Towards digital service provision by charities

Charities are still working out how best to harness digital communications for fundraising. (See Public Zone’s Digital Handbook, for example).

But digital’s untapped potential extends far beyond fundraising. I’m most interested in seeing how we can use digital technology to improve service provision and to directly change the world for the better. In this post I outline two ways of achieving this.

1) Providing static information online

Providing information is a common charitable objective, and can be carried out very effectively online.

Creating useful web pages, visible to search engines and for the queries users are likely to enter in to them, is a good start. The SEOmoz guide to SEO is helpful here.

At Deafness Research UK we’ve been working to improve our provision of static information. Most visitors to our website are looking for information. Most of our visitors arrive through organic search, and the search terms they use show that they are looking for a solution to a specific problem, rather than being interested in our charity, or knowing in advance that we can help them. Many more people come into contact with us through this route than come to our dedicated Advisory Service.

Providing information and support is one of our charitable objectives, so we’ve worked to improve how well we use digital channels to achieve this. We use data on what people arriving at our site are searching for and produce content accordingly. So we extended our tinnitus and glue ear information, for example. We also look at what people are searching for on the internet as a whole, so that we can pick up gaps in our provision.

We’ve started taking this objective seriously by building it more strongly in to our reporting. Rather than focusing our website reporting on slightly arbitrary statistics – bounce rates, dwell time, overall pageviews – we’ve set up a series of goals in Google Analytics to track downloads of our resources, as well as tracking pageviews of our information content.

We’ve made our factsheets more visible and easy to download. From September to November 2012, these changes, along with the implementation of a Google Grant, led to a 103% increase in website goal completions. And because these goals are driven by our corporate objectives, they actually mean something.

Providing static content more effectively is great. For a lot of people this will be all the help they need. But we can take things at least one step further than this.

2) Using social media to provide interactive services online

  • We can proactively address people’s problems and concerns in a range of online spaces.

    At Deafness Research UK we’ve made some forays into proactively answering people’s questions on Yahoo Answers, and through twitter. By setting up twitter searches (see point 2 here) and Google Alerts, with a little bit of filtering you can keep an eye out for anyone talking about terms you might be able to help with.This is useful because lots of people who might want help don’t know about the support we can provide. And people experiencing sudden sensorineural hearing loss often don’t know that they need to seek urgent medical attention if there’s to be any chance of regaining their hearing.Ideally I’d like for us to commit to get in touch with anyone talking online who sounds like they might be affected by this type of sudden hearing loss. This would allow us to make more of a difference than simply providing a reactive service.By going beyond the online spaces we know, own and control – our facebook pages, websites and email inboxes –  into streams of activity on social media and online forums, we can help a lot more people.There are a few issues to consider when thinking about providing interactive advice and support online:- Can we ensure the provision of quality interactions and information through interactive channels? I think we can. If we’re relying on trained officers to deliver support on our helplines, I suspect that similar safeguards will help us provide quality information online.- Where do our beneficiaries stop? Should a UK organisation only provide support to people in the UK – and potential UK donors?

    – Private, longer-form, potentially more personal channels – such as email and telephone – are essential for any service providing advice and support. The ability to directly speak to an immediately responsive, warm, human with a voice is important, and for the next few years at least that will mean telephone helplines are essential.

  • Making connections online can directly help us achieve other charitable objectives.

    The Dogs’ Trust uses twitter to rehouse dogs, for example. I learnt at the November 2012 NFP Tweetup that it took them seven months of work to house the first dog, with another ten being housed in the next six months, with numbers growing from there. Switching to digital service provision can take time, but if your objectives align, there may be significant gains to be realised.

Providing interactive services online is a great way to publicly achieve your charitable objectives. But this is only part of the story. In my next post I want to go further, and propose how charities can use digital to encourage profound social change.