The cultu­ral transformation

The digital transformation is shaking up society to a radical extent – and charities are feeling its impact, too. They are given the opportunity to tap into new fields of activity, make use of new forms of collaboration and communicate effectively. The question is not whether charities can help shape this development – it is how they can do so. Everyone and everything is part of digitalisation.

In a place where huge machi­nes previously inked letters onto paper, bright white­boards and big screens now invite us to formu­late our thoughts and ideas and share them with others. Even though it may well be a coin­ci­dence, our shift to being a digi­tal society can hardly be illu­stra­ted in a more stereo­ty­pi­cal way than with refe­rence to the demise of prin­ters. Fonda­tion Botnar set up office in a former prin­ters’ shop in Basel’s old town two years ago. It is flexi­ble, light and modern – a work envi­ron­ment that meet the needs of today. 

Karin Schu­ma­cher is Chief Opera­ting Offi­cer at Fonda­tion Botnar, and she worked with the entire team to design and create the office. Howe­ver, their task was more concep­tio­nal than construc­tion-based. ‘We wanted to create space for agile proces­ses,’ she says. Colla­bo­ra­tion needs to work just as smoothly within the office and away from it in a decen­tra­li­sed fashion, when team members are out and about. New digi­tal tools form the basis of this. Schu­ma­cher had to rethink ever­ything from the very begin­ning to make this a success. ‘Things did not always run to plan. But that is part of it,’ she says. ‘We wanted to have room to expe­ri­ment and to be able to make mistakes.’

Fonda­tion Botnar’s COO Karin Schu­ma­cher and CEO Stefan Germann in a work meeting.
Karin Schu­ma­cher in the entrance to the inno­va­tive ‘Nissan meeting room’. Photo: Kostas Maros.

New questi­ons, new potential

The world of chari­ties is hete­ro­ge­ne­ous. Chari­ties’ objects are as varied as the 13,000 chari­ties regi­stered in Switz­er­land. They respond to the question of how to approach digi­ta­li­sa­tion in a simi­larly diverse way. Commu­ni­ca­tion, colla­bo­ra­tion, projects: new questi­ons pop up in every area. What are the oppor­tu­nities opened up by digi­ta­li­sa­tion, and where are the chal­len­ges to be found? And how can a charity make use of the poten­tial on offer? At present, it would appear that chari­ties are at diffe­rent stages of digi­ta­li­sa­tion, and that they are each focu­sing on parti­cu­lar areas. 

Oppor­tu­nity goes hand-in-hand with responsibility

A newly estab­lished charity can approach this question and work through it from the bottom up. Although it was not a newly estab­lished charity, Fonda­tion Botnar found itself in a situa­tion where it could, and had to, repo­si­tion itself. Marcela Botnar foun­ded the charity as far back as late 2003 with an endow­ment fund of 25 million Swiss francs. Marcela was the widow of Octav Botnar, who had earned his wealth by importing and selling Datsun and Nissan cars to the UK. The couple were phil­an­thro­pists. When Marcela, Botnar’s widow, died in 2014, she left all her assets to Fonda­tion Botnar. The funds avail­able to the charity swel­led over­night to around 3.2 billion Swiss francs. But with this money came respon­si­bi­lity: the charity had to reinvent itself. ‘We gave a lot of thought to the exper­tise, skills and proces­ses we would need to be able to handle the charity’s funds both profes­sio­nally and trans­par­ently,’ says Karin Schu­ma­cher. The team was put toge­ther as part of a meti­cu­lous process and has been in its final form since summer 2019. When they were designing their work proces­ses, the charity under­took in-depth discus­sions as a team, drawing on the expe­ri­ence and exper­tise of its employees who had worked in other chari­ties, private compa­nies and NGOs previously. These proces­ses are now the chan­nels through which Fonda­tion Botnar gives out funds amoun­ting to around 60 to 70 million Swiss francs every year.

Rethin­king collaboration

Very few chari­ties have oppor­tu­nities like those offe­red to Fonda­tion Botnar. Many do not even have their own offices, and often, charity work is under­ta­ken on a volun­tary basis. ‘Trus­tees are focu­sed on their care­ers. They need to be able to work in a decen­tra­li­sed manner,’ says Katha­rina Guggi, respon­si­ble for commu­ni­ca­tion and digi­tal stra­tegy at Swiss­Foun­da­ti­ons. She adds: ‘New digi­tal commu­ni­ca­ti­ons tools offer a huge advan­tage in terms of colla­bo­ra­tion at chari­ties because they make it much easier to work in a decen­tra­li­sed fashion.’ The Swiss­Foun­da­ti­ons asso­cia­tion now encom­pas­ses 170 chari­ties using their funds to support exter­nal projects. It is based in Kirch­gasse, in the heart of Zurich. When Katha­rina Guggi star­ted her role two years ago, she needed to work through the data at hand, view it and struc­ture it – and all in non-digi­tal form. It was clear to her that Swiss­Foun­da­ti­ons needed to explore how things worked at the charity itself. Digi­ta­li­sa­tion means that change at every orga­ni­sa­tion needs to start with the employees them­sel­ves. After all, if you want to tap into the poten­tial offe­red by digi­ta­li­sa­tion, you do not just need to digi­ta­lise the proces­ses you previously used. You need to rethink colla­bo­ra­tion proper. Digi­ta­li­sa­tion is always about change, and change often goes hand in hand with inse­cu­rity and inter­nal resi­stance. First and fore­most, it means using new tools yours­elf, getting used to them, and embed­ding these new oppor­tu­nities in your day-to-day life. 

Katha­rina Guggi, respon­si­ble for commu­ni­ca­tion and digi­tal stra­tegy at Swiss­Foun­da­ti­ons, at her place of work. Photo: Kostas Maros

Part of digitalisation

Where­ver possi­ble, Katha­rina uses Slack instead of email, stores data in the cloud and hand­les projects digi­tally in Trello, the online kanban system. These tools all share a high level of trans­pa­rency. Ever­yone invol­ved can see where a project is at in Trello, and ever­yone who is a member of a parti­cu­lar Slack chat can follow the discus­sion there. The situa­tion descri­bed by Andrew Holland, Direc­tor of Merca­tor Switz­er­land, sounds rather simi­lar. The charity was foun­ded in 1998 by the descen­dants of Karl Schmidt, a German family of traders and entre­pre­neurs, and is based in Zurich. Last year, they suppor­ted chari­ta­ble projects with funding to the tune of 19.5 million Swiss francs. Andrew Holland: ‘On a syste­ma­tic level, digi­ta­li­sa­tion begins in the office itself. We see oursel­ves as part of digi­ta­li­sa­tion. The new ways of orga­ni­sing our work and the use of modern colla­bo­ra­tion tools are already part of our ever­y­day lives.’ They want to use these tools to break down the comple­xity of modern topics. In the office, digi­ta­li­sa­tion occurs on three levels: in proces­ses and products, in ways of work and struc­tures, and in culture, gover­nance and management.

A charity with an unusual foun­ding story

Digi­ta­li­sa­tion chan­ges culture, but this process of change can be trig­ge­red by a change in staff. Small chari­ties, in parti­cu­lar, are shaped less by perso­nal commit­ment, so a change to (gene­rally small) teams can encou­rage digi­tal deve­lo­p­ment. The ‘Stif­tung der 5. Euro­pa­mei­ster­schaf­ten für Sehbe­hin­derte 1989 in Zürich’ is in the midst of this trans­for­ma­tion at present. Its name hints at the unusual story behind how it was set up: ‘It star­ted with a company event for Holder­bank Kies + Beton AG,’ says the new chair of the board of trus­tees, Rolf Zuber­büh­ler. To mark its 25th anni­ver­s­ary, the company wanted to support sport for visually impai­red people instead of thro­wing a huge party. Holder­bank Kies + Beton AG provi­ded the infra­st­ruc­ture for the fifth Euro­pean Cham­pions­hip for the Visually Impai­red in Zurich. ‘Unex­pec­tedly, there was some money left over at the end,’ Zuber­büh­ler goes on, explai­ning the charity’s origins. The charity was sustai­ned through perso­nal commit­ment. Walter Boss­hard, suppor­ted by his wife Verena, led the charity for three deca­des along­side his fellow trus­tees, offe­ring innu­me­ra­ble hours of volun­tary work. Digi­ta­li­sa­tion as a topic was not on the table back then: invi­ta­ti­ons and docu­ments for meetings came in paper form, and they were deli­ve­red by the post­man. The charity’s storage system consi­sted of a row of lever arch files. Ever­ything always worked, thanks to respon­si­ble administration.

Rolf Zuber­büh­ler, Verena and Walter Boss­hard in the Rebhaus.

From lever arch files to digi­tal storage.

The charity’s clearly defi­ned object (to aid visually impai­red people) means that it appro­ves a high percen­tage of appli­ca­ti­ons. ‘It has hand­led around 500 requests for assi­stance over the past 30 years,’ says Zuber­büh­ler. ‘The charity provi­ded assi­stance in around three-quar­ters of cases.’ Howe­ver, chari­ties are faced with incre­a­sing requi­re­ments in terms of admi­ni­stra­tion, and new trus­tees are used to new forms of colla­bo­ra­tion. As a result, it cannot be seen as a surprise that digi­ta­li­sa­tion has taken hold as older trus­tees have been repla­ced with new ones. Invi­ta­ti­ons, minu­tes and requests are all distri­buted digi­tally today. There is even a digi­tal storage system in the making, which the board of trus­tees can log into. The charity’s exter­nal appearance is also being spru­ced up. It had barely made people aware of its existence previously, but its website is curr­ently in the plan­ning stage to help project owners and indi­vi­du­als to be able to find the charity easier. Rolf Zuber­büh­ler says: ‘It will enable people to see both the charity and its work.’

The website is the basis

The need for commu­ni­ca­tion can vary from charity to charity, with its website being the basis of digi­tal commu­ni­ca­tion to the outside world. Social media has led to addi­tio­nal online chan­nels being added to this: digi­ta­li­sa­tion has radi­cally chan­ged the way we commu­ni­cate. Fixed sender/recipient models have served their purpose. Modern-day commu­ni­ca­tion is shaped by dialo­gue, enab­ling chari­ties to discuss issues with their target groups quickly. A website alone is no longer enough, says WWF Schweiz. Insta­gram, Face­book and LinkedIn enable them to gather feed­back immedia­tely and speci­fi­cally target their commu­ni­ca­tion. The World Wide Fund for Nature is one of the world’s largest envi­ron­men­tal orga­ni­sa­ti­ons. ‘We’re deter­mi­ned to ensure that people and nature can thrive toge­ther, for genera­ti­ons to come’: this is their mission. The WWF deals with a topic that is curr­ently on the public’s radar and is part of public discourse.

On the one hand, social media pres­ents the chance to react to oppor­tu­nities at short notice, and, on the other, digi­tal commu­ni­ca­tion can be well plan­ned as part of a marke­ting stra­tegy. Of course, being inter­ac­tive also invol­ves risks, as both private indi­vi­du­als and orga­ni­sa­ti­ons alike can be left facing a crisis. 

The digi­ta­li­sa­tion of projects

All in all, chari­ties are not very active on social media, as data from Swiss­Foun­da­ti­ons reve­als. Ninety percent of its members do have a website, which is a very high figure compa­red to the over­all Swiss average of 15 percent. Howe­ver, its members are not parti­cu­larly present on social media, with three-quar­ters of them not active on these chan­nels at all. The WWF empha­si­ses that, while digi­tal commu­ni­ca­tion has poten­tial, you cannot unde­re­sti­mate the value of tradi­tio­nal chan­nels. In addi­tion, the WWF adds that digi­ta­li­sa­tion is not limi­ted to Face­book, Insta­gram and websites. Today, the WWF sees invest­ments in digi­tal inno­va­tion as also encom­pas­sing ways that it can reach its objec­ti­ves. Sensors, drones and AI are tools that the WWF is using already. For example, the WWF can use drones to better moni­tor the popu­la­tion of river dolphins in the Amazon, and, in China, AI-assi­sted photo traps help it to record the animal popu­la­tion auto­ma­ti­cally. The WWF is convin­ced that these tools might help it to boost the impact of its projects.

Digi­ta­li­sa­tion cannot be viewed in isolation

The digi­ta­li­sa­tion debate also affects chari­ties’ discus­sions about their impact in the present day. Impact is hugely important on an inter­na­tio­nal level. Howe­ver, we are slowly but surely heading towards ‘smart’ chari­ties. The digi­tal trans­for­ma­tion is picking up pace in the charity sector, as Katha­rina Guggi states, and chari­ties are posi­tio­ning them­sel­ves accord­in­gly. Katha­rina Guggi: ‘Chari­ties like Merca­tor Schweiz are expli­ci­tly crea­ting offices to focus on the socie­tal chal­lenge posed by digi­tal trans­for­ma­tion.’ They are also being speci­fi­cally asso­cia­ted with the charity’s objects and its projects. Torben Stephan is head of the digi­ta­li­sa­tion and society programme at the charity Merca­tor Schweiz. ‘At Merca­tor, we see digi­ta­li­sa­tion as an inter­play between tech­no­logy and society,’ he says. ‘For us, the key question is how we want to live along­side each other within an incre­a­singly digi­ta­li­sed society in the future. That is why digi­ta­li­sa­tion is a cross-secto­ral issue, invol­ving every major topic (educa­tion, commu­ni­ca­tion, colla­bo­ra­tion, envi­ron­ment) that affects a charity. It cannot be viewed in isola­tion. Just as inter­nal forms of colla­bo­ra­tion are chan­ging, Merca­tor Schweiz’s projects see digi­ta­li­sa­tion having an impact on civil society, in parti­cu­lar. Civil society is a complex beast, loca­ted outside the commer­cial market­place and state struc­tures. Digi­ta­li­sa­tion gives civil society new oppor­tu­nities to express itself and inter­act. Andrew Holland: ‘This means that civil society will gain the skills and know­ledge it needs to accu­ra­tely weigh up the oppor­tu­nities and chal­len­ges offe­red by digi­ta­li­sa­tion and play a role in posi­tively shaping changes.’

Fight­ing the ‘digi­tal Rösti­gra­ben’ divi­ding Switzerland

Andrew Holland, CEO of Stif­tung Merca­tor Schweiz, is commit­ted to play­ing a posi­tive role in shaping digi­tal change.

The board of trus­tees at Merca­tor Schweiz has deve­lo­ped and signed off on a new programme with the aim of better equip­ping civil society in this regard. There are two million Swiss francs a year at its dispo­sal, with this figure reaching a total of ten million Swiss francs over the plan­ned term of five years. The programme consists of three strands: the first is that the wider public’s parti­ci­pa­tion in digi­ti­sa­tion should contri­bute to brid­ging the gaps between cultures. ‘The aim is not to leave anyone behind. At the moment, we are focu­sing on teaching skills, like data skills,’ explains Torben Stephan. There are also projects to mini­mise the urban/rural divide and avoid the crea­tion of a ‘digi­tal Rösti­gra­ben’, a modern-day equi­va­lent of the divi­sion between French- and German-spea­king Switz­er­land. The second invol­ves looking at major issues for the future, like arti­fi­cial intel­li­gence, the block­chain or digi­tal values deba­tes, from the perspec­tive of civil society. Torben Stephan: ‘It is important that civil society forms an opinion on these issues, play­ing an active role in the space between the worlds of poli­tics, busi­ness and rese­arch.’ Accord­ing to him, the busi­ness world prede­ter­mi­nes the outcome of many issues at present. Thirdly, the aim is to use tech­no­logy in the service of society: inno­va­tion for the grea­ter good. 

Torben Stefan, head of the digi­ta­li­sa­tion and society programme at Stif­tung Merca­tor Schweiz, in a meeting with Andrew Holland.
Rea Eggli, co-foun­der of the wema­keit crowd­fun­ding platform.

Swel­ling chari­ties’ coffers

Digi­ta­li­sa­tion also enab­les civil society to make use of new ways to finance projects. Rea Eggli, co-foun­der of wema­keit says: ‘Our crowd­fun­ding plat­form wema­keit is the ideal coun­ter­part to chari­ta­ble funding; we do not see oursel­ves as a compe­ti­tor.’ wema­keit has been enjoy­ing a prac­ti­cal colla­bo­ra­tion with a charity for two years thanks to the ‘Science Booster’. The ‘Science Booster’ sees Gerbert Rüf support success­ful scien­ti­fic projects on wemakeit.com, doub­ling every Swiss franc dona­ted by the public. Public-private part­nerships are also an option. For chari­ties them­sel­ves, wema­keit is a digi­tal plat­form where they can disco­ver new projects, as a search subscrip­tion with keywords helps them to find inno­va­tive projects to support. This is one reason why part­ne­ring with wema­keit can be an exci­ting prospect for a charity, whether in terms of finding an issue to support or making it easier to process compe­ti­ti­ons between project owners. A charity can even tap into new target groups with crowd­fun­ding. wema­keit curr­ently has a commu­nity of more than 300,000 people. The chance that a project reaches its self-impo­sed goal is 61 percent, and more than 4,000 projects have already enjoyed success, collec­ting a total of 48 million Swiss francs. In all these succes­ses, you need to bear in mind the effort put in by the people laun­ching the project in question, which cannot be unde­re­sti­ma­ted: ‘Crowd­fun­ding always takes a lot of effort in terms of commu­ni­ca­tion,’ says Rea Eggli. She adds that this is why she sees the propor­tion of crowd­fun­ded income in a project budget as origi­na­ting from the charity itself.

People are at the heart of things

As CEO of Fonda­tion Botnar, Stefan Germann has inte­gra­ted digi­ta­li­sa­tion into the charity’s stra­tegy. Photo: Kostas Maros

Fonda­tion Botnar is turning to digi­ta­li­sa­tion and digi­tal inno­va­tions so it can pursue its chari­ta­ble objects. ‘The Future Now – For Child­ren World­wide,’ Botnar promi­ses on its website. Its dedi­ca­tion to children’s health and well-being is timeless, but digi­ta­li­sa­tion has even been inte­gra­ted into the charity’s stra­tegy. Its current CEO, Stefan Germann, applied for his posi­tion at Fonda­tion Botnar in 2016 with a concept revol­ving around digi­ta­li­sa­tion and arti­fi­cial intel­li­gence, winning over the board of trus­tees. ‘Over the next 20 years, people will be crea­ting digi­tal health tech­no­lo­gies with smart algo­rithms and arti­fi­cial intel­li­gence. The speedy deve­lo­p­ment of these tech­no­lo­gies opens up unpar­al­leled oppor­tu­nities for public health on a global scale. For example, they could help combat the acute lack of health­care workers,’ he belie­ves. The Afya-Tek project, laun­ched in Tanza­nia in 2019, is typi­cal of Fonda­tion Botnar’s work. Its aim is to bring toge­ther public and private health­care systems within a digi­tally networ­ked commu­nity. ‘We focus on child­ren and young people in medium-sized cities, known as secon­dary cities, in coun­tries with limi­ted resour­ces,’ says Stefan Germann. ‘There is a great need for this, yet NGOs often limit their work to either capi­tal cities or rural areas. Our objec­tive is to imple­ment digi­tal solu­ti­ons in secon­dary cities and to achieve econo­mies of scale as a result.’ Fonda­tion Botnar is inve­sting in digi­tal inno­va­tions, deve­lo­ping sustainable solu­ti­ons that can be scaled up. Howe­ver, as Germann says, 

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

StiftungSchweiz is committed to enabling a modern philanthropy that unites and excites people and has maximum impact with minimal time and effort.

Follow StiftungSchweiz on

The Philanthropist by subscribtion
Benefit now!