Are charities investing enough in technology?

Lack of understanding and fear of failure stops many from using IT opportunities to improve services and increase reach

The National Computing Centre survey of IT investment found that charities invested the least per head in technology of any sector they looked at.

The National Computing Centre survey of IT investment found that charities invested the least per head in technology of any sector they looked at. So why don’t more charities invest in technology? I hear many excuses but the most prevalent one is not having the money, or variations, such as funders won’t fund technology, or people want their money spent on the beneficiaries, not internal costs.

Yet, at Charity Technology Trust (CTT) we see literally hundreds of examples each year of how technology has significantly improved the effectiveness of charities. Indeed, when we surveyed those organisations that had taken advantage of our technology donation programme, CTXchange, 80% said they had seen a positive impact on their ability to deliver services to their beneficiaries.

For example, Orchestras Live, which seeks to bring orchestral music to under-served communities and to inspire young people, invested in a system to bring all its processes together in one place. This included recordings, videos and press reviews of events as well as demographics on the people it serves and who participate in its programmes. Their processes have been revolutionised and they are now able to focus on the outcomes of what they do rather than simply measuring outputs – something all funders want to see. In short, they have become far more effective at what they do.

So with success stories like these, what is holding charities back? One of the reasons is that many senior managers and trustees don’t believe that they understand technology well enough to make good investment decisions. They are concerned that they don’t know how to run technology projects that will deliver the benefits. This is not an issue restricted to charities: businesses and government departments, large and small, suffer from the same problem. Combined with the screaming headlines of billion-pound technology disasters that the media love so much, many boards simply duck the issue by citing lack of evidence of real return and lack of funds.

One answer to the conundrum about what impact technology investment will really have often lies in piloting. Large organisations have been doing this for years, rapidly building a proof of concept, trying it, then expanding if it works. Marketeers do it all the time with campaigns. Ironically, charities are possibly the sector with the best opportunity to pilot technology ideas. Many technology companies now donate their technology to charities; for example, Microsoft has given away more than £80m of technology to UK charities in the past six years.

In addition, technology volunteering programmes such as IT4Communities can provide access to all sorts of skilled people to build a test solution. Most cloud solutions come with a 30-day free trial period which again allows a charity to really understand the technology before they invest (most offer charity discounts as well).

If this all still seems a little too daunting, bringing in a volunteer chief information officer (CIO) could be a good option. Many charities have a volunteer or part-time finance director, often among their trustees, who provides support in financial direction (rather than day-to-day accounting).

Having someone with senior management experience in IT to help provide direction and shape projects for a few hours a month can be invaluable. What these strategies can provide is an evidence base of the impact a particular technology can have on a charity. This means that a charity can develop a real case for proper investment in technology and look for the funds to implement it.

Backers will fund investments that demonstrate they can enable a charity to improve delivery and increase reach – in our survey, a third of survey respondents reported being able to deliver to more beneficiaries and to beneficiaries they were previously unable to reach. And I would wager that if you told the proverbial person in the street that you were going to spend the money reaching more people and deliver better, more effective services – ie spend their money more effectively – they would be all for it.

So what’s holding your charity back?

Richard Cooper is director of programmes at Charity Technology Trust (CTT)

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