Charity websites take online donations and deliver advice & guidance to hard-to-reach groups, but according to the Department for Education they're as much of a waste of money as mousemats or pens.

According to Civil Society, recipients of the Children, Young People and Families (CYPF) Grant have received a letter outlining restrictions on how they may use the funding, stating that “new spending on advertising and marketing should be frozen”. The letter singles out pens and mousemats alongside charity websites, asking grant recipients to consider “how your site will be maintained after your funding finishes in March 2011”.

Every single day I see the results of charities efficiently taking donations online, generating hundreds of new volunteers, and delivering advice and support to thousands for the cost of printing a single leaflet. Not something a pen or a mousemat can do.

pens

So does this new guidance reveal more cyncism about the value of communications for the third sector? The outgoing government had an impressive track record of investment in digital communications – yet massive overspends and a lack of results is in danger of restricting how we are allowed to spend the grants we receive to deliver government services in the way that’s best for our beneficiaries and future sustainability.

Put simply, important tools we need to cost effectively do what we do are being confused with throwaway branded trinkets.

We’re in danger of creating a perfect storm. Government is asking us to do more than ever with less than ever, without providing the investment in digital media which could help achieve exactly that.

A website is often the window into an organisation and is the first contact many people have with a charity. This is almost certainly true of commissioners or funders not located in the same geographic region as a charity applying for its help.

Done right, websites, newsletters and social media are highly effective ways of reaching targeted audiences to deliver specific information about how a charity impacts on society and can help persuade complete strangers to become supporters, donors, volunteers or trustees.

Having said that, there are plenty of badly-designed and poorly-maintained charity websites out there which don’t contribute to their objectives, but barriers to investment in digital communications won’t help that.

That’s why I spend most of my professional life convincing non-profits and public sector organisations of the value of investing in their digital communications.

A different picture

It’s no wonder the Coalition Government is desperate to make cuts to its spending. The previous government’s track record is a stark contrast to the tight budgets of most charities…

An internal review by the Department of Health found that the NHS spends up to £86m per year on thousands of websites which were badly designed and irrelevant to patient needs and £4.4m on paid search fees to help people find them.

A Central Office of Information report revealed that £94m had been spent developing and running websites in 2009-10 and another £32m on web staff to maintain those sites. The Business Link website alone cost HM Revenue & Customs £35m that year.

£4m has been spent redesigning existing websites since June 2007, including £181k spent to remove an “unpopular” brown colour scheme deemed too “agriculturally focused” from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) website.

Local government hasn’t fared any better. Birmingham City Council’s website cost £2.8m – the result of a partnership with Capita which Birmingham City Council’s Deputy Leader Paul Tilsley describes as “a positive experience of collaboration with the private sector” despite deviating from an initial budget of £580k.

The Central Office of Information spent more than £530m on advertising, marketing and communications in the 12 months to the end of March 2009, and is to lose almost 300 staff as a result of an advertising freeze brought in shortly after the General Election. The Coalition Government are clamping down on advertising and marketing, seemingly confirmed by the Department for Education’s assertion to grant recipients that some activities are “no longer the priority of the current government”.

To assume that charities are going to make the same catastrophic investments using public money underestimates the financial planning processes of most charities. It also highlights the inconsistencies in the Coalition’s ambitions for Big Society. Government wants services to be delivered more efficiently, but seem to be actively discouraging charities from using one of the most cost-effective methods of delivering public services, stakeholder engagement and impact reporting available to nonprofits.

Between free tools and multi-million pound corporate partnerships is a third way – a fair price for fair work. Social enterprises like ours help keep investment within the sector by investing in other social projects, providing pro bono consultation and make a contribution to the local economy. As a social entrepreneur, I applaud the Government’s ambitions to “support the creation and expansion of mutuals, co-operatives, charities and social enterprises, and support these groups to have much greater involvement in the running of public services” as laid out in the Building the Big Society plan.

Government, commissioners and funders need to understand the potential of digital communications to deliver real social change and to invest in such initiatives accordingly, rather than dismissing them as just throwaways intended solely to raise brand awareness. Once again it’s up to charities to lead the way, showing how innovation can drive social change – and that it doesn’t have to cost £94 million.

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Image: Arvind Balaraman / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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