It’s easy to lose sight of how quickly things change in a world that’s increasingly digital, and to forget how recently many of the big changes have happened. How did we search for information twenty years ago, before the launch of Google? How did we share our ideas ten years ago, before the rise of Twitter? How did we manage our daily lives without smartphones populated with our indispensable apps? It’s easy to forget that only eight years ago both iPhones and Android phones had yet to take over the world, and our lives.

When we think about the future of the charity and social enterprise sector, we would be wise to remember how fast the world changes, and foolish to think it won’t continue to transform just as quickly.

As a sector, we’ve been slow to embrace digital technology so far. While charities have been quick to see the promise of social media and online fundraising, for example, we’re yet to see much in the way of true digital transformation in the way that organisations deliver products and services, or engage with our clients and beneficiaries. Real transformation is about reshaping the way we work in the context of an increasingly digital world—not just bolting on digital extras to the same old strategies and programmes.

NPC has spent the last year working with a fantastic steering group and a growing coalition of partners to explore digital transformation, and this week we launched the first results of our work. We’ve highlighted the work of far-sighted, early adopters who saw the potential of digital and seized the opportunity—and its challenges—with both hands.

Those examples—like SENDirect, RunAClub and I Got Garbage—show that digital transformation is possible, and that its benefits are far-reaching for beneficiaries, for charities, and for the wider sector. We can learn a great deal by looking elsewhere too—at the work of the Government Digital Service in the public sector, or at AirBnB, Amazon and LinkedIn in the private sector.

Digital technology can transform the relationships between organisations and their beneficiaries. By integrating services, sharing resources, aggregating information, creating common resources, and ultimately expanding reach, it can tackle real problems in people’s lives in ways that charities cannot hope to achieve otherwise.

But transformation won’t happen unless the social sector makes a complete change in its approach to digital technology, away from just betting on digital startups and incremental digital strategies in existing organisations. We need collective action by funders and investors, government, tech companies, and charities and social enterprises themselves. We need to invest in infrastructure, shaping the market for the digital ventures that can then thrive within it. And we need to invest in collective action, shifting our focus away from working in isolation and reinventing the wheel, and towards working together on common solutions to common challenges.

If we don’t get our act together in the social sector, my fear is that charities and social enterprises will be written out of the future by innovators from elsewhere—those that find ways to harness the true power of digital technology to reshape the relationship between citizens and solutions—and the sector will simply become obsolete. If you think that charities can play a unique role in understanding their beneficiaries, being part of their communities, and working with them towards social change, you’ll be as worried as I am about what might be lost as a result.

As President Barack Obama said about tackling Washington’s digital challenges, ‘I want this to happen. And I don’t want us to find a reason not to do it just because it hasn’t been done before. I want us to bring together a team to be as creative as possible.’ 

See more on NPC’s Digital Transformation programme, or download the first report from the programme Tech for common good.

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