Online, Digital and IT

Reaching Families

Many charities and community groups weren’t prepared for the digital and IT changes forced upon them by Covid-19. In 2019, the Charity Digital Skills report found that over half (52%) didn’t have a digital strategy, and only one in ten (10%) had been through digital transformation. A small number (3%) even said they struggled to access basic digital tools like a website, email or social media.

This year’s survey was completed as we went into the first lockdown and found that two thirds of respondents (66%) were shifting to remote delivery, with 61% offering an increased range of online services. Crucially though, just 11% felt they were well set up for this change.

Given these challenges, much of our Covid-19 funding - National Lottery grants, the Coronavirus Community Support Fund (CCSF), and Covid-19 Charities Fund - has supported organisations to adopt, or increase their use of digital to reshape and continue their work remotely, build new skills and confidence, and work to tackle the digital divide - for their own staff, but more often for the communities they support.

How is the community and voluntary sector responding?

Adopting or updating tech to work remotely

Many grantholders had to quickly update and improve their IT and infrastructure to keep working. Many were relying on old or refurbished computers; not all had moved to cloud-based software and storage, and some even had to rely on staff using their personal devices, Wi-Fi or data to work from home.

  • Remote access to systems and files. Mellow Parenting bought eight new laptops that were compatible with their server, allowing remote access to their systems. Software upgrades meant they could create new online training resources and install a secure video calling option to deliver their online parenting programmes.
  • Tools to do the job well. A small grant to Norfolk Hospice paid for four iPads and mobile phones with unlimited call packages, so that inpatients could keep in touch with their families who couldn’t visit. They also empowered the therapy team set up virtual counselling and support sessions for day patients who were shielding at home. These included essential support like gentle exercise, help with breathlessness and relaxation techniques.

Taking services online

We’ve already shared many of the ways in which charities have adapted their services to deliver arts and crafts, cooking, music, financial support and tackling loneliness digitally. We’ve also seen tech being used to:

  • Keep people connected. Mum Bub Hub found that new and expectant mums felt isolated and anxious during a time of significant change. They started free online courses, delivered by professionals. Attending from their home helped women connect with others facing the same concerns, building a network to help adapt and cope when things were "not going to plan."
  • Tailor services for minority communities. Sahil Project helped people from the south Asian community in Coventry keep in touch with friends and stay active. Online Bollywood and bhangra dance, singing and music classes were, "a great opportunity to mingle with our old or new friends […] in this pandemic period." The Emerging Communities Network (EMCONET) works with people from central and eastern Europe who live and work in the UK. They use online forums like Одноклассники (Odnoklassniki), which is popular with users from Russia and the former Soviet Republics, to arrange practical support like food deliveries, help to apply for Universal Credit and referring homeless people to emergency accommodation.
  • Sustain interests and friendships. Beacon Films CIC usually runs film classes that help disabled and autistic people gain digital skills and confidence. Web-based virtual workshops meant members could keep working together. For Rowan this, "helps me to be included so I don’t feel left out. Beacon Films is the only one of my support groups that has kept going through lockdown."
  • Keep connected to other local people. Malvern Parochial Church Council's community video and audio project taught residents to film or record themselves at home, telling stories and performing. These non-religious pieces were edited and burned onto DVDs and CDs and distributed locally, helping people feel connected to their friends and neighbours.

Extending reach and managing new demand

Many projects saw increased demand; partly due to greater need, but also because people became more aware of or more able to make use of the services available to them.

  • AI driven services. A number of projects are developing artificial intelligence (AI) like chatbots to manage demand, including outside normal working hours. Dads Unlimited’s chatbot will be accessed by a phone app, making it easier to get information when the privacy to call isn’t an option. Action on Elder Abuse saw a doubling of demand, so part of their grant will support a new instant messenger system to allow more capacity for urgent calls. The ADHD Foundation is harnessing tech to deliver an AI Cognitive Behavioural Therapy service, available 24/7.
  • Increasing capacity. Sue Ryder’s grant doubles provision for online counselling via a purpose-built digital platform and additional counsellors, plus increased capacity to moderate the Online Bereavement Community where thousands of people connect and share experiences with others who’ve lost a loved one.
  • New delivery channels. The Child Brain Injury Trust found that their virtual support service could be strengthened by a triage service and more information for families when they needed it most. Their app, CBIT at Hand will provide professional information, support and signposting on issues like concussion and brain injury signs and symptoms, whilst also logging requests for a one-to-one support call.

Tackling the digital divide

1.9 million households across the UK don’t have internet access and about a quarter of the population don’t have the digital skills that government says are essential for life and work. Covid-19 amplified existing inequalities and it quickly became clear that people who couldn’t afford devices or Wi-Fi were likely to miss out on information, support and opportunities.

  • Donating and sharing devices and data. DevicesDotNow provides devices and support to people with no access to the internet who are at high risk of coronavirus. Project partners donate “kit or cash” and by the end of July 2020 11,437 devices and £1.4 million had been secured. Devices and data bundles are given to people identified by community partners like local authorities, charities and libraries. This has helped over 10,000 people. Nearly a third (29%) used the internet for the first time ever. 89% said the device made a positive impact, like helping them develop new skills, look for work or join support groups and wellbeing activities.
  • Lending devices. Cambs Youth Consultation Panel bought Chromebooks, Windows 10 laptops and other devices to lend to young people who don’t have their own. By mid-July 2020 they’d distributed 547 devices, and worked with Police Service Volunteers to deliver them to families and schools in Peterborough, Wisbech, Huntingdon, Ely and Cambridge. 50% of recipients had no computer at all and the rest were sharing one device, often with three or more siblings.
  • Refurbishing equipment. North West Glasgow Voluntary Sector Network collect and refurbish used computers. They're cleaned and erased, the operating system and software are reinstalled and they’re PAT tested. Packs containing a PC, keyboard, monitor, mouse, pre-paid Wi-Fi and ‘how to guide’ are donated to individuals and families. Support to get things up and running smoothly is available through a helpline. Member organisations, like those working with refugees and asylum seekers and vulnerable families, ensure that equipment reaches those that need it most. They’ve just given away their hundredth unit.
  • Supplying devices people find easiest to use. Age UK South Lakeland gave 25 laptops to isolated older people who expressed an interest in getting online. They’d previously found older participants struggled with tablets and preferred a laptop with its physical keyboard.
  • Equipment to help keep in touch. The London Borough of Waltham Forest identified young carers as a priority for support because of their limited opportunities to connect with peers or keep up with their interests and hobbies. They supplied 50 tablets and set up new services, like E-Pals, so that carers aged 6 to 11 could keep in touch with their favourite staff member, plus a safe virtual space for 12 to 18-year olds to stay in touch with each other.

Building digital skills

Providing devices is pointless if people don’t want to get online in the first place, or feel intimidated about using them, or unsure of their benefits.

  • Help to get going. For people with little or no experience, it's often a question of knowing where to start. Malvern Church Council created videos showing how to access live streams and video calls and shared them on DVDs, that people were already comfortable and familiar with using.
  • Offer support how and when it’s needed. Ageing Better found that some older people don’t necessarily want or need digital literacy courses but prefer learning that helps them make the most of their smartphone or tablet. Often people prefer small chunks of support as and when they need it, rather than generic courses. Digikick CIC in Birmingham offers a daily two-hour support slot for anyone having trouble with their tech. Their team are familiar with major brands, and experienced in giving support by phone.
  • Tailor learning to people’s interests. The Centre for Armenian Information and Advice runs a digital inclusion project for the community of 20,000 Armenian people living in London. They’ve found that they have diverse needs, and that sparking interest and motivation is key to getting people interested. Showing them how tools like Skype and Messenger can help them keep in touch with friends and relatives abroad, or helping them to gain practical skills like shopping or banking online help nurture curiosity and motivation. As does support to virtually visit galleries and online events linked to Armenian festivals and culture.
  • Build on existing skills. C&T have worked with 20 community organisations in Worcester to develop residents’ digital skills. Building on the knowledge people already have, the project runs a series of virtual town hall meetings to discuss local challenges and how to address them. Follow up workshops include practical support on research, literacy skills, creative communication, video editing and blogging. This equips residents to make their own videos, relevant to the issues identified, which are hosted on a website, also built by participants.
  • Keep up the support and encourage curiosity. The FreeTech project’s weekly workshops in South Yorkshire respond to people’s questions and also use playful techniques to help them learn new skills. And they stretch people further - for example through sessions looking at the problems with Big Tech and Big Data and possible alternatives, or by working with free and open source software (FOSS). One member said, "I learned more in those two sessions than I did at a course that I went onto and paid eighty pounds!"

Our learning about online, digital and IT

1. Being digitally prepared is about your whole way of working

When the National Lottery Community Fund launched the Digital Fund, we found that ‘digital’ means many different things to charities; all are important and have a place in their digital journey. However, during lockdown we saw that many charities were playing catch up, and that those that had already made some progress digitally, or had created capacity to think and plan, were on a stronger footing to respond.

A digital strategy is sometimes considered the key thing that’s lacking, but it’s also often used as a catch-all term for, ‘we need to be more digital but don’t know where to start.’ Experienced digital practitioners say that, in fact, it’s about much wider organisational change. We support the idea that, “Digital transformation is the act of radically changing how your organisation works, so that it can survive and thrive in the internet era.”

The Open Food Network, whose software platform helps farmers and food producers sell directly to customers, explained, “Embracing digital has enabled us to be ahead of the curve in this situation.” Before lockdown their overseas partners were urging them to act. They used the weekend of 14–15 March to plan webinars to co-ordinate and engage their communities, drawing on the knowledge of their network in countries where Covid-19 was more advanced.

Relate told us how building an enabling culture and staff confidence in working digitally, helped them to adapt and make the shift from in-person to remote counselling. This prompted a culture change, “from a great deal of scepticism about this ‘digital’ thing [to] deliver[ing] in the new mediums.”

Parkinson's UK’s blog, Transformation at Parkinson’s UK shares some of the ways they have redesigned their organisation. "We’ve made lasting change happen by shifting ways of working, taking a hard look at our culture, remodelling our infrastructure and rethinking how we use data." This kind of preparation has created an environment where using phone and digital apps to reach more people living with Parkinson’s is enabled by having won the hearts and minds of staff who’d previously struggled to believe that they could give quality support this way.

You can read more about how some of our Digital Fund grantholders have responded in our blog, Leadership from Digital Fund grantees in unprecedented change.

2. Lots of free and peer support is available

The Charity Digital Skills report found that around half of charities face human barriers like confidence (47%) and lack of core digital skills (48%) when it comes to embracing digital. Connecting and signposting people to friendly and accessible sources of support and advice can really make a difference. And we’re learning that a little advice can go a long way.

  • Catalyst offers ways to connect and learn from peers. Their series of ‘Service Recipes’ show how charities have set up or established a digital tool or service. They give specific details of the software and tools used, costs, and a step-by-step ‘method’ that explains how to put it into practice. A named contact for each recipe means people can get in touch with any other questions.
  • Digital Candle links charities to experts for an hour of free advice on a specific challenge or project. As of July 2020, 219 charities had received help from 237 experts, including many requests for advice on how to set up virtual events and conferences; ways to take training programmes and learning online; implementing Google AdWords, and many questions about online security and safeguarding. Charities who have adapted their own services are encouraged to sign up as experts, nurturing a culture of kindness, confidence and open exchange of knowledge.

    They have learned that:
    • even people with basic digital experience are really appreciated as peer experts;
    • charities find value in almost any advice from someone outside their organisation;
    • it’s important to communicate that this is a genuine free offer and not a pretext for selling a product or service;
    • people want to know clearly who is running the scheme; and
    • experts offer the best possible advice when charities send information on their challenge in advance and they have time to prepare for the call.
  • We’ve also heard from grantholders that many charities don’t know they are eligible for free or discounted software, like that offered by Microsoft and Google. The Charity Digital Exchange connects charities to products and services donated by leading technology providers, as well as free and open-source software. But it’s important to be aware of the pros and cons of this route. As the Glimmer's report (see below) points out, "Reliance on free or extremely cheap corporate cloud solutions creates a number of risks, including data portability and outsourcing privacy and security, and that risk goes up for mission-driven organisations running their technical operations on a shoestring."

3. Digital may help make services more inclusive

Digital and tech have opened up new ways to support, connect and include people with disabilities, long-term health or mental health conditions. They may have been excluded by face-to-face services that hadn’t been adapted for them, and we’ve heard that for some people, the push to diversify delivery channels has helped improve and widen access to support.

  • Mitigating anxiety. Bodster Equine Assisted Learning works with people with physical or mental health conditions to develop new skills and improve their self-esteem, emotional intelligence and understanding of their own behaviour. Before lockdown participants worked with ponies on practical tasks like navigating an obstacle course or grooming. The shift to individual "virtual" sessions used Facetime, WhatsApp and Skype for people to continue to see nature and ponies, and take part in mindfulness activities. This simple idea, in a pressure-free environment, has helped reach people whose anxiety would normally stop from taking part, "These virtual sessions are vital for my mental health they make such a difference to my day they make me feel much calmer and relaxed so I’m more able to take on any challenges I have to face."
  • Making best use of adaptive technology. In North Shields, deaf awareness NE uses online sessions to teach fingerspelling and basic sign language. Providing inclusive social activities like sign singing has also helped them gain new technical skills, including improving the voice recognition software they use. Importantly, the work has made it easier for people to get hold of accurate and relevant public health information.
  • Practical adaptations. Vision Support work across Cheshire, Halton and North Wales. Lockdown and social distancing posed specific challenges for their clients, meaning more people were staying at home with the risk of becoming isolated. Their Assistive Technology Project bought 32 tablets and smart speakers for people who wanted them, and knew how they could use them. One beneficiary said, “I have used an Amazon Echo at the Blind Veterans Centre when it has been demonstrated to me. […] I really think it would be a great benefit as I would be able to speak to Alexa to ask for different radio stations and news rather than struggling with the radio settings. I am also very active and a volunteer for Blind Veterans and would find using the Alexa to log appointments/events very useful.”
  • Increasing access to medical advice. Steps Charity worldwide supports people with leg, hip or feet conditions. Lockdown meant that many people had their diagnosis, treatments and operations postponed or cancelled. Getting access to regular GP appointments was also harder, leading to worries about child development, walking and having normal mobility. Their webinars with health professionals mean parents can get advice about their child’s condition. And short videos of a health professional demonstrating specific exercises help maintain children’s mobility.

4. Digital isn’t a panacea

Despite the many successes in delivering services digitally some, like grantholders from our Ageing Better programme, remind us that while digital is increasingly seen as a fundamental basic need, online delivery may be best seen as a means to an end. For some people, “access to the internet has not been a necessary component of a thriving life.”

Some grantholders say that it is challenging to establish the same depth of relationship with their beneficiaries remotely. Being on a screen or phone is not the same as being in the same room, and new skills may be needed to build the trust that helps people open up.

It’s also important to note that being confined at home was not safe for many people, so any use of tech has needed to be adaptable to that context.

Younger people, who may be enthusiastic early adopters of tech, experienced a loss of choice about when to engage digitally and when to meet face-to-face. This has contributed to many anecdotal reports of screen/Zoom fatigue.

This factsheet from Help Through Crisis collects a further range of tips on building rapport online and our piece on helplines offers some suggestions for anyone looking to continue some elements of remote delivery, alongside their face-to-face work, when safe to do so.

5. Digital should help reimagine, improve and influence service delivery.

As we’ve seen, many charities are still at the earliest stages of thinking about and using digital. But the pace of change in 2020 has been impressive and offers the promise of future projects that build on what has been tried and learned this year. We're also keen to see the VCS thinking about how tech is changing society and playing a bigger role in shaping the future.

  • An ethical future. Glimmers was a real-time investigation into the relationship between civil society and technology during the crisis. Their report argues for an interim recovery period, because, “people’s resourcefulness and inventiveness have bent technologies to do the jobs that are needed  -  often through long hours, determination and sheer force of will. And although crisis management might appear to accelerate development, it does so by wearing resources thin and creating fragility.” The report and accompanying toolkit aims to help groups reflect on their recent experiences and plan for an uncertain future, with a call for civil society to have more influence; ultimately driving for tech to become a more ethical, community centred and mission-led space.
  • Flexible and responsive digital design. GoodGym is a community of runners that combines keeping fit and volunteering. Because they have digital design at the heart of what they do, and have an inhouse team, they were able to quickly adapt and scale their platform to be more responsive and able to match individual runners to new requests for help.
  • Redesigning access to services. Living Well provides mental health support to residents of Birmingham and Solihull. A new secure portal will help GPs refer patients directly to them, supporting more of the 500+ people who contacted local Clinical Commissioning Groups (CCGs) each day with concerns and anxiety about Covid-19.
  • Better customer service. In West Dunbartonshire, the Vale of Leven Credit Union’s grant is paying for the tech to let members withdraw savings from their account without leaving home. They can now request money via the internet, text or telephone and have it paid directly into their bank account. This frees up staff and volunteers to safely hand deliver money to people who don’t have a bank account. Colchester Credit Union will also offer on-line banking to members who struggled when collection points closed during lockdown.
  • Using technology in surprising and imaginative ways. Caerphilly 50 Plus Forum is filming 360- and 180-degree videos of local places for its Inside-Outside project. People who can’t get out will be able to enjoy these “real locations, that residents of care homes are familiar with” through virtual reality headsets. They’ve completed initial filming and tested in a local care home.
  • Using new digital knowledge to support others. The Children’s Law Centre (CLC) in Northern Ireland transformed their website and created a Child Law Hub and the REE Rights Responder chatbot. When the government began developing the Covid-19 Track and Trace, CLC suggested an app for under 18s and shared their learning about GDPR, accessibility, informed consent and child protection. The StopCOVID NI app is now available for anyone aged 11 or over and is the first contact tracing app to have been designed for use by under-18s.
  • Tackling misinformation and reimagining the world. My Life My Say makes politics fun and inclusive for young people from diverse and marginalised backgrounds. Their online platform is a place to tackle misinformation and discuss a range of topical issues. Online ‘Quarantine Question Time’ sessions present a panel of experts discussing topical themes like how young people can reimagine the world post-Covid; the US elections; funding for youth projects, and supporting the mental health of young people from Black, Asian and minority backgrounds. An impressive array of global speakers has helped attract up to a thousand participants to the sessions, that are co-designed, planned and delivered by their 16-25-year-old young leaders.

Learning from the Digital Fund

Technology can do so much more than support people during a crisis, but as we've seen there are many barriers that the VCS needs to tackle.

Our Digital Fund has supported established organisations to use digital to take a major leap forward, as well as helping newer organisations that had already launched promising digital services to achieve scale or impact. Grantholders from the first wave of funding have been sharing a wealth of learning about their work - from designing more human ways to work with young people remotely, to how to hire a developer for the first time. You can read much more at:

We're making sense of what we're seeing and hearing from our grantholders at pace, so there'll be things we've missed, haven't noticed yet or, perhaps, misinterpreted.

We welcome comments or challenge, so that we can continuously improve and develop, and make this work practical and useful.

Please send feedback and suggestions on this content to

This page was last updated: 26 November 2020.