Published: 18 August 2015

Overturn digital apathy to get beyond business as usual

Despite having the greatest potential for customer engagement, the charity sector remains digitally stagnant.

According to Martha Lane-Fox, chair of digital skills charity Go ON UK, while the UK may be a world leader in e-commerce, the transformative power of digital is not being fully exploited by charities – and the main barrier is about the perceived benefits of digital.

This is further backed up by the latest Lloyd’s Digital Brand Index in which the charity sector is the only sector to have actually gone backwards.

Digitally speaking, charities are likely to be in one of five core brand states. It’s worth taking a closer look at these to establish where things are and what needs to be done to turn the current digital apathy into a transformative force for social change.

1. Business as usual

There are still those who regard digital as just another communications channel. This is where digital is used to disseminate print-based content in an unengaging digital format, often waving the cost savings banner. Everything from a newsletter to patient information and annual reports are turned into a silt of impenetrable digital content which clogs the communications arteries and suffocates the cause.

2. The glue

This is where digital brands are being used to stick all the various silos together in a battle to provide coherence and clarity to the outside world. This tries to cure the proliferation of fragmented, incoherent messages with an over-abundance of websites, campaign sites and social media handles as fundraising, policy, services and communications all fight their corner. This is often piled up on an equally prolific set of non-digital, siloed channels.

3. Brand as broadcast

As we move up the scale of efficient use of digital, we reach brands that supercharge their messages to wrap around and actually engage their audiences with the right story through the right channel. These are the brands who genuinely communicate well with their audiences. Volunteering Matters is a good example of this as it redefines its stakeholders’ journey with new branding.

Yet we are still a long way off disrupting the sector in a truly dynamic way. Brand as broadcast is still a far cry from brand using the full power of connectivity.

4. Brand as dialogue

In the commercial world we have seen sector after sector use digital to create disruptive new ways of doing business. From taxis to hotels, the world is rife with innovative models which are flipping the original sector on its head. It’s time the charity sector turned their model into something which makes their target audiences want to be part of their brand.

Using brand as dialogue is getting closer to this. Ironically the commercial sector does this very well and the charity sector doesn’t.

This requires shifting away from the dictatorial 'I' of brand and moving into ‘you’: what you want of the brand. In so doing we can move away from the current reliance on mass personalisation and use big data to craft tailored communications channels.

Brands in this stage of development include Mumsnet which, although clunky, is heading in the right direction. Carers Trust has some excellent digital tools, while TripAdvisor waves the flag and paved the way for the likes of Airbnb.

5. Authentic co-production

There is a further step that commercial brands can only pay lip service to, by virtue of their commercial business model, and this is authentic co-production.

By involving their target audience in the co-creation process, the charity taps into their combined ambitions, wisdom and passions to define what the brand is about. This empowers the consumer to become part of the brand. This is using digital's hyper-connective power to revolutionise the way we construct our brands, to transform them into something fundamentally more powerful.

Brand managers may baulk at this, fearing chaos. At its heart, co-production needs a very clear central philosophy, a profound theory of change that reaches beyond the cliche, that motivates and inspires. Losing control of the brand seems counterintuitive, yet almost all great sector brands, some of which even created profound historical change such as ending slavery, were started in this way.

One of the best examples is the NUS which now reaches out to its diverse base, allowing it to define, interpret and develop the brand further, providing the channels and digital tools required to do so.

The charity sector needs to shift from viewing the short-term impact of digital. The real value resides in the long term goals. Digital needs to be recognised as a fundamental way of advancing charities’ causes at a strategic level, not just a tactical bauble. However without well-defined and engaging brand messages, digital is just more irrelevant noise.

There is every opportunity for the charity sector to make a real impact by embracing what digital has to offer. It does require a leap of faith and a change in mindset but to continue business as usual will surely spell the demise of a sector so many people rely on.


Max du Bois, executive director, Spencer du Bois

With over 25 years of not for profit, government, social enterprise, b2b and b2c experience, Max helps people find out what matters and communicate what really counts. Helping good people do great things, Max builds brands that challenge attitudes, change minds and inspire action.