Charity Digital Skills Report

Early findings from the Charity Digital Skills Report, showing how COVID-19 has affected the sector, and how charities have responded.

If you’d looked into a crystal ball last year and told me that charities would be offering digital services and working remotely - all whilst dealing with a global pandemic - I’d have been surprised and intrigued.

And yet that is what we are finding. Today we launch a summary of how COVID-19 is beginning to change the sector, based on data collected for the Charity Digital Skills Report, the annual barometer of digital progress across the sector, on which we’re partnered with Catalyst and Skills Platform, with support from Think Social Tech.

The full report, with in-depth analysis on how digital skills, leadership, governance and strategy are changing across the sector will be launched in early July.

We'd started surveying charities on their digital skills before we went into lockdown and realised that we had an opportunity to change focus, adding COVID-19 specific questions so that we could understand how the sector is changing before our eyes.

We had 160+ responses to the Coronavirus questions (we had 459 responses to the survey in total). Here’s what we learned – and what we think it means for the sector.

How is COVID-19 changing charities’ use of digital?

We asked charities how the pandemic is changing their charity’s operations in terms of digital and they told us that:

●       66% are delivering all work remotely

●       61% have an increased need to train and support our staff and volunteers to use digital tools

●       61% will be offering more online services

●       47% are collaborating/sharing learning with others around digital

●       34% are changing some people’s roles to accommodate new responsibilities

●       28% are developing virtual fundraising events

●       21% have cancelled services because they don’t have the skills or tech to deliver them

●       15% have cancelled services because their users lack the skills or tech to make use of them online

●       27% in total have cancelled services for one or both of the above reasons

There are some positive signs here about how the sector is using digital to innovate. The fact that two thirds of charities are delivering all work remotely, and that almost half (47%) are collaborating and sharing digital learnings with others is promising. However the fact that 27% have cancelled services because their charity and / or their users don’t have the necessary skills or tech is worrying.

We dug into the analysis further, filtering the results to look at the trends amongst charities at five different stages of digital, including those who described themselves as paper-based, curious, starting out, advancing, and advanced.

It was interesting to see that:

●       67% of those starting out with digital and 66% of those advancing with digital were delivering all work remotely. This shows that remote working isn’t just for charities at more advanced stages of digital

●       The appetite for digital tools training was best represented by those starting out and advancing with digital stages (73% and 58% respectively)

●       60% of those starting out will be offering more online services along with 67% of those advancing, again indicating that there could be appetite at both ends of the digital spectrum for change

When we did a dip test of the initial results (which we shared on 1 May ahead of the survey closing) 37% of charities told us that they had cancelled services because they didn’t have the skills or tech to deliver them. The fact that this number has decreased to 21% may indicate that charities are getting more comfortable with tech.

So there are some really interesting indications of how charities are using digital to adapt to the crisis. Yet there also some tensions too, where some are progressing and others aren’t able to. What could this mean for the ‘new normal?’ And what do charities need to make digital change happen?

Which charities are adapting best to the crisis?

Charities’ ability to evolve during COVID-19 is likely to be dependent on their previous digital experience and skills. My colleague Nissa Ramsay of Think Social Tech notes of our results that, “Only a third of those who are paper-based or simply curious about doing more with digital have been able to offer online services. This is compared to two thirds of those who were starting out with digital and 70% of those with advancing digital skills and capacity.

“Furthermore, just under 40% of those at earlier stages have cancelled services, compared to only 8% of those advancing and those which have advanced with digital. Finally, only 9% of those at early stages of digital were running any virtual fundraising events, compared to 39% of those advancing with digital.”

A great example of a charity who have adapted is GROWing Links, who are using social media to get food to those in need during the crisis.

Where do charities need support with digital during COVID-19?

We can see from the question above that charities want to engage with digital more. Yet with resources at a premium, the issue is what charities need in place to do this.

Charities told us that:

●       47% are interested in how to help their users access our services online

●       46% want guidance on what works with digitising face to face services

●       44% want to help the team adjust to change

●       43% want financial support for new technical equipment, software or tools

●       41% want to help staff stay motivated and productive

There was an interesting cluster of responses from a third of respondents:

●       35% want technical advice (e.g. what tools to use)

●       33% want guidance on working online (e.g. running effective meetings)

●       32% want help on managing a virtual team

●       32% want help on coping with isolation

Yet technology is still an issue, whether that’s broadband speed or access to tech. This speaks to how the digital divide also affects charity employees, as well as users :

●       27% want faster broadband

●       26% want better access to tech

Just 11% said that they were well set up and that guidance exists for them. What happens to the other 89%? Surely they need support for the vital services they offer to beneficiaries?

The need for financial support for digital is growing. Our initial findings in May showed that only 34% wanted financial support for new technical equipment, software or tools. Now 43% of charities need help with this.

Remote working is still an area where charities need help. 46% of those charities starting out with digital want to help staff stay motivated and productive, whilst 57% of those who are curious about digital (ie interested to know more and who have some basics such as social media in place) and 38% of those starting out want guidance about working online eg running effective meetings.

What do charities need from funders?

Support needs really come into focus when we see what charities want from funders. We added new options to the survey to gather data on this.

After the pandemic hit, charities told us that the most important changes funders could make to help with digital were:

  1. Scope to include digital in all funding applications (45%)
  2. Additional funding to buy essential tech and software we now need (38%)
  3. Flexibility of existing funding to adapt services, activities and outcomes (37%)

Funders are going to have to be much more creative, flexible and innovative in how they support charities with digital during lockdown.

Anna Malley, project manager at Digital Catapult North East Tees Valley, which helps fund charity digital development, told me: “COVID-19 has drastically changed the way we live and the way we work. As a fund manager, we have to acknowledge that this impact doesn’t just affect organisations, but also everyday people. This includes service users, whose needs are now permanently changing.

“As the delivery body of the North East Social Tech Fund, this means that we have taken on a flexible approach to fund management. As our fund focuses on the adoption of digital activities, we haven’t seen changes in most of our projects, but we have seen some grantees revisiting their proposals. For example, some grantees are now focusing on understanding the new digital and non-digital needs from service users, gathering new data and tailoring their awarded digital projects accordingly.”

So what does this all mean for charities?

There’s no doubt that charities are using digital to adapt to the crisis, and there are some excellent examples of innovation and change going on. It isn’t a consistent picture though and I worry about the organisations who are getting left behind - and what this means for the people they serve.

We’ll be sharing the results of the full Charity Digital Skills Report in early July.

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Ellie Hale
Ellie Hale