Closing the charity sector's digital skills gap

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The digital skills gap in the UK charity sector is a significant, yet often underreported issue. Digital literacy in the sector remains low, which means this skills gap is holding charities back from performing at a level where they could achieve maximum impact.

According to the 2020 Charity Digital Skills Report, 27% of charities have had to cancel services because they – or their users – don't have the necessary skills or technology. In addition, 91% rated themselves as fair to poor when it came to understanding how their audience uses digital. Funding is also an issue – 43% said they need financial support for new technical equipment, software or tools.

The non-profit sector is highly diverse, ranging from small charities with just a few employees or volunteers, through to large universities, hospitals and beyond, and their issues with digital skills range accordingly.

"At the smaller end of the spectrum the issue is often about stretched resources. Smaller non-profits often lack expertise on how to leverage technology, even when they can access it at a greatly reduced cost. Nearly all of the major software vendors have donation programs or offer access to their platforms and solutions for free or low cost. However, a lack of knowledge and resources on how to apply them often prevents smaller organisations from taking advantage of them," notes Katy Tynan, a Principal Analyst at Forrester.

"At the larger scale, digital skills gaps are an issue as they are across most organisations. Non-profits often struggle to attract high quality technical talent because they can't compete with the compensation plans, bonus structures and advancement opportunities that exist in the private sector."

A lack of digital maturity and strategy

One of the issues highlighted by Saleforceqs latest Nonprofit Trends Report was a lack of digital maturity at the very top of organisations. Based on the responses gathered, the report categorized non-profits into three levels of digital maturity, and 71% fell into the bottom tier.

Similar results came out of the 2019 Charity Digital Skills Survey, with 52% of charities surveyed saying their organisation had no digital strategy, and less than a quarter (23%) had a clear strategy for how digital could help them achieve their aims.

"This is because charities and their senior managers don't see technology as the strategic centre, and future, of their work," says Charlotte Kirby, Vice President, Global Strategic Relations at Salesforce.  "Technology is too often perceived as an unimportant supporting function, a 'bolt-on' to long-established patterns. If a non-profit doesn't invest in introducing the correct skill sets into its senior management, it's very difficult to expect an entire cultural and organisational shift."

Kirby says the answer is for non-profits to ensure they have a trustee or boardroom executive with a focus on technology in order help the organisation better understand digital's role in helping it achieve its charitable goals.

Covid – an agent of change

The arrival of Covid-19 heralded huge change in the way charities use technology and has helped begin to close this limiting digital skills gap. Salesforce's report noted that – just like every other industry – digital transformation in the charity sector accelerated during the pandemic. Moving to digital and investing more in technology were the two top changes non-profits made.

Overnight charities had to fundamentally transform ways of operating by embracing remote working, relying more on digital fundraising and becoming accustomed to managing online services points out Vinay Nair, CEO and Co-Founder of 'tech for good' company Lightful.

"At the same time, demand for charity services grew by 55%, meaning they were under pressure to deliver while undergoing rapid change."

A digital divide within the charity sector

Johnathon Chevalier, CEO of Charity Digital, has seen countless examples of charities making big progress since the arrival of Covid-19, with the organisation's latest report noting that 66% of charities questioned are now delivering work remotely and 61% delivering or planning to deliver more services online. However, he's also seen more polarisation.

"Some charities were better able to respond than others. I worry about the smaller ones. Many of these are volunteer-led and it would have been much harder for them. We kind of see a digital divide – those who fared better have become much more digitally capable [than their smaller counterparts]. This is something as a sector we're going to need to work on."

Don't get left behind

Steps are being made in the right direction, but there's clearly much more work to be done to fully close the charity sector's digital skills gaps.

There's a lot of support available to charities who want to embrace digital more closely. Organisations like Charity Digital offer free training materials and events, there's a variety of funding available, and many vendors are also eager to support non-profits with discounted or free equipment.

Chevalier believes education is key to helping charities look at digital more strategically and be more open to embracing technology and the benefits it can bring.

"Once you can get people to align digital with their charity's aims and how they can make a cost case for that then they're up and running, they can make their first investments and demonstrate a return. We've seen several organisations cross that bridge in the last year, but our aim now is to make sure we don't have others left behind," he says.

Chevalier's concern is that some charities are waiting for the pandemic to end and then return to their old ways of doing business.

"But history has shown us that whenever there's a major event like this, things are never the same. The post-pandemic landscape will be different. Older people have become more comfortable with technology, we expect to see much more flexible work practices.

"There are opportunities here and the smarter organisations will grab hold of these," he concludes.