Digital has never been more important for charities than in 2020, as Covid-19 has forced charities to embrace remote working and deliver online services.

The path to digital transformation has been slow in the third sector, however, meaning that the recent shift to digital hasn’t been easy.

According to The Charity Digital Skills Report, which is based on a May survey of 429 charity professionals in the UK, internal barriers are still preventing charities from getting the most out of digital, with lack of funding and lack of digital skills cited as the two biggest obstacles. The report also states that 51% of charities still don’t even have a digital strategy in place.

Finding new ways to fundraise

While the impact of Covid-19 has been felt strongly in the third sector, there are some positive signs of charities’ ability to adapt. The Charity Digital Skills Report found that 66% of charities are now delivering all work remotely, and that 47% are collaborating and sharing learning with others around digital. Similarly positive is that 28% of respondents say they are developing virtual fundraising events.

Indeed, Covid-19 has made it impossible for both charities and volunteers to carry out regular fundraising, leading to the cancellation of all in-person activity. However, many charities have taken the opportunity to pivot to virtual events. One prominent example is the mental health charity, Mind, which launched ‘Switch Off, Game On’ – an initiative that enables people to raise money through online gaming. Alongside this, the charity has also created a tonne of content about virtual fundraising, encouraging supporters to get involved in whatever way possible online.

Gaming has been a theme that many charities have used, capitalising on the overall surge in gaming and streaming during lockdown. Help for Heroes launched #HeroUp, which began with a week-long live streaming fundraiser. The aim was to educate a younger generation on the charity in order to encourage fundraising beyond lockdown, as well as to raise more immediate funds. In a similar vein, Make A Wish UK launched ‘Game Stars’, an initiative that called on gaming influencers, developers, and regular streamers to fundraise in support of the charity.

Offering support through online services

Fundraising is not the only activity to be disrupted by Covid-19, with charities also unable to deliver regular face-to-face services and support. Again, digital technology has been integral to charities’ ability to adapt, with many replacing in-person support with virtual or digital communication. The National Childbirth Trust, for example, has moved its antenatal classes online, and OCDUK has transferred its support groups onto Zoom. This has been the case for many charities which typically give one-to-one support, with online communication tools offering users a vital lifeline.

While bigger charities with more advanced digital strategies (pre-coronavirus) have adapted well, the Charity Digital Skills Report found that 21% of charities have cancelled services because they don’t have the skills or tech to deliver them.

A lack of knowledge about digital in general is also impacting online service delivery, as 46% of charities say they want guidance on what works with digitising face-to-face services. Budget is a factor, too, of course, as charities may understandably be unwilling to invest vital funds into digital alternatives that users might not like or use.

Meeting the needs of non-digital users

It’s easy to dismiss the third sector as ‘lagging behind’ other industries when it comes to digital transformation. This is true to a certain extent, however, it’s important to recognise that charities are also impacted by a wider digital divide; i.e. people who are in need of charity support but who are not able to access online services themselves. This issue has come to the forefront during the coronavirus pandemic, with charities unable to reach audiences who require crucial support.

The Charity Digital Skills Report found that 34% of charities see the fact that their audience is not online as their greatest challenge. Consequently, it is clear that charities need to address how they can help people access the technology they need, as well as to provide non-digital alternatives.

Homeless charities are at a particular disadvantage when it comes to digital services, with people in need often having no way of accessing technology. One way to tackle this is to use out-of-home advertising in order to signpost services to people in need. In 2018, the Swedish government partnered with Clear Channel in order to help Stockholm’s homeless population in winter; the messaging on 53 digital billboards changed to show directions to the nearest homeless shelter when the temperature dropped to freezing.

This is a specific example, of course, but it shows how technology can be accessible.

Elsewhere, charities are finding alternative ways to support people who are unable to access technology, and this can be by recognising that traditional methods are still crucial. Charities such as Age UK, for example, offer a wide range of telephone services including ‘The Silver Line’, which offers help and advice but also friendship to elderly people. For charities that still require these types of services, funding is key, particularly when budget is increasingly being stretched to accommodate digital strategy.

Covid-19 highlights the need for funding and training

Funding remains one of the biggest obstacle for charities when it comes to digital transformation. The Charity Digital Skills Report found that 50% of respondents cited a lack of income to be able to invest in digital as the biggest internal barrier to getting the most out of digital – as it was in 2018 and 2019.

Covid-19 has obviously brought new restrictions on spending. Forty three percent of charities want financial support for new technical equipment, software or tools, which is a rise from 34% pre-pandemic. Another area of need is in adapting to remote working, with 46% of charities requiring advice on how to help staff stay motivated.

In addition to this, digital skills remains a key challenge, with charities citing a lack of core digital skills and competency and a lack of confidence with digital as the second and third biggest internal barriers respectively. Indeed, most charities rated their expertise in digital skills as ‘fair’ and ‘poor’ in most areas; social media was cited as the skill that charities are most proficient in, with 32% saying they are ‘excellent’ at this. This is perhaps unsurprising, however, as social media is a medium that people are able to consistently use and learn about recreationally.

Overall, the findings point to a greater need for digital leadership, specifically when it comes to championing digital as a strategic function. Despite the coronavirus pandemic spurring on charities to recognise the need for digital, it’s clear that there’s still a long way to go in being able to confidently deliver usable and scalable services.

What Covid-19 has also done is shine a light on the fact that the people who often need the most support are those who are non-digital. This means that the third sector needs to be even more strategic when it comes to investment, and deciding on the right tools and technology that best suit their beneficiaries needs. It has also once again brought the need for greater digital skills to the forefront – not just for charities, but also the communities they work to support.

For more on the third sector, explore Econsultancy’s charity hub.