Digital transformation must-reads for charities

  • Digital technologies are changing working processes and norms for organisations everywhere
  • But how should charities respond to this change and embark on their own digital transformation?
  • Ross McCulloch of Third Sector Lab explores the best digital transformation toolkits, guides and resources for charity leaders

As part of our Scottish charities series Ross McCulloch, Director of Third Sector Lab, explores what digital transformation means for charities, and rounds up the best guides, toolkits and resources to help manage the change successfully.

Getting digital transformation right

By the end of 2017 “digital transformation” will have featured on the senior management team agenda of every charity in the UK. Some charities will see it as a cost-saving process, while others will look at it as a giant IT-procurement process.

Those that succeed will recognise that it’s all about people. It’s about meeting the changed expectations of service users, beneficiaries, trustees, donors, funders, stakeholders, staff and volunteers in a digital world.

Whenever you talk about digital transformation the same questions come up time and time again:

  • Where should charity leaders begin?
  • What role should your board play?
  • How do you involve your staff and volunteers?
  • How do you truly understand the needs of your users?
  • How do you make the right decisions about technology?
  • What role does data have to play?

To get to grips with these questions and to make the digital transformation process more manageable, it is useful to take a theme-by-theme approach.


Effective leadership needs to be the starting point. This is about looking at what you do with a fresh pair of eyes, experimenting and empowering staff and service users. For many organisations all of this leads to one fundamental question: is your chief executive or chair ready to fundamentally embrace the potential offered by digital?

SCVO’s short, jargon-free call to action is a helpful starting point for charity leaders trying to get to grips with digital transformation. It includes great information to help your charity explore, adapt, invest and collaborate.

The Third Sector Digital Maturity Matrix is a free tool developed by the digital team at Breast Cancer Care to assess your organisation’s digital capability. Through a simple self-assessment, you can understand where your organisation needs to invest to reach digital excellence.


As Vicky Browning, previously Director at CharityComms sees it: “The culture is the fundamental thing. You can talk about digital, but actually if you don’t change the culture of the organisation then nothing will happen. It’ll just be window dressing.”

This incredible piece of research from Julie Dodds, which features interviews with more than 50 senior leaders and digital experts, is particularly useful. In it, she outlines the need to align your digital strategy with your organisational strategy, the importance of transparency, the value of agile methodologies and the critical role of HR.

ICSA’s recent guide to assessing, measuring and improving charity culture, looks at the importance of listening to your stakeholders and staff, the role of your board, ethical considerations, getting back to your charity’s roots and more. When developing digital transformation, use this guide as a way of getting back to the fundamentals of what makes a successful, open and robust charity culture.

Service design

For digital transformation to be truly effective, it is important for organisations to take a fresh look at the fundamentals of how they work. Start with service users and supporters, not digital tools.

By freeing up staff to collaborate across teams using digital tools, or even delivering counselling sessions using online channels, simple changes to the way staff work can allow them to get excited and empowered about the vital work they deliver.

The Charity Digital Toolkit’s section on digital service delivery will help you focus your thoughts on your users – helping you develop simple user journeys to better understand their needs.

Flexible technology

According to Chris Thorn, Head of Digital at the British Heart Foundation: “The best technologies are the ones you stop noticing.”

As outlined in The New Reality, the age of giant, corporate IT infrastructure systems is over. If off-the-shelf tools like Slack, Trello and Skype are good enough for multi-billion pound tech firms, they’re good enough for even the biggest charities.

The New Reality is packed with advice to help you become flexible and effective in your technology approach, usually at a lower cost.

Using data

For charities serious about their mission, data is more than just spreadsheets – it’s a tool to understand why, how and where you can bring about positive social change. The Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation’s Data Playbook gives you the fundamentals of putting data to work within your non-profit.

This incredibly practical guide looks at what data to collect, how to collect data, analysing data and communicating results.