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Not-for-profit organizations

How to evolve your charity & not-for-profit in pace with technology

The charity and not-for-profit (CNPO) sectors are changing at a breakneck pace, not just in Canada but around the world. Shifts in demographics, technology, socioeconomics and cultural views are completely redefining how people view charities and NPOs—leaving these organizations but one choice: Change with the times or get left behind.

In a recent Grant Thornton CNPO roundtable, we sat down with CEOs and Executive Directors from a number of Canadian charities and NPOs to understand how this changing world is impacting their organizations. In this series, we explore three of the group’s top challenges—shifting demographics, a growing demand for diversity and emerging technology—and offer pragmatic solutions to help your organization move forward in the face of them.

In our third and final installment, we explore how the digital age is giving rise to new opportunities—and new risks—in the CNPO space, and offer suggestions to help you seize the former while mitigating the latter.

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A brave new world

The digital age is dramatically changing the world in which we live, and CNPOs are not immune. While limited budgets make it difficult to keep up with digital trends, organizations must do what they can to address the technological needs of their staff, members, donors and volunteers if they hope to remain relevant in this new era.

Of course, any type of digital change—big or small—comes with its share of risk. As such, CNPOs take a systemic and intentional approach, with an eye on the bigger picture. For instance, it’s important to understand which digital trends stand to impact your sector, both today and in the future, and devise a plan to proactively respond to them. It’s also critical to understand your technological responsibilities and make sure there are protocols in place to prevent potential reputational damage down the road.

With this in mind, this article explores two digital trends that our roundtable participants felt are changing the face of the CNPO space—social media and data analytics—and delves into the type of cyber strategy needed to embrace them.

Leverage budget-friendly social media

Social media can be an excellent way to connect with the growing cohort of online donors, gain relevance among a younger demographic and expand your geographical footprint. But the best feature is likely its price tag. If you know what you’re doing you can get a lot of publicity for your cause or organization with very little upfront costs.

The ALS Ice Bucket Challenge is a prime example of this. After Charles Kennedy, a golfer in Florida, was nominated by a friend to do an Ice Bucket Challenge in July 2014, he opted to do it in the name of ALS—a disease his cousin suffered from. The challenge—which involved having people dump a bucket of ice water on their heads, post it on social media, nominate friends and make a donation to ALS research—ended up taking off, ultimately raising $220 million for the cause.[1]

#GivingTuesday is another social media campaign that’s seen significant success in recent years. The global movement takes place the Tuesday after “Black Friday” and is designed to mark the start of the giving season by providing a platform for charities, NPOs, companies and individuals to shed light on their favourite causes through social media.

Obviously, given the free-flowing nature of social media, there is risk involved in its use—most notably, reputational risk. If you share a link to a controversial third-party site on your Facebook page, or if someone from your organization accidentally tweets a point of view intended for their personal Twitter account, these mistakes could spread quickly and cause harm. This increased risk can mean that boards are quick to restrict social media activity, to the point where its usefulness is limited.  

Yet, as the examples above show, it’s the very free flowing nature of social media that generates the greatest benefits. That’s why CNPOs should ensure they have an up-to-date and robust social media policy—to both capitalize on social media engagement and protect their organizations.

Such a policy should outline expectations of social media behaviour (both corporate and personal) and ensure social media use is strategic and tied to the overall business plan.  Additionally, organizations can consider what possible pitfalls can occur on social media and have an appropriate response strategy in place to mitigate the risks and preserve the organization’s reputation.

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Use data to your advantage

Charitable donors and NPO members want to know their money is making an impact—and the more numbers you have to back up that impact, the better. Data can also be used to learn more about your ideal donors, members, volunteers and board members—and allow you to uncover new ways to connect with them. So, while it’s true data can never replace the human relationships that many CNPOs are built upon, it can help guide decisions and ultimately make those relationships stronger.

For instance, by tracking the right data, you can determine the difference between first-time donors and long-term donors, and customize your “thank you notes” accordingly. Data can help you uncover fundraising trends—say, an uptick in online donors—and develop initiatives that maximize these trends. It can also help you determine which programs are having the greatest impact and which could potentially be retired.

There are countless data analytics software solutions out there and many are designed with NPOs and charities in mind, so their price points are much more affordable. These lower-cost options use tools like mobile apps that can be easily accessed from any mobile phone, making it possible for people “on the ground” to input relevant data quickly.

When integrating these solutions, many providers will even help you focus your efforts—so rather than collecting every piece of data out there, they’ll make sure you’re focused on the information that will help you obtain more funding, prove your impact to members and donors, tell your community stories in a more compelling way, clearly understand your setbacks or gain a better picture of your organization as a whole.[2]

That said, with every app you download—or every new mobile device you use to collect information—you’re introducing new security vulnerabilities, and your cyber posture must address that.

Defend yourself

While a small charity or NPO may not have been a prime cyber breach target 20 years ago, any organization—even a small one—is at risk of such a cyber threat today. That’s because these organizations host a phenomenal amount of valuable information, including donor data like credit card numbers, addresses and phone numbers. Additionally, if your organization is part of a larger global charity or NPO, your unsecured network could offer easy access into the larger one.

Cyber criminals know that smaller charities and NPOs are cost-conscious and may not invest in the most elaborate cybersecurity measures. So while you may think your organization is “too small to be attacked”, “too small” is precisely what these hackers are looking for.

Fortunately, there are steps you can take to defend against these types of criminals—and, while they won’t eradicate your likelihood of getting hacked, they could minimize the risks and potential damage. For instance, installing a firewall on your network, making sure all software programs are up-to-date (with the latest security patches), creating off-site backups of your files and training your employees on proper cybersecurity practices can dramatically mitigate the risks of a cyber breach.

Towards the future

While funders and members typically prefer to see their money go toward programs rather than new technology, it’s important for CNPO boards and executives to make the case that the two aren’t mutually exclusive. Strategic digital investments can make an organization’s programs stronger, help it measure impact more effectively and allow it to allocate funds more efficiently. To ultimately get donors and members on board, however, you need to show that you’re launching your digital journey with your eyes open—and implementing measures to mitigate the associated risks.

To learn more about how Grant Thornton can help your charity or NPO move into the future, contact us.