Charities failing to embrace digital

Digital divide

The pace of digital change within the charity sector is slow, an annual report on digital skills has shown

13th June 2019 by Gareth Jones 0 Comments

Digital progress in the charity sector is stalling, an annual survey has revealed.

The Charity Digital Skills Report 2019 reveals the harsh reality that the pace of change in the sector has been incredibly slow and in many crucial areas has declined over the past three years.

Charities that took part have said Brexit has not been holding them back (87%), yet some areas of progression are at their worst level since the report first launched in March 2017 - before the UK voted to leave the European Union.

The study found over half of charities do not have a digital strategy (52%), an increase on 2018’s 45% and 50% in 2017. Less than a quarter (23%) say they have a clear strategy for how digital can help achieve their charity’s goals, dropping from 32% last year and 27% in 2017. Only 10% said they have been through and embedded full digital transformation, down from 15% in 2018.

Respondents said a lack of digital skills continues to be a big challenge, second only to funding. Despite tech innovations - especially Artificial Intelligence – frequently appearing in the news, only 12% are examining how this could change their charity.

This ties in with the sector not keeping pace with new developments, with just 35% staying up to speed with how digital trends are affecting their work and having a plan in place to tackle this. Equally as worrying, 76% of charities say they have low to very low skills in AI; worse than 73% in 2018 and 68% in 2017.

David McNeill, director of digital at the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations (SCVO), said it is vital that digital engagement with charities continues.

He said: “With the pace of change of technology increasing all the time, it’s perhaps unsurprising to see charities report little progress over the past year on many of the measures of digital skills and capability.

“From our work with a wide range of organisations in Scotland, we know many struggle to find the resources to improve their day-to-day technology infrastructure, making it harder to take advantage of the opportunities presented by new digital tools and approaches.

“Engaging boards and senior leaders therefore remains a high priority. Organisations must take a strategic approach to adapt to the digital world, exploring the opportunities and evolving what they do and how they do it in response. There are significant opportunities for organisations to improve outcomes and work more efficiently, but each organisation must take the time to explore its own priorities and invest appropriate to realise the benefits.”

Although many organisations are struggling to embrace digital, respondents said they want leaders to take action. Of those who took part, 57% said they want their leaders to understand trends and how they affect charities. In addition, 45% want their senior team to have some experience or understanding of digital tools.

For the first time, the survey asked charities about their priorities over the next 12 months. The top priority idenitifed was using digital to increase impact 67%, whilst 59% want to use data more effectively. Almost half (48%) want to use digital to improve service delivery and 42% would like to deploy digital to increase income. Crucially, 41% want to create a strategy and improve skills, with 41% prioritising development of their colleagues’ skills and 23% keen to support their board and leadership team in developing theirs.

Zoe Amar, founder and director of Zoe Amar Digital, authors of the report, said: “It is reassuring that charities seem to be aware of the issues and where the gaps are, however, the slow pace of change and decline of progress overall needs urgent attention. 

“Funders need to step up as the report shows the need is growing across the sector and funding has remained the biggest challenge every year. Perhaps charities could also benefit from more support to demonstrate social impact and the meaningful value digital brings otherwise the sector is at risk of being left behind.”

The full report can be viewed online.

Charities need staff to create a digital culture

Marie Orpen, head of digital at Guide Dogs, said digital transformation needs to take place across an organisation.

She said: “There is definitely a strong correlation between the lack of progress and some of the challenges charities have highlighted in this year’s report such as a lack of strategy and resource, low organisational buy-in, infrastructure and pace. Digital transformation is not digitisation, point solutions or procuring the latest shiny bauble. 

“It is strategic change: putting your audience at the heart of everything you do; using technology to solve fundamental problems; learning from the data and innovating. At Guide Dogs, our strategy combines information services and digital, working with colleagues from across the charity. We use a benefits-led approach, showing the direct improvements digital can make, supported by a clear roadmap using agile delivery.

“Most critical to success is strategic alignment, investment in end-to-end infrastructure and investment in the right people. Charities truly need people with the ability, agility, fail- fast mentality and appetite if we are to create a digital-first culture.”