Executive Summary

This report sets out the common stages and components of a charity digital journey, highlighting the pitfalls, safety nets, support and funding needs that tend to accompany these.

It is based on the stories shared with us by 15 digital leads working within small, medium and large charities, detailing their respective digital journeys between November 2019 and February 2020. It also incorporates information shared by the leads at our peer learning workshop in February 2020. Their experiences and selected individual stories feature in the report.

Whilst this project took place prior to COVID-19, it provides valuable insights about how charities navigate their digital journeys.

This report was written by Nissa Ramsay, of Think Social Tech. The research was supported by Catalyst. It was delivered in partnership with Helen Lang of Innovation Unboxed and Matt Jackson of Impact Works, with visualisations designed by Chris Wells.

November 2023 Update:

As part of the Datawise London project, Superhighways and Think Social Tech have published a report on Small Charity Data Journeys. It complements and expands on the original Digital Journeys research below, drawing on insights gathered over two years of qualitative research with 36 small charities and community groups in London. It considers the starting points for small charities to move forward towards data maturity, the swamps (some tough challenges) they get stuck in and the bridges that make the journey easier.

An overview of a common digital journey

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Stage 1: Curious

Charities were curious when they were actively exploring how they could do more with digital. Most had limited budget and capacity but were looking to understand what was possible and where to start. They were largely paper-based at this point, but some would have digital basics in place such as email, a website or social media. Moving on from business as usual was one of the hardest stages of their journey. This typically involved the following:

  1. An internal staff member took the lead and started to explore where digital could help their charity. Some of these staff had a digital role, but most did not. They were unlikely to have experience leading digital change and many had limited digital skills. Their commitment, enthusiasm and internal role was vital, but they needed support from multiple sources to make progress.
  2. A call to action instigated change, such as a new CEO, a crisis, funding for digital, growth or losing out on funding. This helped overcome any internal complacency, resistance or fear, but there was still a long road ahead.
  3. Starting to fix or change something was the first port of call. Examples included replacing an inefficient paper-based process, building a new website or moving file storage to the cloud. Bigger projects at this stage (particularly a new CRM) proved tempting, but risky. Any practical advice was invaluable here. Those able to start small, pilot tools or talk to users and engage with staff were much better placed to move forward. 

Milestones included a greater awareness of the need to change, and formulating a goal for where to start. In order to move forwards, at least one of the following needed to be in place:

  • Internal buy-in to do more with digital in the organisation
  • Additional capacity from back-filling a member of staff’s role or creating a new role to lead on digital
  • Resource for a digital project (a grant or internal reserves)

Stage 2: Starting out

Charities were starting out with digital once they had some resources, capacity and internal buy-in needed to pursue a tangible goal, such as a new website, service or CRM. They did not typically have a digital strategy in place and digital was largely still seen as a ‘nice to have’. External support was crucial to moving through this stage. Common approaches included:

  1. Developing a digital project marked the first big step forward. In most cases, this required a digital agency. A good relationship could help build digital knowledge and capacity. A poor relationship could result in a solution that did not meet their needs, and which stalled their journey. Those who undertook discovery research found this stage easier, as did those with funding. Support could prove transformational in getting to a place they were proud of.
  2. Getting internal buy-in from staff was vital, because digital tools and new processes challenged conventional ways of working. Many wished they had prioritised this earlier. CEOs and boards needed to engage more at this point to give the right capacity and support needed for key projects.
  3. Developing a strategy for digital became necessary when charities were alive to the possibilities, but struggled to prioritise and identify the extent to which they needed to change. A digital maturity framework could help. Boards and CEOs often needed external advice here for reassurance and support to set a strategic direction.

Milestones included:

  • Experience developing a digital project
  • Greater ambitions for digital in the organisation
  • The staff team engaging more with digital and seeing the value in it
  • A strategic direction supported by trustees, whether a digital strategy or part of their organisation strategy

Stage 3: Advancing

Charities started advancing once digital became a strategic priority. They had aspirations to embed digital change across their organisations. They also had experience developing digital projects and working with digital partners. They were likely to have some digital skills in-house and a formally recognised and dedicated digital lead (or team). Progress in this stage slowed again, as the need for significant funding and investment in digital across organisations became clear. This took a number of forms:

  1. Building internal digital capacity required all staff to develop digital skills and confidence. It was also the start of a culture change process, encouraging staff to adopt digital design practices, such as acting on user feedback. Digital leads also looked to improve their own knowledge and practice through professional networks and Tech for Good communities. 
  2. Vital upgrades to older systems and existing digital services were needed before advancing any further. This required significant investment and meant resourcing digital properly became a key sticking point. 
  3. Looking ahead to new projects or technology was common, but digital leads still felt uncertain about how to progress. With limited resources, this was dependent on funding, support initiatives, volunteers and pro-bono advice. The risk here was a fragmented set of digital projects. It will be a long time until they see themselves as advanced.

Milestones included:

  • Digital ways of working starting to become part of the culture
  • Outdated tech or legacy systems being replaced
  • Key services being redesigned to meet user needs
  • Learning shared openly and actively
  • Accessibility and inclusion prioritised
  • Developing advanced digital skills and projects

As they moved into the advanced stage, organisations also recognised the need for:

  • Significant funding or internal resources for digital roles and infrastructure
  • Active work to address the implications of digital, design and data
  • More focus on collaboration, shared standards and open source

What made this journey easier?

Digital leads were better able to move forwards with digital when they:

  • Started trying and testing new tools and ways of working
  • Had dedicated time to explore and lead on digital
  • Accessed mentoring support
  • Undertook discovery research
  • Engaged their colleagues, leaders and boards in digital projects
  • Applied for and received funding at any point
  • Partnered with a supportive digital agency
  • Took up training and learning opportunities for digital, design and data
  • Researched existing guidance and upskilled themselves
  • Made use of a digital maturity framework to facilitate conversations around the need for change and what to prioritise
  • Brought in consultancy to support setting a strategic direction for digital
  • Upskilled their colleagues, boards and leaders
  • Brought in new digital trustees
  • Sought advice from other charities at a similar stage to them
  • Participated in Tech for Good communities
  • Shared learning with professional networks
  • Found pro-bono support and skilled volunteers

Ten remaining hurdles

There were clear opportunities for further support, which could still make charities’ digital journeys better, easier, faster or possible. Funders, consultancies, intermediaries and digital agencies could play a fundamental role in helping digital leads and their organisations to:

  1. Take a small first step with digital sooner.
  2. Make good digital decisions in crisis situations.
  3. Mitigate bad experiences with digital agencies and tech providers.
  4. Get digital basics in place.
  5. Connect with peers from other charities.
  6. Engage non-digital colleagues earlier.
  7. Build digital understanding and commitment at leadership and board-level.
  8. Review what digital roles, skills and competencies are needed to advance with digital.
  9. Lead the way in creating inclusive, accessible and responsible digital services.
  10. Find better ways to fund and resource digital.


Over the last few months, COVID-19 has forced charities to move to remote working, deliver services online, invest in new tech and upskill staff faster than they ever anticipated. These changes are hard at the best of times. So much so that prior to COVID-19 we set out to map charity digital journeys and milestones for making progress. We had previously mapped 50 digital maturity frameworks in 2019 and in the process, discovered 19 focus areas for digital transformation.

However, creating an uber framework is not helpful to those trying to negotiate where to start in the context of changing their organisation. We needed to document and share more about the reality of digital transformation: what works and what doesn’t. We also wanted to learn more about how and when external support, funding, digital maturity diagnostic tools and consultants were helping, as well as where the gaps were. 

To this end, we interviewed 15 digital leads working within small, medium and large charities about their digital journey between November 2019 and February 2020, prior to COVID-19 affecting the UK. We documented stories about their journeys and facilitated a peer-learning workshop to identify common trials and tribulations within these. Further information about the approach taken and information about the charities involved can be found in the Appendix

This report sets out a single generalised journey based upon their experiences. It is framed around three key stages which describe the mindset and approach to making progress with digital: curious, starting out and advancing. At each stage, this report sets out a range of common patterns in the organisations’ experiences and steps, drawing attention to the learning, pitfalls and safety nets which helped them move forward. These steps have been mapped in a series of visualisations, which highlight common paths, experiences, risk factors, barriers and enablers at each step of the journey. This report also features advice shared by charities and selected individual stories, written in collaboration with those interviewed.

The project was due to report in April 2020, but was put on hold for six months due to COVID-19. As the UK moves past the initial stages of the pandemic, many charities will be trying to decide what to do next and how much to keep digital practices in their everyday work. We hope that sharing our findings now is reassuring and informative to those currently navigating their digital journey, as well as for those supporting them.

Findings: Three stages of a digital journey

This report sets out a single generalised map of the common steps charities take to engage more with digital, based on fifteen real stories. Their journeys might typically be described as digital transformation or an effort to build digital maturity. However, the charities involved in this research simply described how they were starting to use digital tools or processes to improve the services they offer, their day to day work or what the charity does. Individually, each story we heard was unique, shaped by the organisation’s history, culture, funding and circumstances. Collectively, their trials and tribulations highlighted similar steps and situations which defined their journey.

The report is framed around three key stages to making progress with digital, each of which is differentiated by a distinct starting point and mindset:

  1. Curious: Largely paper-based with some digital basics in place. Looking to do more with digital, but uncertain of where to start.
  2. Starting out: Ready to get started, with some resources or capacity to develop a project. There is no digital strategy in place yet.
  3. Advancing: Digital is a strategic priority, but is yet to be embedded. Culture change and looking ahead are priorities.

Of course, there are likely to be two additional stages at the start and end of this journey. Charities might describe themselves as paper-based, when they have little interest in or capacity to engage with digital. They could also describe themselves as advanced, when digital is embedded into everything they do. However, for the charities we spoke to, their stories focused on getting going. This was the hardest part of their journey, where a number of factors could make or break their progress.

This report outlines nine common patterns that tended to characterise each stage and accompanied big leaps forward, periods of regression and stasis. They are each accompanied by a visualisation which highlights common experiences, risk factors, barriers and enablers within that step on the journey. A key to these visualisations is shown in image 1. Of course in reality, the pathways followed were far from linear and to illustrate this, selected individual stories are featured here.

Stage 1: Curious about digital

Charities can be described as curious about digital when they are starting to think about how they could do more with digital in their organisation. At this point they are largely paper-based and may (but may not) have some digital basics in place, whether that is skills or attributes such as a website or social media presence. They are looking to understand what is possible and where to start, focusing on the practicalities. Priorities include getting the right internal systems and processes in place and using digital tools as part of their service delivery, often with limited budget and capacity.

The charity staff we spoke to focused largely on this stage of their story because it was the most painful and frustrating. This was largely because there was a belief in these charities that existing and non-digital systems were working well enough, that their services were high quality and that staff were largely happy in how they were doing their job. Digital leads explained how they struggled to make the case to their peers, leaders and the board for using and investing in digital tools.

Pattern 1: An internal staff member takes the lead

A visual map of pattern 1, when charities were at the curious stage and an individual staff member takes the lead on digital. The text highlights the most common experiences, risk factors, barriers and enablers at this stage of the journey.
Charity digital journey map: curious stage, pattern 1

In all of our stories, the digital leads we spoke to had been a driving force for digital change within their organisation. Yet three quarters were not in digital or IT roles. Most did not see themselves as ‘digital experts’. Even if they were, they certainly would not have envisaged, applied for or taken on a ‘digital transformation’ role in advance of doing it. Only two were chief executives or directors, and they would also need to find other members of staff to lead on digital in order to progress. We spoke to digital leads who had roles including coordinator, operations officer, director of education, youth worker, chief digital officer, head of communications and communications officer. They had two key attributes: they were internal and they were passionate or quietly interested in the potential for digital in their work and organisation.

Over the course of their journey, a digital lead would be vital in engaging with and supporting the rest of the staff team. Many charity workers, other than the lead, felt they had been ‘burnt’ by bad experiences with tech in the past, either because it hadn’t worked for them or they’d had difficult relationships with digital experts and agencies.

It is important to note that leading on digital was hard, lonely and often frustrating. It could cause that individual to lose confidence in their approach, digital knowledge or skills. They could also feel overwhelmed and incredibly frustrated, particularly when they lacked capacity or change felt impossible. A key turning point was often the creation of a formally recognised and dedicated internal role to lead on digital. Their job title did not have to change, but they did need capacity and support to progress. Those digital leads who were newly recruited to lead on digital would need to spend significant time getting to know staff, understanding their work and building trust to make progress.

The journey really took off when we created a dedicated digital role, who we recruited for internally. It was far more reassuring for staff. They had a real-life person in their team they could get to know, trust and talk to – someone to go on the digital journey together with. This made a huge difference. The vicious cycle from earlier began to unravel, as projects became better and easier to run and staff began to trust and enjoy working with the digital team.

Throughout this stage, any and all external guidance or support provided invaluable reassurance to help digital leads keep going. Tech for Good communities, national bodies, support agencies and peers in other charities were also invaluable. Digital leads also turned to these networks for practical support, training and ideas. They used examples and learning from other charities to inform their work and advocate for change internally. One interviewee advised:

To any other charity doing this, particularly smaller ones, I’d say the most important thing you can do is upskill yourselves and get involved in your local Tech for Good community. I also read what other charities are doing on Twitter and Medium to get ideas. When you are the only person working on digital in a smaller charity, the most important thing is feeling like you are not on your own and to have somewhere to sense- check your sanity. People expect you to know what’s happening and that you are doing the right thing.

Pattern 2: A call to action

A visual map of pattern 2, when charities were at the curious stage and a call to action instigated change. The text highlights the most common experiences, risk factors, barriers and enablers at this stage of the journey.
Charity digital journey map: curious stage, pattern 2

Of the digital leads we spoke to, 13 identified specific events or crises which kick- started their digital journey. Prior to this, they had been putting foundations in place but were struggling to make progress.

  • Funding: For three quarters of the charities, funding had propelled their progress. Three were able to use proportions of new grants for digital (funders included Esmée Fairbairn Foundation, Garfield Weston and The National Lottery Community Fund). Four accessed funding specific to digital (including the Comic Relief and Paul Hamlyn Foundation Tech for Good Fund, Comic Relief’s Tech Vs Abuse Fund, the National Lottery Digital Fund and a Nesta Challenge Prize).
  • Growth: Two charities were driven by rapid growth or a sudden influx of funding. New digital tools and tech would be vital to scale delivery.
  • A new CEO: In four of the charities, the appointment of a new CEO supportive or pushing for digital was a driving force for progress.
  • A crisis: For four charities, a financial crisis, risk of closure or loss of contracts (to other organisations using digital) necessitated a stark review of their approach. Digital was no longer a luxury or something to explore – it had to happen quickly. Three were also driven by a need to secure funding. They were struggling financially, had lost contracts to others making use of digital or were expected to deliver more (for less money) by potential funders.

Crucially, all of these situations enabled the digital lead to take greater ownership of helping their organisation move forward with digital. They could overcome previous complacency and start to address any fears among staff, leaders or trustees. One interviewee explained:

Our story really started when a new chief executive started at the organisation. I’d already been at the organisation five years, working on the website and the email and IT system, moving us on from rows of ring binders and dial-up modems. The new CEO asked me to be more hands on in shaping the organisation going forward and genuinely believed that someone who knew about tech should have a seat at the table when discussing strategy and the future. I was lucky really and I was given free remit to work out the best way forward. Before I knew digital transformation was a ‘thing’, that’s what we had started doing.

However, in a crisis situation and for those with a sudden influx of funding, this was often a fraught process, particularly given the intense pressure to succeed with digital. Haste could often result in solutions being implemented that were not well designed for those using them, clashed with other systems or could not be maintained. In comparison, a new CEO or leadership-driven change could be less pressured. However, progress often stalled in efforts to scope the requirements for digital projects. In all of these situations, progress towards getting started with digital took a lot of perseverance from the digital lead.

Pattern 3: Starting to fix or change something

A visual map of pattern 3, when charities were at the curious stage and they started to fix or change something. The text highlights the most common experiences, risk factors, barriers and enablers at this stage of the journey.
Charity digital journey map: curious stage, pattern 3

The first forays into digital largely focused on getting the basics in place, as well as building digital interest, skills and confidence within the team. However, this process was often characterised by false starts or periods of circling around decisions.

Those who made good progress highlighted the value of starting small and introducing ‘quick wins’. Examples included the use of Google Docs to collaborate on funding applications or a new online booking system to reduce admin for setting up appointments. When digital leads were able to engage staff with these tools and they worked well, this helped win the hearts and minds of staff and leaders. However, a common feature was a period of circling as organisations took one step forward and two steps back and progress often stalled. While the ‘quick wins’ or makeshift solutions were often replaced later down the line, digital leads were in a better position to invest in tech that was right for them and their team.

We moved to Office 365 and moved other applications to the cloud, to reduce on-premises drain and encourage more collaboration, mainly around bid writing, which was a big part of our work at that point. The problem was, it didn’t change the culture: people just used Office the way they always had...We moved to G Suite three years ago. This was a great move for improving collaboration and transparency, as well as changing the culture around this. Now everyone can get involved in bid writing, with trustees sense checking live documents and no nonsense around who has which version.

At this point, there was often a single system or service which was at breaking point, and that became the focus for digital improvement. Many needed to fix or establish something new and quickly. Implementing a bigger solution such as a CRM at this point was sometimes vital but particularly risky. It was common to get this wrong, lose all enthusiasm and go back to the very start.

Ten years previously we had invested in a new database for our work. It had been very costly and we ended up with a flawed system that didn’t really work for staff or the project. This set us back for a long time, as naturally trustees and senior staff became wary of investing again in anything digital – once bitten, twice shy!

This was because the organisations had limited experience with digital and minimal understanding of their needs and the needs of their users. Understanding these takes time. Examples we were told about included the introduction of new internal comms tools that staff wouldn’t use, databases that didn’t deliver, websites that staff couldn’t update or tech that didn’t meet requirements.

It was around this point in the journey that many of the digital leads we spoke to said they had felt most frustrated or that the challenges they faced felt the most insurmountable. Some considered leaving or giving up with digital and returning to business as usual. It was at this point that having senior support was most important. If there was a lack of management enthusiasm, there was the potential for momentum to be lost.

However, while change or significant progress wasn’t obvious at this point, it was happening. Those who were able to move past this stage recognised and reflected on how valuable it was. It created an internal awareness of the need to change. Staff were building their digital knowledge and developing a better understanding of the problems they wanted to solve. Although, of course, the need to fix things, change things or introduce new tools and ways of working would never be finished.

Moving Forward

Risks and barriers

  • Previous bad experiences with a tech project, often described as having ‘been burnt’, could make it harder to get started again.
  • Digital leads felt unable to continue due to burnout, frustration at the lack of progress or lack of capacity while delivering existing commitments (or meeting demand). This was common when there was no push to change.
  • A lack of funding to move forward. Many noted an extended period of time where they were not able to move forward because they could not find or win funding for digital. They needed to free up capacity, buy in support and test digital tools. As a result they also struggled to gain internal buy-in.

Enabling factors

  • Capacity: When an internal staff member interested in digital was given time, scope and support to explore this, more progress was made, particularly in comparison to those bringing in new roles or external agencies. This might be through back-filling their role, funding or pausing typical responsibilities.
  • A supportive line manager and CEO were vital for the digital lead to progress, giving them remit to do so, a sounding board, and support to implement new tools and ways of working. At later stages this would be vital to securing buy-in from the board.
  • Tech for Good communities, professional networks or peers in other charities helped provide reassurance and allowed digital leads to learn about what others were doing and struggling with. Digital leads often used examples from other charities to advocate for change internally.
  • Practical tech advice: Any advice or guidance from any source was helpful at this stage, particularly when it came to digital leads’ practical questions around choosing new digital tools. This included: what tech to use and how to integrate digital into their organisation; upskilling and engaging staff; and improving internal systems, communications, social media, their website and their online presence

Most charities had limited or no budget available for digital at this point, so it was also important that this advice was free and trusted. Those who accessed training and learnt about digital ways of working valued this immensely, but they may not have actively looked for support on this or understood the value in advance.

  • Funding to explore the role of digital: Funding was rare but could provide additional capacity to undertake research. It bought recognition that digital was worth exploring and in turn could help remove internal barriers such as fear or complacency. Funding to explore digital and start small (with the potential for progression) was needed at this point as most organisations were not ready for significant investment. It was hard to secure this internally when budgets were tight and the value of digital was still unproven.

Key milestones 

At the end of this stage, the digital leads involved in this research described a greater awareness of the need for change within the organisation. There would also be a strong case to invest further in digital and an understanding of what their next steps should be. However, in order to move forward, at least one of the following needed to be in place:

  • Resources for a digital project, such as a successful funding application or internal reserves, agreed. Even a small amount could help a great deal. Those who secured dedicated funding for a digital project took a significant leap forward.
  • Capacity in place for a staff member to lead on digital (such as dedicated staff time or back-filling roles).
  • Internal buy-in from leadership to do more with digital in the organisation and a greater awareness of the need for change.

Stage 2: Starting out with digital 

Charities can be described as starting out once they have the resources, capacity or internal buy-in they need to actively pursue digital change. This typically began with a tangible digital project. For most of the charities in this research project, this was externally facing (such as a website or digital service), but a small minority started with an internal project, such as a new CRM. Of the 15 organisations, 14 had reached this stage.

They had typically implemented some digital changes already. These had included moving to the Cloud, setting up the team to work remotely, introducing new tools or creating a new website. However, they were also aware that their internal systems, paper-based processes or online services still needed upgrading, developing or replacing. Digital tended to be seen as a ‘nice to have’ or an experiment at this point. Most charities did not have a digital strategy in place and soon came to realise the need for one. During this stage, more than any other, external support was crucial to moving forward.

Pattern 4: Developing a solution

A visual map of pattern 4, when charities were starting out and developing a digital project. The text highlights the most common experiences, risk factors, barriers and enablers at this stage of the journey.
Charity digital journey map: starting out stage, pattern 4

Developing a tangible digital solution marked a significant step forward for the charities in this research and the real start of their journey. Examples included creating an internal data dashboard, building a web app, digitising a service, connecting online signups to a CRM, or building a new online service. Those without external funding started to develop skills in-house and keep solutions simple, or used internal reserves. Those with funding found themselves taking a big leap forward very quickly.

In most cases, developing a digital solution required partnering with an external digital agency. The interviewees highlighted the importance of investing time to find the right partnership. These were critical relationships which could make or break their progress with digital. Those charities with strong digital partnerships found this could be transformational in building their digital knowledge and practice. They were able to learn about agile development, user-centred design processes and digital terminology.

At this point in the journey, the digital lead is unlikely to fully understand or have researched their users’ needs, or their own. They tended to be focused on a specific solution or use of technology, rather than user needs or the user journey. The digital agency would often need to provide some hand-holding support to guide key decisions, identify issues with their approach and give reassurance when managing internal and external stakeholders. When this worked, the charities’ confidence to develop digital projects grew dramatically.

The expertise that came through our digital partner in relation to tech development was something we didn’t even know existed. We would have been much less able to progress internally without the expert help. The main thing we learnt was how to truly remain user-focused and to be consistent with it. We’ve always consulted with our clients, but we expanded this to include those who might come to us in future. We quickly learnt we needed to keep our language much simpler.

There were of course many cautionary tales where a vital relationship with a digital partner broke down or the solution put in place did not meet an organisation’s needs. This might be because the agency did not fully understand the needs, the charity’s budget was small and would not stretch as far as they needed it to or the charity was building something before fully understanding their own and their users’ requirements. This experience would often set them back or prevent progress.

The only way to improve our situation was to use external providers. This cost lots of money and meant retrofitting one system to work for a series of diverse projects and problems – rather than starting with our digital needs first. The external consultants were ‘techie people’ and often didn’t speak our language. Often they weren’t the best at getting staff to see the benefit of the systems. Staff became more and more reluctant to use digital as the pace of new projects and workloads picked up. It felt safer and quicker to stick to what they were comfortable with and use a tried and tested notepad and pen. When they had problems with the new tech the external tech people sometimes ‘talked down’ to them or ‘made people feel a bit stupid’, making staff more suspicious of digital and even less likely to ask for help. We realised we needed to get going on a new digital journey, one that ended at a place that was the opposite of what was going on.

At least five of the organisations involved (a third) looked to learn by doing, building their own digital work slowly and organically, without outside support. They made use of existing off-the-shelf solutions, open source software or existing digital tools, especially those which were free (such as online forms, website templates or Google Forms). They would later need to revisit the suitability of these solutions as they grew their organisation or scaled their delivery. However, they were particularly proud of how they were able to upskill themselves and embed digital in their team.

Having a small team meant that we could be very dynamic and agile and we were able to do everything in-house. We taught ourselves how to design the site and set it up. To be honest, this was driven by financial necessity and practical constraints. Back then there was limited organisational understanding of digital: we may not have got support to invest in a consultant, so we just got on with it.

Across all of the charities interviewed, those who undertook discovery research with their communities and staff, as well as those who followed user-centred design methods, were much better placed to develop solutions that worked for them. User involvement and consultation also tended to be part of their culture. However, implementing this approach when developing a digital project for the first time was hard. Typically their projects had followed a linear progression: research; plan; get funding; deliver. With a digital project, their solution might look very different to their original vision. Undertaking user research was particularly hard because it required them to rethink their assumptions, requirements and plans.

When we started doing user research, we realised Tempo’s needs had been prioritised over those of end users in design. Assumptions about users had led to poor use of systems – for example, low registration rates...Fully researching and improving user journeys became a priority.

For those new to digital ways of working, user-centred design processes were incredibly challenging. They required a lot of flexibility, unexpected outcomes and new decisions. Any support was highly valued throughout this process, wherever it came from. This could be led by the digital agency partner providing extra hand-holding support, mentoring attached to funding (examples included Comic Relief and Paul Hamlyn Foundation’s Tech for Good funding and a Nesta Challenges prize), pro-bono advice, coaching or a supported training process (such as CAST’s Design Hop). Those who accessed support felt it helped them to prioritise user needs and design more effective solutions. They felt better able to continue on their journey.

Pattern 5: Getting internal buy-in

A visual map of pattern 5, when charities were starting out with digital and getting internal buy-in from staff and leadership. The text highlights the most common experiences, risk factors, barriers and enablers at this stage of the journey.
Charity digital journey map: starting out stage, pattern 5

Throughout this stage, digital leads noted the importance of securing internal buy-in from two key sources: staff and leadership. This period of deliberate change would prove to be unsettling to conventional ways of working and delivering services. Staff engagement was vital in ensuring they used digital tools and new tech, but also proved increasingly difficult. Many overlooked the importance of working closely with the rest of the staff when introducing new tech, systems, processes and devices.

The key challenge wasn’t the tech itself, but the implementation. When we rolled out the case management system, we ran a training programme and we did a test/pilot phase. This looked enough on paper but it wasn’t for staff. The key thing we didn’t factor in and should have given more consideration to is the way that staff had traditionally done their work. The new system was going to change their ways of working and the culture would need to change too. Staff had always gone back to the office after a session with a client to write things up and reflect. They would then send it back to the client to be checked and would do most of this on a Friday as ‘admin day’. The new system meant they could do the writing and checking face to face in their session. It made the appointment longer and gave more things to do, but it also meant you got all your admin done there and then. They had no need to travel back to the office. So it required people to work in a different way and undo long-standing learnt behaviours and ways of working.

The digital leads soon realised they needed to bring staff on the same journey as them. They also needed to better understand staff members’ requirements and behaviours when using tech and interacting with digital processes. Approaches to this included: giving regular presentations to staff; testing new processes with them; shadowing staff to understand their needs, and/or engaging staff in the design process.

We usually try to get the cheap option but it might be better to get more expensive options when buying tech – try to get external support to help have the foresight to know where things are coming down the line, so that the tech you might buy like software, laptops and mobile devices are future proof. Again having staff at the centre of helping to make these decisions is crucial. Buying whichever laptop is better for co-production of patient notes as opposed to the best value for money or specs at that time will save money longer term.

Simultaneously at this stage, those who did not have a supportive CEO or engaged board would start to try and convince them of the value of digital. They knew this would be vital when asking for resources, time or sign off on projects. Funding was particularly helpful here, temporarily removing internal resistance to undertaking a digital project. For others, being nominated for or winning an award would turn leadership attention to the value of digital, as did securing invites to present about their work in front of funders or stakeholders. At some point, nearly all digital leads had to upskill their board in digital or recruit new board members with digital skills:

The committee itself has been on a similar journey, as new people joined who supported the shift to digital, and as their social media following grew they used this as a way to recruit new members who they knew would self-select as digitally savvy.

In the midst of trying to engage staff, leaders and boards, digital leads soon found their remit to be wide-ranging and stretched beyond their job description or seniority. They were involved with every function across their organisation, from operations to service delivery, HR to marketing. All participants warned against the danger of taking on too much, too quickly, at this stage (as well as throughout their journey), a trap they had all fallen into at some point. The breadth of digital change needed to be extended far and wide across the organisation and digital leads could no longer progress on their own. Securing leadership buy-in was one thing, but they needed more capacity, resources and strategic direction in order to make progress.

Pattern 6: Developing a strategy

A visual map of pattern 6, when charities were starting out and developing a strategy for digital.
Charity digital journey map: starting out stage, pattern 6

Most charities started to develop a digital strategy at a particular point. They were alive to all the possibilities and ambitious for change, but they were struggling to create order, prioritise and identify the extent to which they needed to change their ways of working.

By this point, most had found that they were no longer working towards one goal and developing a digital solution. Things had soon multiplied. The digital leads had quickly uncovered a range of pressing problems in the organisation that needed solving and they were now working towards several goals and solutions.

Developing a new digital service could also mean that digital leads needed to look into purchasing new staff tablets; moving storage from an internal server to the Cloud so that it could be accessed remotely; developing safeguarding procedures, and improving cybersecurity. Digital leads saw increasing requests to support digital across their organisation, whether that was to create new ideas for digital fundraising initiatives, add digital ideas to funding applications or respond to more basic tech questions from staff.

At this point it was clear, to the digital leads at least, that developing a strategy was the only way to help the organisation move forward, prioritise and allocate resources effectively. A few had started this, or made attempts previously, but were largely unsuccessful without capacity, internal buy-in and some experience (or external expertise). Some also needed to wait until the time of a wider strategy review, when they would be able to include digital. They started to feel incredibly stuck and frustrated at the need for leaders to come to the same conclusion as them.

Four of the digital leads we spoke to turned to a digital maturity diagnostic tool. These included NCVO’s Digital Maturity Matrix, the Charity Digital Code, the Digital Leadership Framework and the Data Orchard Data Maturity Framework, as well as assessments conducted by consultants (including by Reason Digital, Dot Project and Kivo Transformation). These were used to convince others of the need for strategic direction, and to reassure themselves or others that they were looking at the ‘right’ areas of digital. A diagnostic tool would also give an objective reflection of where the organisation was and what needed to change. Diagnostic tools were completed by a range of staff, as well as leaders, the CEO and sometimes trustees. The scores would be discussed together, to facilitate a conversation about where change was needed. This took the focus away from one person, the interests of dominant voices or the performance of specific teams. It also highlighted any differences in the perceptions of digital progress across the organisation.

To get going we formed a sub-group with two directors and our chief executive. We used the Breast Cancer Care Digital Diagnostic Tool (now the NCVO digital maturity matrix) and it was a fascinating exercise. Even with four individuals who had been working together for 10 years, we learnt so much and it really focused our mind on the challenge ahead. We were very realistic and honest when we did it, giving ourselves scores in some places of less than 2 out of 8 or 9. It helped us think clearly about where we needed to be and that we needed to go through a digital transformation process. It also helped us realise we needed more than one person to lead the work. We had a very good IT department but no in-house expertise for digital leadership, and the leadership team lacked digital skills and knowledge. The tool enabled us to create a business case to commission a deep dive into our digital needs, to shape our digital strategy.

For all of the organisations starting to develop a strategy, the board and senior leadership faced a blizzard of decisions about direction and activity. The biggest question, of where to start or what to prioritise, was the most challenging. They needed to decide between transformation and evolution. Would they remain the same organisation, delivering the same services, with new tools? Or could radical change better deliver their mission and vision? As these strategic questions began to spiral, the board could become a block once again, in spite of their initial support. They were yet to grapple fully with the potential for digital change and approached with caution. They too would need to improve their own digital knowledge and understanding while being involved in strategy development.

Working with the board I learnt that it is always good to not be too jargony or try to prove your own knowledge, as this will only make them defensive. I did everything I could to demystify digital, didn’t use jargon, showed evidence of how it could work well and crucially showed how it enabled the organisation to deliver its own strategy, rather than digital being a strategy or end in itself.

It was around this time that progress tended to stall for the charities. An outside consultant (paid or pro bono) who could support the board in creating a digital strategy could be the only way to move forward. This could be frustrating for the digital lead, particularly when they were clear on what needed to change. However, an external advisor brought experience of working with other charities and knowledge of how they were using digital. This was reassuring, preventing the board from stalling and helping them to set out strategic priorities for digital change.

Our mentor has been crucial in reassuring trustees and our senior leadership team. She is someone who has done this before, knows the common pitfalls and has impartially guided them through the journey.

Overall, the process of securing strategic direction represented a significant period of stasis, circling and uncertainty in the stories we heard. It also marked the point of no return with digital. It was part of how an organisation worked and how it delivered its mission and vision. The next challenge would be implementing this and securing funding to do so.

Moving Forward

Risks and barriers

  • A lack of follow-on funding: Many organisations were able to get started with digital and move forward because of initial grant funding or investment from internal reserves. However, this was often limited in time and amount. They might develop a strategy but their progress would still stall once funding ran out.
  • A key relationship with a digital supplier broke down: This might be because the agency did not fully understand the needs, the charity’s budget was small and would not stretch as far as they needed it to, or the charity was building something before fully understanding their own and their users’ requirements.

Enabling factors

  • Funding dedicated to digital project development: Those with funding to explore or develop a digital solution were able to get started much quicker. This did not need to be a substantial grant (those involved in this research had between £5,000 and £25,000) but enough to warrant paying for some initial research, tech or training. It gave them confidence and a requirement to move forward and could help overcome internal barriers. Funding for core digital roles was unusual but these roles were invaluable to taking the organisation forward, upskilling staff and helping the organisation develop their strategy.
  • Support or mentoring: Those working directly with an external support body (such as CAST), a mentor or a digital partner felt that this was fundamental to shifting their approach to digital, as well as developing an effective solution. 
  • A supportive CEO proved vital to engaging with the board effectively and was more likely to push forward in developing a digital strategy.
  • A diagnostic tool was helpful in highlighting the breadth of digital as well as highlighting weaknesses, and often secured leadership buy-in to create a digital strategy.
  • External digital strategy consultancy proved invaluable in giving chief executives and their boards confidence to move forward.

Key milestones

At this end of this stage, the organisation had reached the point of no return with digital change. The question was simply how to embed digital in their operations, services and ways of working. They were able to move forwards because they had:

  • Experience developing a digital project and potentially with a digital solution in operation, with confidence to build on this experience.
  • A strategy agreed by trustees, whether this was a separate digital strategy or digital being interwoven through an organisation strategy. This would outline the priority, role and objectives for digital across the organisation.
  • A supportive board with confidence and digital skills to oversee progress.
  • Greater ambitions for digital change in the organisation which might include building on the existing solution and digital skills, culture change and embedding digital approaches across the organisation.
  • Staff on board with digital. Most will use internal digital tools and support the development of new solutions.

Stage 3: Advancing with digital

Charities started advancing with digital once it was a strategic priority and they had more certainty about how to make progress. They were likely to have some digital skills in-house and a formally recognised and dedicated digital lead (or team). They also now had some experience working with digital partners. They had learnt a lot having developed a digital project or service (or at least some elements of their services were digitised). Their ambitions and aspirations for digital were wide- ranging. However, there was a long way to go to make progress across a number of digital areas in order to embed digital in their organisation. Of the charities involved in this research, nine or 10 had reached this stage and two had moved beyond it.

While advancing, progress was in fact fairly slow. It took time for change to settle in and for everyone across the organisation to fully engage. Funding also continued to be a barrier to making serious investment in digital roles, infrastructure or projects. Moving forward required a concerted effort across the organisation.

Pattern 7: Building internal digital capacity

A visual map of pattern 7, when charities were advancing with digital and building internal capacity. The text highlights the most common experiences, risk factors, barriers and enablers at this stage of the journey.
Charity digital journey map: advancing stage, pattern 7

At this point in the journey, digital leads were acutely aware that digital capacity was still lacking in their organisation. They needed to ensure that all staff had basic digital skills and confidence to use digital tools in their work. They looked to start a process of culture change aligned with digital ways of working. This was expressed as a behaviour change, where staff took a central role in identifying and solving problems. It might involve highlighting where systems needed improvement (rather than working around them); reviewing and acting on data from services; seeking feedback, and identifying where alternative approaches or new services might be needed.

I want to focus on changing culture around digital across our staff, so innovation is not just seen as my role. I’ve been encouraging them to identify what their pain points are. One recent problem they came up with was the structured case notes needed, which take a day a week to enter into our system. We are now working with a developer to build an automated system to provide an advice flow that generates the case notes.

However, the digital leads still had fundamental questions in their minds about how to audit and improve digital, data and design skills across their team. They considered whether they needed to have in-house technical expertise (for instance, a new product owner or developer role) and other complementary roles. Some looked to use a digital maturity framework again at this point. These proved largely unhelpful, focusing on perceptions of digital progress across key functional areas rather than digital, design or competencies. Again the need arose to seek advice. Those already engaging with an external consultant to support their strategy or board tended to keep working with them. Others looked to bring in external agencies or pro-bono support specialising in key skills gaps, such as service design or data. There looked to be a need here for strategic investment in cultural change led from the top. Without this there was a risk of digital remaining siloed to key teams or individuals.

At this stage, digital leads were also looking to develop their own technical expertise and knowledge of different disciplines. Advanced data use, specific technologies or coding languages and service design were all discussed. Tech for Good communities, workshops and events were helpful for networking and finding out what others were working on and learning. However, it was not always easy to find events that were advanced enough, relevant to the types of digital projects they were working on or involved the types of charities or networks they hoped to connect with.

Since we won an award we regularly host delegations from all parts of the UK to share our general approach with them. Although we perhaps haven’t accessed and exploited our networks as much as we could have done over the years. It leaves you liable to criticism locally if you are off travelling to London all the time and not delivering on the ground. We also struggle to work out if it’s worth that time and money, especially with digital conferences and technology – events often cover old areas and are repackaged, but you don’t learn a lot from them. The value of these things is more around connectivity and who else is doing similar work, which we focus on doing locally and regionally.

To this end, most digital leads found local or regional Tech for Good communities and peer networks most useful for networking and learning what others were working on. At this stage they also felt confident enough to proactively share their learning within these sorts of communities and networks. In doing so, they were actively able to find and make new contacts with others working on similar problems or approaches they wanted to learn about.

We are now looking to learn from other organisations about how they have got buy-in from staff. The most useful advice we’ve had recently was from another grantee that we met at a support workshop associated with the funding. They shared lessons about how they addressed the problem we’re having, but on a larger scale. It was so helpful to hear how they had done that.
We’re also now a member of the Voluntary Organisations Disability Group (VODG), a membership body representing organisations within the voluntary sector who work alongside disabled people. They have a digital group with 50 of us with similar remits in the voluntary sector sharing learning with one another that started in November and it is clearly going to be very helpful in terms of information sharing. It’s also helpful to learn from NHS Digital, who openly share their learning. We need to be with them to make sure that our data standards and governance match their expectations and their challenges are not dissimilar to ours.

The role of digital leads in taking the organisation forward with digital started to shift at this point. Up until this point their role was to be enthusiastic and optimistic about the benefits of introducing digital. Now their role was to adopt best practice, critically review the risks surrounding new projects, seek feedback on new ideas internally and make hard decisions about what to take forward and prioritise. It would be impossible to please everyone.

One of our team has been exploring the potential for a text reminder service to address the problem of no shows to appointments. However, after a few meetings the project halted. Too many staff were involved and had ideas to make the tool perfect and the user requirements list rapidly grew. That’s the challenge with getting everyone excited about digital. Also the more exploratory it is and the more time we spend on something, the more everyone feels that it has to work.

Digital leads were also starting to think more critically about the role of tech, digital and data in their services and the lives of the people they worked with. Issues such as digital exclusion or low trust in technology may well have been raised by the rest of their organisation at earlier stages. However, when digital tools were only a small part of service delivery and operations, any negative impact could be offset. For example, those who were not online could access face-to-face services. As organisations became more digital in their delivery, they needed to be much more sensitive to the need for digital inclusion, accessibility and responsible design practices. Few had been able to take this interest forward at this stage.

We realised we had championed digital so much with our young people that we had a blind spot on the negative impact of tech on their mental health, cyber bullying and so on. So we are getting some new funding looking at digital wellnesses and listening to young people to see how we can look at the negative impact of digital and try to understand how you can then use digital and offset and mitigate that.

Pattern 8: Vital upgrades

A visual map of pattern 8, when charities were advancing with digital and embarking on vital upgrades.  The text highlights the most common experiences, risk factors, barriers and enablers at this stage of the journey.
Charity digital journey map: advancing stage, pattern 8

At this point in the organisation’s journey, attention would be diverted back once again to existing digital projects. These continued to need regular maintenance, updates and enhancements. These were manageable. However, some would also require a significant overhaul to keep them working and up to date.

Migrating our platform onto Drupal 8 is our next biggest challenge. This is a major release with fundamental changes to core modules. We have been used to making ongoing investment, doing maintenance and patches, but now we need to look at rewriting the code for two thirds of our system. At this stage we don’t know how to pay for this and it’s not something you can get funding for. It’s not a transformative piece, it’s not a new CRM that can do 10 different things. It’s not innovative. Ideally you build up reserves, but it’s a big project...People’s expectations for our service are the same as they are when they buy something on Amazon: they expect it to be smooth and swift; they expect consistency - and even though we are a charity, we have to keep up.

Other organisations had digital services that needed to be redesigned. They were actively aware of issues emerging based on feedback, data and experience. Given that these services were actively used, any problems would need resolving fairly urgently. Where there were bigger risks, a service may need to be paused, decommissioned or redesigned.

We tried using Facebook Messenger...The response was good and we accessed a new younger client group, as well as those where English is not their first language. However, the problems arose when I started getting notifications at 2am from clients who needed a quick response. So we decided to develop a chatbot for out of hours service instead. This wasn’t easy. People’s queries and support needs were even more complex than we anticipated. We were very conscious that they should always have the ability to connect to a real advisor. We’re now at a point where we are broadly happy with it, but want to develop it further.

Another important step involved further discovery research to better understand user needs and their use of digital, or to evaluate digital services. This helped to inform any redesign of existing digital services and helped the digital lead to build ideas for future services that better met the needs of their communities.

We are now going back to the communities we originally spoke to nine years ago, to make sure our toolkit is as accessible and as good as it can be. We want to really understand the digital lives and behaviours of those we work with; the community groups, service providers, activists and people in the process...digital literacy and access to digital devices and sites is still a real barrier for many groups.

All of these scenarios required a significant investment in resources and time. Those with core funding, skilled volunteers, an in-house developer or a retainer with an agency were able to move forward. Most, however, did not have these. They needed to secure more resources. Finding and accessing funding for this was not easy, particularly when much digital funding focused on new projects. There were very limited options for core digital roles, existing project development, systems upgrades or much-needed technology purchases. At this stage, digital leads were desperate for both project and core funding. They started to include digital as a core cost or delivery cost in a range of grant applications for traditional service delivery. Some had started to explore different ways to resource this longer term. In the meantime, ineffective systems and services were left in operation where they were not posing significant issues and progress updating legacy systems stalled. However, this was a necessary step. Working out how to resource this work effectively was vital to advancing with digital.

Pattern 9: Looking ahead

A visual map of pattern 9, when charities were advancing with digital and looking ahead. The text highlights the most common experiences, risk factors, barriers and enablers at this stage of the journey.
Charity digital journey map: advancing stage, pattern 9

The digital leads we spoke to were uncertain about how to move to the next stage of their story. They still felt they had a way to go before they were advanced in their use of digital, design and data. They still needed to secure significant funding or an alternative approach to budgeting for and resourcing their work. The sustainability of their tech, infrastructure, systems and staffing models were all still under review.

With limited resources, looking ahead focused on developing new projects or adding clever functionality to existing services. They could use existing digital tools to pilot a new approach, develop prototypes and test them, upskill themselves in new approaches or seek out pro-bono support for new digital approaches or development. Many at this point relied on volunteers, pro-bono support and upskilling themselves.

We now have a skilled data volunteer and we were successful in getting on to the Google Data Solutions for Change programme. They give you free access to their platforms and tools like Big Query for nine months, with unlimited credits for QwickLabs training. We think there might be interesting trends in our data and want to use Google AutoML for machine learning, but we’re not there yet.
For us, volunteers are crucial to helping us move forward, particularly with technical expertise, whether it’s our new search functionality or improving our SEO (Search Engine Optimisation).

New projects were attractive at this point because they were seen as easier to find funding for, particularly once they had reached a prototype stage.

Internally, resources were also committed to core infrastructure, tech and roles needed. Yet showcasing digital progress and developing their organisation’s approach to digital was still seen as a vital step to moving forward. However, there was a risk here in opportunistically seeking funding and support for new digital projects. It was likely to divert focus away from more fundamental needs. Down the line, charities may end up with a collection of disparate digital tools and solutions, rather than a consistent set of digital services that meets defined user needs and journeys. However, opportunistic funding applications were simply necessary at this point. Focusing on new projects helped expand what organisations were able to do with limited resources and continued to grow their digital capacity for the future.

Moving Forward

Risks and barriers

At this point, most charities had reached the point of no return with digital and as such, the risks were less fundamental to stopping their progress altogether. There were, however, significant challenges:

  • Resourcing digital maintenance and digital roles required core funding, increased use of internal reserves and shifts in organisational budgeting.
  • Focusing on new projects and funding opportunities could result in fragmented services and digital tools down the line, rather than a consistent digital service or meeting user needs.

Enabling factors

  • Increasing digital skills or bringing in expertise at leadership and board level to ensure effective delivery of the strategy and appropriate resourcing.
  • Peer learning with other charities of a similar size or nature, addressing the same problem or using a similar digital approach.
  • Volunteers or pro-bono support for digital product development.
  • Digital and design agencies helping some to develop new digital skills through training or guidance.
  • External guidance and support (from any source, paid or free) to improve digital knowledge or approach in: data use; service design; shared standards; accessibility; responsible design, and inclusion practices.

Key milestones

While most organisations were still in the midst of ‘advancing’, they were aiming for the following tangible changes:

  • Digital ways of working start to become part of the culture of the organisation. This might include dedicated digital champions providing skills advice to peers, or staff seeking feedback to improve services. Ideas for new digital projects come from a range of sources.
  • Outdated tech and legacy systems are replaced or rebuilt.
  • Services are improved or redesigned to work effectively and meet user needs.
  • Learning is shared openly and actively with Tech for Good communities, peers and professional networks.
  • Accessibility and inclusion are prioritised, with greater consideration of the implications of digital in their clients’ lives.
  • New funding or pro-bono support is gained to continue developing digital projects.
  • Experience is gained in developing advanced digital skills and projects.

It became clear that the following were needed as organisations advanced, but were unlikely to be achieved at this stage:

  • Significant funding or internal resources for digital roles (including developers, data analysts, digital marketing or service design) along with infrastructure costs, decommissioning legacy systems and redesigning services.
  • Active work to address the implications of increased use of digital, design and data in an organisation’s work and in their clients’ lives.
  • More focus on collaboration, shared standards and open source around digital and data projects.


This report set out to offer an overview of what happens when charities engage more with digital. It has described the messy reality and structured this as a common pathway, mapping the steps the charities take, the hurdles they faced and the ways they have made progress.

In doing so, it builds upon a previous review of 50 digital maturity frameworks (read about the findings). This previous review discovered a vast array of tools which set out to help charities with digital, but the tools had poorly defined milestones and definitions. We discovered limited evidence about what good digital maturity looks like.

However, this latest research has actively avoided the use of terminology such as ‘digital transformation’ and focused little on the 19 focus areas which are regularly used to define digital maturity (documented in the previous research). It has instead offered an overview of the experience of a digital journey, taken primarily from the perspective of a digital lead. Their experiences have highlighted clear actions that charities and those providing support to them can take to make digital journey’s faster, easier or more successful.

What made this journey easier

Digital leads were better able to move forwards with digital when they:

  • Started trying and testing new tools and ways of working
  • Had dedicated time to explore and lead on digital
  • Accessed mentoring support
  • Undertook discovery research
  • Engaged their colleagues, leaders and boards in digital projects
  • Applied for and received funding at any point
  • Partnered with a supportive digital agency
  • Took up training and learning opportunities for digital, design and data
  • Researched existing guidance and upskilled themselves
  • Made use of a digital maturity framework to facilitate conversations around the need for change and what to prioritise
  • Brought in consultancy to support setting a strategic direction for digital
  • Upskilled their colleagues, boards and leaders
  • Brought in new digital trustees
  • Sought advice from other charities at a similar stage to them
  • Participated in Tech for Good communities
  • Shared learning with professional networks
  • Found pro-bono support and skilled volunteers

How support helped

There were a range of external interventions that played a significant role in making progress throughout the digital journey:

  • Funding at any point in the digital journey was transformational when it matched organisational needs, at any stage of a digital journey for: initial discovery, to free up internal capacity or buy in support to explore the potential for digital in specific services or across the organisation; new digital project development, for staff time and development costs; existing digital projects, to allow for redesign and further development' core digital roles and related complementary roles in-house; and new hardware and investment in basic infrastructure. 
  • Partnering with a supportive digital agency gave invaluable hand holding to follow agile development and user-centred design processes.
  • Mentoring when developing a digital project or strategy provided much needed reassurance and prevented progress from stalling.
  • Training, guidance and learning opportunities for the digital lead, who may not be an expert in digital. At earlier stages this needed to focus on practical skills, getting the basics in place, digital terminology and ways of working. At later stages, digital leads looked to develop knowledge of best practice, advanced digital, data and design skills.
  • Digital maturity frameworks were particularly helpful as a mechanism to start a conversation around priorities for digital. They helped boards and leaders recognise the need to set a strategic direction.
  • Setting strategic direction with consultancy support would prove to be a vital mechanism for creating change.
  • Seeking advice from other charities to inform key decisions, get new ideas, weigh up alternative approaches and avoid potential mistakes.
  • Participating in Tech for Good communities and professional networks to explore what is possible, understand good practice and share learning.
  • Pro-bono support and skilled volunteers to develop digital projects, gain advice on setting a strategic direction or to bring in advanced skills.

Ten remaining hurdles

There were clear opportunities for further support, which could still make charities’ digital journeys better, easier, faster or possible. Funders, consultancies, intermediaries and digital agencies could play a fundamental role in helping digital leads and their organisations to:

  1. Take a small first step with digital sooner. Early success when testing new digital tools and processes helped to create momentum and digital leads gained confidence to do more. Everyone had to start somewhere and setting up trials that could fail in a safe framework built important learning.
  2. Make good digital decisions in crisis situations. Going digital quickly was fraught and it was common to regret going down a certain path. Digital leads had a lot of practical questions and found it could be challenging to access trusted guidance and advice tailored to charities like them online (most was aimed at driving traffic, sales and corporate interests).
  3. Mitigate bad experiences with digital agencies and tech providers. Digital leads needed to get comfortable with digital language, understand how to write an initial specification with realistic timeframes and budgets and learn how agencies worked. Getting better equipped to set up and manage digital projects in their charity (in advance of doing so) could help avoid a lot of pain points.
  4. Get digital basics in place such as email, social media, a website, remote working, internal communications, cybersecurity, tech and hardware. This required time, focus, skills and money that were hard to find. Equally, significant investment in any one area (such as a website or a new CRM) could also prove incredibly costly and risky. Success in these areas helped build the foundations for future digital work, skills and confidence.
  5. Connect with peers from other charities. This gave invaluable reassurance and advice. However, it was hard to find peers addressing similar problems with digital (whether this was about the technology or the type of service) and of a similar nature (size, target audience or stage of digital).
  6. Engage non-digital colleagues earlier. They always proved crucial to the success of new digital tools and processes, but were often not part of any design or selection process. They needed to go on a similar journey, improving their own skills and to gain confidence in the digital lead.
  7. Build digital understanding and commitment at leadership and board level. In order to advance, strategic direction and investment in culture change was necessary. To progress, CEOs and trustees needed to understand the potential for digital in their organisation, digital ways of working, how to resource digital and what skills were needed.
  8. Review what digital roles, skills and competencies are needed to advance with digital. Digital functions are very new in the charity sector. A key barrier to bringing digital expertise in-house is understanding different kinds of roles and how they can work effectively in charities with small teams, budgets and experience. Complementary to this is assessing and building general digital competencies and skills, to ensure digital is not siloed to one role or function.
  9. Lead the way in creating inclusive, accessible and responsible digital services. Digital leads were all too aware of this as they advanced and learnt by doing. Integrating training, lessons from others and best practice standards earlier could enable them to lead the way.
  10. Find better ways to fund and resource digital. Funding available was rare, but transformative. It helped release internal capacity, secure leadership buy-in, pay for digital expertise, build skills and access support that was vital to their success. However, its rarity meant that applications were opportunistic and projects were often put on hold. Investment in hardware, systems, infrastructure and service redesign also took a backseat. Sustainably resourcing digital, design and data was an ongoing challenge.


Background to the research

This research set out to explore how charities define and develop digital maturity in reality. It closely followed a previous project in May to June 2019, which examined 50 digital maturity frameworks across the charity sector. We wanted to find out more about:

  • How charities develop digital maturity in practice
  • What milestones were important to them
  • The context in which they turn to a diagnostic tool 
  • Where they needed support

We began by undertaking five scoping interviews with a diverse set of charities in October 2019. These were incredibly diverse in size, type and digital maturity. We then ran a workshop with digital maturity tool owners and consultants and undertook seven follow-up interviews in November and December 2019 to capture their experiences. Alongside this, we analysed data from NCVO’s digital maturity matrix, SCVO’s digital check-ups and support requests made to SCVO and CAST (these were all anonymised prior to re-analysis). The results of these helped to inform the research approach.

Research methods

We launched the research publicly and set out to recruit 15 digital leads in small, medium and large charities. This could be anyone leading on digital in their organisation, whether they were a CEO, frontline service delivery manager or head of digital. We wanted to speak to those working for charities that were traditionally paper-based and had had to undergo a conscious effort or transformation to be more digital.

We interviewed each digital lead (sometimes in pairs) following a storytelling approach. We asked participants to tell us their story, where it started, who the key protagonists and antagonists were, the highs and lows, key characters and their final chapter. We took this open approach to gain a holistic picture of the journey that was not tied to a specific area of digital we were interested in, or a specific funding or support initiative. We wanted to understand their experience of developing digital maturity and the parts of their journey that were most important to them. In the latter half of the interview we also provided some prompts in case there were areas of digital change they might have overlooked in telling their story.

After the interview we wrote up our notes into a story format. These were reviewed by each participant, who then gave consent to share these with the other participants, key stakeholders and publicly. Anonymous quotes from these stories have been included throughout this report and selected individual stories have been written up as case studies.

Finally, we hosted a peer-learning workshop with nine of the charities involved (some with two participants) and an additional four charities that had previously taken part in research for Catalyst. This helped to highlight the commonalities in their stories and the challenges they faced.

Characteristics of research participants

The digital leads we spoke to represented charities from across the UK. Six were based in London, four in the North West, one in the West Midlands, one in the South East, one in the South West, one in Northern Ireland and one in Scotland. We were, however, missing representatives from Wales and the North East (although some delivered services here). Some were focused on specific locations, others provided national services, or services in more than one region.

In terms of their size (based on turnover in 2018-19), we spoke to one small charity with an income of less than £100,000, four medium-sized charities (£100,001 to £1,000,000), nine large charities (£1,000,000 to £10,000,000) and one Major (£10,000,000 to £100,000,000). All described themselves as having fewer than three dedicated digital staff. We did not set out to focus on the specific support needs for small and micro charities. This is the focus of IVAR’s research and the National Lottery Digital Fund research, both of which were running simultaneously to this piece.

The charities worked across a range of issues, sectors and target groups. These included advice and poverty, youth work, mental health, education, sexual health, domestic abuse, refugees and asylum seekers, as well as volunteering. However, BAME-led groups, as well as other lived experience-led groups, were only partly represented in this project. With the impact of COVID-19 and increasing evidence that these groups are often represented by small charities, they would benefit from a dedicated piece of research to determine their support needs and journeys.

The participants had also engaged to varying extents with different support providers or digital funds. Some had received funding from the Comic Relief Tech for Good Fund, the National Lottery Digital Fund or Nesta. Others had never accessed external funding. Only a third were known to CAST or Catalyst prior to the research. The remainder had accessed support locally or from a digital agency. A smaller proportion had developed their skills in-house.


This research was supported by Catalyst. Together, we would like to say a huge thank you to the 15 research participants who told us their stories from the following 14 organisations (one chose to remain anonymous):

  • Citizens Advice Manchester
  • Paisley YMCA
  • Life Cycle UK
  • Brook
  • Children's University
  • Haven Wolverhampton
  • Tempo
  • Charlie Waller Memorial Trust
  • Right to Remain
  • The Nerve Centre
  • Together Trust
  • Lancashire Women
  • Disability Rights UK
  • Reach Volunteering

We would also like to thank the further nine research participants who participated in initial scoping interviews or joined our peer-learning workshop:

  • Alexandra Rose Charity
  • Create Gloucestershire
  • Samaritans
  • Black Heroes Foundation
  • Food Foundation
  • Parkinson’s UK
  • Superhighways
  • Local Welcome 
  • SafeLives

Finally, we’d like to thank the stakeholders who provided their time and energy to inform the shape of this research and reflect on their own practice and learning: 

  • NCVO
  • SCVO
  • Dot Project
  • Reason Digital
  • Neontribe
  • Zoe Amar Digital
  • Charity Digital
  • Digital Leadership
  • The National Lottery Community Fund (Digital Fund)
  • DataKind
  • Data Orchard
  • The New Reality