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August 25, 2021updated 26 Aug 2021 3:04pm

Stronger leadership is needed in the charity sector to bridge the skills gap

Charities have made marked improvements in their digital skills, but there is still work for the sector to do.

By Cristina Lago

A lack of digital technology skills among staff and volunteers remains a challenge for digital adoption in the charity sector. Despite an increase in digital adoption as a result of the pandemic and an improvement in the level of these skills compared to previous years, 20% of organisations in the voluntary and community sector (VCSE) say that staff and volunteers’ skills remain the main barrier in the use of digital technology, a new report shows. Stronger leadership and digital training for higher management could help solve this challenge.

The findings from the study, produced by NCVO, Nottingham Trent University, and Sheffield Hallam University, mirror the results of research published recently by digital skills training consultancies Skills Platform and Zoe Amar Digital, which found that despite charities having made significant progress in developing digital strategies and offering online services, skills remain the third-greatest barrier to achieving digital progress in the sector.

Zoe Amar, director of Zoe Amar Digital and co-author of the charity digital skills report 2021, says charities have made considerable progress with their digital efforts in the past year. While some of the digital challenges that charities face have been around for several years, the pandemic has put a spotlight on them, and both reports also identify funding and resources as important barriers for charities to achieve their digital goals.

“I think many factors, whether they are financial or the workforce’s abilities, are things that have been around for quite a while,” says Amar. “It’s just that our awareness has become more heightened and [digital skills] are now a greater priority because we all started to use digital a lot more during the pandemic.”

Digital skills gap or lack of confidence?

Lara Burns, chief digital officer at registered charity The Scouts Association, thinks that behind the digital skills challenge in the third sector is an issue of confidence among the workforce rather than a gap in specific skills.

“Some of our staff can have things explained to them many times [how to log on to a finance system remotely, for instance] but we still have to repeat our explanations as they just don’t remember,” Burns told Tech Monitor by email. “At the other end of the scale, we have people who are completely happy with Teams and Zoom but we now need them to start using more complex digital skills in their day-to-day work – using data and embedding it into their work, or using agile and service design digital project methodologies.”

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Fifty-six percent of charities surveyed in the charity digital skills report rated their organisation’s basic digital skills, for emailing or video calling for example, as excellent – a sharp increase from last year’s 29%. However, the study also found that there is room for significant improvement in more complex areas such as cybersecurity, using, managing and analysing data, keeping up to date with digital trends, or advanced data use.

The Scouts Association is working on an organisation-wide digital skills programme to allow its staff to identify where the skills gaps are and it is also using different learning methods to help them improve and gain confidence. Burns adds that her team also has a separate programme in which they are developing an assessment tool and learning content to help the charity’s 145,000 volunteers across the UK with their digital skills and confidence: “This is focused specifically on how they need to use digital technology in their role as a local volunteer,” she says.

Charity bosses must lead by example

Although there has been progress compared to previous years, a lack of digital skills among leadership teams and boards remains an obstacle for charities to advance digital transformation agendas. Fourteen per cent of charity professionals think there is a lack of leadership when it comes to getting the most out of digital in their organisations and 12% want more understanding from trustees, according to the charity digital skills report.

One of the survey respondents commented in the report that to prevent losing the huge progress made on digital during 2020, leaders need to step up on their digital goals: “To maintain this going forwards our culture needs to change to be more accepting of digital in service delivery and our leadership needs to align on our digital priorities.”

Charities seek strong digital leadership from their CEOs and boards and workers in the sector are still looking for their leadership teams and boards to have a clear vision of what digital can bring to their organisations. Despite having gone down by 19 percentage points, 36% of charities still want their CEO or board to develop or embed a digital strategy and it is charities’ third most important priority.

“It does come down to leadership,” said Amar, who thinks that charity leaders should lead by example at the time of promoting digital skills in their organisations. “It comes down to resources as well because if you don’t have leaders who are saying 'growing these digital skills is important and indeed I’m going to grow my digital skills as a leader', and also leaders who are prepared to resource those programmes as well. In the context of smaller organisations that could simply mean going on some training courses, so it doesn’t necessarily need to involve a huge amount of money.”

Amar adds that charity leaders need to show initiative and show their own vulnerabilities in those areas where they are lacking skills and lead by example by training themselves first.

“That is something that I’ve seen working with a lot of organisations [in the charity sector], where leaders are really committed to make [digital] an organisational priority and are also prepared to develop their skills and go on their own learning journey with digital,” she concludes.

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