Sunday, April 23, 2006

Technology in the voluntary sector

Looking back at last week there was a common theme emerging from two workshops we ran for our BTEC learners - the use of technology within the voluntary sector.

At the National Operatic and Dramatic Association (NODA) we were discussing Marketing and Fundraising, and in doing so ended up spending a lot of time considering the potential of the internet, and in particular, the use of activity-specific web sites and blogs. Later in the week, we held a Super Saturday workshop for BTEC distance learners at Cass Business School which featured a fascinating lecture on grant making by Peter Grant from Cass.

As Peter explained, among the issues facing all of us in the sector, there are no common standards which apply to grant makers, which means that many trusts are often not transparent about their processes, nor do they always make it easy for applicants to submit applications for funding. Could these processes be simplified by more consistency in the design of application forms, as well as better use of technology? Probably.

After all, if a grant maker wants to know more about an applicant, their first port of call will often be the charity's own web site, or the Guidestar site.

This all got me thinking about a major research project I carried out in 2000/2001 when I evaluated the potential of the internet for UK charities. My research included evaluating hundreds of charity web sites and the findings were that very few organisations appeared to have a coherent internet strategy. Many web sites at that time were either promotional sites, or seemed to be trying to utilise the technology as part of a fundraising strategy. Some charities used their web sites for information provision, often in support of their aims and objectives, while others presented very complicated paths around their sites. Interestingly, at that time, a lot of charities did not even include their contact details on the home page, which made something as simple as making an enquiry, a rather time-consuming business in some cases.

So what has changed since then? Well, we have seen the advent of the 'blog' and as we are demonstrating here at, we are attempting to utilise this blog as part of our strategy to encourage interaction with our stakeholders. It's also great to see that NODA are also enthusiastically embracing the potential of blogs as part of their service delivery plans.

At the same time, designing and running supplementary web sites does provide opportunities to focus in on a particular service or activity, which again is being considered by NODA. Good on them! I wonder though to what extent they are the exception? Is the prospect of running more than one web site viewed as a real opportunity, or just more work by a charity?

As we discussed during our recent grant making workshop, many organisations still do not appear to be using technology to improve their processes and so I wonder just how far away we are from seeing the sector really embrace the potential of the internet? Sure, most of us are using email, but there is a lot more to the internet than email.

Looking now at a (small) and random selection of charity web sites, not a lot seems to have changed from my research project over five years ago. Maybe I need to look a bit harder for signs of innovation. On the other hand, maybe charities have still yet to fully embrace the potential of the internet?

Tony Gibbs

By the way, our own web site is currently being completely re-designed to move it from a promotional web site to a more functional site providing greater support for our learners - call back every now and then for updates, but we expect to launch the new site by September 2006.


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