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What’s holding back digital innovation in the charity sector?

Insights and recommendations from Media Trust and NPC’s virtual roundtable.

By Michelle Man 6 August 2020 6 minute read

On 9 July 2020, Media Trust and NPC convened a virtual roundtable to explore what funders and government can do to bridge the digital divide. Speakers included Matt Brittin – President of Google EMEA Business & Operations,  Sherry Coutu – Founder, Founders4Schools, Gary Coyle – Head of Local Digital Skills Partnership at DCMS, Zahra Ibrahim – Director of the Excel Women’s Centre, Javed Khan – CEO of Barnado’s,  Tris Lumley – Director of Innovation at NPC, Moira Sinclair – CEO of the Paul Hamlyn Foundation, Dan Sutch – Director of CAST and Su-Mei Thompson – CEO of Media Trust. The event was chaired by James Harding – Editor and Co-Founder of Tortoise. 



The charity sector urgently needs digital innovation. Charities know this, as revealed in NPC’s State of the Sector research and the thousands of charities that have taken part in Media Trust’s digital skills training initiatives over the past few years. Yet as charities step up to meet the increasing and more complex needs created by Covid-19, confidence to use digital approaches is lagging. At a time when digital skills are most vital, there is a vast divide between those who are able to operate in the digital space and those who aren’t. 

Coronavirus has accelerated the pace of innovation in some areas. Transformation that might otherwise have taken years has been achieved in a few months. Many charities have successfully adapted to delivering services digitally. Some funders have demonstrated they can work collaboratively and respond quickly. Businesses are leaning in to provide the tools and support. The government is coordinating initiatives to strengthen digital capabilities. 

However, many charities don’t have the skills, resources or confidence to embrace the digital approaches that are being encouraged. Digital poverty at the grassroots level is also a major challenge, with many charities finding that their users aren’t able to engage with digital services. The government’s ‘digital first’ response won’t help the many people who don’t have, can’t afford and can’t cope with digital engagement.  

To bridge the divide, companies are helping through the supply of equipment and training. Funders like the Paul Hamlyn Foundation are helping charities get their beneficiaries online, by providing onward funding for broadband and equipment. There are free resources that charities can draw on—see NPC’s blog on free digital support, Ability Net, the Clothworkers Foundation, Facebook Social for Good and Turn2Us. But much more is needed from government and funders to address the digital divide on a systemic level. 


How can funders and government help bridge the digital divide? 


1. Invest in capacity building

Capacity building is vital for addressing the skills gap and increasing digital confidence among charities. Funder plus—where funders offer additional support alongside grants—should be mainstreamed, with all funders embedding digital in their capacity building, in a similar way to governance and strategy. 

Funding for digital upskilling is critical—but this should ideally be unrestricted. Charities need space to work out what they need, as this will be different for everyone. 

Plenty of funders are already doing good work in this space. They need to lead the way and make an explicit commitment to supporting and investing in digital transformation.  


2. Support innovation and build the resilience of the sector

Charities need to embrace experimentation. Innovation works best when it is user-led and test driven. Sadly, this doesn’t fit comfortably with a prescriptive funding approach that requires charities to meet rigid linear targets. 

In the last few months, we have seen funders removing restrictions on grants and providing the freedom for charities to adapt, test and learn. Continuing with this flexibility could drive innovation, and it could also enable charities to withstand further shocks in the future. Funders like the Fore highlight the benefits of unrestricted funding, such as enabling charities to build reasonable reserves, get the right policies and systems in place, and invest in training and equipment. 

Funders also need to open up innovation. Charities aren’t like companies—they can’t use profits to fund innovation and funders need to recognise that IP can’t be locked to individual organisations. Government has a role to play here too—the government could set up a Charity Innovation Fund. Any IP developed would be held by the Fund and made available across the sector, to drive innovation and reduce duplication. 


3. Collaborate 

Our sector’s funding practices make us inherently competitive, and support for digital innovation has traditionally been haphazard, non-strategic and small scale. To truly accelerate transformation, we need to collaborate and coordinate more effectively. 

Rather than capacity building at an individual level, funders could collaborate to share learning and insights and coordinate more effectively. There is huge potentialto share data, tools, resources and approaches across the sector for the benefit of all. The Catalyst is an example of an alliance of funders, civil society organisations and digital agencies working together to strengthen the sector’s digital capability. 

We need better coordination in relation to the transfer of skills and time from the business sector. Some companies are already sharing their skills with charities. To build on this, we need better aggregation and coordination. Media Trust matches skills from the media, creative and tech sectors with good causes through expert-led training, matching with volunteers and a free resource hub. Digital Boost was launched with the support of DCMS to coordinate business sector support for charities and small businesses. DCMS is supporting Local Digital Skills Partnerships which bring together public, private and charity sector organisations to tackle local digital skills challenges. 



As the entire world struggles with unprecedented challenges, the need for digital innovation is more urgent than ever, and it is universal across cause areas and geographies.Charities who haven’t been able to make the digital transition now are less able to serve people at a time when they are most needed. 

Government, funders and charities alike need to act now, to support upskilling and innovation, to invest in the resilience of the sector as a whole, and to collaborate on shared solutions and support. 

We at Media Trust and NPC are keen to build on these conversations. Please do get in touch with any thoughts on how we can continue to drive this forward. 

Michelle Man,  Su-Mei Thompson 


Our roundtable took place just ahead of the launch of the Charity Digital Skills Report 2020 by Zoe Amar and The Skills Platform in partnership with Catalyst. The Report provides invaluable insights into the sector’s evolving uptake and engagement with the opportunities that digital provides and underlines how digital skills – but also strategy, leadership and governance – are essential for digital evolution. It also underscores how the cornerstone of all of this should be how charities are keeping pace with their users’ needs, which are likely to be changing rapidly during this time of wider digital adoption.  


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