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Report author Zoe Amar outlines her key findings, and shares actions we can all take as a result. 

After many months of hard work from our report partners Catalyst and Skills Platform, we are excited to share this year’s Charity Digital Skills Report, the annual barometer of digital skills across the sector. This year’s report demonstrates how charities are growing in confidence as they work remotely and offer more digital services, yet still need support with funding, skills, leadership and strategy. 

There’s a lot to dig into in the report - partly because of the context we were undertaking the research in. A few weeks into running the survey to build the report we went into lockdown. We had to decide as a team whether it was right to continue with the report given that charities had so much on their shoulders. We realised that the survey was a rare opportunity when we could track digital change in real time, gathering data on how the sector was using digital to respond to the pandemic. So we pivoted, adding new questions and adapting other parts of the survey. We hope the results give a snapshot of how parts of the sector are changing how they use digital during COVID-19. 

Thanks to having support from Catalyst, we were also able to go deeper into the analysis this year, looking at digital needs pre- and post-lockdown and also how charities at different stages in their digital evolution are dealing with different areas of digital. 

When I step back and look at the data, the situation across the sector is not dissimilar to what I see in many charities on a larger scale. There’s a group of people working in digital, who are innovating and trying new ways of working and doing things. Yet they are missing the pieces of the jigsaw that will really make their work fly, and these tend to be where other parts of the organisation have a stake in digital but just don’t realise it yet, such as fundraisers, the executive team and board. Of course there are some charities who have cracked this and everyone is united around common goals in digital. As our report shows though, this isn’t happening consistently across the sector. And we all need to get behind digital now more than ever. 

Here are the top seven findings from the report and the actions we can all take as a result. 

1. Just over half (51%) of charities still don’t have a strategy for digital (whether that’s a standalone strategy or integrated with the organisational strategy). This finding has barely changed since 2019, and frankly hasn’t shifted much in the four years we’ve done the report. 

Action: Whether your strategy is a big PowerPoint presentation or a one-pager, whether it’s part of your organisational strategy or a stand alone document, every organisation needs to think about how digital forms part of its vision for the future post-crisis and what it’s going to do (and not going to do) to get there. The straitened resources that we are all working with now should sharpen our focus. How can digital help us achieve our visions and missions? And where can we best invest our efforts to achieve them? 

2. COVID-19 is changing how charities use digital. Two thirds (66%) are delivering all work remotely. This is a really positive sign about how charities are adapting to change, and in many ways is the finding I’m most excited about in the report. 

Action: If you’re one of the 66% (or even if you are doing some work remotely) it’s likely that you will have been working at breakneck speed with fewer resources over the last few months. Now that lockdown is gradually easing, use this as an opportunity to take stock about how remote working has gone. What has worked well? What needs to be improved? And given that many of us will be working this way for a while, what are the next steps that can be taken to improve things? Find out how Tearfund, the interntional aid charity, evaluated their remote working. 

Yet COVID-19 is also creating negatives. 27% of respondents have told us that they have cancelled services because either their charity or their users don’t have the necessary skills or tech. The digital divide is affecting both charity workers and their beneficiaries, whether it’s skills or access to devices and data.

Action: This is a big challenge and there are no easy answers. If the issue is staff skills, there are lots of free resources on the Catalyst site. If your beneficiaries need help, you could try asking for donations for devices and data from companies, or contacting DevicesDotNow. 

3. Funders need to raise their game. As the rest of the report shows, there are significant support needs for digital across the charity sector. Yet over the last year, just under half (48%) of our respondents told us that their charities have not had any digital funding. 50% cited lack of funding as the biggest barrier they face to digital progress, similar to 2019.

Action: Yes there is some funding out there for charities and digital - but clearly not enough. If you’re a funder reading this, you need to talk to your grantees and scour your grant applications to find out where charities need help with digital. And if you’re a charity, I would use the data from this report to ask funders the question: ‘How are you planning to help the charities you support with digital?’  

4. Stronger digital leadership is needed. 67% of respondents want their leadership team to offer a clear vision of what digital could help them achieve. This has dropped by 6% from last year, but is still the most pressing need amongst charities.

Action: This may be down to a skills gap amongst some leadership teams. Offer to support them. Perhaps some reverse mentoring (i.e. where a more junior, digitally savvy member of staff mentors a more senior one) would help, or a joint session with staff who have digital responsibilities to help them develop a digital vision and an outline strategy. 

5. Boards need more digital skills. Most charities (66%) rate their board’s digital skills as low or having room for improvement, down 2% from 2019. What is it going to take for this to change?

Action: Trustees need support and guidance with digital. That might be a training course, it might be reverse mentoring, or even someone from the staff team coming in to brief the board. It may also be about getting a trustee with good digital skills onto your board. Whatever you do, it has to be a priority because otherwise the board will not be able to make informed decisions about digital, which could mean that your charity falls behind, post-pandemic. 

6. Charities need to commit to understanding their users better. The number one piece of advice that I’m giving all organisations at the moment is: ‘Stay close to your users.’ People’s circumstances are changing rapidly - they might have been through huge life changes such as losing jobs, going back to work after being furloughed or they may have lost people. Yet understanding the people they serve is an area where charities are struggling. Just 8% of charities rate themselves as excellent at understanding users.

Action: We need more charities to make the most of all the interactions they have with beneficiaries, donors and supporters to gather insights, whether that’s taking a closer look at website data or even allowing an extra five minutes at the end of a call with a beneficiary to find out more about where they are at and what’s changing for them. Above all we need wider use of service design techniques across the sector, and to make testing digital products and services with a wider, more diverse group of people a priority. As an added benefit this will help charities develop better digital services, which is an additional skills gap.

7. Charities need help with digital fundraising. Fun runs have been pulled. Coffee mornings look tricky. Charities need to grow digital fundraising to make up for the loss of income from offline fundraising. However, digital fundraising is one of the weakest skills for charities. 45% say that they are poor at it.

Action: the charities who are really excelling in this area are talking about supporter, not donor engagement. Uniting people around communities with shared values is key to successful fundraising. Good user research will help, as will looking at the data to understand what content will really engage supporters so that you can create the right journeys for them. 

Those are the points I will remember from this year’s Charity Digital Skills Report. By 2021 things could look very different. Digital change may have embedded more widely across the sector, or ways of working may have slipped back to how they were before. I wonder what next year will bring?

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Ellie Hale
Ellie Hale