For charities and non-profits, the Covid-19 crisis has been an extremely challenging time – but also one of opportunity. Econsultancy spoke to Lizi Zipser, Director of Strategy & Insights at Blue State, about how the pandemic has accelerated digital transformation in the third sector, and what that means for charitable organisations.

For the charity and non-profit sector, the Covid-19 pandemic has been characterised by phenomenal challenges and unexpected opportunities.

The same can be said of every sector to a certain extent, but for the third sector in particular, with its heavy reliance on face-to-face fundraising and campaigning methods, the transition to a mostly digital way of working has been something of an uphill battle.

The Charity Digital Skills Report 2020, which is based on a survey of 429 UK charity professionals carried out in May, found that 51% of charities did not have a digital strategy in place at the time. Of the internal barriers standing in the way of charities’ digital transformation, funding and a lack of digital skills were cited by respondents as the two biggest obstacles.

But there have been a number of bright spots as well, with many charities successfully using digital tools and channels to reinvent how they approach fundraising and make their messaging connect with donors. And even during a time of unprecedented financial hardship, members of the UK public have for the most part been only too willing to open their wallets.

I spoke to Lizi Zipser, Director of Strategy & Insights at Blue State, a full-service digital agency that works with organisations across the political and non-profit sphere, about how UK non-profits have been dealing with the unique challenges of Covid-19, how the pandemic is accelerating the shift to digital, and what needs to happen in order to keep the momentum going.

Digital fundraising in a crisis

“Many of our clients have had challenges in channels such as face-to-face fundraising,” says Zipser. “Many organisations’ strategies are based around these established offline methods, and suddenly they couldn’t spend their budgets on offline channels and found themselves having to adapt very quickly.

“Those that were ready with a robust digital ecosystem – clients that we’ve been working with for years – were very successful in moving spend and focus to digital, and they’re doing very well. We’ve made some investments in digital over the last few months that probably wouldn’t have happened without the imperative to shift budget, shift focus, and scale the performance from digital.” Those who weren’t as prepared to make the shift to digital have faced a steeper learning curve, but are currently working to re-evaluate their strategy and see how quickly they can make the shift to a digital-first way of operating.

While many organisations were hesitant about asking for funds during a global crisis, in the UK in particular, Zipser recounts, members of the public had no issue with organisations raising funds – particularly if it was for Covid relief. In fact, they were only too happy to donate.

“What we’re seeing is the public becoming even more generous; some organisations have many, many new donors that they wouldn’t have had in the pre-Covid world, while others have a similar number of donors, but the average amount donated is up,” says Zipser. “Those organisations are not seeing a drop in income, and some are even up because the public are so receptive to helping everyone get through this crisis. Many in the UK feel lucky that we have safe homes, running water, and great healthcare – and that makes them want to help those who don’t have those essentials.”

The visible nature of social media and other digital communication channels has helped to boost charities’ fundraising messages further. While a charity asking for funds might attract one or two critics, many others will come to the charity’s defence, which has the net benefit of generating positive PR. “We see a lot of people put something out there, and there’ll be one comment saying, ‘They shouldn’t be asking for money during this crisis’ – but you’ll see others coming to the defence of the organisation, saying, ‘This organisation does amazing work, and I am going to donate to them.’

“When you have those comment threads, more people see the conversation, and that continues to extend the reach of your organisation.”

Even though ‘common sense’ might dictate that people would react badly to being asked for money in the middle of a pandemic, the opposite is actually true, says Zipser: people are prepared to respond when they see a clear need, and those charities who have really made fundraising work during Covid-19 are those who have been brave enough and honest enough to explain why they need it. Even when those needs are simply becoming more digital as an organisation.

“It’s a digital age, and things are very transparent nowadays,” she says. “Whatever your additional costs are because of Covid, say that, fundraise for that. If there are programmes that you need to make digital, maybe you have to build a website now for children to have access to education – then tell people how much is needed to make that happen.

“If people care about your cause and your organisation, they’re going to care about the fact that you have extra costs.”

The advantages of a digital-first approach to fundraising campaigns

What does a shift to using digital channels and touchpoints for fundraising and campaigning look like in the charity sector? In some cases, says Zipser, it can be about using online channels to understand the current mood and concerns of the general public, and using that information to adapt fundraising messages.

“We [Blue State] are tapped into conversations and what people are thinking and feeling; we can do the research and review trends on social media, so that if the public is particularly shocked by food shortages, for example, we are able to align creative and messaging with what people understand is a need.

“We can also create new fundraising products – for example, if peer-to-peer fundraising methods like running a marathon are challenging right now because we’re all working from home, we can adapt those to a digital-first proposition and a digital-first product.”

The mistake that many charities make, Zipser says, is that in trying to ‘do digital’, they simply transfer the campaigns that they have been running on offline channels (such as direct mail) online, converted to a digital format – rather than building a digital-first campaign from the ground up. This approach tends to be less effective for charities as a whole.

Instead, “if it’s a social-first campaign, you need to be thinking about what that means and how to produce creative for the world of social media,” says Zipser. “What other channels are amplifying that? How many people are sharing and responding? And what are the engagement mechanisms you can use, such as interactive experiences, videos and quizzes, that really bring the work to life?”

It’s a mistake, she argues, not to lean into the capabilities of digital channels and everything that they have to offer. “You have a format and a channel that allows you such richness – more than a letter or a poster. You can really connect people with the work, and help them to understand what you do and see the right message. You can see what works, see what doesn’t, and really optimise performance from there.”

Another thing that using digital allows charities to do is truly involve members of the public in the process of creating campaigns in a way that wouldn’t be possible with offline media. “That might be a remote creative test, it could be a focus group – it’s real people telling us what they think, what they’ve seen before and what they find effective.

“Charities are working in a very saturated market, so they need to walk the line between employing best practices and things they know are going to be successful, and doing things that will differentiate them and push the language of their messaging and the experiences to the next level.”

The digital evolution of the third sector

Of course, making the most of technology and of digital channels isn’t always a straightforward endeavour – particularly for non-profits. Many charities, when they move to scale up their digital efforts, find that the technology they have in place isn’t suited to the job: “Often, non-profits are trying to do the best they can, but the technology is not as adaptive to what needs to be done if you’re really scaling up your digital fundraising.

“Sometimes the technology needs to be replaced to be allow for personalisation and automation, and for the data to flow better and more quickly.”

And while organisations have seen unexpected levels of generosity from the public during the coronavirus crisis, many are still facing funding shortfalls and being forced to make wide-ranging staff cuts. Oxfam, for example, announced in May that it would be closing in 18 countries and laying off 1,500 staff due to pressures exacerbated by the pandemic. Although charities can redirect some of their unused budgets, such as face-to-face fundraising budgets, towards digital, it isn’t always enough to make up the shortfall, with the loss of income channels like charity shops dealing a major blow.

However, Zipser believes that now is not the time to cut or scale back fundraising. Just as many companies cut their marketing budgets and pull marketing activity during an economic recession and find themselves losing out over the longer term, charities who stop fundraising will also find that their income is negatively impacted into the future.

“Organisations should make sure that they’re doing as much to engage and reach out to the public as they can,” she says. “Otherwise, you’re going into that downward spiral – if you spend less on fundraising, you’ll make less, and then the next year will be low as well, and so on. Spending through a recession, rather than making cuts that will affect income in two or five years’ time, is definitely something that we advise.”

She also advises that charities take advantage of the public’s current responsiveness to digital channels to build a sustainable donor base. “One of the phenomena in the charity sector is that people are very generous in an emergency – a natural disaster, for example – but often those donors don’t stay and continue to support the organisation long-term; they’re responding because of the crisis.

“People are already having conversations about being less consumerist, and re-assessing how much happier they are when they’re not spending on things they used to consider essentials, like travel and restaurants. How do we take this community feeling, this connection with other people in the world, and how do we make that sustainable and build a long-lasting relationship with donors?”

And mastering digital fundraising and communication is no longer a “nice to have” for charities; Zipser is unequivocal that the charity sector emerging from Covid-19 is a much more digital one. “Change is happening much faster than it ever has been,” she says. “Even for those organisations who were more hesitant with their change and investment, there’s no question that this is an essential – to be able to communicate with people digitally, and have a diversified fundraising and fieldwork programme, one that uses digital methods to support individuals and beneficiaries.

“We’re seeing charities adapting websites to be more interactive and more helpful; having chatbots that people can use on sites in lieu of face-to-face consultations; the staff model is becoming more integrated between channels and savvier. Video consultations with charities and health professionals have also become fairly standard.

“While it obviously varies by organisation, there’s no doubt that, after this crisis, we have become more digital.”

Find out more on digital in the third sector on Econsultancy’s charity hub.