As part of our interview series with digital charity leaders, we talk to John Fitzgerald, Digital Evolution Manager at The Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations (SCVO). We hear how SCVO’s latest Call to Action report has highlighted the huge digital changes brought about by the pandemic and what Scotland’s voluntary sector needs to be doing to keep progressing with digital.

1. What led to the Call to Action report, and what does it cover?

SCVO has been supporting the Scottish voluntary sector to make progress with digital for over 7 years. A lot of our support and advice work involves talking in-depth with charities of all sizes as they get to grips with digital to see how it can help them in their missions. Before March 2020, we spent a lot of time helping charities see the potential of digital.

Our first Call to Action report was back in 2016. It was co-produced with one of our first groups of charity leaders and looked at the potential and possibilities of digital. That was the ‘what’. After a couple of years of seeing how pioneering organisations were making progress, we did an update in 2018. Our second report was about the strategies and approaches organisations were using to make digital progress in practice – this was the ‘how’.

Obviously, things changed massively during the pandemic, with digital ways of working becoming the only option for the vast majority of the sector for both delivering services and keeping in touch with their teams. We were ready for our new third report, which basically looks at ‘what next?’.

Right now, we’re thinking about how the voluntary sector can exploit ideas and possibilities from the pandemic and turn these into longer-term ways of working.

2. How has the report been received?

We launched the report at The Gathering, the national event for the voluntary sector in Scotland. We had a panel of people from charities of all sizes, reflecting on their own experiences and where they might go next with digital. This kicked off a great discussion. We also saw some excellent engagement and discussion off the back of a thread on Twitter and we ran a session on it at Digital Leaders week.

We’re very interested to see how new insights from the Charity Digital Skills 2022 Report connect with what we’re saying in our Call to Action. It’s been good to see that one of the main themes of our report, how might we embed digital services for the long term, has really resonated with lots of organisations who are grappling with this question.

3. At SCVO you’ve seen a lot of digital change in your community of charities during the pandemic. What are the main trends you’ve noticed? 

The main external trend we’ve seen is that digital has really become a life-changing option for just about everyone. Before the pandemic, a lot of organisations felt that digital approaches or channels might not ever reach all the people they wanted to be in touch with. This changed rapidly in March 2020, with initiatives like Connecting Scotland bringing 60,000 vulnerable households online with devices, connectivity and support. And, more broadly, we saw things like Zoom moving from a niche workplace tool to something that was part of everyday life.

We’ve seen organisations respond amazingly quickly. In those first few weeks and months, it was crisis response mode. We were speaking to hundreds of charities multiple times per week and helping them quickly pick up tools and approaches to keep working. It was very practical stuff like how to virtualise a phone switchboard, how to make Zoom meetings secure and accessible and so on.

As the months progressed, the challenges we were talking about became more strategic, so it was about organisations reflecting and optimising their approach. It was great to see people moving so quickly from taking their first digital steps to becoming sophisticated users of technology. More recently, we’ve seen a big skills gap, with huge demand for training in Microsoft products. It’s been great to partner with them to offer thousands of free training places. Our own free training sessions on service design and remote team working have been running at capacity for a while.

Now, we’re seeing organisations start to make longer-term choices in the middle of a tricky context. The pandemic isn’t over, but some aspects of life are becoming more ‘normal’. And yet we have a huge cost of living crisis and lots of other major pressures. So, it’s a challenging time to be embedding longer-term change.

4. What role does digital play in the future of the charities you work with?

I think it’s still front and centre, both in terms of service delivery and how teams work together. A lot of what people were able to do in the pandemic was ‘digital duct tape’ (a phrase I love from the Glimmers report). It was certainly impactful, but it was stuff that was easy to implement, like Zoom meetings or off-the-shelf collaboration tools. We all quickly adopted the basics of remote working, but we’ve only really scratched the surface of what this means for working in the future.

Organisations will have digitised key parts of their service delivery during the early phase of the pandemic, but in lots of cases these new services will need to be improved to make them attractive and viable over the longer term. One of the big challenges is that charities are facing this need to evaluate and optimise digital ways of working alongside so many other pressures.

5. What’s the biggest digital opportunity facing charities right now and how can they make the most of it?

I think the biggest opportunity is that we’ve all spent the last couple of years having a global ‘green eggs and ham’ moment, to use Ben Evans’ phrase. What I mean by this is that everyone has had to try stuff that they would have walked away from if it was offered pre-March 2020. Now, let’s be clear, the pandemic has had massive negative impacts on lives, health and wellbeing across many areas. Obviously for a lot of areas, returning to face-to-face service working and service delivery will be welcome when it is possible. But in so many areas, the demands of the pandemic have allowed people to try out things they might never have done otherwise.

So now, in 2022, we have a unique opportunity to stick with things that worked well and make them part of our future.

You can read the SCVO’s latest Call to Action here.