NI charities and digital – a doubly slow change of approach

10 Jul 2019 Ryan Miller    Last updated: 10 Jul 2019

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash
Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

The third sector in NI is lagging behind other areas in its approach to digital. However, even in the rest of the UK the pace of change is sluggish.


Charities in Northern Ireland are not adapting to the digital world as quickly as everyone else.

In 2006 cash payments accounted for 60% of all UK financial transactions; this is predicted to fall to 26% by 2026.

Research from NICVA – their latest Individual Giving Survey, published in May - showed that only 29% of people who donated to charity in the past year used any digital means to do so.

While 73% of donors said cash was their main means of giving, 80% of those who used digital gave via direct debit, which tends to be a recurring donation – which might make the sector more keen to adapt.

Later that same month, the NICVA research was backed up by the Third Sector Index, a regular survey of charity directors and CEOs carried out by CO3 and Ulster Bank.

Most charity leaders who responded – 62% - felt digitisation would make their organisations more sustainable and resilient, while 40% felt tech will make a significant impact on their organisation in the next five years.

However, 94% said they faced barriers to unlocking the potential of technology because of costs and lack of expertise, and only 28% thought tech had changed their organisation in the previous five years.

This was enough for the report to say NI is lagging behind other parts of the UK when it comes to digital transformation.

Other regions

A major report on digital development within the UK third sector launched on June 13 and showed the extent to which community and voluntary organisations are struggling to adapt to the digital world in general.

The Charity Digital Skills Report 2019 found that over half of respondents – 52% - have no digital strategy, which is a rise compared with 2017 (50%) and 2018 (45%). Only 12% are considering how tech innovations could change their charity.

Further findings include:

  • More than two thirds of charities (67%) want to use digital to increase their impact
  • A lack of funding continues to be the biggest problem for charities wanting to reform areas of practice
  • Most charities (68%) rate their board’s digital skills as low or having room for improvement
  • More than half (53%) of charities are aware of emerging tech developments but aren’t planning for them yet. Just 12% are planning for how this could change their charity
  • 58% say that their charities have fair to low skills in digital leadership, a notable increase from 53% last year

The foreword was by two junior Ministers from the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. Mims Davies, Minister for Sport and Digital Society, and Minister for Digital and the Creative Industries Margot James wrote: “We recognise the vital role technology can play in approaching social challenges.

“For the social sector to take full advantage of the opportunities that digital presents, it needs to be equipped with the right digital skills.There is no doubt that many charities are struggling to use digital tools strategically, which is impacting the growth of the sector.”

Small orgs and limited resources

A June report by the Institute for Voluntary Action Research (IVAR) and the Centre for Acceleration of Social Technology found that smaller community and voluntary organisations are willing to embrace the digital world but are constrained by time and funding.

Start Somewhere: An Exploratory Study into Making Technology Imaginable and Usable for Small Voluntary Organisations found that 93% of organisations in the UK with annual incomes under £500k think tech can make them more efficient but 54% say they lack the capacity to pursue change.

This research also focused on general digital adaptations and its findings include:

  • Tech is “imaginable” – but not as useable as it should be
  • Barriers to use are practical, not psychological
  • Funders can play more of a role in supporting the introduction of tech into smaller organisations

IVAR Director Ben Cairns said: "We would like to see more trusts and foundations offering long-term core funding to create space for experimentation so that charities can work out what ‘tech’ means to them."

That’s what some funders are trying to do. The National Lottery Community Fund (formerly the Big Lottery Fund) launched a £15m pot to help the community and voluntary sector improve itself with technology.

This money could be very useful.

If the third sector in Northern Ireland is behind the rest of the UK in adapting to the digital age, then this is doubling down on an issue, because organisations in GB are struggling to move with the times.

Broadly speaking Northern Ireland finds itself at the back of a slow race. That is not good news.

However, more support is required. Clearly the appetite for modernisation is greater than the ability or spare capacity to do just that.

If change is made easier, more organisations will search it out.

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