Riding the wave: Smart charities vs The pandemic vs The post-pandemic

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By Dr Roshan Boojihawon, Senior Lecturer in Strategy
Department of Strategy and International Business, University of Birmingham

The notable rise in charitable giving is welcomed news but is it sustainable or just a momentary burst in charitable giving? There is no doubt that the pandemic has brought together several factors that have contributed to this rise. Still, it is also true that charities have become digitally more innovative and more business-like in how they amass donations. So the real question for charities is: will the donations fade away as the effects of the pandemic ‘normalise’, or is this the time for them to buckle up their strategic thinking to define a more resilient future post-pandemic?

The pandemic has changed the charitable giving landscape. If I use the ‘surfing’ analogy to illustrate, COVID-19 and the lockdown would represent an abnormal wave (swell) that has taken every charity, as every surfer, in its strides.  Now, every surfer will tell you that the formation of the perfect wave is something of a rare phenomenon and depends on the combined effects of many factors that create the perfect storm; essentially, the bigger the storm out in the sea, the bigger the swells that hit the surfers’ rides. So likewise, the pandemic represents a rare ‘storm’, and the waves seem to have favoured charities, albeit some more than others depending, of course, on their surfing skills.

Indeed, and quite unexpectedly, for many charities, donations have hit the roof. Numerous individuals – and small organisations – mushroomed to help in the crisis and created a marked change in charity giving. Many of these were virtual, reach potential supporters through local community sites and targeted social media, and met an overwhelming human desire to help in a time of need and desperation. For instance, everyone noted the efforts of Captain Sir Tom Moore – the man who single-handedly raised over £39m for the NHS via impromptu online donations. But this was indicative of donor behaviour changing more widely and more rapidly during COVID-19. A third sector review concluded three factors that explained this: a rise in donations led by the young (under the 40s), a rise in digital donations and smart fundraising strategies.

Like the surfer’s skill, there is more to smart fundraising than meets the eye. Charities have been embracing the digital world and sharpening their digital skills rapidly and, the more proficient ones have been exercising fundraising strategies using smart data analytics. Some charities switched to virtual presence overnight, adopting new digital platforms to collaborate and communicate, adapted existing platforms to meet donor needs, spotlighting their stories and causes to specific target audiences and making donations easy, apply innovative fundraising methods to generate and maintain funds digitally, shifting rapidly to new working models and collaborations, and much more. The culmination of these actions is behind a lot of the successful ‘surf rides’ those charities have been experiencing so far, and they will continue to define which surfer, that is, which charity continues to stay on its surfing board as the waves break towards the shore and loses its momentum.  

I believe this is where the next challenge will be for every charity as ‘normality’ sets in post-pandemic. For big and small charities alike, this is the time to prioritise strategic thinking. It is more likely that the digital world will continue to be the most prominent platform for future donations; although it might be hit by slow digital uptake and an absence of enthusiasm for the virtual, it will ultimately come down to the skills of the charities to smartly harness online data and analytics to define more resilient digital fundraising strategies. In such scenarios, research in strategic resilience suggests the need to find a balance between mindful actions (relating to the ability to notice and react to opportunities effectively) whilst undertaking adaptive innovations (relating to the ability to renew through creating, inventing, and exploring unknown markets and technologies). Simply put, charities will have to evolve as rapidly and surf carefully as they step out of the pandemic in insuring themselves against future incremental changes and sudden disruptions (storms) while at the same adapt and change (organisationally and digitally) before the cost of not doing so becomes too great.

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