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Why urgent action is needed to plug the charity sector's digital skills gap

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(Image credit: Image source: Shutterstock/Trueffelpix)

Before the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, 63 percent of charities lacked a digital strategy resulting in a vast gap in digital skills to bridge. The pandemic helped to reveal the extent of the digital skills gap in the charity sector, both in the global north and south. As multiple nations experienced lockdowns, the urgency to address the gap became vital. Charities of all sizes were forced to transition from traditional methods of fundraising to ensure the safety of the communities they serve. The lack of opportunity to organize physical events and awareness campaigns prompted a mass shift to online for the charity sector and a rapid acceleration of their digital transformation strategies.   

However, as charities grappled with this, they also experienced an increased demand for their services as they were now supporting those most affected by the pandemic. In particular, small, local charities played a key role in supporting people and communities through Covid. Charities shifted their focus to digital forms of fundraising, utilizing social media and digital channels to communicate their stories and access new audiences, whilst continuing to assist existing ones. This shift was navigated well, and opened up new opportunities for the sector to continue to raise funds and provide vital services.

As we move past the pandemic towards living in a hybrid world, it has been revealed that charities do not currently have the skills and tools to sustain success in a digital world. Whilst the sector proved its resilience in uncertain times, major cracks are starting to appear regarding skills, funding and resources that will hinder the progress and future success of the sector. 

The need for digital skills in charity employees and volunteers has increased in 73 percent of organizations. With the hybrid model of in-person and digital here to stay, charities must strike the right balance between these two methods to raise funds and continue building the digital strategies implemented during the pandemic. However, to successfully do this, we must help them bridge the significant gaps now being exposed. 

Equalizing the sector through digital transformation

We know that charities quickly adapted during the pandemic - with 83 percent changing their services due to demand, and 78 percent using digital means to reach new audiences - and it worked. The M+R Benchmarks Study found that smaller nonprofits in the UK and US saw a 32 percent increase in online revenues during 2020. But this success isn’t here to last unless there’s change.   

For many small and medium organizations in the charity sector, the challenge they now face is building resilience post-pandemic. Lack of digital skills, access to necessary and emerging technologies, and restricted budgets are some of the factors preventing the charity sector from a permanent shift to hybrid. Many charities are facing a choice between expensive and inaccessible training programs or generic online courses, in an attempt to keep up with the continued expectations of high quality digital engagement, post-pandemic. Smaller charities are explicitly telling us their needs to successfully sustain growth, so more must be done to accommodate these needs.

Boosting confidence within charities with accessible training 

Whilst 60 percent of charities now have a digital strategy in place, the Impact of Covid-19 on Charity Communications Survey 2021 identified that 53 percent of charities find producing digital content such as films, vlogs and infographics challenging, while 39 percent said that digital strategy was their most needed area of support. 

Recent research from Nottingham Business School’s Centre of People, Work, and Organisational Practice (CPWOP) identified that the skills of staff, volunteers and service users, along with the cost of equipment and software, are the main challenges charities face when improving the use of digital technology in their organizations. Not only that, the Charity Excellence Sector Data Store rated eight out of the nine key metrics for digital fundraising as ‘amber’. Technology weaknesses included contactless, text donations and e-commerce platforms and choosing the right fundraising payment platforms. 

Continued growth across the sector is essential for ‘building back better’ post-pandemic as charities are vital in helping solve key challenges society faces today.  The crucial first steps were made in the acute stage of Covid, but we must now enable further digital growth across the sector in the global north and south, by providing charities with the means to successfully sustain the success from the early stages of the pandemic.

Continuing the success post-pandemic 

We must help these charities plug the gaps in their digital strategies to enable their success by listening to their feedback and addressing their needs. 

Through innovative programs that teach new ways to reach global audiences through digital marketing and engagement campaigns, we can equip charities with the tools needed to supercharge fundraising and build resilience for the future. Trusts and foundations will have an important role to play in supporting charities working in key cause areas that are looking to create change. Alongside this, the UK government will play a very impactful role in continuing charities’ success. The recent budget announcement of £3.8 billion in funding for education and skills does not mention charities at all. It is vital that the government provides the charity sector with funding and support to help it bridge the critical digital skills gap it’s facing.  

Charities need to learn how to engage new audiences to ensure they can continue helping those that depend on their services, whether this is through increasing digital fundraising efforts or targeting individual donors. Each charity must understand where to focus its efforts and use what they have learned during the pandemic to invest time into the right skills and tools for them. Maintaining a successful digital strategy will allow charities to access longer-term funding and enable them to sustain growth and success.

In the post-Covid “hybrid” era, digital is the great equalizer for enabling charities in the global north and global south to successfully generate the funds needed to deliver impact in communities, influence policy and create change. Equipping the sector with the right digital skills and tools is a matter of urgency. One that must be acted upon now.

Vinay Nair, CEO and Co-founder, Lightful (opens in new tab)

Vinay Nair

Vinay Nair is CEO and Co-founder of Lightful, a technology company powering social and environmental change.