In March, CanadaHelps marked 20 years of service to Canadian charities. The country’s largest platform for donating and fundraising online has been used by more than 23,000 non-profits and millions of Canadians. While the sector it serves continues to struggle through the COVID-19 crisis, the platform has seen a record-breaking amount of activity as everything shifted to a virtual setting, including charitable giving.
According to its 2021 Giving Report, 1.1 million Canadians donated more than $480 million through CanadaHelps last year, more than double the amount donated in 2019. Charities supporting Indigenous Peoples, social services, health, and the environment saw the most growth.
Marina Glogovac, president and CEO of CanadaHelps, calls these trends “an existential threat as well as an opportunity” for the social sector. In a conversation with The Philanthropist, she spoke of what role platforms like CanadaHelps can play in attracting a new generation of donors who exist entirely online and the challenges facing charities as they figure out how to operate in a digital-first, post-pandemic world – particularly in light of a new digital skills survey that reveals that charities are lagging in digital adoption and investment in digital technology, with small charities falling the furthest behind.
What big questions should leaders in the charitable sector ask themselves now?
This year, it’s become evident that we have been underinvesting in upgrading our infrastructure and operations capacity. How are we going to tackle that? For charities to be truly effective agents of change in the new digital world, which this pandemic has greatly, greatly, greatly accelerated, I think that’s the big question. It’s going to be particularly difficult for smaller charities to figure out, as bigger organizations have the resources, the foresight, and investments ahead of time to make sure they can make this transition successfully. That’s not the case for smaller charities.
Do you think charities were prepared technologically to make the transition to digital that they needed to during the pandemic?
It’s a bit of a generalization, but I would say that many charities scrambled to get there overnight, because what we saw last year is whatever donations were given last year were all digital. Charities got caught really unprepared, because for you to be technologically savvy and have the know-how, you have got to invest in that. Because charities are traditionally really bad at investing in their own capacity to scale their results, when this crisis hit, they all saw they were nowhere close to being able to operate in this digital world. I think for many it was a wake-up call. A lot of charities understood that they have to have the basics in place to function right now, to have online forms to accept donations and so forth. We, as a charity, actually helped other charities with that; we saw a massive increase in demand.
What barriers are keeping Canadian charities from making this digital transition for good?
Becoming a digital-based organization – it’s painful, but it will create more opportunities if you’re in a position to take advantage of them. For that to happen, charities will need to figure a few things out. One thing I see as an interesting, limiting factor is that they will be competing for the digital-skills talent pool. But charities are not equipped to pay market salaries for this talent, which are increasing exponentially every year because of the demand. So I think charities may need to become a bit more creative, maybe collaborate, maybe create digital infrastructure that is shared. Because it’s going to become harder to accelerate your own digital transformation if you have to now compete with tech companies down the road.
What steps can Canadian charities take to overcome these challenges to digitize their operations effectively?
It’s not about getting technology or software, hardware. It’s about mindset. It’s about culture. It’s about a changed management. It’s about learning how to move from a fairly unchanged industry into something different. This will have to be a more holistic effort, not just getting an emails service provider. I think this will have to be nudged and poked and incentivized.
Status quo is a very powerful force, but one way or the other, change catches up with you. If we let charities evolve naturally, they will get there, but it will probably be a lot more costly. If we embrace it practically and think creatively about innovation and collaboration to really face this moment in time, it could set out the future of the sector.
How can governments help in this digital transition?
I think it would be very useful if the government did something similar to the Digital Main Street project for charities. This program recognized that all these small and medium-sized businesses needed help to do the exact same thing to survive in this all-of-a-sudden much-accelerated digital economy. It gave them different streams of support, funding, and services. Something like this is needed for charities as well. Given the importance of the charitable sector, its importance to the Canadian economy, the millions of people that it employs, and also for the social fabric of our country, I think charities deserve to be helped with this digital transition because they’re like these small and medium-sized businesses that don’t have the sophistication and resources to do this on their own.
What role will CanadaHelps play in facilitating this digital transition and post-pandemic recovery?
We want to be the kind of media platform, or the convergence of media and e-commerce, where people learn and support charities. We have to keep providing different options for Canadians to engage with charities. We want to create innovative products, like cause funds that were incredibly popular last year. But more important is our mission to help charities, especially smaller charities, have access to online fundraising and donor management technology that is cost-effective and accessible. We want to be the Shopify-like platform for small charities.