Charities are expected to continue their rapid shift towards digital working and collaboration in 2021, building on the innovation they have displayed in response to the Covid-19 crisis even as the pandemic itself begins to retreat. New research from Pro Bono Economics’ Covid Charity Tracker, produced in partnership with Charity Finance Group and the Chartered Institute of Fundraising, shows wide-spread innovation and invention through the charity sector as a result of Covid-19. That tide of constructive, creative change is expected to carry through and even build into 2021.

From app-based delivery of food vouchers to hashtag-based running challenges, the crisis has moved fundraising, service delivery and day-to-day operations online. Three quarters (77%) of charities have made greater use of digital and technology during the pandemic, while two thirds (67%) have innovated to deliver services remotely. The shift is all the more remarkable given that, in 2019, only 10% of charities reported to the Digital Skills Report that they had been through a digital transformation process that was embedded in all they did.

The Covid crisis may have been a one-off event, but these positive trends appear likely to continue and to accelerate into the year ahead. Today’s new figures show 7 in 10 charities want to make more services digital and deliver new services remotely over the next 12 months. Over half (54%) want to increase their use of technology and digital within their back office functions.

Meanwhile, 50% of charities are looking to collaborate more with others in their sector, something 30% were reporting undertaking in August last year. Additionally, 35% wish to enhance their relationships with business. However, corporate giving has not been spared Covid’s impacts. Previous surveys have revealed just under a third (28%) of charities have reported a decline in corporate giving in 2020, despite high-profile partnerships by major brands such as Sainsbury’s donation-matching for FareShare. That suggests that alternative kinds of private-sector support, such as employee volunteering, use of unused equipment or office space, and donated services may all be beneficial approaches to take in the months ahead while cash remains tight for both sectors.

This widespread intention to enhance and improve collaboration is a rare positive indicator of the sector’s long-term prospects. Despite these positive trends, the research provides a clear reminder of the challenges facing the sector. One in four charities (25%) anticipate it taking at least two years for income to return to pre-Covid levels, and 81% expect Covid to negatively affect their ability to deliver their objectives over the six months ahead.

Anya Martin, Senior Research and Policy Analyst at Pro Bono Economics, said:

“Voluntary and charitable organisations have a long history of overcoming adversity. 250 years ago, they rose to the world-altering challenge of the Industrial Revolution. Following the last financial crisis, the sector pivoted towards new sources of earned income when other sources of funding fell away. This crisis is no different.

“Much about the months and years ahead are uncertain and the funding gap is a flashing red light on the sector’s dashboard. Yet a determined focus on collaboration and digital innovation means it is possible the charity sector emerges from the pandemic more closely knit and more efficient in the long-term – ultimately able to help more people, more effectively.”

Daniel Fluskey, Head of Policy and External Affairs at Chartered Institute of Fundraising said:

"The story of Covid through 2020 for the charity sector has been one of huge challenge, but also of resilience, flexibility, and innovation. The loss of income told to us by the sector in this research means that we have never before seen such a threat to the delivery of charitable services and public benefit that charities exist for. Where charities have been able to carry out fundraising - either through limited activities in a safe and responsible way, or through new channels and innovative appeals - people have responded generously, but we have not been able to match the normal levels of income our beneficiaries rely on for the services they need.

“As we look ahead to 2021, we will need to learn the lessons of what worked last year and embed some of the flexibility and innovation that we've seen in fundraising activity. But we also have to be realistic that the charity sector will start 2021 smaller than it was in 2020 and that a full 'recovery' is unlikely to be seen this year."

Roberta Fusco, Director of Policy and Communications at Charity Finance Group said:

“Charities and social change organisations of all sizes have shown huge amounts of resilience, adaptability and decisive action through 2020 to ensure that they keep delivering a continued focus on their mission and meeting the rising tide of need from existing and new beneficiaries. The imperative to keep rapidly adapting will continue through 2021 with the impact of rising unemployment, Brexit and implications of possible No Deal. The capacity to remain flexible and adaptable relies on financial sustainability, which is under serious threat for many.

“Charities have stepped up to deliver and adapt at pace and have pulled on all the levers at their disposal, but they still face 2021 with hope - now government needs to do the same in their support of never more needed charities and not give up on the millions of beneficiaries who rely on the public benefit they deliver.”

Key findings:

Table 1. Which, if any, of the below changes do you want to make to your working practices over the next 12 months? (select all that apply)


Identifying alternate sources of income


Becoming more efficient in how we run our organisations or deliver services


Making more services digital/delivering more services remotely


More internal/back office use of tech/digital


Collecting more data about our services / programmes


Collaborating more with other charities


Collaborating more with businesses


Merging with another charity


None of the above


Notes: 9-15 November (n = 216).
Source: PBE Covid Charity Tracker survey

Table 2. How long do you expect it will take your organisation to return to pre-crisis income levels? 


Don't know


More than 24 months


More than 12 months


More than six months


Notes: 9-15 November (n = 216).
Source: PBE Covid Charity Tracker survey

Table 3. How do you expect Covid-19 to affect your charity’s ability to deliver on its objectives in the next 12 months?


Large negative


Small negative


No impact


Small positive


Large positive


Don’t know


Notes: 9-15 November (n = 216).
Source: PBE Covid Charity Tracker survey

Download this report