Technology doesn’t have to be a cold, transactional medium, says UK digital expert Zoe Amar.
At FIA’s annual conference, hundreds of changemakers will gather this June in Sydney to share, learn and inspire each other. The annual event covers all facets of fundraising and features a variety of experts from home and overseas.
It’s no wonder fundraisers look forward to the conference when they can learn firsthand from presenters like UK-based Zoe Amar, widely regarded as one of the charity sector’s leading digital experts.
In 2013, Zoe founded digital agency and social enterprise Zoe Amar Digital. Her clients have included Sense, Anglia Ruskin University and The School for Social Entrepreneurs.
We recently caught up with Zoe to glean insights into digital fundraising. At FIA Conference 2022, Zoe will discuss how fundraisers need to prepare for volatile times ahead.
Want to hear more from Zoe and other fundraising experts? Register for FIA Conference here.
People enter the not-for-profit sector for many reasons. What attracted you to the charity realm and digital marketing?
I had a bit of a circuitous route into the charity sector. Previously I worked as a lawyer, but I’d always volunteered alongside it, and I gradually realised that was where my passion was. So I quit my job, did some career coaching and then an amazing organisation called Reach Volunteering, which pairs professionals with charities, got me a pro bono placement with a charity which was advising other charities and government bodies about technology.
After a few weeks, they offered me a new role as their head of marketing. This was where my passion for charities and all things digital began. I was there for five years, and then, when I had my youngest child in 2012, I decided to set up my own business. I now run a social enterprise and digital agency called Zoe Amar Digital, and we help charities create digital strategies and improve digital fundraising. Our vision is for all charity leaders to have the confidence and skills to make better strategic decisions about digital so that they can lead change successfully, increase their organisation’s impact and help the sector be more innovative, agile and resilient.
Some people find the concept of digital impersonal. What are the keys to engaging donors?
It’s all about how you use digital. I think the pandemic has changed how we see it. Technology doesn’t have to feel like a cold, transactional medium. So many people, including myself, will have laughed and cried together on Zoom during the pandemic, and stayed connected with friends on Facebook and Twitter.
The no. 1 piece of advice I’d give about getting donors engaged is to understand them, and for that, you have to talk to them. Many of our projects begin with us speaking to a small group of donors and supporters and discovering why they support the charity, what motivates them to give and who else they support. Once you understand these needs, you can craft content and user journeys around them.
What’s the difference developing a digital strategy for charities as opposed to commercial organisations?
It’s more complex as charities aren’t selling widgets. In addition, the way they measure success isn’t purely about profitability; it’s about impact. The other challenge is that charities are operating with such straitened resources. That’s hard. However, I like to see this as a virtue, as it means you have to prioritise. There are still so many opportunities for charities to use technology to make an impact at scale, whether that’s through digital fundraising, service delivery or great campaigns that help supporters understand why their causes matter and take action.
Digital fundraising came into its own during COVID lockdowns as a way for charities to continue fundraising when they couldn’t undertake street fundraising or events. What did you see happening?
Here in the UK, we’ve seen charities using digital fundraising for years, and you’re right that this trend accelerated during the pandemic. We saw an abrupt shift from charities asking, ‘why should we do this’ to ‘how should we do this?’ Right at the start of the first lockdown it was predicted that income would decline hugely. While it has obviously been challenging, I know many charities, especially in health and social care, whose income has been buoyant at this time.
With COVID restrictions easing around the globe, will the rise of digital continue?
It’s hard to say. I think we have seen five years’ worth of digital adoption over the last two years, and it may be that growth slows a little — look at what is happening to Netflix, where subscribers are down. I’m hearing from some charities that engagement has gone down on and offline as their donors and supporters adjust to their new lives post-pandemic. The cost of living crisis and the war in Ukraine has had an effect too. However, donors are still giving. It was brilliant that the Disasters Emergency Committee raised £260 million for their Concert for Ukraine appeal. If you can make a good case for support, donors will still donate. The important thing is to maintain a strong relationship with them through this time of huge transition.
I think we can agree digital has got to be part of the fundraiser’s arsenal, but many fundraisers didn’t grow up in the digital realm. How do you guide them to approach developing their digital strategy?
If you’re nervous about digital, start with what you do know and how you’re using these channels — most people have had to rely on them heavily during the pandemic. In my experience, most fundraisers love to learn, so seek out colleagues and peers who are involved in digital and ask if they can share their knowledge and maybe even mentor you.
What is one of the most interesting digital fundraising projects you’ve managed?
We worked with Jeans for Genes during lockdown when they had to pivot from being a face-to-face campaign to a virtual one. We helped them develop their digital fundraising strategy. It was fascinating, and we helped them achieve some good results. Their team adapted brilliantly and were fast learners. There’s a streak of innovation in most fundraisers; you just need to bring it out!
What are some exciting new technologies being employed now by fundraisers?
It’s exciting to see bitcoin being used by charities. Edinburgh Cats and Dogs Home received an £87k donation last year.
What other digital trends do you see emerging?
Gaming and streaming will be huge, and there’s so much potential for charities to reach more young people this way. These trends will shake up the skillset and methods we see among traditional fundraising teams, and we need to start preparing for that now.
Any advice for a charity that isn’t doing digital marketing and fundraising yet about getting started? How can a small charity make a digital impact when resources are limited?
Talk to your donors to understand how and why they’re using digital, then test getting your message across on the channels they’re on, using their language. You can make a big impact this way. You also need to get the right blend of paid and organic content.
You’re the independent chair of the UK Charity Digital Code of Practice. Why’s this important to you?
The Code is there to help charities improve how they use digital, whether they’re large or small. It’s important to me as the Code’s a free resource that will help trustees and leaders as much as people on the ground in charities.
Finally, a personal note: what’s something people don’t know about you?
I love baking and make bread for my family every day.
About Zoe Amar
Zoe has 14 years of experience as a charity trustee and is a board director with Charity Digital Trust. She also served as the digital expert on the board audit and risk subcommittee at the Samaritans. In addition to running her eponymous agency, Zoe is a frequent contributor to the charity trade press and co-hosts the Starts at the Top podcast, covering digital leadership and change. Zoe won an Inspiring Communicator award from CharityComms and recently made the Charity Times’ 25 Most Influential Charity Leaders list.
Zoe Amar will deliver a plenary session at FIA Conference 2022. The conference takes place 2-4 June 2022 at the International Convention Centre (ICC) Sydney. To book your ticket, visit www.fiaconference.org.au