How to make impact happen at scale

Author: Helen Milner, Chief Executive, Good Things Foundation

Despite the fact it is perhaps one of the lesser known social inequalities in today’s society, digital exclusion is one of the biggest we are facing. In the UK, there are 11.5 million people who don’t have the basic digital skills they need to survive and thrive in a digital world [1]. And 15.2 million people are either non or limited users of the internet and so aren’t using the internet often enough or fully enough to get the real benefit of it [2].

But digital exclusion shouldn’t be seen as - or tackled as - an isolated issue. People who are digitally excluded are also far more likely to be socially excluded. Ninety percent of people who are non or limited users of the internet can be classed as disadvantaged [3]. And digital exclusion leads directly to social exclusion - if you can’t use technology, you’re less likely to be able to manage your money effectively, find work, or improve your skills.

So supporting digitally excluded people means supporting people who are facing other social exclusions as well. And by tackling their digital exclusion - giving them the skills they need to go online and manage their money, apply for work, get involved with their community or improve their English language skills - we can also tackle some of the other barriers that are holding people back, and keeping them from realising their full potential. Ninety percent of those supported to gain digital skills progress on to further learning, 67% feel more confident managing their own health, and 52% feel more confident in managing their own money [4].

So how do we tackle a problem as big - and as critical - as digital exclusion? The pace of digital change is rapid, and so if we’re to survive and thrive as a nation, we need to ensure that we’re making a proactive and ambitious commitment to ensuring everyone in the UK has the digital skills and confidence they need. While having a deep impact on the lives of individual people is important, the issue is such a large one that we need co-ordinated and large scale action to address the issue of digital exclusion right across the UK - and beyond.

At Good Things Foundation, we’re doing this by creating a movement for social and digital inclusion. Although we’ve often been seen as a single issue charity, focussing on digital inclusion, to us and those we work closely with we are a social change organisation; bringing people together to make change happen on a large scale.

The word movement is bandied around a lot, but I believe this is what we’ve built in the UK. It’s important that we deliver deep impact, and we’re able to scale this for maximum impact. Through the Online Centres Network - a 5,000-strong network of community partners and other organisations working to improve people’s lives through digital - we’ve supported over 2 million people to improve their digital skills and benefit from technology since 2010. I think that’s a pretty powerful movement.

So how do we build a movement? Crucial is a shared vision that everyone can commit to and get behind, no matter who they are or how much resource they can provide. In the UK, everyone within the movement - from the single volunteer giving a few hours to help people in their community, to large funders giving millions - is committed to the vision of a better world through technology. And we couldn’t do what we do without any one of them.

Our leadership of the movement has also been vital. We’ve been able to galvanise and bring together a diverse group of organisations who all, despite their commitment to our shared vision, have their own challenges and priorities. And we’ve also been able to influence at a high level, in order to ensure that everyone’s voices can be heard in a way that can really affect policy and make a significant change happen.

Lastly, building a true network which is not top down, but which thrives through the connections between all partners, is crucial. Within the Online Centres Network and our wider network of partners, we’ve enabled a culture of sharing, learning and adapting which has ensured there is no ‘one size fits all’ approach to delivering digital and social inclusion, but rather thousands of bespoke approaches, adapted through local understanding as well as an understanding of what works. And by being connected together everyone is achieving more than any one organisation would achieve alone.

With the support of private sector partners, government and other third sector organisations - as well as the dedication of the Online Centres Network and other community organisations, we’re having a significant impact in the UK. But with 11.5 million people still lacking basic digital skills, we need to continue this sustained activity. We can’t take our foot off the gas. I regularly plead with government and other funders to understand the real benefits of digital both to severely excluded people and to the nation as a whole. The country needs support for digital inclusion to continue to accelerate over the coming years so we can close the digital divide once and for all.

But our ambitions aren’t just domestic. We’re taking what we’ve learnt about building a movement out of the UK - testing our approach in Kenya with the libraries service, and running a large project with the Australian government to support older Australians to make the most of digital.

As a charity, we’re an ambitious one. But we’re not ambitious for our own sake. I’ve seen first hand the huge impact digital has on people’s lives. And I know that digital can have a large scale impact on our nation - and across the world. Having built a movement, we’ll be keeping our foot firmly on the pedal to go further and faster, for the benefit of everyone.

Footnotes:

[1] Lloyds Banking Group Consumer Digital Index (2017)

[2] Good Things Foundation and BT: The Real Digital Divide (2017)

[3] Good Things Foundation and BT: The Real Digital Divide (2017)

[4] Good Things Foundation Progression Survey (2017)