I have worked in companies that supply technology and IT services to charities for much of my career and despite perceptions of how the third sector operates, many of the IT people I work with have been as clued up and strategic as their counterparts in the business world. Yet cloud adoption within charities is not as high as it could be – so why aren’t charities embracing this more and for how long can they afford not to?

Charities are in fact among the most progressive organisations when it comes to IT. If you look at use of social media for example, I would say that charities ‘got’ this far quicker than most enterprises (many of whom are still struggling!) and realised it was a great way to engage and communicate with an audience. But despite research last year showing that eight out of 10 charity workers believe technology will help the sector develop amid the new financial landscape, take-up of cloud technologies does not reflect that.

The cloud – a perfect fit for the third sector

This slow take-up is ironic, given that the benefits associated with the cloud could almost be tailormade for charities. Cash-flow is of paramount importance in the third sector and cloud services, whether storage or back-up, software or servers, communications or any other element of IT, do not require a significant investment upfront.

This saves cash vs on-premise solutions immediately, but a charity can also save additional investment through paying less for software licenses. Cloud-computing fees are typically subscription-based, either month-to-month or annually, but either way it is easy for a charity to only pay for the people actually using the software.

Using non-cloud solutions, a charity would have to pay for a certain number of users and whilst adding to that number is rarely a problem, reducing it can be. The cloud offers vastly improved flexibility and scalability, with the ability to add or take away users according to need.

The same is true when it comes to hosting. One of our customers is the British Red Cross and when the tsunami hit South East Asia in December 2004, their website struggled to cope with the enormous increase in traffic and donations. We managed to keep the website going but it was a struggle and only because some servers hadn’t been taken down from a previous campaign. The same circumstances now would be much more straightforward, turning on virtual cloud-based servers to cope with the traffic peaks and turning them off once the peak has passed.

Accessibility is also increasingly important to charities. Larger organisations may have multiple offices in one country or across the world and a cloud-based database can provide constant access to every member of an organisation that is permitted to manage a single database, from virtually anywhere in the world and at whichever time is convenient.

Where the US leads…

As with so many elements of business and technology, the UK needs to look across the Atlantic to the US and see how charities are using the cloud there. For more than a decade US charities have been using a variety of cloud services and it is far more established and commonplace than here in the UK. This is partly due to the sheer volume of responses they get from nationwide appeals, meaning that scale is a far bigger factor than had been in the UK previously.

But that is changing. Televised charity appeals such as Comic Relief and Children In Need have to cope with millions of responses over a 24 hour period and so organisations are starting to be more aware of the cloud and what it can offer. The growth and commoditisation of cloud computing has subsequently made it a more attractive proposition for charities of all sizes and types, because it gives them a cost-effective way of gaining access to infrastructure.

The cloud also allows those charities to build closer links with donors and supporters. Before the cloud came to prominence, charities couldn’t always afford a significant web presence and replied on sites such JustGiving as an online fundraising solution. These increased funds raised online but offered very little in the way of brand awareness and genuine engagement.

But cloud services are such that charities can now them for fully-branded fundraising solutions and processing donations, creating large-scale sponsored events and the in-depth analytics to improve the customer relationship management information that is the lifeblood of the majority of charities.

Changing times

UK charities are gradually starting to embrace the cloud and the cost-saving and operational improvements it can offer. But take-up is still relatively slow and UK charities are still very much in the early adopter stage, probably five years or so behind the private sector. But we are getting more enquiries about ‘the cloud’ than anything else from charities, so the realisation is starting to grow that cloud services are of value. Once people start to trust the cloud and see their third sector peers using it, adoption will increase rapidly and perhaps even outstrip that of the private sector.