Charities need better digital technology for communicating with their service users

The Catalyst article ‘The top ten digital challenges facing the charity sector‘ showed how a number of charities were struggling with identifying and using the right platforms for communicating and providing digital services with their service users (number 2). Charities are facing this struggle because the products on the market are not designed to meet their needs. They need a different kind of digital communication technology, one that is built with privacy and security in mind that allows people from within the organisation to talk to people outside.

Charities delivering their services online need different types digital products and platforms to do so. They might need to implement an email service to send information to people, or social media tools to facilitate a shift in how they advocate for change, or as many charities are doing during times of social distancing, using communication technologies to support their service-users. Often the choice of technology is informed by what they currently have available and the cost, but it’s important to understand the different types products and what impacts the choices might have.

When we talk about digital communication technologies we mean synchronous methods such as video, audio and chat, and not asynchronous like email. There are three well established ‘product spaces’ for communication technologies.

  1. Products managed by an organisation used by its staff within an organisation.
  2. Products managed by organisations to communicate (one way) with people outside the organisation.
  3. Products managed by the third-party owners and used by people socially.

We could understand how they compare to each other by placing them in a grid which shows that products can be grouped by the type of users, whether they are consumer users or business users, and by usage, that is whether they are used within an organisation or out in public internet.

Matrix of product types
Communication products matrix

So, for example, digital communication technologies like Whatsapp are designed to be used by consumers on the public internet. Companies often add ‘business’ features to their products in an attempt to increase their market share but the product is usually still fundamentally designed as a consumer product for use on the public internet.

We’re seeing a need for products in a fourth space; that of communication products that allow people within an organisation to communicate with those outside the organisation in secure and private ways, but lets understand the other three a bit better first.

Products managed by a charity and used by its staff for communication within the organisation.

These kinds of products, such as Microsoft Teams, are typically manged by internal IT teams or third party agencies. They are designed from the point of view that security is established by the (digital) walls of the organisation and that it will only be used by people who work for the charity, who will all have managed user accounts.

Why charities might use this type of product

Products like MS Teams are built for collaborative working and are great for communicating between colleagues. They can be suitable for communicating with service-users in some cases, but it’s important to understand that they are built on the assumption that everyone using the product belongs to the same organisation and so should know who each other is. Because of this, these products are not built with the privacy of users in mind, which can cause problems if how they are used to communicate with service-users is not thought through clearly and carefully. MS Teams can allow external users to join video and audio calls without having access to the other features in Teams, which could be used for supporting individual service-users. And it allows guest users to be added, giving them access to more features and might be used to allow volunteers to work collaboratively with employees.

Of course, the other scenario where products like MS Teams would be used to do video calls with service-users is where there is no alternative product. In the real world, where a charity doesn’t have sufficient funds to procure an alternative tool, it is better to do something rather than nothing, and it is better to use a product that has a high degree of security than one that doesn’t.

When not to use this type of product

Products like MS Teams aren’t suitable for working with groups of service-users where privacy and safeguarding are concerns. This is because MS Teams reveals the identity of users by default, so any situation where groups of service-users interact in a digital space provided by the charity, they all become known to each other and, depending on the product settings, can contact each other without anyone from the charity knowing. Revealing personally identifiable information about a service-user to other people is a data breach, and putting vulnerable people in situations where they can be contacted by someone they don’t know could create safeguarding concerns.

Users can be made pseudo-anonymous by creating false accounts but this creates a potential information security risk for the organisation as they are then considered part of organisation (from the system point-of-view) and so could have access to documents that contain sensitive and private information, and further adds to the potential safeguarding concern as even though no individual knows the name of any other individual they can still have un-monitored contact with them.

A charity set on using MS Teams could go a step further by creating a separate instance of Teams for service-users and implementing monitoring tools and processes, but it isn’t a quick or easy solution and requires considerable expertise and investment.

Products managed by a charity to communication one-way with people outside the organisation.

A charity’s website is a good example of this type of product. It offers one way communication from the charity to it’s website visitors. There are still security concerns with websites, but as this type of product isn’t used for digital service delivery via video calls we don’t need to discuss it any further.

Products managed by the third-party owners and used by people socially.

This type of digital communication products are available on the public internet and are used by people for social means. Products like Whatsapp and Zoom typically prioiritise adoption and ease-of-use over security and privacy, which might be fine if you’re using it to chat with your mates (still questionable) but raises concerns for charities using the products to work with service-users.

Why charities might use this type of product

Charities might choose to use products like these if the people they work with are already using these apps, and importantly, they have judged that not using them to support people would be more detrimental to those people than the security and privacy risk that the tools present. This balancing of risks of one type against risks of another type is difficult so its important to have sufficient knowledge of both to inform making the decision.

When not to use this type of product

If these products don’t meet the needs of the service-users, then charities should think very carefully about using them because they are convenient for the charity. For people with limited access to the internet (perhaps because they use a pay-as-you-go mobile) video calls will use a lot of their available internet, so perhaps a phone call (which is far more secure) might be more appropriate. For people suffering domestic violence, being able to delete the record of the video call in the app might be really important for their safety. These things aren’t considerations for the companies like Zoom and Whatsapp, but they need to be very carefully considered by charities in choosing not to adopt a particular product.

Products managed by the organisation and used to communicate with those outside the organisation

Aside from dealing with the current needs in the best way possible, charities needing to deliver services using video has revealed a need for a different type of product, one that allows for the boundaries between the organisation and it’s service-users to be more permeable. It needs to consider privacy and security in design, understand different types of users and the ways they might interact, and that they have different needs in account management and privacy. It needs to be accessible, simple, easy to use. It needs to work in a browser, including mobile browsers, not require the users to download an app. It needs to meet so many use cases that the current tools that are available are just not designed to meet.

But until that product is built…

What alternatives are there to a technology that doesn’t exist yet?

Digital isn’t always the best solution. Using the telephone (which is more secure than video and audio calls over the internet), and sending letters/care packages to people can be simple cost-effective ways of staying touch, and talking to service-users.

Whether charities are using internal products (like MS Teams) or consumer products (such as Zoom) to deliver their services, the technology needs careful consideration. Understanding the security and privacy risks, the barriers to use, and how the technology changes the service being received (it’s never the same service, just delivered digitally), are all important considerations. Aside from the system side, people need to be trained in safe and effective use and how to respond if issues arise.

Its easy to see why choosing a digital communication technology is such a challenge for many charities.