The digital skills gap and the charity sector

Whilst 87% of UK adults now use the internet, only 51% of charities can boast Basic Digital Skills. So where are the gaps in knowledge, and why should you address them?

By Reason Digital · January 10, 2017

recent study by Lloyds Bank unearthed a treasure trove of stats about the digital skills gap that continues to exist at many charities. Despite leaps forward in technological literacy in recent years, there continues to be much ground to cover if charities are to be on the same footing as commercial enterprises – in terms of digital presence, and in terms of all of the associated benefits that come with this.

The Context

Even in a commercial setting – traditionally an area more au fait with advances in technology – gaps in digital skills exist, and are pounced on increasingly quickly by competitors. Consider the downfall of Blockbuster alongside the digital transformation of the sector and exponential rise of Netflix: one refused to embrace the changing technological landscape, whilst the other made emerging technology its core focus and selling point. Now the former is bankrupt and the latter is worth $37 billion.

This is of particular interest to us at Reason Digital: our mission is to make digital do good. In a charity context, digital transformations are increasingly utilised to meet service users’ and stakeholders’ demands. Two recent Reason Digital projects exemplify this concept clearly: we recently built 400 microsites for The Trussell Trust allowing visitors to find and learn more about the nearest foodbanks to them online, and we created an award-winning app, Safety Nets, which transformed a previously archaic and potentially life-threateningly slow offline platform into an app-based alerts system, allowing instantaneous, location-based warnings to be sent between a vulnerable community of sex workers.

mobile phone showing safety nets app

Without the necessary drive from senior management or skill set and confidence among charity employees, neither of these fundamentally transformative projects would have been possible. Given the findings from Lloyds Bank’s report, described below, charities are liable to fall a step behind their rivals in being fully equipped for an increasingly digital audience. Indeed, 87% of UK adults – and 97% of 16-24s – now use the internet at home or in other locations, so there is no reason why charities should lag behind.

Indeed, as it currently stands, 78% of charities are investing no money at all in digitally upskilling their employees. Whilst this is better than the equivalent stat from 2015, there is still clearly some way to go until charities’ employees are receiving the necessary support to, in turn, support the charity. This problem is especially pronounced among smaller charities, and inevitably results in having to spend more on employing freelance or third party experts to do jobs that could otherwise be avoided if basic digital skills were in place.

group sits round a table with a laptop and a notepad

The Stats

Rather than this lack of investment reflecting an existing expertise in the sector, it highlights an issue that requires immediate remedying. Lloyds Bank’s report indicates that a massive 49% of charities lack Basic Digital Skills, calculated on the basis of each organisations’ communication, transactional, management, creation and problem-solving abilities. This figure worsens among charities with between 1-9 employees.

Whilst 87% and 86% of charities report expertise in communication (sending, receiving and sharing of information online) and transacting (buying items, services and apps online) metrics, respectively, scores drop sharply among other areas of digital skills.

Managing information – defined as using search engines and downloading/saving media – is not considered to be an existing skill by as many as one quarter (24%) of charities.

The same percentage of charities are currently unable to ‘create’ – that is, completing online application forms and creating something new from existing online media.

The least successfully implemented digital skill among charities is problem solving. Only two thirds (68%) of charities are currently able to verify sources of information online or solve a problem with a device or digital service using online help.

If we drill down into these categories, we find specific tasks that charities are currently struggling with. Surprisingly email communication and searching for information are still only used by 18% and 26% of charities, respectively, whilst a massive 43% still lack their own website.

Meanwhile, only 38% currently use social media communications (compared to the 56% of the general population using social networking sites) despite the influence this medium has on potential donors’ behaviour: indeed, 70% of individuals would take one or more action in response to a friend posting a story on social media about making a charitable donation.

Just one third of charities are currently able to take payments online (despite the fact that 67% of the UK population with access to the internet buy things online). Indeed, 16% of charity donations are now made online (not counting the setting up of direct debits or text giving) and this figure continues to grow year-on-year.

Linked to this is the ability of only 21% to take orders online (again, a hugely important consideration among charities who rely on merchandise or paid events to generate income).

two women look at a computer screen

Knowledge of cloud-based IT systems and the use of digital as a training tool are both also very under-skilled at 18% and 17% among charities, respectively. The use of digital as a training tool is a cheap and effective method for upskilling an entire workforce: our very own Matt Haworth recently provided remote, online training to 125 local Age UKs, ensuring a nationwide increase in digital literacy and online fundraising savvy for the charity, without the hassle or cost of sending branch representatives to receive individual training.

Finally, only 13% of charities are currently using digital for mobile payments. The use of mobile phones to go online has more than doubled in five years, from 32% in 2011 to 70% in 2016. Given the continued growth in this area, there’s no doubt that this needs to be a priority area for upskilling among charities.

Clearly, these skills are fundamental for the functioning of any organisation, not least a charity, where resources are increasingly stretched and scrutinised, and where the cost of hiring freelancers or third parties to complete basic tasks is, proportionately, more costly.

Echoing some of the above findings, another study into digital skills in 2016 – conducted by the Digital Marketing Institute – indicates a shortfall in skills (although among companies more generally, rather than charities specifically) in social media skills and mobile-specific knowledge.

What you can do

Based on these two studies combined it appears that, unsurprisingly, skills in newer, increasingly useful and increasingly relevant applications of technology are limited.

More than ever, there is a risk of being left behind as practices, processes and stakeholders change at an unprecedented rate. But, at Reason Digital, we believe in helping charities get a foothold on the evolving digital landscape. Training staff early with the necessary skills – and the necessary knowledge and approach to cope with future challenges – is becoming a prerequisite to success in the digital age, and the most cost-effective way of tackling digital challenges.

Not done learning?