Like every other business sector, charity organisations are awakening to the need for digitalisation. Contributing to this is the prolonged COVID-19 pandemic that has significantly disrupted business and organisational operations as well as consumer behaviours. The equivalent of five years of consumer and business digital adoption took place in only eight weeks at the beginning of the pandemic, according to a McKinsey study.
Charities are now turning towards technology, to continue delivering their services while staying compliant with the safety management measures imposed by the authorities. However, the digitalisation journey of charities may be hampered by misconceptions about technology and the challenges it brings to stakeholders.
According to Dr Caroline Lim, Head of the Organisation and Leadership for Non-Profits Programme at the SR Nathan School of Human Development (NSHD), SUSS, a key reason why charities are slow in digitalisation is the perceived dichotomy between the terms ‘hi-tech’ and ‘hi-touch’. These charities have the misperception that technology and digitalisation will displace the human touch and thus depersonalise interactions.
This misconception is one that Dr Lim is keen to dispel. “Hi-tech and hi-touch are not separate and independent entities or opposing forces. Rather, technology and personalisation can co-exist on a continuum.” She cites the case of Food from the Heart (FFTH), an independent Singaporean food charity devoted to alleviating hunger through efficient distribution of food.
FFTH uses technology to enable employees and volunteers to focus on meaningful interactions and even enhance personalisation. For example the issuance of physical cards bearing unique QR codes. Each time the beneficiary picks up food rations from a community store, volunteers will scan the card’s QR code. Through this, FFTH gains valuable insights into their beneficiaries’ behaviours and preferences, including collection patterns and consumption rates. With access to the digital records, they can ensure that the inventory and variety of items at the community store match the beneficiary’s requirements.
Singapore’s Charity Scene
As of end 2020, the charity sector in Singapore comprised 2,321 registered organisations of varying sizes with a range of causes, including community, arts and heritage, education, health and even sports. The level of digitalisation among the groups encompasses a wide range, from organisations just starting to explore digitalisation, to those already in the advanced stages. Dr Lim points out that there is no association between organisation size and stage of digitalisation, with FFTH being a prime example. The organisation is classified as a small charity by annual income size, but it is one that is mature in its digitalisation efforts.
But rather than evaluating the level of digitalisation, Dr Lim believes it is more important for charities to articulate a coherent digitalisation strategy and roadmap.
Such a digitalisation strategy involves looking into available grants, incentives and schemes for charities as well as partnerships with corporates who are looking to do good. Some technology firms also contribute their skills and resources to help charities with digital adoption. GovTech, for example, designed and delivered the SupplyAlly mobile app for FFTH’s Project Belanja!.
For charities that are just starting to explore digitalisation, they may kickstart their digitalisation journey via the Charities GoDigital Kit, which was launched by the Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth (MCCY) last year. The kit is available online and provides resources in areas such as digital solutions and tools, funding support and capability building.
There are many ways for charities to learn more about digitalisation and apply them in their day-to-day operations. They can participate in webinars, workshops, talks, and catch up on resources made available by public agencies on the support for charities.
According to Dr Lim, charities that have a headstart in digitalisation are able to integrate and align their strategy, organisation culture and training of staff. She outlines three key steps for charities to strategise their digitalisation journey.
First, charity leaders must know what their requirements are and how much of these can be handled by technology. Second, they need to define what are the target results to be delivered with digitalisation and digital transformation. Third, they have to assess the organisation's readiness, culture and climate for change.
On-the-ground support is crucial as well. Trained staff must be supported with supervision and a conducive work environment so that they can put into practice what they have learnt, which will lead to behavioural change necessary to deliver the desired results of digital transformation.
Fundraising in the Time of Digitalisation
Digitalisation processes such as digital payment systems are helping the cause of many charity groups. It now appears easier for charities to raise more money because it’s highly convenient for people to make donations via digital payments.
When asked if this will be a growing trend in the charity sector, Dr Lim mentions that there is more than meets the eye, and the benefits transcend mere convenience. They involve lowering costs as well.
“Expenses incurred from online fundraising are often significantly lower than physical fundraising events, as physical events can require the implementation of safety management measures that introduce costs. Moreover, online fundraising and crowdfunding platforms frequently offer incentives like waiver of transaction and payment processing fees.”
Besides digital payment systems, digital marketing and the adoption of social media are making online fundraising ubiquitous as well. Social media, online fundraising and crowdfunding encourage everyone to participate in fundraising for a cause they believe in. They help charities engage their advocates and supporters to achieve better outcomes in their outreach activities.
In fact, some charities collected more donations in 2020 compared to 2019 despite the economic downturn due to the pandemic.
According to the National Volunteer and Philanthropy Centre (NVC), the use of social platforms for peer-to-peer fund-raising allows supporters to become fund-raisers themselves to create more awareness and attract donations to the causes or charities. For example, St John's Home for Elderly Persons, which organised a virtual charity dinner in 2020, raised over $320,000 from the event.
A Positive Outlook
The COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated digitalisation for charities, pushing them to focus on how they can best utilise their limited resources in this new reality. While the benefits of embracing the digital age are clear, the adoption process can be slow and potentially complicated. However, Dr Lim remains optimistic about the future of local charities, citing the many charities she knows of that are evaluating employee skill sets and executing organisation-wide strategies to upskill them. And with the plethora of resources available to help organisations go digital, Singaporean charities are not only moving in the direction. They have all the support they need to achieve their digitalisation goals.
 McKinsey Digital (MAY 2020) Digital adoption through COVID-19 and beyond
 Commissioner of Charities Annual Report (OCT 2021) Annual Report 2020 Annual Report 2020
 Food From The Heart (AUG 2020) Food from the Heart launches Phase 2 of app-driven charity meal redemption programme, with plans to scale it island-wide to benefit more
 The Straits Times (JUL 2021) Charities in Singapore go online to raise funds amid Covid-19