The third sector in a digital world: room for improvement

1 Feb 2023 Ryan Miller    Last updated: 1 Feb 2023

Photo by Ashwin Vaswani on Unsplash
Photo by Ashwin Vaswani on Unsplash

Research from late last year shows that organisations in Northern Ireland are not all fully comfortable in the modern digital age – but, with a bit of support, the right improvements are achievable.


The digital revolution began a couple of decades ago. Since then, there has only been one direction of travel.

Most people have folded tech into their everyday lives and, as such, have a degree of savvy by experience. The same is true of many organisations.

Northern Ireland’s third sector is increasingly digitised. Virtually every workplace – public, private or non-profit – will have been using the internet for 25 years and computers for longer than that.

What is interesting about this process of digitisation is that it isn’t finished. Tech itself is evolving, with some ideas apparently persisting (social media, say) and others seemingly dying on the vine (NFTs, anyone?) – although even ideas that don’t stick once can come round again (like VR).

This means that, ideally, organisations will tick two boxes. Firstly, they will have the skills and tech infrastructure in place to work in the digital world as it is, at present. Secondly, they will have one eye on the future, ready to adapt to new and shifting trends.

As things stand, that’s not really the case. The sector lacks a uniform standard for digital best practice and there is no overall strategy in place to achieve one.

Digitisation is also more of a backroom or organisational process rather than a frontline service. While good infrastructure – within an organisation or even a whole sector – will ultimately improve services, many orgs understandably prioritise immediate, direct, frontline concerns over longer-term base building, especially in financially-challenging times (like now).

Which is not to say things are bad, or that proper systems can’t be put in place.


Last November, the Community Foundation for Northern Ireland (CFNI) published Wired Up? Exploring the current levels of digital skills and inclusion in the Voluntary, Community and Social Enterprise Sector in Northern Ireland.

Scope wrote about Wired Up? previously, asking specifically if the issues it raised mean that government should stump up cash and/or resources to ensure organisations in the third sector can ensure their digital capability is up to snuff.

Just a couple of weeks ago, Royal Mail told people not to send any post overseas due to a “cyber incident”. The organisation used that description, rather than a cyber attack, because they simply didn’t know what had caused the breakdown.

The fact is that the importance of digitisation – both building modern digital skills and developing adequate security – remains underappreciated, in the private, public and third sectors, and in organisations both big and small. NICVA has developed cybersecurity resources to help organisations, whatever their level of ability or confidence, become more robust. However, the case for government help is compelling.

For that reason, it’s worth looking more closely at what Wired Up? says in general.


The research sought to “explore the current digital needs of the VCSE sector in Northern Ireland and to identify areas for potential development in the future”, with the study focusing specifically on the current level of digital skills among organisations, the challenges for the sector on increasing digital inclusion, any common areas between organisations who have adopted a more digital culture, and identification of any support used by those in the sector “to make good use of the opportunities offered by digital in terms of skills, digital inclusion and digital capacity.”

In terms of skills, there is a wide variation in skills levels across the community and voluntary sector:

  • 82.9% of respondents rated their skills as excellent or good when it comes to working with people within their own organisation
  • 76.4% said their skills were good or better in terms of using information to inform their work
  • 72.8% rated their ability to work safely online as good or excellent
  • 58.3% said their ability to use digital skills to connect with others outside their organisation as excellent or good

Those figures certainly aren’t terrible but certainly there is room for improvement. Consider, for one, the fact that almost 30% of respondents rated their ability to work safely online as less than good.

Per the report: “Staff and volunteers with poor digital skills tended to be older with 75.0% over fifty years of age, had higher levels of disability (25.7%) and worked or volunteered for a community group (41.7%), NI regional charity (25.0%) or local charity (19.4%).

“While recognising that some learning opportunities are available to support the development of digital skills, the lack of free training available to the sector was considered a challenge in addressing the digital skills gap.”

Inclusion and culture

In terms of digital inclusion, most participants agreed that this is now a priority for their organisation – with the top three groups identified as being at risk of exclusion older people (88.5%), those on low incomes (83.5%) and people with a disability (75.3%).

The most commonly-identified barriers to inclusion were poor digital skills (85%), inability to afford ongoing data costs (82.3%) and lack of devices other than a mobile phone (82.0%).

The research found that “organisations had successfully reduced digital exclusion by providing a combination of equipment, data and support to develop digital skills on an ongoing basis” and that further improvements in this area require long-term investment in devices, data, and skills for staff to allow them to better help service users and any others at risk of exclusion.

Most respondents rated their organisations digital culture as excellent (11.7%) or good (46.0%), with over a third saying it was fair, only 8.0% claiming theirs was poor – and no-one saying it was very poor.

The research identified three key characteristics present in organisations who are more advanced in adopting a digital culture:

  • Recognition that digital is a part of everyone’s job
  • Commitment from senior leaders to develop digital capacity
  • Understanding that addressing digital inclusion is now a normal part of service delivery

Like so many other things, when it comes to improving digital practices in the future, the biggest concern for third sector organisations is funding. Per the report, respondents expressed this in two ways:

  • Difficulty in getting core funding to support digital (81.8%)
  • Short-term funding making it difficult to plan ahead (81.8%)

“Results show that organisations incur considerable and ongoing costs associated with their digital infrastructure. Organisations may require annual subscriptions and licenses to use products, apps or services to support their work and spend significant funds on external IT contractors to maintain cybersecurity, website, equipment, systems and provide troubleshooting support.”


Digital capability within the third sector is something that needs improvements rather than a fix, according to the picture painted by this report. Nothing is broken, almost everything could be better.

To achieve this, Wired Up? makes four recommendations:

A Digital Strategy for Northern Ireland – the Northern Ireland Executive should “develop a Digital Strategy for Northern Ireland to provide a coherent digital vision with a fully funded action plan”.

The report says this plan should prioritise tackling digital exclusion, support collaboration between sectors including the creation of a partnership between the third sector and public bodies together with funding for organisations to develop digital infrastructure, and all of this should be supported by the collection and publication of data to monitor effectiveness.

A New Approach to Funding Digital Infrastructure – funders must play a bigger part in supporting the digital needs of the third sector, in particular with smaller organisations. A new approach to fund digital improvements should include:

  • Core funding for digital infrastructure on a long-term basis
  • Recovery of the full costs associated with developing and maintaining digital infrastructure
  • Additional funding to support organisations with digital inclusion

Improving Digital Support for the Third Sector – a digital support service should be created, with access to a range of supports for different organisations, again with a particular focus on smaller groups.

This could be a single organisation or a network, but it should provide technical assistance (including troubleshooting and advice on cybersecurity), resources and guidance to help individuals, and organisations, and more in-depth training courses and other opportunities to boost digital knowledge.

Workforce Development for the VCSE Sector – training opportunities to develop digital skills should be ongoing “and be available for free or low cost to organisations.” This training should do several things, including:

  • Enable staff and volunteers to use digital technology relevant to their role
  • Develop a regular Digital Skills Audit for the third sector, identifying gaps and trends, and providing evidence to inform organisations, funders and policymakers about ongoing need
  • Training resources and opportunities specifically developed to support staff and volunteers with poor digital skills, particularly older people or people with learning or physical disabilities
  • Creation of “digital champions” across the sector, to help share good practice, training opportunities and encourage partnerships

Northern Ireland’s third sector isn’t where it should be, digitally. However, things are by no means a disaster and creating a system whereby organisations can get up to speed with the standards of today, and be ready to adapt to those of tomorrow, is within grasp. It just needs to happen.

Join the Conversation...

We'd love to know your thoughts on this article.
Join us on Twitter and join the conversation today.

Join Our Newsletter

Get the latest edition of ScopeNI delivered to your inbox.