Zoe Amar: Why digital inclusion needs to be top of the agenda for the sector

Digital is an enabler for better health, wellbeing and financial inclusion, and charities should be at the forefront of delivery, writes our columnist

Zoe Amar
Zoe Amar

I recently attended the launch of Lloyds Banking Group’s Consumer Digital Index 2018. It’s a yearly benchmark of the digital and financial capabilities of people across the UK, offering valuable insights into how technology is changing our society. It’s likely that the people your charity supports will be affected in some form by the issues the report raises.

The key stats that caught my eye are:

  • 700,000 11 to 18-year-olds have no home internet access from a computer or tablet, and 60,000 of them cannot get online at home at all.
  • For one in three of those over 60, digital skills help them to manage and improve their health and to feel less alone.
  • 10 per cent of the workforce do not have basic digital skills. This group earns £13,000 less than those with all five basic digital skills.
  • 21.1 million people are less lonely because of digital, with five in 10 saying it has helped them find a job.
  • People with registered disabilities are four times as likely to be offline as those without.

All of this shows how digital is an enabler for better health, wellbeing and financial inclusion. Nick Williams, transformation managing director at Lloyds Banking Group, told me: "The UK is on the verge of a digital skills crisis, and more needs to be done by charities, businesses and government to reduce the threat of digital exclusion."

What could charities do about this challenge? Helen Milner, chief executive of the Good Things Foundation, defines digital inclusion as having the skills, confidence and access to be able to safely use the internet, pointing out that people who are digitally excluded are more likely to be socially excluded too.

She says: "Charities have a unique ability to reach excluded and vulnerable people and, as trusted organisations, are perfectly placed to support them to become digitally included. They can do this by building digital inclusion and skills support into their existing delivery offers, or developing partnerships with other organisations that support digitally excluded people."

For many charities, technology will be an increasingly important part of how they deliver their vision and missions. Emma Russ, fundraising manager from Galloways, a charity that supports people in Lancashire and Sefton with sight loss, says: "As part of the rehabilitation process, we show people how best to access the accessibility options on daily items, such as using magnification and speech recognition on iPhones and tablets, so that people have the same digital access as everybody else."

The charity also offers Talking Tech open days, catering for all skills levels across all of their sites, offering help with tablets, smartphones and laptops, supporting people in sending emails, using social media, downloading apps and listening to music.

Charities will also need to consider accessibility guidelines (the RNIB offers guidance on this). Robin Christopherson, head of digital inclusion at AbilityNet, acknowledges that this requires some resources, but it’s much cheaper if factored in from the outset.

"Consider it from the start," he says. "Making things accessible takes an average of 2 to 5 per cent additional cost. Consider it later and it can be much more."

But digital inclusion isn’t just a compliance issue, it’s also about approach.

Shaun Gomm, commercial director at Sigma, an agency that has helped Citizens Advice, Mind and Diversity Role Models to develop accessible and inclusive digital products and services, says: "it’s important to work with real service users with wide-ranging abilities to understand how they use the system and what difficulties they might have with it. Many organisations skip this step, but for us there are few things more valuable in the design and development process than observing how people are actually using your product."

One of the biggest challenges in meeting this need is that charities, like organisations in other sectors, need to develop their own digital skills. Last year's Lloyds Business Digital Index showed that highly digitally capable charities are twice as likely to save time and to increase donations, yet more than half of charities (52 per cent) do not have basic digital skills (compared with 41 per cent of small businesses). The prize for growing these skills is more than money and time; it’s giving even better support to beneficiaries.

Zoe Amar is the founder of the digital and marketing consultancy Zoe Amar Communications

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