How COVID made charities think digital

Third-sector organisations were among the hardest hit by the swift digitalisation early in the COVID-19 pandemic. Just under half had no access to digital funding, and one in five cancelled services because they lacked the skills or technology to deliver them.

Published in Essex Director Magazine Winter 2023

Community Spirit: Essex Community Foundation

  • The voluntary sector in the UK is large; over 168,000 charities appeared on the Charity Commission’s register in 2020, with a total income of £81.2 billion.
  • The full size of the sector is unknown, though, as only not-for-profits with a gross annual income of £5,000 or more must register.
  • It is estimated that small or micro-charities comprise a huge 96% of the sector.
  • The UK charity sector employs approximately 827,000 people. There are four volunteers for each member of staff in a small charity.

Andy Payne Worpole, Head of Programmes at Essex Community Foundation (ECF), an independent charitable trust which annually awards around £4.5 million in grants to Essex-based charities and voluntary groups, explains how the pandemic was a catalyst for change for many local charities.

“The first COVID-19 lockdown happened so quickly that many charities had little time to prepare. Their work was often carried out in person, so not only did they need to rethink how they could continue delivering their services differently and from a distance, but they also had to find the money necessary to equip themselves to work digitally. 

“When we surveyed our grant partners to find out what they needed, 75% highlighted ‘digital’ as a key issue for their organisation. Thanks to emergency relief funds, and the generosity of our fundholders who choose to support their local communities through us, we were able to award £1.6 million to Essex charities and voluntary groups to help them navigate the pandemic. This included funding to help move services online, upgrade IT equipment and upskill staff and volunteers.

“The pandemic exposed the digital divide for the voluntary and community sector. Still, it also provided the catalyst for change and charities were quick to respond to the needs of their communities and their beneficiaries and consider different ways of working.  

“We must continue to invest in the digital capabilities of charities so they can future-proof themselves. Our ‘Digital Grants Programme’ helps voluntary organisations in Essex improve their use of technology and enable people to access services through digital platforms.  

“We encourage those supported by the programme to collaborate, share their learning and come together to hear from digital experts who can help them to think differently about how they deliver their services.”

How Essex Community Foundation has helped

Using technology to streamline services

ECF funded Cool to be Kind so that it could set up an easy-to-use digital platform in partnership with the Chelmsford Homelessness Forum. This connects charities and collates information for people who are homeless in Chelmsford, or are at risk of becoming so. The platform also helps organisations to share best practices and intelligence between themselves, so they can develop their services, collaborate, and address the needs of the homeless community in the future.

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Keeping people connected

ECF funding helped charities to use social media and engage with their beneficiaries in a new way. From their base in rural Colchester, Abberton Rural Training provides horticultural skills training, alongside therapeutic support and mentoring opportunities to a wide range of people. When participants could no longer physically attend their centre, they came to ECF for funding for the innovative ‘Grow Your Own’ project.

They sent out seed packs to over 1,000 households across six districts and encouraged people to grow their own fruit, vegetables and herbs at home, supported by online videos. Then they asked them to share photos of updates in a Facebook group. This gave an excellent boost to residents’ physical and mental health by helping them to learn new skills and stay connected during lockdowns.

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Essex Blind Charity received £9,265 to help redevelop its mobile IT infrastructure and CRM system. Jonathan Dixon, General Manager of Essex Blind Charity, said: “Our referrals are often newly diagnosed people struggling to come to terms with their sight loss. We visit them in their homes, and our new CRM system means we can collect client information all in one place; as it is cloud-based, the whole team can access it both on the move and at the same time.”

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How can your business help local charities?

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ECF works with many businesses in Essex, helping them support local communities, engage with their staff and embed a long-term approach into their corporate ethos. This includes Birketts, Ellisons, Milsom Hotels, Saffron Building Society and Teleydne e2v.

For more information T: 01245 355947 or visit

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