Utilising technology to achieve your charitable purpose

A self-help series with guest author Ian Patterson

Third in our four-part digital maturity series, we cover the topic of technology.

This series was created with guest author Ian Patterson, a digital transformation consultant responsible for leading change across many organisations. In this article Ian shares his experiences of digital tech; good, bad and ugly.

Digital technology

In the context of digital maturity "tech" can mean a good number of things. Let’s start with a quick definition of digital technology so we're on the same page. For the purpose of this series tech includes digital systems, solutions or software that require coding, development or data to power them. However, as you may know there are powerful online technology services that don't require the people who use them to have any coding skills.

These kinds of services exist 'in the cloud' and come under the category of SaaS (Software as a Service). These are services that can help organisations achieve things quickly, with a low barrier to entry. Very popular SaaS services include MailChimp (email sending service), SurveyMonkey (to conduct surveys), Zoom (for video conferencing) and Dropbox (for file sharing). Each of these services can be used from a web browser, and don’t need to install software to your computer. Hence the term: Software - As a Service.

When I think of digital tech, I also think of new ways to get things done, such as contactless payments, productivity Apps that allow volunteers to share their availability or social media channels that allow people to collaborate and communicate. So, as you can see – the remit for digital technology is rather broad. If you really want to blow you mind, take a look at the Martech 5000 (actually 7,040 of the leading marketing technology providers) represented in this Super graphic: Martech 5000. And that’s just the marketing technology providers (gulp!)

Unlimited choice

With so much choice, how can we determine the right mix of technologies to use? There’s no ‘one-size-fits-all’ answer to that question, given that each business has different needs, budgets and availability of inhouse skills. However, it helps when sector-specific service providers have made it their business to cater for a certain type of organisation.

Tech pleasure and pain

I must be honest. I've had a love hate relationship with technology throughout my career. Not something many digital professionals will openly admit, but then not all technologies are made equal. I see some technologies as enablers to achieving our work, and others as inhibitors. You've probably experienced both too. Usually expressed with one of these two internalised comments: “Well, that was easier than I expected – and look, now I can invite [insert college name] to complete their task.” Or, unfortunately for some: “Why can’t I get this [expletive] thing to [expletive] do what I [expletive] want it to do!! [smash coffee mug hard into keyboard and hope no one noticed]. We’ve all been there.

Beyond those people who are naturally excited by technology (that's the kind of people who like to make things, code and create the tech we use) most of us just want the convenience that technology allows. That's why, on some occasions, when I've experienced tech that makes it MORE inconvenient to achieve things, it’s been very frustrating. It’s refreshing when technology creators have clearly listened to their intended users and built a service that hits the spot. You might think I'm bias, having been asked to write this series, but The Access Group are clearly in the business of listening and enabling. Which is a good time to mention our digital technology discussion guide – created as a self-help prompt sheet, complete with 10 questions you can ask when considering digital technology. The questions are based on how leading not-for-profit organisations are leveraging digital technology.

Trending tech

In the last portion of this article I want to share my views on some popular technologies and help make them easier to understand. Even if you are a tech professional, consider how you might use these descriptions to explain complex tech topics to persons who are not as confident as you are.

Artificial intelligence

A.I. is the use of machines to help people solve complex, time consuming or repetitive challenges. Application of A.I. is far ranging, but typically involves a computer referring to data to make decisions. What does that mean in reality? A great example are chat bots that can direct people to common answers, without the person even realising they are talking with a computer. More common than you might realise, not-for-profits can benefit hugely from chat technology. A good example of this is Charity: Water’s use of ZenDesk. A.I. can also be used to help manage contact or campaign databases. From deciding the best channel and time to send messages, to cross referencing open data to help make informed decisions. Such data helps to ensure best use of your efforts and, when in full adherence with GDPR / data privacy legislation, can be a powerful way to communicate.

Machine learning

I can already hear some tech purists screaming at me for over-simplifying this, but in basic terms – Machine Learning is A.I. applied to research, learn and investigate. This means using machines to perform a task without using explicit instructions, instead, allowing the computer algorithm to 'find out for itself' by analysing patterns or by projecting trends. A sub-set of A.I. - Machine learning can help identify aspects of your data that you may not have the time, capacity or (sorry to say this) -- intelligence to consider. For example, ML could segment your CRM data into new groups, by highlighting people who donate certain times of the month or year, or persons who engage with your organisation in response to certain campaign activity. ML can be applied in a wide variety of ways, so it’s a very powerful intelligence gathering tool.

Natural language processing

In order to describe this tech innovation, it will be best to provide a practical example right off the bat. If you are familiar with Google Ads (Google’s Advertising service) it may help. When you make use of Google Ad Grants to display messages on Google, this is based on Google trying to display your message with the most relevant search term entered. In the early days of Google Ads this was rather basic, so if you wanted to display an advert saying “London fundraising event, to support elderly residents” you could expect people to see your message if they searched for “What to do in London this weekend, fundraising events for the elderly”. Natural language processing uses data to advance language variants. In simple terms, your message could display if the following search was entered: “Seniors charity activities in the South”. As you can see, none of the same words were used, yet the NLP engine was able to process based on the content.

Wrap Up

In the final article in this digital maturity series, we will cover digital measurement including aspects of reporting, data and testing.                     

Download the discussion guide to digital technology

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An 11-step survival kit for digital fundraisers in 2021 to inspire Not-For-Profit organisations modernise their processes and embrace the world of digital fundraising.
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