Fear of digital handicaps small businesses and charities

Profile picture for user Madeline Bennett By Madeline Bennett December 10, 2017
Lloyds report reveals how much time and money is lost via online aversion. We speak to the Exeter Leukaemia Fund about how to drive change within charities.

The Exeter Leukaemia Fund (ELF), a charity operating across the South West, has a mission to provide compassionate and tailored support to every patient and family affected by blood cancer or blood disorder.

The charity’s CEO Mags Naylor realised a few years ago that embarking on a digital strategy would not only help ELF attract more donations and achieve cost savings, but most importantly would lead to a better level of care for those with illness.

People suffering from blood cancer are required to have treatment that means they are in an isolation room for weeks or sometimes months, as they have no defence system at all. Naylor explained that by providing something as basic as a tablet to patients makes such a difference, as they can stay in touch with their loved ones.

Back in 2014, ELF was far from digital. The organisation was relying on a multitude of data entry points, along with duplication through different types and formats of the same report. Naylor used an analogy I’ve yet to come across in my years of covering digital transformation: the humble pork pie. She explained:

A pork pie is a heavy, bulky piece of equipment. You have the meat, the pastry and that bit of jelly in the middle. They can’t work on their own. When you put them together, there’s only one thing they can do. There are limited add-ons, you can’t pull it apart and create anything with it, you can only add mustard and pickle.

That sums up all of our systems at ELF. Staff time was being taken up in administrating their own roles.

The Fear

Naylor was convinced that streamlining and unifying these disparate systems would pay dividends. The problem was, ELF’s staff took a different initial view.

There was fear. The staff team were frightened. It was those words - technology and digital - that instigated the fear and paralysis to move forward. There were also the stereotype conversations of it’s too expensive, it’s too complicated, it’s for the young ones.

Working with local consultancy Cosmic, Naylor developed staff workshops and training to get the whole team on board. Having gone through the internal cultural change means that business processes are now agreed by everybody, nobody is working in a silo and there is one single data entry point for everything.

The digital strategy has already helped ELF increase revenues. The annual ELF ball featured an online auction for the first time this year, raising 100 percent more via that channel.

The charity has invested in tablet tills for its retail shops and hospital kiosk, which have raised more than £55,000 in return for a £5,000 set-up fee and annual running costs of £1,000.

Underpinning these increased revenues is the new integrated accounts, retail and HR package; the ELF fundraising CRM system will soon be added. From trustees to part-time staff, everyone has access to the accounts, with different levels of authorisation. Staff are able to use their time more efficiently, as there are no longer separate spreadsheets in use across the organisation, while all staff HR and expenses are done via smartphones.

ELF has managed to save 85 hours a week in staff time through rolling out the integrated system, which Naylor said is a huge amount for such a small team, along with an estimated £100,000 in cost savings in the first year.

Now we are mobile, we are flexible and for ELF we’re more integrated. By staff teams working together, we’ve got them to lead everything we do digitally in ELF. They all now have the same objective, which is the charity’s objective.

The next step for the charity is developing closed social media support groups for patients and their families. The savings made by going digital have also enabled the charity to launch ELF at Home, a befriending service for people with blood cancer or disorder, who are rurally and socially isolated. Naylor added:

By going on a digital journey, ELF has built the path and we’re now developing new routes to support patients and their families.

One thing I would say is, if you are going to prioritise, make sure you use one system and prioritise that one system. Stick with it, don’t compromise and everything else slots into place. All the other systems work alongside it. There’s always a solution. Be nimble, look at agile project management.

Dream: really think about what you want to achieve and work backwards, even if you believe the path isn’t straight. Digital finds solutions to these problems.

Digital motivation

The initial fear of digital highlighted by ELF is mirrored across many other small businesses and charities across the UK. According to this year’s Lloyds Bank Business Digital Index, 1.6 million small businesses (41 percent) and over 100,000 (52 percent) charities in the UK do not have basic digital skills.

This represents an increase from 2016, when 38 percent of small firms and 49 percent of charities lacked the core digital skills of managing digital information, communicating and transacting online, creating digital content, and using online tools for problem-solving. Worryingly, the report also revealed that 118,000 UK organisations aren’t using the internet at all.

The biggest hurdle to encouraging small businesses and charities to embrace the online world is motivation. The report found that 61 percent of charities and 43 percent of small businesses with the lowest levels of digital skills believe an online presence is irrelevant to their organisation.

Safety and security are also a concern, with only one-third of small businesses and one-quarter of charities feeling confident that they have the skills to protect their organisations from fraud and potential scams.

The Lloyds report highlighted how investing in online can pay dividends, just as ELF discovered. The most digitally capable small businesses were twice as likely to report turnover increases compared to their non-digital equivalents; while charities were more than twice as likely to report a rise in donations, largely thanks to use of social media.

Nick Williams, managing director, Consumer and Commercial Digital at Lloyds Banking Group, said for many small businesses and charities, going digital presents a vicious circle:

The single biggest benefit they quote in the Index is it saves me time. But you have to invest time to save time. How do you create the capacity? A sole trader is not only the MD, marketing director, but the sales director, the operations director and now they’re becoming the chief digital officer as well. It is hard for them.

Lloyds has run pilot schemes to help build up the digital skills among SMBs and charities, and found that working on a local level achieved the best results.

Businesses who operate in and serve the same community worked well together and learnt most by spending time with organisations in the same geography but who were not competing. They’re starting to share knowledge and information in real-time. It’s about not having to create another meeting as they’re next to each other in the high street.

The single biggest challenge they have is creating that time to do it. But as the report says, if they can save up to a day a week by doing it, certainly for a sole trader that’s a day with the family.