve internal communication and a new rent bond scheme to help people who may not have cash upfront to secure rented accommodation.

Like many Irish charities, Focus has also embraced social media tools to further its aims. The organisation recently won a Bord Gáis social media award for its Facebook page, which has 130,000 fans and is used to discuss issues around homelessness, promote upcoming events, advertise opportunities for volunteering and ask for donations.

“Our reach is as big as national newspapers each day and all have asked to hear about what we do,” says Roughan Mac Namara, advocacy manager. “We’re not just taking our traditional form of communication and putting it online. We see it as a separate communications tool and adapt for a social media audience.”

Challenging environment
Social media is a gift for charities that need to communicate with their supporters while keeping costs low. Blogs, podcasts and online forums, as well as networks such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube mean charities can interact with their supporters and beneficiaries to an unprecedented extent.

However, online fundraising is still limited. “Online is really important but only counts for around 10-11 per cent of donations,” says Anne Hanniffy, chief executive of Fundraising Ireland. She says the key to successful fundraising is to make it easy to give.

“Donations are down. It’s a challenging environment. Fundraisers are working twice as hard for less money. We have to be as smart as the corporates in terms of marketing, PR, advertising campaigns. Things need to be really easy for the consumer.”

A recent development in the Irish market is the ability to donate by mobile phone. January saw the launch of LikeCharity, a mobile donation platform that allows customers to text a donation to a charity of their choice and have the money debited from their phone credit or added to their bill.

Importantly, 100 per cent of the donation goes to charity, the first time this has existed in the Irish market.

“This time last year, if you made a €1 donation, 60 per cent would go to the mobile phone company,” says Hanniffy. “Mobile donations will really help us.”

She expects to see more mobile services, such as the ability to set up a standing order on your phone, over the next few years. “We have one platform at the moment but other organisations are looking to enter the market. Charities like an aggregator.”

Garvey says third parties are vital in encouraging innovation. “There are more and more support and infrastructure groups making their services available to help organisations think differently.”

She points to initiatives such as FundIt, a crowdsourcing fund for arts projects, and Social Entrepreneurs Ireland, which provides seed funding for entrepreneurs who want to solve a social problem, as examples of organisations that foster innovation.

Innovative thinking
She believes collaboration is key to innovation in the charity sector, a belief that will soon be tested with the launch of Deal Effect, a daily deals website with 11 per cent of the purchase price going to the customer’s nominated charity.

Deal Effect is a joint venture between The Wheel, which put up seed funding for a feasibility study, and 31 charities which have invested anything from €1,500 to €5,000. Charity investment made up 25 per cent of the funding, with the remaining 75 per cent coming from the private sector.

“We’re going in together because we believe new, innovative thinking is needed to bring in new income, bearing in mind the risk averse nature of the sector,” says Garvey. “We pooled the risk.

“It’s never done before in Ireland. If we can make it a success, we can repeat it. A small amount of money can release money from elsewhere.”

She says she’d like to see more collaboration in the sector, as well as the availability of seed funding to encourage charities to try new ventures.

“It would be great to have a fund upfront and invite applications. It would inspire limited risk-taking.”