Image showing four Digital Champions

In a world where everything has changed, so has digital inclusion. But when it comes to tackling this stubborn challenge, one of the best approaches is to use one thing that hasn’t changed: people.

Over the past two years, propelled by Covid-19, digital exclusion has increased. The need for people to be online has become greater and the challenge to include them bigger.

Digital inclusion is difficult

For many charities, digital inclusion remains an obstacle for digital service delivery. Over 1 in 5 (22%) have cancelled services because their users don’t have the skills or technology to use them (Charity Digital Skills Report, 2021). This is up from 15% at the start of the pandemic. Almost half (45%) had to provide their users with devices, data or support to get online or access services. Enabling digital inclusion and supporting digital skills is becoming an imperative.

But if there’s one thing that can be relied on to help, it’s people. The human capital of any workforce or community. The collective force of skills, knowledge and experience. Amidst the nation’s state of flux, they have remained a constant, rising to the challenges in all sorts of ways.

So in the battle against digital exclusion, it makes sense to give your people tools that can help you win.

Digital Champions are a solution

At Digital Unite, we call them Digital Champions. You might know them as Digital Buddies, Digital Friends or something else. These champions might be service users or customers. They might be staff or volunteers, paid or voluntary. They’re not necessarily IT whizzes but they have a fair understanding about technology and want to make a difference. The point is Digital Champions can be anyone. Most likely, they are already interacting with those who need better digital skills. And they offer that personal touch that people want.

The motivation to become a Digital Champion is usually simple: they want to learn new skills, meet new people and be part of something valuable. Across Digital Unite's networks, 80% of Digital Champions got involved so they could help others.

The Champion model is sustainable

Digital Unite has been training people to be Digital Champions for years. It’s 100% of what we do. Our online network builds people's competence and confidence in being a champion. Amongst its many virtues, a champion model is learner-centric. It's flexible, sustainable, and can be embedded within the heart of an organisation.

We specialise in this model because we know it works. 96% of those we train have seen an increase in their own digital skills and 94% feel better able to support others. It creates change that is meaningful and long-lasting.

How Mencap switched up their digital skills support

Mencap knew that digital exclusion was an issue for their beneficiaries. But Mencap are not digital experts. So providing over 300 local partnership organisations with digital skills support felt overwhelming.

However, the pandemic forced a rethink. Last year, they recruited 70 of their local partners in their Let’s Get Digital initiative. The programme combines Digital Champions training with seed funding for devices. So far, using Digital Unite's network, Mencap have trained over 150 staff and volunteers into their Digital Champion community.

A model that works for small and large organisations

Mencap’s local network ranged from micro volunteer groups to large charities. So the Digital Champion training was determined by local priorities and capacity. They created bite-sized eLearning to help partners find the time to be involved. Then they complemented this with a series of webinars. These covered safeguarding, providing remote support and helping people with learning disabilities use technology.

The impact so far has been good. Mencap's community has helped more than 1,000 Mencap members. Their work continues...

Digital Champions make an impact in more ways than one

The ripple effect of these activities has spread across Mencap. Beneficial organisational outcomes are being seen at both a national and local level.

It’s fostered a learning culture and opened up new internal conversations. For example, at first Mencap’s IT department was unsure about the project. Now they understand and value the complementary nature of the work. They even asked for Digital Champion support for a project they are seeking funding for.

The approach has also helped their partners become part of their national strategy. For example Heart of England Mencap's champions are helping to test and roll out new digital products and services. They feed back about implementation issues and support other staff with the technology.

What people said

“I have learned about things like using the microphone to search instead of the keypad. I can change the colour of the keypad. These are things that help our customers to use the tablet which I had not needed to know for myself. Also helping people on a level that they can understand.” Laura, Mencap Digital Champion

"I have learnt how to connect to the internet. I do YouTube, games, colouring in, music quizzes, singing and dancing. I could not do anything before and now use the tablet every day.” Elizabeth, customer at Heart of England Mencap.

A successful Digital Champion model needs a whole-organisation approach

Like all digital inclusion initiatives, a Digital Champion approach is not always plain-sailing. It needs buy in from senior leaders and a whole-organisation approach to succeed. It needs clarity and structure and resources. Progress wanes when overstretched staff lead this type of work. Digital Champions need supporting, co-ordinating and cajoling. They like to exchange ideas, stories and conundrums. They want to listen and learn, while being heard.

Partnerships make the approach stronger

Many of our network members are now working in local partnerships. There are Champions on health and wellbeing buses. Community libraries are creating dedicated Digital Champion areas. One disability equipment shop has even got Champions helping customers renew blue badges online. All these examples recognise that creating a coordinated approach that can share resources delivers more for less. It makes it easier for the end beneficiary to access the skills support they need.

Supporting each other achieves sustainable digital inclusion

You don’t have to be the size of Mencap to create a Digital Champion model. Many of the charities we work with have only a small handful of Digital Champions. They are enabling others and enabling themselves.

We know digital inclusion isn’t easy. But a Digital Champion model is a proven way to achieve it. It is scalable and sustainable. It drives widespread digital skills and effects wider social change. It is the essence of a society where we all support each other to thrive.


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