There is no digital revolution in charities*. And probably never will be.


There is no digital revolution in charities*. And probably never will be.

In this week's blog, Joe Saxton argues that the charity advancements in digital we have seen are not enough to warrant the use of the word 'revolution'. What do you think?
Joe Saxton

There has been much talk about the digital revolution in charities recently. There is a new code of practice on using digital in charities amid much hand-wringing about how far or how little digital has progressed in charities. The reality is more simple. I think the digital revolution has passed charities by almost entirely. While our personal lives and the business world have been transformed by digital, charities remain largely untouched. A few enhancements and improvements for sure, but revolution or even transformation certainly not. Let me justify that with a few simple acid tests.

There are no digital charity equivalents to Amazon or Facebook

The commercial world is now dominated by digital giants – the so-called FANGs (Facebook, Amazon, Netflix, Google) have transformed our personal lives. Apple and Microsoft are vying to be the most-valuable company in the World and top the £1 trillion dollar market value. Almost every aspect of business life is dominated by the need to succeed online or fail, and it seems that all of the most successful are new digital start-ups - not old companies who have adapted.

Now try and name a single charity which is a product of the digital age, or even one which has grown big on the back of great digital technology. The closest I hear of is ‘Charity Water’ in the US.

Digital fundraising remains a tiny portion of the total fundraising income

Digital fundraising, raising money online or using digital technology, is an area that ought to be a litmus test for any digital revolution. While mechanisms for accurately measuring fundraising and digital income are under-developed, there is little evidence that more than around 10% of fundraised income (and less for total income) comes from digital sources. There are a couple of exceptions to this gloomy assessment – fundraising for events (driven by Justgiving’s extraordinary functionality) and for emergencies/disasters where digital has played a significant role. Nice little earners – yes. Revolution – no.

Name a charity that went out of business because digital had changed the world

The flipside of the digital revolution is those companies which have gone out of business because their business model has been undermined or made impossible by new technology. From Encyclopaedia Britannica to Kodak, from Videos, CDs, DVDs and cassettes, the list is long. One estimate is that half of the largest 500 largest companies in the US have disappeared because of digital. And some organisations which pioneered the digital revolution like Nokia, AoL, Yahoo and MySpace have already been over-taken.

Now name a charity which has been put out of business because digital has made life impossible.

Even campaigning and charity service are still largely untouched by digital

If fundraising has seen acceptable if not spectacular income from digital, what about other areas? Well, alongside the lack of digital fundraising is the lack of digital service provision. While many organisations have successfully provided information online, there is still a dearth of services from charities that are transformative, let alone revolutionary. Indeed whether it is fundraising, volunteering, campaigning or service provision, the public largely engage with charities as they did 20 or 30 years ago.

Don’t get me wrong. Digital has made a difference to charities, and that difference has been largely helpful, but it has not been transformative, and certainly not a revolution.

So the question is - why have charities been largely untouched by the digital revolution?

If there has been no digital revolution in charities, the question is why, and most importantly - is there anything we can do about it? So first, what are some of the reasons why digital might not have taken off in charities?

Engaging with charities is largely reactive.

People give because they are asked; they don’t necessarily wake up in the morning thinking I must give, or volunteer, or campaign today. But they do wake up thinking I want to book a holiday, buy a house, go the cinema, or order groceries: all of which are now easiest done online (along with a host of other things). The most successful forms of donor recruitment are those that literally or metaphorically stop people in their tracks – street fundraising, door to door fundraising, the telephone or postal appeals. And online anything is poor at stopping people in their tracks and making them think about something that wasn’t in their head already.

There are few disruptive technologies or innovations for charities.

There are no burning platforms (to use the jargon) which have to be jumped off in order to survive. In the business world, those who don’t keep up with technology will fall by the wayside – the examples are numerous. But for charities, they have been able to survive with mediocre websites, indifferent social media or people-centred fundraising.

We are not alone – just look at government services.

It could be argued that without the profit motive, digital is unlikely to really flourish. Few would say that government is particularly good at digital. The big NHS database projects all seem to be late and over budget. Universal Credit has not worked well. And if you want to sort out a tax problem you still need to call HMRC and listen to music for ages. Government may be making more of a concerted effort than charities, but I am still not sure they have got very far.

Who in the sector is responsible for driving use of digital?

It is easy to answer which sector body is responsible for driving fundraising, communications, finance or leadership; but who is responsible for driving digital? As far as I can see, there is no sector body for digital. Indeed, the torch of championing digital is mostly taken up by a few entrepreneurial individuals like Zoe Amar and Kirsty Marrins.

Bringing about any major changes is only going to happen because of a new technology or innovation that hasn’t yet been thought of, or because of a co-ordinated and resourced strategy to improve digital usage, or both. But as it stands there is no revolution in charities, and after 25 years since the revolution started in the commercial world, I don’t think there ever will be.

*Joe Saxton’s views do not reflect those of all of us here at nfpSynergy

Submitted by Tim Lamerton (not verified) on 14 Feb 2019


Personally I say good on charities. Industrial digitisation dehumanises those who deliver the service, ask any courier who has to rush to the next delivery. They are more a managed unit than a person. Delivering charitable services needs constant flexibility as it (mostly) deals with human is by its nature chaotic (and in all honesty, as a charity worker, so am I). This is something a digital yes/no process finds difficult to manage. Perhaps the constant failure of digital management of the NHS for example demonstrates this very well.

Submitted by John (not verified) on 14 Feb 2019


While I would agree I think the problem is more fundamental. As someone that did wake up one morning and think I want to help and make a difference what I have encountered, not from all but from many, is indifference.

I have the digital skill sets and the ability to teach others how to use those skills yet has anyone ever welcomed me with open arms or even said thank you? Two things have to change

1 If someone walks in off the street and offers to help bend over backwards to help them. Be prepared to actually do something different, don't tell me why you can't help me find a way so you can.

2 There is more to life than fundraising. Start thinking how you can use the skills of those walk ins to generate income.

3 Attract board members open mind that actually embrace new ideas. There really is nothing to be afraid of even if you don't totally understand those new ideas. Learn something new.

This from someone that walked in and might just be about to walk out.

Not sure where you walked in John, or what your skills are but if you are around Cambridge then do get in touch.
It is not easy for many especially small charities to be that accommodating. We regognise that many need to think about the volunteering they offer to make it more applicable to the way the world is, but often we need specific digital skills at a specific time. I know a local charity that needs a WordPress expert now to help resolve a small problem that may lead to further volunteering opportunities. If you have the right skills at the right time then you will have your hand bitten off, if not then there is often less a small charity can do. We have to do more but I do agree with Joe any revolution has missed the bulk of charities, we try to use digital, we look at the benefits it can bring but for most it more hassle than revolutionary.

Hi Mark
Sorry I am not near Cambridge if I was I would walk in. I take your point about timing but that means that I have to be there at the right time to suit the situation. Pretty slim chance of that. It seems to me that charities, the ones that I have seen, are more about fire fighting than looking forward and I understand that to a certain extent but... However I wonder if those offering funding will start to look more carefully at a charities "digital skills" as a basis on which to award cash in the future. If they do then this becomes a very important issue.

Sorry for the delay in responding to your comments but I only got the six email alerts this morning! Digital at its best ;) What's the problem with the Wordpress site? If I can help I will.

Submitted by Mark Freeman (not verified) on 11 Mar 2019

In reply to by John (not verified)


Hi John, You are right that many charities are fire fighting too much of the time, if funders were a bit more forward thinking then maybe that would not be an issue. The problem with the Wordpress site is I believe that a volunteer has written it but it needs to be uploaded and the old one mothballed. If it is something you could do, and I guess it can be done remotely I can put you in touch with the charity. Mark

Hi Mark

I can certainly take a look. It sounds pretty straightforward, mind you don't they all ;)


Submitted by S.Sellers (not verified) on 16 Feb 2019


Is this really a blog post from 2019? I haven't heard the term Digital Revolution since 2005. Does the author mean digital transformation?
I'm not sure what information and data this is based on but my own charity and dozens of charities I know have tripled the size of their digital team (new media for the author). Online income from donation, Facebook birthdays, 3rd party platform like JustGiving, crowdfunding and a few more represents 10-15% of the charitable income for many charities. The conversion rate visit/donation for my charity is 1% for under 40 and up to 3% for 55+.
Large charities like BHF, NSPCC, Age UK have built digital services, user internet of things with Alexa.
And all that with very little investment in media buying compare to direct mail.
Perhaps the author could update this post with sources as it does not reflect the sector I know.

Submitted by Denise Inger (not verified) on 18 Feb 2019


Hello there

I would really like someone to walk in off the street and help us to begin our digital fundraising as we need nothing short of a miracle to deal with the service demand for families with children who have additional learning needs in Wales. If anyone is out there who has some free time and the skills to make it happen in the digital world of fundraising, my arms are open!

Submitted by Helen Nott (not verified) on 18 Feb 2019


I think there are some great examples of digital transforming the way in which charities are supported: for recruiting volunteers
Fundraising platforms which allow people to give in a way which is huge step change from the old days of sponsorship forms and the need to go back and get the cash! There are also examples of charities doing this themselves such as Cancer Research website which allows you to allocate your donations to specific research.
The other area that really seems to have embraced digital is campaigning and this has opened up audiences that charities in the past would not have been able to reach cost effectively (even if there is feedback that petitions in this form are becoming less effective)
So I think it's complicated and charities will need to remain responsive!

Submitted by Vanessa Chase … (not verified) on 7 Mar 2019


If you expand outside traditional 501c3 organizations, there are a lot of progressive digital groups born in the 2000s that have shaken things up. I'm thinking of and maybe

Submitted by Joanne Warner (not verified) on 24 Feb 2021


I guess it depends on what you mean by revolution and what metrics you are using to measure success.

For example, these are three very different organisations that have made great progress with their digital activities.

>> How Greenpeace Canada improved monthly giving by 332%

Since 2018, Greenpeace Canada has run a monthly donor acquisition campaign. They refine their tactics and improve results each year. In February 2020, they were more ambitious and more successful than ever before. In just one month, they sent eight emails and acquired 808 new monthly donors.…

>> Dignity In Dying & Forward Action: How to attract 100,000 new supporters, then mobilise them to fundraise and campaign

Dignity in Dying is using digital mobilisation to fundraise and accelerate our campaign for law change. In this session, they’ll present data on the strategy and tactics we’ve used to recruit 110,000 new supporters, drive tens of thousands of pounds in donations, and mobilise our supporters to change the minds of their political representatives through face-to-face advocacy.

>> Refuge: Small Steps, Great Leaps – developing a digital programme for recruiting and retaining new supporters

During the past 12 months, Refuge has been developing a digital programme for recruiting and retaining new supporters. This programme was still very much in development and testing phase when Covid—19 happened and everything changed. Find out how Refuge’s preliminary work in digital enabled the Individual Giving team to significantly increase donations (both one off and direct debits) from new supporters, whilst the Events team launched a number of successful virtual events in record time.

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