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charity digital code of practice

Susan Robinson and Alun Edwards discuss the kind of issues which come within the ambit of the Digital Code of Practice, and how it can be used for assessing current digital policies and procedures as a basis for improvement.

This article was also published in Charities Management.

The world is a much smaller place thanks to technology, the internet and the growth of social media. With over 4 billion people worldwide using the internet and 3.2 billion on social media, charities of all sizes need to carefully consider their own digital presence and the skills of their teams. Increasing their digital activity will widen their audiences and therefore increase their ability to reach out, communicate, talk about difficult issues, fundraise and deliver a sustainable future for their organisations.

Digital is however a double-edged sword. Its use needs to be balanced with concerns over the potentially damaging effect of some content which social media platforms have been reluctant, or slow to remove. This can cause further issues for charities and undermine their work.

One of the latest issues where charities and social media firms have been at odds is over content which promotes issues such as self-harm/suicide or eating disorders. These firms now have UK Government guidelines to follow which, it is hoped, will speed up decisions about removing some content. Both Samaritans and Beat are two organisations which have been named as working with UK social media platforms to make recommendations for when content should and shouldn’t be taken down. Samaritans will financially benefit from this work and their experts will be the ones determining what is harmful and dangerous, but this in itself almost seems a contradiction. It could be argued that if the platforms hadn’t allowed the content to appear in the first instance, then many of the issues that the charity is now working to prevent would be less prevalent.

The spread of fake news and misinformation, particularly on social media platforms, also isn’t helping the work of some organisations and it can also be argued that it is making the work of some charities harder. Matt Hancock the Health Secretary said recently: “The rise of social media now makes it easier to spread lies about vaccination so there is a special responsibility on the social media companies to act.”

The coverage of the measles, mumps and rubella vaccination in England decreased for the fourth year in a row in 2018 to 91% and at the same time there has been a nearly three-fold rise in the number of confirmed measles cases from 259 to 966. This means more will need to be spent on the education, awareness and delivery of vaccinations in the future.

The UK’s first Digital Code of Practice for charities, which was launched in late 2018, highlights some of these downsides as well as provides practical advice for charities, both large and small, on how to improve their digital capabilities. It followed on from a report from Lloyds Bank that showed less than half of charities have access to the full range of basic digital skills needed for them to remain relevant and prosper in the digital age, and that often charity leaders lacked the confidence to implement the necessary changes. This is worrying news when digital skills are becoming increasingly necessary for a wide range of charity activities, from service delivery to fundraising. There can be few, if any, charities that aren’t somehow affected by the increasing digitalisation of society.

The Code has the support of the Charity Commission, as well as a broad range of other bodies active in the not-for-profit sector, including Lloyds Bank and the Co-op Foundation who funded its development. Director of Policy, Planning and Communications at the Charity Commission, Sarah Atkinson, welcomed the launch of the Code, stating “Digital is changing the way the public behaves. For charities to stay relevant, increase the difference they can make, and protect their charity from risks, understanding and engaging with the digital world is vital.”

It is hoped that charities will use the Code as a ‘practical tool’ to identify what they are doing well and any gaps they need to address. Organisations who use digital successfully should constantly test, learn from and see their strategies and tactics evolve. It is envisaged that the organisations using digital will also regularly review their progress against the Code.

The Code sets out seven key principles for all charities to address:

Leadership Charity leaders must lead on digital as a way of helping their charities be relevant and sustainable. They must understand its relevance to the strategy and governance of the charity to help them to realise their vision.

User led Charities should make the needs and behaviours of beneficiaries and other stakeholders the starting point for everything they do digitally.

Culture Charities’ values, behaviours and ways of working should create the right environment for digital success.

Strategy Charities’ strategies should be ambitious about how they can use digital to achieve their vision and mission increasing the impact and sustainability of their activity.

Skills Charities should aim for digital skills to be represented at all levels of the organisation. The Code identifies both technical and soft skills as being important to charities as well as the confidence, motivation and attitude of the people leading and volunteering.

Managing risk and ethics Charities need to determine and manage any risks involved in digital. It is not just about the content of what is being posted as highlighted in the examples earlier in this article, but also the partnerships and use of data by social networks. There should be awareness in the charity sector regarding the debate around digital ethics, digital inclusion and algorithm bias for example.

Adaptability Charities will need to adapt to survive and thrive as digital affects how everyone lives and works. The Code recognises the differing needs of large and small charities, and two different versions of the Code have been developed as a result. Both are built around the same seven principles, but the supporting guidance reflects the differing circumstances that affect charities of different sizes.

We are recommending to all our charity clients that they use the Digital Code to assess their own existing policies and procedures, and to highlight areas where improvements can be made. For some charities this may seem quite daunting at first, with yet more work that needs to be done in an area of governance that detracts from the core charitable activity. But good governance is essential for charities of all sizes to protect themselves from risk and to keep the charity safe from harm, and nowhere is this more important than digital. History is littered with examples of organisations that have failed to recognise and adapt to change and have suffered as a consequence.

Charities should consider for example what would happen to their cash flow if social media platforms started charging for more of their services. If you have a business model which relies on using them to communicate with volunteers and supporters then could you continue to operate as cost effectively if they started charging you for this service, or if services were no longer available, or if you were being asked to pay to advertise your events?

Some recent examples which we have come across where charities are using digital effectively as part of a wider marketing strategy include CoppaFeel, a charity promoting breast health awareness to young women using a combination of face to face engagement at festivals, universities and in the workplace and then engaging with them on social media. It has a free text message service sending out monthly reminders to ‘check boobs’ going out to 60,000 people.

Prostate Cancer UK has also this month launched a powerful marketing campaign which is designed to make people care about men and will feature TV advertising, outdoor, digital and social media activity.

Social media platforms in these two instances are fantastic opportunities for both organisations to create direct conversations with their target audience and also to help overcome our own personal discomfort about talking about intimate bodily issues, as overcoming embarrassment could be the key to help a much larger number of people to identify life threatening illnesses in the earlier stages.

It is also really important that digital tells a good story behind whatever medium you use to reach your audience. A really simple but effective example is of a small animal charity in Kent which several years ago was struggling with getting interest in rehoming animals, raising funds and was also unable to reach a younger audience or recruit new volunteers. It started using social media and giving each of the animals not only a name, but a short backstory, which really resonated with the audience. They now have nearly 10,000 people following their Facebook page alone, a high level of engagement, and it has helped them to deliver their original objectives.

Social media has been a lifeline for this organisation however, they need to consider what the shape of their broader digital strategy should be in the future to enable them to have the same level of success. Make sure your charity is on the front foot with its use of digital.

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