Superhighways reflects on six months’ intensive work helping small charities and community groups pivot to online service delivery during the pandemic - and what this might mean for their future digital needs.

Over a six-month period from July to December 2020, we trained, advised and provided technical support to 151 micro charities, CICs and community organisations in London to help them better respond to local need during COVID-19, as part of one of our programmes funded by National Lottery Community Fund (NLCF).

These were organisations primarily providing local frontline services or community development activities. 34% of our beneficiaries had an organisational income of under £100k, with 94% under £1m.

Income is by no means always a useful indicator for digital capability. But it does provide information about the budget limitations these organisations are likely to be operating within. It is also a likely indication that they have no dedicated roles covering digital.

Further details of organisational profiles and the training and support provided here can be found here.

We additionally held a round table discussion with 17 small charities and grassroots organisations, alongside colleagues from NLCF, to deep dive into their experiences.

Here we share key themes emerging from the round table discussions, supported by evaluation of the wider programme.

Findings will be useful to funders thinking about future funding of digital, infrastructure organisations planning capacity or capability building programmes and frontline organisations taking next steps on their digital journeys.

How did small charities initially feel about digital transformation?

It’s common to say that small charities and community organisations took a step-change in their use of digital, to both run their organisations and replace face-to-face activities with online service delivery. But that is an understatement of epic proportions.

It was terrifying.

Sentiment analysis revealed a relentless and stressful struggle.

Participants referenced technical difficulties of using new technology and systems, trying to support local people get online, cultural shifts within their own organisations and fundamental issues of wellbeing.

Screenshot of Wordcloud with postive and negative words

Yet, despite the challenges, or perhaps because of them, there was light beyond the blue screen.

It was a re-set.

As one small local infrastructure organisation put it:

when the pandemic started, we set up a whole new service in three days from covering the website, telephone lines, volunteers on board, the whole nine yards, in three days….we could probably do it in two next time!

Their confidence in pivoting to online delivery had grown exponentially. 

And they acknowledged that while  they deeply missed the human connection of face-to-face contact with local communities, rapid digital transformation during the pandemic has afforded them opportunities that will change the shape and scale of their activities for years to come.

Key themes

Community organisations are crucial to embed basic digital skills in communities

Undoubtedly, community organisations are facing an uphill battle (both internally, with staff and volunteers, and externally, with the people they support) with low digital literacy.

However, staff and volunteers at the grassroots have shared their learning with their communities as much as they could as they embarked on their own steep digital learning curve:

it's also helped us to increase digital skills for local disabled people as well. Some people that just weren't using digital platforms or communicating online, they're now able to use Zoom and go on Twitter and stuff like that. So it's been quite positive in that sense

They are keen to bring everyone with them on the journey, so local people are prepared for future opportunities:

we help grassroots women start up micro businesses from home…the knowledge of Excel that I took on from the training, have gone back to the ladies and, and started emphasising the need of stock keeping using Excel and just trying to empower them to understand that documentation is very important

Digital skills are not always transferrable

The seismic shift from face-to-face activities to online delivery brought participants and their service-users into a world of digital products, from cloud-storage solutions to team collaboration tools and web conferencing apps. 

Early experiences, market dominance of particular products and even misinformation are shaping community use of digital. 

It’s not necessarily a bad thing. 

After all, it’s faster and easier to implement a tool you’ve heard of and perhaps your staff or service users have started using too. Particularly if you don’t have the time or knowledge to compare possibilities or carry out in-depth research with your users.

However, when people become accustomed to one product, they are increasingly reluctant to try new tools. 

This is a problem. If skills are not transferrable, it will be harder to pivot again to meet future demand or adapt to an ever-evolving digital ecosystem. 

It’s also tough for small groups to both meet their community where they are and fit in with multiple systems. It may exclude communities from conversations that are shaping their lives:

The other issue we have is that local authorities are able to attend meetings on Teams. And our service users are quite happy to do it on Zoom, they don’t like Teams, so it’s finding the right balance

Cascading digital skills across whole teams is one of the next big challenges

It’s crucial to give staff and volunteers confidence. But this has been particularly hard during the pandemic.
the most challenging part is trying to identify how to use the skills I've learned to support the people in the team and to teach them how to use it as well remotely

Participants told us it was easier to embed digital skills for their own work streams than create organisational change.

I think sometimes with our highfalutin, new fabulous ideas that you can be pushing against the organisation a little bit or pulling them sort of like reluctantly along with you

This can be explained in part by team culture. But it also comes down to the lack of time, techniques and tools for all members of staff to learn and change their systems and processes in the middle of the ever-evolving Covid-19 response.

Whole-team training may help to embed learning but this is resource intensive and may prove too costly for many smaller organisations. 

An alternative is to lean on internal champions or peer support, but these have to be funded and executed within already stretched services. We know that capacity to put medium and longer term learning into practice is at an all-time low.

Organisations also told us they know that recruiting people with the right digital skills is vital for long-term success. 

Yet we need to remember that the smaller voluntary sector has always been a home for everyone, whatever their capability.

Many grassroots or self-help groups are grown from the desire of local people. They want to change something they truly care about and which they are prepared to invest their time, energy and compassion into. 

Not because they wanted to be, or are, a digital lead or marketing expert.

Replicating face-to-face activities necessarily takes significant time and energy

One thing we consistently found: it’s hard to replicate face to face.

Chatbots may be the answer to common questions with the same answers. And there are many tools and techniques to automate the process of providing answers. , This frees up vital staff time for intensive intervention where most needed.

That being said, however, most, if not all, of our participants replicated some kind of face-to-face service through video call (whether web conferencing app or social media) during the pandemic.

 It was the sociable, community connections that mattered most to them. It was also the fastest way for them to bring people together.

The time it takes to replicate face-to-face services online with local communities cannot be underestimated.

there's so much behind the scenes that I'm doing more to make sure everyone's got the link. And that's on Eventbrite or whatever, whereas before we just told the people that it was on this day and just turn up

Online delivery is especially demanding when trying to recreate the essence of community spirit or give people the time to speak, be heard and discover new information or skills.

I find it awfully tiring, more so than I would if I was if I was training face to face…I would normally have done two workshops in a day, face to face. Honestly, I wouldn't even dream of doing that on Zoom, because I just don't think I could, I don't think I could manage it

On the other hand, online activities have increased participation. Staff also no longer have to set up a physical space or travel to a location. However, this time-saving is unlikely to make up for duplication of online roles or tasks, such as the number of people needed to manage an online event.

Hybrid online and face-to-face services offer opportunities - and challenges

Participants expect that hybrid services, with online and face-to-face options, will become normal practice. 

This is largely considered positive. The expectation is that it will open up access to services (particularly for some beneficiaries at most risk of exclusion) and extend reach across geographical boundaries. 

we now offer everything online, as well as face to face, and we'll keep that moving forward. Because some disabled people that can't get out some mornings, they're still able to get involved in events, whereas before, if they weren't able to go, they would have missed out on our face to face event. So it's provided us with new options for disabled people
We're also just about to launch a peer support group, which is online as well, which is good because then people can come from nationally, really wherever they are, which is really important for us

If moving to hybrid provision becomes the norm, civil society organisations must get digitally excluded communities up to speed with change, manage the capacity of small teams (sometimes volunteer only) and restructure projects or even the entire organisation. 

All at once. 

Participants talked about the chasm opening up between those that are able to embrace digital transformation and those without recourse to necessary resources, with specific challenges for marginalised or more at risk communities.

In moving to hybrid services there is a real danger that this chasm inadvertently widens.

Imagine you’re a small grassroots organisation providing a mixture of wellbeing, employment and cultural activities. 

You can’t run every activity for everyone with the small team you have, so those that have been digitally excluded over the last year join the face-to-face activities, run by the least digitally experienced staff members or volunteers. 

Team members with greater digital confidence run the online activities, joined by service-users that are most comfortable with the technology. It’s a simplistic scenario but one that illuminates the tough decisions these groups will have to make, and the very real prospect of a fortified divide. 

What would you do?

Training and advice needs to be grounded in community realities

One-to-one support with a digital expert can help staff and volunteers progress their digital skills development, from wherever they are in their individual journey. 

It also solves problems faster, ultimately saving time and money. Especially if those giving the advice understand the small charity environment:

just to have that person at the end of the phone to ask a question that would probably take me half a day to sort out and they can solve in a couple of minutes

Small charities and community organisations needed basic infrastructure advice. It was the difference between being able to respond and closing services down:

What happened was, we are a face-to-face organisation, and when the pandemic hits, we nearly lost everything. But with Superhighways, we were able to collect and create a website, and also document our work

Advanced independent technical independent expertise is hard to find and organisations have to make decisions between complex systems and workflows, whilst staff are already assuming multiple, and often new, roles.

I can't act on it until somebody can give me some proper appraisal, some option appraisal about the pros and cons of migrating all of our data from one platform to another

The direct relationship between learning digital skills and the bottom line is now clear

Staff can see the direct correlation between learning new digital skills and saving time and money, whilst still meeting community need.

“It opened my eyes to some different ways of working and potentially an income stream”
“So it's been really nice. Realising that you can have this joined up way of working…it's made things a lot easier for us as an organisation as well….it's just helped us work together better, it's helped us be more productive. It's saved us time. And yeah, everyone's now got skills we didn't have before around Microsoft 365”
“Budgets for us are extremely tight. Extremely tight. With COVID funding drying up a lot of funding pools, it's even more important that we focus on our funding and where we're allocating our resources. So something as simple as hosting the [web]site elsewhere, which offers a free service and not have to pay something like 26 pounds a month to be able to change our website as and when we need to. That's a huge thing for us”

Although organisations’ practical digital capability has grown, there is now a need to develop digital strategic thinking.

“Many skills are technical and operational, I need more support in development and strategic use of technology”

So what can we learn?

  • Many small charities need funding for basic tech infrastructure and digital skills – they're at the beginning of their digital journeys, and need to build a solid foundation of digital skills before they explore next steps in transformation and digital service design. These organisations have been key to the UK’s crisis response.  They have been bold and stepped out of their digital comfort zones with whatever resources they could muster, to respond to their communities’ needs during the pandemic.

  • Whilst digital can bring efficiencies, it can also be more resource intensive when recreating human-centred face-to-face environments, and we need to remember this.  

  • Organisations will need to think more carefully about assigning roles according to skills, not only the initial job role that current employees have. Funding will need to be allocated accordingly.  Enhancing wellbeing and fostering human connection in digital spaces will additionally need greater levels of support and skills development.

  • Most of the organisations accessing our digital support work at a local level, and whilst digital can open up access from farther afield, the importance of hyper-local service and activities for our audience is key. 

  • Advisers, funders and supporting agencies can make a big difference if they understand the pressures that small frontline organisations are facing and the environment they are operating in, alongside digital knowledge that meets them where they are on their personal and organisational journey.

  • Digital agencies and support organisations need to take care to speak directly to wider civil society, inclusive of grassroots groups or CICs, and not only ‘charities’ if communities are to digitally thrive.  Funders will need to support grantees to use digital, including those with lived experience and especially in the context of the growing focus on diversity, equity and inclusion.

  • We’ve seen there is benefit in convening spaces for funders and smaller charities and community groups to come together and learn from each other.  Facilitating spaces enabling peer support and learning from others’ experiences could also be a way forward to build digital capabilities in the small charity sector. 

  • We anticipate a growing demand for train-the-trainer style learning or peer-support programmes to build the skills and confidence of staff and volunteers to help their communities gain basic digital skills.  We hope funders will recognise digital training budget lines in applications for community activities and recognise time and tools for essential digital skills sharing with communities 

  • Digital capability programmes may need to consider a back-to-basics approach, either as newly developed initiatives or as standard in existing learning programmes, ensuring participants understand for example how to navigate their device, change settings or perform system updates.

In conclusion

Small charities and community organisations have some tough choices to make as we recover from this crisis. So will those that fund and support them.

We hope that funders will recognise that digital skills development is going to be essential to the re-building of society. Local people and the community organisations that support them are simultaneously experiencing digital exclusion.  

It’s always been a social justice issue but never more so than now, when civil society is so desperately needed to bring people together. Yet there is a danger that the digital divide may inadvertently grow deeper and wider. Funding will need to recognise training as a significant budget line, knowing that this will be cascaded for the benefit of many.

No matter the choices that need to be made, we cannot lose sight of the people that are at the forefront of social impact in local communities. They may be tired, but they are also tirelessly brave in their efforts to make people’s lives a little better.


This article was first published for Catalyst in March 2021 but is no longer online.


Need help?

If you are a small charity or community organisation in London struggling with digital technology we may be able to help you through our Digital Foundations programme.