What is holding back digital innovation in the charity sector?

Last month, This Place was invited to take part in a roundtable hosted by Media Trust looking into the relationship between digital and the charity sector. For those that missed it, we’ve summarised a few key discussion points from what proved to be both an insightful and important conversation.

Photo by Adam Birkett on Unsplash

The roundtable aimed to explore ways to bridge the digital divide within the charity sector, and probed the role of funders, government and tech companies in helping drive innovation. We were joined on the day by representatives from charities and social enterprises such as The Big Issue and Barnardos, along with tech giants such as Google and Facebook. Our host on the day — Media Trust — are a charity dedicated to empowering marginalised communities through partnering them with companies within the media and creative sector. Here’s a few of the topics discussed on the day:

Digital Skills Gap
The last few months have brought about unprecedented change across all sectors and industries. Charities have not been exempt from the need to innovate and pivot their business models to survive, with many forced to move their operations online.

There is no doubt that digital skills are critical for any organisation hoping for longevity in a post pandemic world. According to the NPC however, charities’ confidence in their ability to use digital technology has dropped to 59% from 70% between 2017–2019. Furthermore, the charity digital skills report states almost half (47%) of all charity staff lack core digital skills and competencies.

Participants at the roundtable session spoke of the importance of initiatives aimed at closing these skills gaps and the role that both the government and private sector can play. An example of such an initiative is Media Trust’s Digital Summer School, launched in August for experts in digital to provide charities with the skills and confidence they need to thrive in an increasingly digital world. Initiatives such as this are a great example of efforts to help improve digital competency across the sector.

Participants on the day from Google emphasised the key role that the corporate sector has to play to support the bolstering of digital capabilities in the charity sector and beyond. Google’s Digital Garage is another great example of this ambition brought to life through the provision of free online training resources. Google’s support of Media Trust’s Digital Skills programme in 2018 resulted in the training of over 600 charity professionals across 10 locations in the UK through masterclasses, mentoring and online learning.

Digital Funding
Instances where funders insist that all money goes directly to the front line can hamper charities effectiveness in the long term as essential business functions are passed over for investment. In The Charity Digital Skills Report, half of charity professionals surveyed said they wanted to develop their digital channels, however 48% also said they had not had access to digital funding and this was their biggest barrier. Furthermore, 23% were concerned that funding was restricted to their existing service delivery channels.

Roundtable participants discussed the need for greater scope to include digital within funding applications, ensuring that funds are able to cover essential software, digital tools and staff training in addition to frontline activities. Representatives from Catalyst — an organisation set up to increase the resilience and responsiveness of the charity sector through leveraging digital — spoke of their work with funders and government bodies to ensure digital initiatives are incorporated within grant-making strategies, programmes and practices.

Digital poverty
As a result of the pandemic, the inability of many charities to meet in person with the individuals they support has had huge implications. Roundtable participants spoke of the issues surrounding digital poverty and how these have been exacerbated by the current crisis. A representative from Ealing Mencap — a charity working with people with learning disabilities — spoke of the importance of ensuring that digitisation in the charity sector does not result in a reduction in access to vital services for those without internet access or who require tailored devices.

According to the Office for National Statistics, although the number of “internet non-users” (adults who have never used the internet or who have not used it within the last three months) has been in steady decline for almost a decade, in 2018 there were still 5.3 million adults in the UK (10%) within this category. As access to the internet and basic digital capabilities become increasingly important for access to information and services, employability and communication, there is a challenge ahead for charities pivoting to digital services to ensure they don’t exclude the most vulnerable members of society.

Innovation Across the Sector
Whilst it’s clear that there are significant challenges still facing the sector, many charities proved that they are able to act fast and pivot in the face of adversity. The Big Issue, who saw their primary source of revenue — vendor magazine sales — completely suspended by the UK lockdown, are a great example of this. The organisation quickly launched a number of initiatives to pivot their business model, from partnerships with major retailers to launching an appeal on their website (you can read more here about how we supported The Big Issue during the peak of the pandemic).

A representative on the day from Facebook’s Social Good platform shared their experience in working with many charitable organisations who quickly pivoted and took advantage of digital tools and platforms such as live broadcasts to access their audiences when physical meetings were not an option.

Closing Thoughts
There is no denying that the global upheaval of the last few months will have an enduring impact on individuals and organisations across sectors and markets. A sustained uptake of digital services, the increasing importance of digital capabilities for both individuals and organisations, and a rethinking of the physical environments around us will result in long-lasting changes and require investment and agility to navigate in the years to come.

For the charity sector, bolstering internal digital skills and capabilities, securing the right investment to unlock greater support for beneficiaries, and innovative models that ensure that those who are most vulnerable are not left behind will be key. At This Place, improving people’s lives through digital and having a lasting impact on the world are fundamental to why we exist. We hope to continue to play our part, both through tangible action and continuing to amplify the conversation on what is holding back digital innovation in the charity sector.




Design explorations and commentary by digital retail agency This Place. We design digital interactions to create impact for customers and the bottom line, fast.

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The digital retail agency. A small global team of carefully curated experts, we design digital interactions to create impact for customers and the bottom line.

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