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Charities require urgent digital transformation

Earlier this year, CanadaHelps conducted a Digital Skills Survey of approximately 1,400 registered charities, which found that 54% of charities that use CanadaHelps believe they’ll soon find it harder to continue their work if they don’t improve their digital capabilities.

Earlier this year, CanadaHelps conducted a Digital Skills Survey of approximately 1,400 registered charities, which found that 54% of charities that use CanadaHelps believe they’ll soon find it harder to continue their work if they don’t improve their digital capabilities.


Canada’s 86,000 charities contribute significant economic value to Canada, making up 8.5% of the nation’s gross domestic product, and contribute significantly to the social fabric of our country. While overall giving has been in decline for years, online donations have been accelerating, especially in 2020. Many charities, however, are – surprisingly – not rushing into the online world.

Earlier this year, CanadaHelps conducted its Digital Skills Survey of approximately 1,400 registered charities, which found that 54% of charities that use CanadaHelps believe they’ll soon find it harder to continue their work if they don’t improve their digital capabilities. Only 42% of small charities, with annual revenues of less than $100,000, said they have integrated or plan to integrate digital technology into their operations. Most charities rated their digital skill level as “fair,” “poor,” or “not aware” in relation to 12 of 15 basic digital tools, including maintaining a website and sending an e-newsletter. For example, only 14% of survey respondents who use CanadaHelps would rate their knowledge of email marketing software as “very good,” while only 16% of respondents would rate their knowledge of impact-reporting, research, and data-management software as “good.”

Given these facts, it’s never been more important for charities to focus on starting their digital transformation journey. However, more than two-thirds of charities report that they are not prioritizing digital adoption.

Start with the big picture

Creating a digital mindset is a necessary foundation: it’s needed among staff members, volunteers, and boards of directors, because digital transformation requires a fundamental shift in how a charity operates, tells stories, raises funds, delivers value, and measures success. This isn’t only about software and hardware upgrades; the shift requires a digital-first, data-driven mindset – one that nurtures awareness and understanding of the technology that can be used to reduce barriers and expand external support and internal productivity and innovation. It requires an organization to commit to a deeper and more holistic organizational transformation. In all surveys citing factors of digital transformation success, cultural resistance is often quoted as the top reason for failure. The Nova Scotia SPCA (Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals) is one organization that has done it right and has learned from it.

The Nova Scotia SPCA is a registered charity that helps 16,000 pets every year through animal rescue, progressive programs, and rehoming opportunities. Two years ago, just before the pandemic, it began looking into how it could transform to adapt effectively to the digital age.

“We’d started the process before COVID, but the pandemic pushed us forward faster, because we had no other choice at the time,” says Laura Berube, development officer and database administrator with the charity. “One of the big things was a shift in mindset of staff. The staff now share more details with us about donors. They understand the importance of collecting donor data so that we can put those in our donor database. We weren’t always good with that in the past.”

We’d started the process before COVID, but the pandemic pushed us forward faster, because we had no other choice at the time.

Laura Berube, Nova Scotia SPCA

It’s shifts like this that drive digital transformation – but they don’t happen overnight. Digital transformation requires patience and iteration over time with the full team in support.

“You have to keep up the work,” Berube says. “None of the work we did was a one-and-done deal. It’s easy to get super excited about a new technological advance, but it’s also important to stop and ask, ‘Will the time and money for this shiny new tool be worth it?’”

Digital transformation is key to connecting with community

A key priority for the team at the Nova Scotia SPCA was to improve connections with supporters and the community. “We really had to listen to what our supporters wanted and needed,” says Taylor Mundy, the charity’s communications and development officer. “Pre-pandemic, we connected primarily face-to-face. There is definitely something very special about that. We had to adapt to this new world and create a blend of online and offline ways to connect animals and people.”

Mundy says they have relied on free online fundraising tools to easily connect with their donors at a low cost. “We can’t afford all the fancy bells and whistles. We knew that although a lot had changed, people still loved and supported our cause. We just needed to make sure we reached them.”

Their major shift in digital strategy and expansion in digital tools addressed these program issues and has led to an increase in donations and more sustainable programs during the pandemic.

We can’t afford all the fancy bells and whistles. We knew that although a lot had changed, people still loved and supported our cause. We just needed to make sure we reached them.

Taylor Mundy, Nova Scotia SPCA

“Animal adoptions were suspended for a few months, so we came up with a fun way to engage with supporters: a virtual adoption campaign,” Mundy says. The campaign highlighted dogs, cats, and critters online with before-and-after pictures showing how they improved – and how donors could help them on their journey while getting updates along the way. Some of these were dogs that needed surgeries or kittens who needed bottle feeding.

“For each highlighted animal, we created a customizable form embedded on our donation pages on our website,” Mundy says. “Afterwards, we could see at a glance which pets had the most fans and supporters, and donors could give whatever they could manage at the time. The exciting part is that we used the redirect tool from CanadaHelps so that after people gave, they’d automatically be sent a thank-you page and an adoption certificate.”

Their team also focused on donor acquisition and stewardship from the outset – so it wasn’t left as an afterthought. As a result, their online giving increased 45% in 2020, which includes their total monthly donors, now at 601 people, which is up 54%. They also analyzed their web visitors and noticed that 70% of traffic was from visitors using a phone or tablet, so they made an effort to revamp their website to become more mobile-friendly. To track donors, the Nova Scotia SPCA uses a customer relationship management (CRM) system to manage engagement, track donations, and more.

“We started tracking information, like planned giving and bequests, and tracking results and appeals to get into the finer details of why a donor gives,” Berube says. “We started adding volunteer information to our database, which we’d never done before. We started tracking our actions as a fundraising team so we could assess our goals at the end of the year.”

Now, the organization can better plan for the future, and programs are more sustainable.

“We stay curious and creative,” Mundy says. “Things do slow down, so it’s important to step back and assess if something will continue working. My grandmother used to say that you have two ears and one mouth for a reason: you can listen twice as much as you speak. We’re always making sure that we listen to what our donors need and supporters want.”

The benefits and challenges of digital transformation

For the Nova Scotia SPCA, the benefits to digital transformation are clear. Digital transformation through automation has helped increase their efficiency and productivity through their operations, better explain their impact through targeted stories, gain greater insights and understanding of donor behaviours and trends, make faster and more accurate decisions to adapt to new circumstances, and gain new supporters to ultimately increase donations.

While the benefits are extensive, the Nova Scotia SPCA fundraising team did face challenges when beginning their digital transformation journey. “There’s a lot of groundwork to start, a lot of hours to set up tracking systems, and you have to commit entirely if you want things to work,” Berube says. “My other challenge was communication with staff. We had to help them understand why it was important to collect the data. That took a long time, but now we’re on track.”

My other challenge was communication with staff. We had to help them understand why it was important to collect the data.

Laura Berube

Like anything, though, the team at the Nova Scotia SPCA had to overcome the first barrier to digital transformation: beginning the process.

“We do not receive any government funding for our shelters, so money was a barrier to the technology we have at our fingertips,” says Mundy. “We make the most out of free tools. We find the less that you have, the more creative you have to be.”       


Four pillars for digital transformation

  1. Commitment from the board of directors and executive staff, including identifying who’s out of their element and who has the required expertise to lead. In the Digital Skills Survey, we heard that staff knowledge about digital tools was very low – and knowledge among board members was even lower.
  2. Dedicated staff to develop a strategic digital plan, even a small one. Many charities told us they need resources for this.
  3. A plan that includes an honest and realistic list of gaps, barriers, challenges, and opportunities. More than 40% of respondents in our survey told us that they need help understanding the benefits of software and digital tools.
  4. Support from government and funders. This is critical in terms of not only resources, but for sustained leadership and building lasting organizational capacity.

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