Northern Ireland’s social enterprise and voluntary sector is losing its ability to remain competitive and deliver services because it’s lagging behind in digital transformation, a new report warns.
The latest Ulster Bank and CO3 third sector quarterly index, which is based on a survey of directors and chief executives, found 94% of them reporting that their organisation faces barriers to fully accessing technology due to factors including cost and a lack of appropriate skills.
The Chief Officers 3rd Sector (CO3) organisation is made up of around 800 leaders ranging from some of Northern Ireland’s largest social enterprises and charities through to small community and faith-based groups.
The survey, conducted in conjunction with Ulster Bank, is considered a key barometer for the sector.
Two-thirds of those who responded (66%) reported an increase in demand for their organisation’s services in the last quarter, while three-quarters indicated that their organisation is facing financial pressures.
Only 28% responding to the survey said they believed that technology had significantly changed their organisation over the last five years.
However, there appeared to be a strong belief in the sector that digital adoption is important, with 62% of respondents agreeing that this can make the third sector more resilient and sustainable. And 40% anticipate that technology will have a significant impact on their organisation in the five years ahead.
CO3 chief executive Nora Smith said: “Technology has a really important role to play in the third sector, with the potential to allow organisations to do more with less and to further increase the positive impact they make in society.”
She highlighted the work of Belfast-based Angel Eyes, which supports and advocates for parents and carers with children who are blind or partially sighted.
The charity has developed a virtual reality training tool for parents and professionals, which simulates a visual impairment to enable parents and others to better understand what their child can and can’t see.
“Angel Eyes NI is just one example of an organisation doing this to great effect,” said Ms Smith.
“The latest report shows that demand for the services of third sector organisations in Northern Ireland continues to increase at the same time as funding pressures mount.
“Organisations recognise that technology can help them deal with this difficult situation and it is extremely important that digital transformation continues in the third sector over the years ahead.”
Ulster Bank chief economist Richard Ramsey said social enterprises and charities have shown resilience in recent years in the face of a range of challenges.
“But many organisations are finding themselves having to run faster just to stand still,” he said.
“It would appear that finding new and better ways to do things through technology so that they can increase productivity has to be at least part of the solution.
“A major challenge though is the skills to implement and utilise such technology.”