The Commercial Sector Has Left The Charity Sector Far Behind

  • by , Op-Ed Contributor, September 23, 2015

The world of digital transformation has impacted every single industry sector, from retail to banking. Yet, the transformative power of digital seems to have by-passed the charity sector. 

Some of the key barriers holding charities back are well publicized, from lack of in-house expertise in analyzing, leveraging and integrating data through to a lack of access to the right tools to help create and manage ‘digital personas’ and a paucity in convenient, simple to use ways for people to donate.

Yet, the charity sector has the greatest potential for customer engagement, all the more reason to question why it remains digitally stagnant. 

To get a better sense of the situation let’s look at the current core brand states in the digital charity arena. In my opinion, there are about five of them and breaking them down gives us a clearer perspective on just how dire the situation really is.

Business as Usual defines those who regard digital as just another communications channel. This is where digital is used to disseminate print based content in an un-engaging 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.



The Wrapper best describes the next stage on. This is where digital brands are being used to pull 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 various social media handles as fundraising, policy, services and communications all fight their corner. 

Whilst the commercial world increasingly embraces digital and as a consequence creates disruptive new ways of doing business, the charity sector is still, mostly, at The Wrapper stage of its digital maturity.

It is not all doom and gloom, however. As we move up the scale of efficient use of digital, we find The Superchargers, those 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. 

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

It is time the charity sector turned their model into something which makes their target audiences want to be part of their brand. 

Which brings us to the fourth digital brand state, that of using brand as Dialogue. This requires shifting away from the dictatorial “I” of brand and moving into “you,” what you want of the brand. In so doing we move away from the current reliance on mass personalization and use big data to craft tailored communications channels.

Ironically, the commercial sector does this very well and the charity sector doesn’t. 

However, 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. 

This is the fifth brand state: The Co-Creator. This occurs when connectivity is used to co-produce the brand. 

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 uses digital's hyper-connective power to revolutionize the way brands are constructed, to transform them into something fundamentally more powerful.

Digital needs to be recognized as a transformational way of advancing charities’ causes at a strategic level, not just a tactical bauble. However digital without well defined and engaging brand messages is just more irrelevant noise.

Google’s Eric Schmidt rightly predicts the end of the big charity if they continue to fail to effectively engage. Yet there is every opportunity for the charity sector to make a real impact by embracing what digital has to offer.  

The alternative will surely spell the demise of a sector so many people rely on.

3 comments about "The Commercial Sector Has Left The Charity Sector Far Behind".
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  1. Aline Newman from Catalogue for Philanthropy: Greater Washington, September 23, 2015 at 9:58 a.m.

    Really interesting article, though I disagree that charities don't recognize digital as a necessary way to advance their cause. Many do. It's that commercial sector has the resources to embrace digital, take risks with it, try new things, and hire top talent. For many smaller, direct service charitable organizations, this just isn't feasible. Some donors are, unfortunately, critical of charities that spend money/talk about things like branding/advertising, or that pay generous salaries to the top talent that can do these things well. Yes, charities must work on effectively engaging/understanding their audiences, but we need to be able to bring in solid talent/resources that help us do this. As long as the myth exists that spending money on overhead is "bad," it will be difficult for smaller charities to effectively move up to the next rung of the brand states ladder you present. 

  2. Paul Vandeventer from Community Partners, September 23, 2015 at 2:44 p.m.

    Max - You've reduced the so-called "charity sector" to a battle for donations and confounded this pinched view with corporatespeak and brand jargon.  In doing so, you perpetuate what Derek W.M. Barker in the Fall 2010 issue of The Kettering Review dubbed "The Colonization of Civil Society." In his insightful piece, Barker notes that "Organizations in the civil sector are looking more and more like their government and corporate counterparts." He sees this colonization as a blight driven by the mistaken assumption (that charity leaders and others often fall victim to) that values of the marketplace rightfully should share co-equal billing in the sphere of community life. "Professionals," Barker notes, "tend to be cut off from the practical wisdom of citizens." And I would argue that professionalized language like "core brand states" and "customer engagement" fails at evoking or advancing the values and practices of reciprocity, mutuality, caring, and action independent of (and often in opposition to) government and business that define a good part of community and civic life. The kind of business-style "disruption" you promote isn't always desirable in community life. Among nonprofits, which act as organized manifestations of community, cost is not always the reason they change slowly. This said, I am sure you will find a large audience receptive to your message, most likely among the already "colonized" struggling to skin themselves in the same garb as business, mistakenly assuming that this will make them more successful at fulfilling their missions.

  3. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited, October 12, 2015 at 7:12 a.m.

    Either charities are going to get their expensive digital requirements done - and who wants or can have a zero sum game income - or pay the piper skimming the money donated from hard working people to people who desperately need what the money can do for them.

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