Organisations have embraced digital as a result of lockdown, but need further support to continue to adapt
Digital skills have improved across the voluntary sector as a result of having to adapt to lockdown.
More than a year on from the start of the pandemic, new research has revealed charities have shown innovation and agility, adapting quickly to mobilise or accelerate digital progression.
Results from this year’s Charity Digital Skills Report 2021 reveal organisations have continued to adapt and have made strides in many areas. However, it also highlights the need to invest in the future to maintain momentum and ensure the digital progress achieved is sustainable and changes embedded.
This year’s report reveals 70% of charities have seen an increased demand for their services and 83% have started offering online services in response to demand. Close to eight out of 10 (78%) have also used digital to reach new audiences. However, whilst there have been improvements in digital service delivery, there is still some way to go. 47% rate themselves as fair and 28% as poor, compared to 43% and 40% for these categories last year.
Basic digital skills have considerably improved across the sector with charities including The Scouts, The Leprosy Foundation and Nordoff Robbins sharing how the pandemic has spearheaded or accelerated their digital progress. They clearly demonstrate how the sector has had to respond to the pandemic in an agile way and develop the fundamental digital skills and capabilities needed to survive.
The number of charities rating themselves as having excellent basic digital skills has almost doubled this year, with 56% putting themselves in this category compared to 29% last year. The next step for charities is to build on these basic skills and take it to the next level, including learning how to use data more effectively and improving digital fundraising skills in particular.
Another marker of progress is that 60% of charities report they now have a strategy in place for digital. This is a very positive increase of 11% from 2020 and marks the biggest improvement in this area since the report began. There are also signs that more charities are confident they have advanced with digital. 16% say it is integral to their organisational strategy and embedded in everything they do. Equally, it is encouraging to see over two thirds (67%) now see it as a priority for their organisation, with similar numbers planning investment in digital infrastructure.
This year’s report highlights many positives of charities adapting their services digitally, but it does identify digital inclusion as a key challenge. Charities are concerned digitally excluded service users are now even more isolated. Over half (52%) are worried about excluding some people or groups, and 27% say they need more support around digital inclusion. 24% are concerned that their audience is not online and 12% of charities have struggled with basic tech access, with almost half (45%) having to provide their users with devices, data or support to get online or access services.
Responses to remote working must also be considered carefully. Just over two thirds (67%) continue to deliver all work remotely, however, remote working has been cited as the second greatest challenge of the pandemic. 38% of charities say they have found remote working challenging, exhausting or isolating and just under a third (31%) say their staff are burned out from demands of intense remote working. Charities need to ensure they improve remote working so colleagues’ wellbeing is a priority. Whether it’s limiting the amount of time staff spend on video calls, mandating time off or changing expectations of colleagues, this will make work much more effective, productive and motivating for everyone.
Almost half (47%) of charities want funders to include core digital costs in all applications and want further support for guidance and training.
Zoe Amar, from Zoe Amar Digital, said: “There have been some very positive developments as we look to emerge from the pandemic. Basic digital skills are improving and we are now seeing more charities taking a strategic approach. Charities are also making digital more of a priority generally and are planning to invest further in the coming year. However, digital inclusion, burnout from remote working and poor IT are still key barriers. Furthermore, digital fundraising, data use, service development and developing an online presence are significant areas for development. Across the sector, foundations need to be put in place, including skills, infrastructure and taking an inclusive approach to technology.”
Vicky Browning, chief executive of ACEVO, said: “Throughout the pandemic, we’ve seen charity leaders making innovative use of digital in their organisations to adapt their services and keep reaching the communities they serve. The Charity Digital Skills report shows that there is a clear appetite for stronger digital leadership, with 52% of charities saying they would like CEOs and boards to provide a clear vision of what digital could help them achieve. We encourage all charity leaders to explore with their boards and teams how to embed inclusive digital working in strategic planning.”