Emma Weston photo

As 2020 draws to a close, we spoke to another social sector leader doing pioneering work with digital during COVID-19. Emma Weston, CEO of Digital Unite, tells us about their festive campaign to help everyone stay connected this Christmas. 

1. How has 2020 been for the Digital Unite team? What trends have you noticed? 

2020 has been quite a year for all of us, hasn’t it?! 

This year we have experienced great – sometimes inchoate –  demand for digital skills support combined with massive insecurity and huge turmoil and confusion as to what that practically meant.  

Our clients are charities large and small, social housing providers, local authorities, Unions, NHS in various guides … folk on the front line, with the front line, where the impact of digital exclusion exacerbates all manner of other inequalities, tensions and challenges. 

Even though digital skills would have, could have, can ease the knot of so many other problems, the prioritisation of them over the immediate, day to day challenges provoked by COVID-19 was complicated. We all know there has been extreme pressure on ‘the basics’ – access to services, supplies, pressure on health and wellbeing, income, employability, education.  

At Digital Unite to some extent earlier this year as the pandemic broke, took hold, we had to tread water and wait for our clients to re-emerge. And we also just got on with as much as we could to be useful, be supportive. We produced lots of new, free material to help organisations adapt to remote digital skills support https://bit.ly/3mkSjTg   We gave away memberships to our Digital Champions Network https://bit.ly/3men78c

However in this final quarter of 2020, we have started to see new, muscly, assertive behaviours in relation to digital skills development across the sector. It feels hopeful.

COVID-19 has been shocking shorthand; develop your digital skills capacity organisationally and in relation to customer and service provision, or falter, fail. Simple as that. 

For us, it’s incredibly exciting as charities large and small, hyper local and national, engage with us to build digital skills capacity through Champion models.  And, working with our clients, we also had to really stretch and flex as a provider because the models and the knowledge base have had to change and adapt. We’ve spent over five years building and resourcing a Digital Champions Network (DCN) that’s had to become, at breakneck speed, also a resource for Remote Digital Championing too.

Our sense of hopefulness is confirmed by organisational memberships of the DCN increasing monthly. As the year closes, I would say the prevailing trend is that of sectoral determination to embed, grow and curate digital skills development from within. As opportunities for face-to-face support and intervention remain challenged, and challenging, Digital Champion networks offer organisations the strength and adaptability of human-built digital skills scaffolding.

2. What is the Connect @Christmas campaign?

[email protected] is seasonal digital skills goodwill! 

This Christmas we won’t be able to be with everyone we would like to, and there will be millions of people not seeing anyone or seeing them only remotely or virtually. Digital technology and digital skills offer us the possibility of connection. 78% of those online say the COVID-19 pandemic has escalated the need for digital skills, and 80% say using technology has been a vital support to them. Yet 1 in 5 people still don’t have good enough digital skills for everyday life.

We’re urging anyone who can to support someone else who can’t – use the Internet with confidence, navigate the digital world, connect to others: to be a ‘Connector’! You don’t need to be an IT expert to make a digital skills difference to someone else. And you don’t need to be a ‘fully fledged’ or experienced Digital Champion. There’s a lot of digital skills knowledge and wisdom out there and folk who are digitally confident often take that for granted. Encouraging people to be a Connector is all about encouraging them to recognise that they do in fact have digital skills worth sharing. If we can, together, support others with digital skills over Christmas, we’ll also be giving them skills and knowledge they can use all year round.

3. How can people get involved? 

Easy. Use our [email protected] site https://connect.digitalunite.com/  to:

  1. get ideas for festive things to do online and use digital tech that will engage others. 
  2. Browse three free new mini-courses on how to be a Connector – super light touch and yet packed with great information, tips and practical advice for supporting others
  3. Share Connector tips and ideas and win £100 – there’s a weekly draw through December. And even if you have nothing to share or add, do browse the ideas and examples being shared on the site, they are so inspiring.
  4. Pass the URL on – through all your networks, professional, social, familial … let’s make Connecting at Christmas a collective endeavour.


 4. What are your 2021 tech predictions for charities?
I am super excited about 2021. I think it’s going to be the year that the extensive – digitally facilitated – learning potential contained in Digital Champion models flourishes. I think opportunities for creative collaborations on Champion-led digital skills content design, production and sharing for and within the sector could – should – be significant. We’ve already got several projects with these characteristics in the first stages of design and delivery.  I think we are going to see a lovely merging and melding between subject matter experts and experienced professionals in the charity and social enterprise sectors, digital inclusion-digital skills people like us and learning and development/ e-learning professionals.  I think the experience of the pandemic has made us all more determined to do more, better, together. Sooner rather than later.