7 November 2019

Future is happening now: digital transformation and its impact on giving

by Hanna Stähle

While there are still discussions whether digital technology is essentially good or bad for philanthropy and charity, it has long been part of our everyday lives. A wide range of non-profits use social media for fundraising campaigns or employ data analytics tools to improve their performance. Others started investing resources in AI to better coordinate their internal and external communications. There are foundations such as IOTA foundation who build their entire assents on block chain technology. The future is happening now, though it is not equally distributed yet. This was a consensus of the Russian Donors Forum’s annual conference that took place on 30 October 2019 in Moscow.

300 representatives of philanthropy, IT, business, research, civil society, politics and media from across Russia as well as international delegates from the UK, Germany and Belgium came to Moscow to discuss how digital transformation is changing the social sector and what risks and opportunities it bears.

The conference was organised by the Russian Donors Forum that unites 50 foundations, charitable organisations and CSR in Russia.

This year’s theme was ‘Digital Transformation: Generational Shift, Paradigm Shift in Philanthropy’. The opening panel of the conference provided great food for thought. While some speakers were optimistic about all things digital and emphasised positive impact of networked communication and AI on philanthropy and giving more generally, others raised concerns about rising inequality and extreme concentration of power. Still others reflected philosophically that nothing has changed, and that the world we live it is still the same and will remain the same in the decades to come.

Maria Chertok, long-serving Director of Charities Aid Foundation Russia and former Chair of WINGS, provided an optimistic and encouraging outlook for the impact of digital technology on charity and philanthropy. Digital transformation contributes to what Maria calls ‘a radical democratisation of charity’. ‘Today, one can engage in charity only with people, not for people’, she emphasised in her talk. Digital technology is shifting power relations by strengthening horizontal, non-hierarchical connections and encouraging more and more people to engage in charity. Thus, Giving Tuesday (‘Shchedryi vtornik’), a global initiative that CAF launched in Russia, now involves more than 3,000 partners across the country. This collaboration would have been impossible without digital infrastructure.

However, democratisation and new power relations are not the only effect of digital transformation. Power imbalance, raising inequality, the erosion of trust in public institutions are also a result of the digital shift. Digital innovation has created greater wealth but also greater poverty, said Filippo Addarii, Founder and Co-Managing Director of the London-based social enterprise PlusValue. He urged us to interpret digital innovation not as a technological revolution but first of all as a cultural transformation with large-scale implications for our society. Greta Thunberg, a ‘typical angry teenager’, was able to mobilise millions of people across the world with no corporate backing or any other support. Digital innovation is an idea that can foster change. In order to facilitate innovation and digital transformation for good, foundations and social investors need to provide resources for future infrastructure. Sir Stephen Bubb, Oxford Institute of Charity, also emphasised the relevance of investments in IT and infrastructure of charities and social organisations.

How the infrastructure of giving and charity is shifting under the influence of digital technology, became clear at the afternoon breakout sessions where conference attendees could discuss project work in the Russian regions and exchange best practices. A number of social and educational initiatives were presented such as online fundraising campaigns, programming schools, digitally coordinated private lessons for orphanages or mentoring programmes for teachers, to name but a few. Representatives of international and Russian companies such as IBM, Mail.ru and Rosbank shared their experience of how non-profits can foster digital transformation within the organisation, improve management practices and attract talent. The level of discussions was very high, and I was equipped with knowledge and practical advice on digital marketing, fundraising or what skills and competences to consider when setting up a team.

To see a diversity of charitable, philanthropic and non-profit organisations as well as CSR programmes and corporates attend a conference of a donors’ forum was a new experience, as it clashed with my own, admittedly narrow, understanding of philanthropy. James Magowan, Co-Ordinating Director of DAFNE and ECFI, fittingly compared Russian philanthropy to an onion with several levels. He wrote: ‘Underneath the skin of the mighty onion of philanthropy in Russia lies another layer, and another, and another, each adding freshness and zest of an essential ingredient of the goulash of civil society.’

While we are still at the outer level of the onion, European partners could learn a great deal from Russian non-profits, foundations and corporates and their digital strategies. I strongly believe that we need to foster this collaboration and enhance dialogue, particularly today – in challenging times when politicians seem to be building walls, digital and analogue ones, instead of bringing people together. In fact, we have more similarities and areas for cooperation than we might think.