In a world where countless organisations and individuals are vying for people’s attention on digital, how should charities engage? Rhodri Davies, head of policy at Charities Aid Foundation and leader of Giving Thought, explores what an increasingly digital existence means for civil society organisations.
We are all living increasingly digital lives. As internet usage has shifted from desktop to mobile we no longer have to go to a dedicated place to access the web, but rather carry it with us wherever we go. The emergence of 5G mobile will push this even further, as coverage and speeds continue to improve.
And now the internet is even moving beyond our phones. New voice-controlled interfaces such as Google Home and Amazon Alexa are shifting web access from a screen-based model to a more natural conversational one. Meanwhile the growing number of smart devices that make up the “internet of things” is bringing connectivity into the objects all around us. This will further accelerate the digitisation of our existence, and is likely to have profound implications for civil society organisations (CSOs).
The attention economy
One thing we have already seen is the way in which the internet has created an ‘attention economy’, in which content is abundant and those providing it compete ever more fiercely for the one remaining scarce resource: our ability to pay attention to it.
The brings a practical challenge for CSOs, as our hunger for new content puts organisations under pressure to produce more and more of it; and ever more quickly. For the many small organisations within civil society that operate with very limited resources, this is difficult.
There is also a deeper ethical question about the type of content we produce and the ways in which it is delivered. We know that the attention economy has created perverse incentives to push more extreme content of the sort that is known to grab and hold our attention – which has played a big part in the rise of fake news, click bait and conspiracy theories online. The question for civil society is how do we continue to engage with existing and potential supporters against this backdrop?
Engaging with supporters living in the attention economy
One option is simply to adopt the same tactics and techniques that have proved successful in the commercial sphere. However, we know that extreme content erodes public discourse and sows division, and we also know that many of the platforms we use are creating new problems by affecting our mental health or promoting addictive behaviour. So should civil society just ‘join the crowd’ and become complicit in furthering these problems? Or do we need to take a stand against them, but possibly risk losing out in the battle for attention as a result?
A possible solution might be to move away from traditional models of organisation-led communications and fundraising towards peer-led models instead. In general, we respond better online to information and requests that come from our peer networks. If CSOs can tap into this by using their existing supporters as advocates, fundraisers and content generators this could address some of the challenges of the attention economy and also open up powerful new avenues for engagement.
It is not just our expectations about the nature of content that are changing as our world becomes digitised, however: the ways in which we find information are also shifting radically. The growth of voice-operated digital assistants is turning search from a process of list generation and selection to one of direct recommendation; as the algorithms which power the assistants present us with choices based on analysis of a wide range of data. And even where we do still use written lists, we are more and more accustomed to getting shorter, tailored lists that present us with suggestions rather than the full spectrum of choices (as is the case with the recommender algorithms that power platforms like Netflix, Spotify or YouTube).
As algorithmic recommendations become more ubiquitous in all aspects of our lives, it raises a big question for CSOs. How do they best position themselves with respect to the algorithms? Many organisations already struggle with the challenges of Search Engine Optimisation (SEO), but optimisation with respect to recommender algorithms could bring a whole new layer of complexity. Not only are there likely to be multiple different algorithms operating in totally different ways, but often it will not even be clear where an algorithm is being used (if, for example, it is built into the underlying fabric of a voice-operated interface). And even when it is clear an algorithmic recommendation process is involved, the algorithm itself may be a “black box”, where its inner workings are a mystery not only to those on the outside, but even to those who wrote it in the first place.
These are just a few examples of the way technology may affect the relationship between CSOs and their supporters. The wider challenge for all CSOs is to ensure that technological change is not simply something that happens to them; but rather something that they can benefit from and play an active role in shaping so that it works for the people and communities they serve.
About Rhodri Davies
Head of policy at Charities Aid Foundation (CAF), Rhodri leads Giving Thought, – CAF’s in-house think tank focusing on current and future issues affecting philanthropy and civil society. He is the author of Public Good by Private Means: How philanthropy shapes Britain, which traces the history of philanthropy in Britain and what it tells us about the role of modern philanthropy. Beyond that, he has researched, written and presented on a wide range of topics – from social investment to the charitable applications of cutting-edge technologies such as artificial intelligence and blockchain – and is much in demand as an adviser to governments, businesses, charities and philanthropists.