The non-profit and charity sector has been transforming how it uses technology. In an age when payments can be made with the swipe of a card or phone, how the public gives have had to evolve rapidly. Today, charity technology is fast becoming the foundation onto which these organizations will flourish.

“In a world where technology is crucial to organizational success many UK charities are behind the curve and do not have a unique digital strategy in place that describes how technology will help them deliver their mission,” Rob Gethen Smith, VP Global Head of Product Strategy, Not for Profit, Unit4, explained to Silicon.

“Without this, they lack the investment needed for fundamental training and tools to implement a successful digital transformation, and this is fundamentally holding them back. With mounting pressure to keep up with technological advances, charities are encouraged to improve almost every aspect of their operations, from overall workplace efficiency to the delivery of their unique services to beneficiaries.”

Innovations across the charity and non-profit sector have focused on offering convenient and secure contactless giving platforms. In 2017, TSIP in association with N=5, Five Degrees and MediaMonks, developed a jacket with a built-in contactless payment system for the homeless in the Netherlands. This innovative approach used the propensity to favour contactless payments by the public enabled them to donate with convenience and speed. This kind of ethical giving illustrates the innovations taking place across the humanitarian sector as a whole.

Last year Londoners were able to donate using contactless technologies to support the Mayor’s homelessness initiative. Over 90 payment points were installed across the capital. Using technology developed by TAP for the Beam homeless charity.

Using the latest payment technologies is a clear imperative across the charity sector in particular. The ad hoc giving that is often the primary channel for fundraising has been moving increasingly towards digital and mobile platforms. Comic Relief, for instance, is using the GoCardless API.

Says Executive Director of Innovation and Digital for Comic Relief, Charlotte Hillenbrand: “Our engineers quickly put something together that showed the ease of integration. When your engineers actively want to integrate with GoCardless, you know it’s a scalable solution. We get up to 300 or more donations a second during Red Nose Day and seeing GoCardless there as part of the payment mix is a real vote of confidence.”

Charity technology expands

GoodBox works with charities of all sizes and across multiple categories, including Comic Relief, the Church of England, Save the Children, and the British Red Cross. Last winter it was also the platform chosen to run the Mayor of London’s homelessness campaign, taking donations at 90 newly installed contactless points across the city. Most notably, GoodBox installed its GBx Pro terminals in the Natural History Museum in 2017, since then it has had a 64% uplift in donation income, with over £1,000,000 donated through the contactless points.

GoodBox CEO and Co-Founder Andrew O’Brien said: “Since the beginning, GoodBox has been driven by a very clear mission; to make charitable giving seamless across the UK. The steps we have taken over the last two years since our first Seedrs round has accelerated our ability to do this, and we are confident that this next round of funding will help us continue to deliver the most innovative technology, products and services to the sector.”

Harnessing new payment technologies and currencies is also gaining pace. Charities are paying close attention to cryptocurrencies as they expand in the marketplace. In 2014, RNLI (Royal National Lifeboat Institution) began to accept donations in Bitcoin. Using the Blockchain, platforms like Promise are being used by charities, including English Heritage.

World Wildlife Fund Italy uses AIDChain, allowing the organization to take donations on a global scale. And Unicef has become the latest charity to accept Bitcoin payments. Christopher Fabian, a principal adviser at Unicef Innovation, commented: “We see this as a piece of learning that we need to go through to prepare for the next decade.”

“Even though they are still uncertain of the impact blockchain will have on their businesses, 60% of CIOs in the Gartner 2019 CIO Agenda Survey said that they expected some level of adoption of blockchain technologies in the next three years,” said David Furlonger, distinguished research vice-president at Gartner. “However, the existing digital infrastructure of organizations and the lack of clear blockchain governance are limiting CIOs from getting full value with blockchain.”

New kinds of giving

CTOs and CIOs in the charity sector are rapidly evolving the technologies they use, to offer customer-facing payment channels that lock into the latest contactless payment ecosystems. According to UK Finance, by 2028, the number of debit card payments will reach 22 billion, with two-thirds of these payments being contactless.

Unit4’s Rob Gethen Smith concluded: “In 2020, by investing in back-office technologies, charities will fundamentally become more efficient, streamline their processes and increase their agility. It is also predicted that charities will be using technology to engage further with millennials and generation Z to increase donations from younger people.

“Shifting focus from the over 60s to the digital-natives and those who first experienced the internet when they were young, will require charities to think innovatively about their current use of technology. Similarly, as video content becomes more popular than written content, it is predicted that video tech will be used heavily to relay charity brand messages and entice people to donate.”

Rob Gethen Smith, VP Global Head of Product Strategy, Not for Profit, Unit4.

The innovations with payment methods are just one component of how charities and non-profits are now using technology. Tom Latchford, Founder of Joyful, now part of The Access Group explained to Silicon: “Much of the focus of charities has been to use technology to drive back-office efficiency, for example by using CRM systems to improve supporter journeys. They allow charities to do what they’ve always done better.

“However, the central mechanic of driving donations is the same as it’s always been and, has never been more relevant – it’s about creating inspiration. Even the most advanced technology can’t achieve the artistry of taking hold of people’s hearts. But technology can scale human to human connection at an unprecedented pace. None-profits can leverage this technology to seize opportunities that don’t exist for corporates.”

With Tiia Sammallahti, the founder and CEO of, also stating: “There are probably only tens of charities out of almost 200,000 in England and Wales to whom new technologies are relevant at the moment (AI and Blockchain for example). However, more charities are starting to recognize the potential of things like personalization and data mining. The scale and scope vary widely according to the size of the charity. Charity technology solutions do not necessarily need to be super-advanced.”

Tiia Sammallahti, CEO and Founder of

Charities and non-profits have little choice but to support current payment methods. Making giving frictionless will lead to higher levels of donations. Increasingly, charities will also need to connect their back-office systems to ensure a seamless, secure and agile technology foundation onto which they can build their organizations’ donation infrastructure.

Silicon in Focus

Pivotal Act is a programme that partners with humanitarian organizations and charities to identify, design, and develop practical solutions to pressing challenges around the world. Rather than merely donating technology or funds, Pivotal Act involves developers, designers, and engineers from Pivotal Labs, building and learning collaboratively with clients. Projects apply a similar methodology used in other Pivotal Labs engagements but tailored to the needs of the humanitarian and social impact sectors.

Aly Blenkin, Co-Founder, Pivotal Act.

Ellie Ereira, Co-Founder, Pivotal Act.

Ellie Ereira and Aly Blenkin launched Pivotal Act after having run several projects with Pivotal customers in the humanitarian sector. Drawing on their experience in international development and social impact, they saw that the sector was subject to the same software issues faced in the private sector: products developed but not being used, long delivery cycles, inefficient coding practices, etc. The opportunity arose to launch a dedicated grassroots programme that would use resources from Pivotal Labs to offer support to non-profit organizations on a low-bono basis.

What are the current technology pressure points charities currently feeling?

For most humanitarian and social impact organizations, the implementation of new technologies and/or methodologies relies on contributions from funders and donors, who often have their expectations linked to the delivery of set outputs and can restrict an organization’s freedom to innovate.

In other cases, the technology is being built. Still, the work is often outsourced with an up-front set of specifications which could mean the impact organization isn’t empowered to make changes if the end result isn’t what they expect. Further, outsourcing a set of requirements results in a waterfall rather than an agile process delivering technology likely would not be effective.
Another big problem is having skills in the team to apply best practices for designing and building technology.

Often, they can’t pay the salaries people with these skills can expect in the private sector. This means non-profits find it hard to apply lean, agile and user-centred design approaches which would allow them to build solutions based on real feedback from users.

This is one of the things Pivotal Act aims to change, by building up the skills of teams within humanitarian, social and environmental organizations so they can achieve their objectives through empowering them to design and build technology.

Can you point to a charity or non-profit that is making innovative use of technology?

Pivotal Act has been working with Social Finance, a non-profit organization that improves the experience and outcomes of young people as they transition out of the UK’s social welfare system. Social Finance’s objective is to help young people who experience a ‘cliff-edge’ of support when they turn 18 and leave social care, which increases the likelihood of unemployment, being out of work, homelessness, or experiencing mental health problems.

The platform for this was Social Finance’s application called Leaving Well. The Leaving Well app allows young people in the care system to connect with their support workers and other resources so that they get the information and support they need when they need it. It also allows their support workers to meet the statutory requirements of care while removing duplicative and labour-intensive reporting so they can spend more time with young people.

Pivotal Act was called in to help Social Finance understand the core problems the Leaving Well team was trying to solve and for whom. They also helped to add tests to the existing product and make the app more robust and focused around user needs through extensive research.
The Social Finance team researched with professionals in social care teams, and with young people themselves to learn more about their needs – a research environment is requiring deep sensitivity. The Pivotal Act team spent time working with Social Finance to develop user research methods that could draw out what is essential without triggering young people who have experienced trauma.

Social Finance is continually acting on feedback and adapting the Leave Well application accordingly. The result of the product being launched in seven local authorities has resulted in Personal Advisors and Social Workers reporting they have saved time on administrative work, giving them more time to support young people directly.

Are there any trends you can identify, as charities and non-profits make use of more technology?

One trend we’ve seen is the gradual increase of charities and non-profits investing in building up in-house tech teams. As with all tech sectors, the third sector is struggling to source individuals with the right skills for their particular technology needs.

Especially in the field of software development, it can be just as difficult to find teams with the right skills to fix one organization’s particular issues as it is to budget for them. Additionally, as design and development processes are becoming more iterative, the value of having staff on hand who have been there since the beginning can’t be understated.

This is part of a broader trend of charities and none-profits now recognizing that these are the types of services they need to allocate budget to. Previously, these types of projects would have been seen as a value-add and outside the organization’s core remit, relying on pro bono work to avoid allocating extra budget to fund them.

Now, they don’t want to have to rely on pro bono support and the goodwill of design and technology agencies offering to help them in their spare time, where if a paying customer comes along, they get relegated to the bottom of the pile.

Is better back-office efficiency now a key driver when technology is concerned for charities over new technologies for making donations?

The overall objective of organizations in the social, environmental and humanitarian sector is to make an impact, which can be achieved just as successfully by cost-optimizing back-office functions as it can by attracting more donations through a sleek user experience.

Again, doing so requires having the right skills and talent at hand to continually identify new efficiencies to be opened up. After all, this not only saves charities and non-profits money which can be reinvested into achieving their humanitarian goals, but the removal of bloated back-office processes also gives teams another crucial resource: time.

Data mining, AI, personalization etc. all require a deep understanding. Are charities ready to exploit these technologies?

Technologies like AI, Machine Learning or data mining are genuinely revolutionary, but also resource-intensive, and often the types of outcomes charities are employing these for can be achieved by other, less technical solutions. Furthermore, technologies like AI/ML require constant monitoring to ensure they consistently produce meaningful outcomes.

Organizations need to be rigorously challenging their assumptions with regards to how AI/ML, especially when it comes to the quality of the data that feeds them: how is the data structured, if at all? Have any potential biases in the interpretation of the data been addressed? Are the right number of the most valuable data streams being fed into the system?

Sometimes, there is a desire to build out high tech solutions such as AI, ML, and Blockchain, etc., without real consideration as to whether they are needed to solve the problem at hand.
Put simply, charities and organizations should innovate around the problem rather than aiming to push the boundaries of these new technologies, as there might be more straightforward and less technically advanced solutions which may work just as well.

What does the future look like for charities and non-profits and their use of technology?

We expect better collaboration in the sector, both between organizations and with third parties, sharing experiences of using particular tools and best practices for overcoming common problems. This goes hand in hand with the open-source software movement, part of an overall drive toward transparency and collaboration in the industry.

We’re also on the cusp of several new technologies becoming part and parcel of the standard software landscape for organizations. We’re at a high point in the hype cycle of these technologies which, as time goes by, will become less focused on the technologies themselves and more focused on the problems they intend to solve.

Overall, we expect to see the adoption of more iterative problem-focused methodologies to grow as charities and organizations shift their software- focus from deliverables to real outcomes, continuously reflecting on their service offerings and adapting their services accordingly. Only then will these organizations give themselves the freedom to grow their ideas and get the results everyone wants.

David Howell

Dave Howell is a freelance journalist and writer. His work has appeared across the national press and in industry-leading magazines and websites. He specialises in technology and business. Read more about Dave on his website: Nexus Publishing.

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