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Stick or twist: how digital is changing charities during COVID-19

3 July 2020

“We’ve made more progress with digital during the last three months than we have over the last three years,” is a recurring theme of the conversations I’ve been having with charities in recent weeks. Yet as lockdown gradually eases, and attention turns to what the sector could look like in a year’s time, what does this digital change really look like? And is it here to stay?

Later this month the results of the 2020 Charity Digital Skills Report will be released and with it a clearer picture of how charities are using digital will be revealed. An annual barometer of digital progress across the sector, created in partnership with Catalyst and Skills Platform, with support from Think Social Tech, the report offers useful insights about how charities are currently doing and how they can move forward. Ahead of the full report launch I’ve pulled out the key findings on how COVID-19 is beginning to change the sector.

More insights into how digital skills, leadership, governance and strategy are evolving will be shared when we launch the full report.

Firstly though, a note on how the team behind the 2020 Charity Digital Skills Report had to practice what we preach about being agile. The survey to build the report was launched ahead of going into lockdown. When that happened, we realised that we needed to pivot quickly. So we added COVID-19 specific questions in order to gather data to help the sector see the impact of the pandemic on its use of digital.

There were 160+ responses to the Coronavirus questions, and 459 charity professionals participated in the survey overall. These are what I think the key COVID-19 findings mean for charities.

The digital revolution is here

Charities told us that the pandemic has shifted how they’re using digital to deliver their operations. They told us that:

  • 66% are delivering all work remotely
  • 61% have an increased need to train and support our staff and volunteers to use digital tools
  • 61% will be offering more online services
  • 47% are collaborating/sharing learning with others around digital
  • 34% are changing some people’s roles to accommodate new responsibilities
  • 28% are developing virtual fundraising events

This is encouraging and I see this news as green shoots. Charities are embracing digital to deliver services, solve problems and to learn from others. However, this picture isn’t consistent across the sector. We also learned that:

  • 21% have cancelled services because they don’t have the skills or tech to deliver them
  • 15% have cancelled services because their users lack the skills or tech to make use of them online
  • 27% in total have cancelled services for one or both of the above reasons

Just over one in four have had to cancel services because their charity and/or their users don’t have the necessary skills or tech is a huge concern. What will happen to their beneficiaries and where do they go for support? It is awful to think of charities having to make this impossible choice and there are likely to be many factors behind these answers, from beneficiaries not having the skills or access to the devices or data to get online, to charities who don’t have the funds or the volunteers/staff in-house to build what they need.

Where do charities need help to move forward?

From the data above we can see the appetite that charities have to use digital more. Yet there are a number of areas where charities would like support. Charities told us that:

  • 47% are interested in how to help their users access our services online
  • 46% want guidance on what works with digitising face to face services
  • 43% want financial support for new technical equipment, software or tools

Bringing people with you amidst the disruption of the pandemic is vital. 44% of respondents told us that they want to help the team adjust to change, whilst 41% want to help staff stay motivated and productive.

What’s interesting about this and the data below is the breadth of these support needs. This shows how much work still needs to be done to help charities with overhauling their business models so they can operate during the pandemic. We also learned that:

  • 35% want technical advice (e.g. what tools to use)
  • 33% want guidance on working online (e.g. running effective meetings)
  • 32% want help on managing a virtual team
  • 27% want faster broadband
  • 26% want better access to tech

One of the biggest challenges with resourcing these changes is that charity fundraising has been hit hard during the pandemic. Just over 1 in 10 (11%) said that they were well set up and that guidance exists for them. If only a minority of charities are good to go with digital, those that don’t surely need more help. Otherwise, there could be a potentially serious impact on their sustainability- and the people they help.

So what can we learn from this?

Some charities have built up significant momentum around digital change during the pandemic and this has whetted their appetite to do more. For others getting leadership, trustees, skills and the right strategy working in tandem are the key factors that will unlock potential. We’ll be sharing more about where the sector is at with these areas when we publish the results of the full Charity Digital Skills Report later in July.

To find out more see the full analysis on The Catalyst blog.

Image: Luca Florio on Unsplash 

Zoe Amar

founder and director, Zoe Amar Digital

Zoe Amar is founder and director of Zoe Amar Digital, a charity marketing and digital communications consultancy who've worked with Action Aid, CAF, Crimestoppers and many other great charities. She also blogs for The Guardian. Zoe shares charity marketing resources over at and @zoeamar