By Rosemary Macdonald, CEO of UK Community Foundations – a national network of 46 community foundations, which have collectively given out over £1 billion in grants to charities, community groups and individuals.
The COVID-19 pandemic has emphasised the increasingly important role that the internet and digital devices play in our lives and shone a bright light on the digital divide between those who have access to the digital world and those who do not.
Technology has been a hero in helping many people to stay better connected, order food supplies, book medical appointments and work from home over the course of the pandemic, but for those who have limited or no access, it has meant loneliness, isolation, and vulnerability.
It has become clear that in the ‘digital age’ we live in, people who do not have connectivity or the skills needed to use the internet are at risk of being digitally excluded and left behind in society.
For example, the latest UK Consumer Digital Index from Lloyds Bank has revealed that an estimated 9 million people are unable to use the internet or their device by themselves, and 2.7 million people can access the internet but lack the ability to use it to its full advantage.
As health information and services are commonly delivered digitally, the ability to use digital technologies is increasingly a form of health literacy – and there is evidence from the World Health Organisation that people with lower health literacy have worse health conditions.
Studies have also shown that 1 in 5 children who are eligible for free school meals have no access to a computer at home – suggesting that home-schooled children from disadvantaged backgrounds risk falling behind.
Thankfully, the work we do at UK Community Foundations is helping to address this widespread problem.
In a survey we carried out earlier this year, we found that, since the Covid-19 pandemic began, 91% of the community foundations within our network have experienced an increased need for services in their area to support people experiencing social isolation. A further 85% reported seeing an increased need for technology and IT – both unsurprising given the reliance on technology to cope with the pandemic.
Our community foundations have also reported that rural areas, in particular, have struggled with digital connectivity due to insufficient broadband and the lack of essential digital skills – and the challenges of the pandemic have greatly intensified the need for equipment, infrastructure, and training.
In response to this need, our network’s local expertise and unparalleled grassroots connections are enabling us to facilitate and distribute much-needed funds to areas of the UK that require the most support and impact with digital exclusion, meaning every penny works as hard as it can for both beneficiaries and donors.
To help us on this mission, we are working with an infrastructure operator for wireless telecommunication by distributing a £120,000 donation they have made amongst six rural community foundations, so they can access essential services and offer the support that is needed to improve digital exclusion in their areas.
For example, Suffolk Community Foundation has funded seven different projects because of this donation, including supporting young adults living with a disability to develop their digital skills through Fairview Farm Enterprises CIC and a digital inclusion programme for refugee families with Suffolk Refugee Support.
Two Ridings Community Foundation have provided funding to Humber and Wolds Rural Action to establish a digital infrastructure and training pilot for village halls, helping them to get them online and connected to their local communities.
One of three projects supported by Gloucestershire Community Foundation is GL Communities who have received £4,000 towards the costs of equipping an IT suite at the local community centre. This will support young people in the digitally poor areas with the tools to connect with their school and/or college and university whilst learning the skills to become digital mentors in their local communities.
There’s no doubt that our reliance on digital devices for work, health and leisure will only continue to grow, so ensuring that people from less advantaged and rural communities are not facing exclusion is paramount.
Our network of community foundations understands the varying needs that different areas across the country have when it comes to digital inclusivity and will continue to work together to bridge the digital divide and ensure no one is left behind. With grit and determination, we can help to make a lasting impact.