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Digital evolution – a longer view

By John Fitzgerald on 11th May 2021

What does digital change look like Before, During, and Beyond a pandemic? Although it feels like we’re living week to week or month to month right now, it’s sometimes useful to take a broader view and reflect on how things are changing over the longer term.

SCVO has been supporting the Scottish Voluntary Sector to make better use of digital for around ten years, and a lot has happened in that time. And what on earth might the next five years of digital change look like?

Before the pandemic

It’s worth remembering that the majority of voluntary sector organisations in Scotland are micro-SMEs, with one or two employees – or perhaps no paid staff. This means that digital change is not the big budget ‘big bang’ affair you might see in the public sector. However, there was quite a lot of digital change happening in the Scottish voluntary sector, even before the pandemic.

SCVO has worked with thousands of organisations over ten years, to both set ambitions for what digital capability they should have, and to provide practical steps to help achieve that capability. In 2016 we launched our first ‘call to action’, introducing a vision of what the sector should be doing with digital.We went on to work with successive cohorts of senior leaders, and started to develop a growing ecosystem of digital support.

Our second ‘Digitally Confident Third Sector’ event built on that initial vision and dug into how organisations could make digital change happen. At that event we had a vibrant community of digital changemakers from right across the third sector, all committed to making change happen faster and sharing ideas on what was working.

What sort of changes were we seeing at this point?

Organisations were getting better at identifying and articulating user needs, and at rapidly adapting and iterating services to meet them. And internally, more and more organisations accepted cloud-based modern platforms such as Office 365 and Google Workspace as the obvious replacement for on-premise networks. Overall, organisations who were switched on to digital could see its potential to radically improve their capability right across their work.

We spent a lot of time wondering how we could make less digitally curious organisations become more engaged and confident. As William Gibson said, ‘the future is already here, it’s just not evenly distributed’.

What does a pandemic do to digital change?

This all changed dramatically from mid-March 2020, as the first in a series of lockdowns forced the sector to move lots of activity online. So we no longer had to spell out the benefits of digital, but we had to cope with a massive spike in demand. Everyone wanted to be digital overnight, and many organisations saw five years’ of progress in matter of weeks or months.

There was a Cambrian explosion of ‘digital duct tape’ as organisations looked for quick, simple solutions. These weren’t perfect but they were good enough and had obvious positive impacts. More importantly, organisations who might have previously lacked digital confidence got a glimpse of what they could achieve.

At SCVO, we scaled back our digital checkup service to offer 15-minute ‘crisis’ calls to help organisations tackle blockers and find critical resources. We partnered with Third Sector Lab to offer 40 DigiShift calls, giving over 2,000 organisations Q&A sessions with a host of digital experts. Above all, it was really inspiring to see just how quickly even the tiniest organisations were able to adapt, and ensure they stayed working at some level during the pandemic.

And beyond?

After a year where everything changed so dramatically, it feels hard to make predictions about where the sector will go next, and how quickly this will happen. The obvious question is: will the sector will be able to bank and build on improvements they made during the pandemic, or will  organisations lapse back to traditional ways of working?

Even though the sector will be facing massive pressures and constraints, there is a real need to consolidate and build on the ‘digital duct tape’ of 2020. For most organisations, this will mean reviewing what they tried in the pandemic, and working out how to turn these into reliable, sustainable services that are accessible to all their users.

Where should the sector be in five years’ time?

  • It’s for everyone’ – any third sector organisation, of any size, should be able to deliver digital services to a high standard. 
  • Agile, responsive and impactful: reaching and supporting service users digitally will mean that the third sector can deliver substantially more impact from the same resource, and digital services will ensure that the sector is more agile and responsive to changing needs. 
  • Organisations right across the third sector are confident and discerning investors in digital and technology. 
  • Digital ways of working have been embedded as a default, core capability rather than something additional that is deployed in exceptional circumstances.
  • The voluntary workforce are confident users of responsive, reliable technology.

What is needed to get there?

  • Identify and spell out ‘best in class’ digital tools and practice so that organisations who are at an early stage in their digital journey can easily adopt them
  • Connect and signpost to external resources like Catalyst’s Service Recipes, Datakind’s Office Hours and The Curve training
  • Provide topical training on the cultural and mindset shifts needed to make effective use of digital (eg our Senior Leader’s Programme)
  • Continue to run a digital checkup, and run real-time analysis of results to identify new gaps and opportunities

As before the pandemic, we will still need to balance a couple of key tensions. Firstly:

  • balancing accessible, realistic advice that ‘meets organisations where they are’
  • with strong ambitions and a roadmap to ensure organisations don’t stagnate where they are.

Secondly:

  • Providing advice and support that takes account of the unique context of the voluntary sector but
  • avoiding ‘not invented here’ syndrome and maximising re-use of service patterns and approaches where this will lead to high impact for lower effort.

This won’t be easy, but I’m excited for two reasons: everyone is ‘on the bus’ now, and all of the digital tools the sector could possibly need are out there, ready to be made use of. I can’t wait to see where we get to.