The term ‘digital’ often gets conflated in the voluntary sector. To try to end that, Catalyst has produced this guide.

It offers definitions of the different things we can mean when we talk about digital. We hope it will help everyone in the sector to have greater clarity.

No single definition of digital

This guide doesn’t offer a single definition of digital. Instead it tries to show the differences across 9 different ‘definitions of digital’.

None of these definitions are 100% right or wrong. The point is to show that when we talk about digital we can mean different things.

Also, this guide doesn’t try to explain how to do anything digital. Instead, for each definition, it offers links to 1 or 2 carefully chosen resources. If you want more then try Catalyst Resources.

About the café analogy

This guide copies the café analogy used by Cassie Robinson in her 2019 article ‘What we’re learning about how the sector understands “digital” because people have told us the analogy makes digital easier to understand. It also introduces new stages in the café’s digital journey and goes further in scope.

Imagine we are café owners, a small place in the middle of a town, selling popular home-roasted coffee and simple sandwiches and cakes...

1. Digital transformation

#everything #organisation #scale

In the café…

We realise that we aren’t making good use of technology and we have several problems (like old tills and card readers) that could be solved by integrating digital into how we operate. Until now our approach to digital has been ad hoc and piecemeal. But now we’ve decided to change that. We want to be more proactive and coordinated in our approach. So we’re going to review our systems, find out what our customers need and develop a strategy. Our transformation journey has begun!

Digital transformation is:

A purposeful and strategic approach to integrate technology and digital ways of working into an organisation. Its usually driven by recognition of a need to think and work differently. This leads to changes in:

  • people’s mindset, skills and capacity
  • an organisation's culture - a digital mindset leads to more experimentation and challenges the status quo
  • an organisation’s operations, service delivery and business model

You might be asking…

How do we improve how our organisation works?

How do we change how our organisation approaches digital?

How do we make better use of digital - for our staff and the people who use our services?

How do we redesign this organisation to meet people’s changing needs and expectations, and the wider changes in society?

Key asset

A digital strategy - because it provides a foundation for your transformation.

Learn more

2. Digital leadership

#people #mindset #behaviours

In the café…

We (the owner and manager) realise that we need to understand more about how digital can help the café. So we decide to learn while doing the review. We ask our staff for their views and ideas, read about digital leadership and talk to other small businesses who seem to be more digitally advanced. We try to model the curious and open approach to digital that we see in some of our peers and staff.

Digital leadership is…

Rising to the challenge and opportunities that digital offers, in a way that helps others in an organisation do the same. Leadership can come from traditional sources and from anyone willing to experiment, learn and share with their team or organisation.

You might be asking…

How do I help my organisation change how it uses digital in its plans and operations?

How do I help the people in our organisation do a digital thing or become more digitally confident?

Where do I start?

How can I get people to try new digital things?

Key asset

People - only people can lead change

Learn more

3. Digitising processes


In the café

We are still using notepads to take orders on and a lot of our stock-taking is still done by us counting and recording with pen and paper. Our review has helped us identify two ways to improve how we do this. We could start recording digitally via spreadsheet software or start using off-the-shelf order and stock-taking software (that would also need a hardware upgrade).

Digitising processes is:

Moving from paper-based processes to making use of tech and digital to operate more efficiently.

You might be asking…

How can we become more efficient and effective as an organisation?

Key asset

Software to do the things you rely on paper for.

Learn more

4. Digital infrastructure

#efficency #systems

In the café…

We do have digital tills. But we’ve had them for nearly 10 years. They are slow, with lots of glitches. They also don’t link up with our back end office processes and stock-taking. We know they need upgrading.

We decide to buy new tills that can link up with the order and stock-taking software we identified. We decide to buy the software too. Because of our review we feel confident that this is the right investment.

Digital infrastructure is:

The digital hardware and software that make up systems and enable digital processes to happen.

Making sure all digital systems being used are up-to-date, connected to one another and well maintained.

You might be asking…

How can we become more efficient and effective as an organisation?

How do we help our staff be less frustrated with our systems?

Do we need to invest in more digital solutions?

Key asset

Hardware that works well.

Learn more

5. Digital engagement

#comms #marketing #listening

In the café…

We’ve been doing all kinds of communications and marketing. We want to make sure more people know that they can buy our barista coffee. We’ve run a social media campaign about our new paninis and seasonal lattes. And we’re offering people a free bun with their coffee in return for completing an online feedback questionnaire.

Digital engagement is:

Using digital tools to broadcast and listen to people. Often this is defined as communications, branding and marketing, but it also includes listening and using digital to have two-way conversations with people. People could be users, supporters, staff, volunteers, trustees… anyone with a reason to care about that organisation.

You might be asking…

How can we let people know about us and our services?

How can we find better ways for people to give us feedback?

How can we understand better what people need from us?

Key asset

A communications strategy to guide what you do and how you do it.

Learn more

6. Digital skills and inclusion

#people #skills #inclusivity

In the café…

As the business grows we introduce a new digital payment system. Customers can use their smartphones to pay, using a PIN or just by tapping the contactless function. But it’s not always easy for some customers to figure out how to use it, and some don’t have smartphones. And some of our staff don’t have the confidence to help these customers. So we offer old ways to pay too, and train our staff in how to help customers who lack digital skills.

Digital skills and inclusion is:

Making the benefits of the internet and digital technologies available to everyone. Removing barriers to accessing the internet (e.g. digital poverty). Supporting people to learn skills for using the internet. Building motivation and trust to use the internet well and safely.

You might be asking…

How can we support our users to use the new digital tools or platform we’ve introduced?

How can we make sure that people who lack digital skills or confidence can access the same support as everyone else?

How can we support our staff to develop their skills, try new tools and stay up to date.

Key asset

Inclusion strategy to guide what you do and how you do it.

Learn more

7. Digitising existing services

#userexperience #servicedelivery

In the café…

Now the café is getting busier and busier, which is great. But there are long queues at certain times of the day and people don’t expect to queue for things anymore! To meet the changing expectations of our customers, and to ensure they don’t get frustrated, we know we need to do something differently. So we setup an online ordering service, so people don’t have to queue.

Digitising existing services is:

Adding digital features to existing services to make them easier for people to use. This could include integrating existing digital platforms into a service (e.g. video sessions, online bookings) or changing how they are used within a service (e.g. how an organisation’s social media responds to questions).

It could also include moving to a 100% digital delivery model (e.g. moving a face-to-face service fully online).

You might be asking…

How can we make this service quicker and easier for people to use?

How can we evolve this service to meet people’s changing expectations?

How can we offer this service to people who prefer to engage digitally?

How can we meet the increased demand for our services?

Key asset

An understanding of design principles - to help you experiment with new ideas.

If you’re going 100% online then you’ll need to understand how to run a full design process too.

Learn more

8. New digital services and innovation

#innovation #userexperience #servicedelivery

In the café…

More local businesses are using the café as a place for their staff to meet and work together. These businesses have downsized their offices and lost their meeting rooms because of the rise in home-working. But their staff still need to spend time with each other.

We realise we can meet this need. Just recently the large room above the café has become available to rent. We take on the lease and list it for hire on our website and other booking platforms. Local businesses and anyone else can now book it online and pre-order food and drinks to go with it. The rest of the time we use it as overflow café space.

New digital services and innovation is:

Designing a new digital service to meet a need in a way that is new for an organisation. It may replicate a digital service from somewhere else, even from another sector. Or it may combine insights into users’ needs with insights from other delivery models in an innovative way.

You might be asking…

How can we meet people’s changing needs better?

How can we meet the increased demand for our services?

How can we use insights from our users and their digital behaviour to design something better for them?

Key asset

An understanding of the design process - so you can run a service design project from start to finish.

Learn more

  • Digital Toolkit by CAST introduces the design process used most commonly across the voluntary sector.
  • Learn design thinking is a self-study 5 week email course designed for charities that takes you deep into the design process.
9. Digital practice

#people #behaviour #competencies

In the café…

We’ve come a long way on our transformation journey.

Today we understand our customers and the technology they use. And we understand our own technology too! We use well designed, effective digital tools and processes both front-of-house and behind the scenes. Our staff are observant and always ready to offer insight and suggestions for improving how we use digital. Our leadership are responsible and considerate of both customers’ and staff’s needs in relation to digital technology.

Digital practice is:

About how you do anything digital.

Its a set of practices and behaviours that a whole organisation can adopt.

Its a mindset - a willingness to learn - that helps people develop their individual digital practice.

This is about thinking critically as much as it’s about competencies, particularly as tech continues to evolve and change, and our lives and wider communities change too.

You might be asking…

How can we keep using digital to make our organisation more responsive and resilient to change?

How can we become a digitally smarter organisation?

Are we being responsible? Are we considering the consequences and cumulative effects of how we use digital, not just the opportunities?

Key asset

An open, curious attitude and a willingness to keep on learning about digital.

Learn more

10. Other definitions


Parts of this guide are copied from Cassie Robinson’s ‘What we’re learning about how the sector understand digital’, reused with her consent. She wrote the article in April 2019 in response to digital funding applications while working as Deputy Director of Funding Strategy at the National Lottery Community Fund. The article became a cornerstone resource for explaining and understanding digital in the voluntary sector.

Part of the reason Cassie’s post was so successful was because a) no one had attempted to describe the breadth of digital for the sector before, and b) because of its wonderful café analogy.

This new guide was created after consulting with people in the sector who regularly refer to Cassie’s post. Thanks to the following for their help reviewing this guide: