“If you think that change is difficult, try irrelevance.”

This is the stark warning for charities from Karl Wilding of the National Council for Voluntary Organisations – the non-profit sector must embrace the challenges and opportunities being created by digital technology or risk losing everything.

Wilding was opening the latest Tata Consultancy Services Spark Salon focused on digital disruption in the charity sector. The session brought together leading digital strategists to look at what has been called ‘Civil Society 2.0’-  how charities are changing as they embrace new technologies to improve how funds are raised and spent.

The experts highlighted five ways digital is allowing charities to do their work more effectively and more efficiently.

1 – Organisation

The rise of digital has made it much easier for new players to enter the sector, because it is now possible to reach people without the infrastructure of a large organisation. This is throwing up both challenges and opportunities.

Small start-up organisations are more able to disrupt how aid is given, something Karl Wilding says is already happening in the field:

“Look at an organisation like Give Directly in the US, which is completely bypassing traditional international development organisations to connect donors directly with beneficiaries in villages.”

Wilding said this sort of disruption had made some traditional charities feel threatened by technology. But others were now embracing the opportunities offered by technology such as Care’s Lend with Care microfinance program.

2 – Access

Just as technology is changing the way donors organise, it is changing the way people are able to access services.

Smartphones are no longer the preserve of the rich world and they offer a way to reach those who are otherwise very isolated.

Aliya Bakheit, from the charity Chayn, says her organisation has pioneered an open-source tech program to help domestic violence victims.

Women can access information on subjects such as how to build a domestic violence case without a lawyer and how to ensure users protect their online information and activity from abusive partners.

“This is just knowledge that was out there, we’ve put it all together – it was crowd sourced,” Bakheit told the Spark Salon. “And it’s making people’s lives better and it’s really helping.”

The project has put life-saving information in the hands of those who often cannot safely leave the house to access more traditional help.

3 – Targeting

Technology also allows charities to better understand what it is that people really need.  Julie Dodd of Parkinson’s UK describes the effect of installing a screen in the charity’s office which shows, in real time, the searches people are carrying out online connected with Parkinson’s.

“It’s quite an emotional experience for something that’s so analytics-based, because you can see questions like ‘Should I go drug-free after diagnosis?’, ‘I need to find some exercise for Parkinson’s that works for me’, ‘I’m worried about Parkinson’s and chest catarrh’. There are worries, concerns, thoughts that people are having that are suddenly visible in our reception to anybody, including all our staff and all our visitors who come through every day.”

This simple screen connects the charity to the people it works with and helps steer the services it delivers.

Targeting can also help ensure charity appeals are directed to those most interested in a particular cause. As technology improves it will also be able to work out the times individuals are most likely to want to give to charities and in what way they are most comfortable doing so. All this will ensure a more tailored, more productive fundraising process.

4 – Analysis

Data is also changing what charities can achieve in the field. By collecting and analysing information, they can better identify those who need help the most.

Katie Maude-Barker describes how the organisation she works for, Camfed International, is using technology to spot girls in Sub-Saharan Africa who may be at risk of dropping out of school.

“We collect data on students’ attendance, performance and family circumstances. This is then used to build an incredibly detailed profile of each girl’s circumstances and needs. This is fed into our database, where the information is checked and reviewed. It also means any potential issues are flagged and can be dealt with quickly.”

Once girls drop out of school, often due to poverty or problems at home, they usually do not return. By spotting problems in attendance early, Maude-Barker says, Camfed are able to offer financial and other types of support to keep the girls in education.

5 – Brokering

There is currently a move away from the idea that to help a charity, volunteers’ time is best spent shaking tins or taking time off work to build a classroom in the developing world. Instead of asking people to just give time, charities benefit most if people give their professional expertise.

“If you’re an accountant, give accountancy help. If you’re in communications, give your comms expertise,” says Julie Dodd of Parkinson’s UK. “It’s about asking ‘What do you do in your normal life?’ Great – we could do with some of that!”

Technology is making this possible through brokering – matching those with particular skills to those who need those skills. This is the case both within the charities themselves and the communities they are helping. This makes for highly efficient use of people’s time and can bring huge benefits for those being helped. With the right online programme, it can also be done very cheaply – a primary concern for charities.

The TCS Spark Salon session highlighted just how much digital is changing the charity sector. If there was one point of consensus, it was this: digital is bringing such profound change it has to become woven into the fabric of an organisation, not just ‘bolted on’ as an additional strategy.  As Kay Boycott, the CEO of Asthma UK puts it:

“Having a digital strategy will soon look as ridiculous as having an electricity strategy.”