Charity sector lagging behind on digital marketing skills, concludes new research

Author: CIM PR team

  • The digital marketing competencies of marketers in the charity sector are significantly lagging behind the industry average, despite an increasing reliance on online fundraising.
  • Usability, content marketing and SEO techniques amongst the worst performing skills for the charity sector, compared with the industry average.
  • Financial Services, IT & Technology and Retail sectors all outperform the charity sector across a number of core digital competencies

New research published by the training body Target Internet in partnership with the Chartered Institute of Marketing (CIM) reveals a significant lack of digital skills among just over 500 marketers working in the charity sector.

The charity sector scored below average in 10 out of 12 core digital marketing competencies. This lack of digital skills is particularly concerning given that online donations are rapidly increasing and without robust online strategies, charities risk missing out on important fundraising opportunities.

The results come from a benchmarking test of digital marketing skills of almost 9,000 marketing professionals, carried out by Target Internet in 2018 and repeated in 2020. 

When comparing skill sets across professions, the charity sector was also significantly behind industries in the private sector. This is worrying at a time when charities, on average, are having to plan for a 24% loss to their total income for the year ahead, as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.

Strategic deficit:

Implementing marketing strategies that leverage digital and mobile channels are vital today for raising awareness, acquiring and retaining customers, and maximising fundraising efforts.

  • However, only 32% of those working for charities possess the skills necessary to develop digital strategies, in comparison to a 34% average. Financial services (40%), agencies (40%) IT/Tech (38%) and retail (35%) all outperform the digital strategy skills of those working in the voluntary sector.
  • In addition, just 4 in 10 (41%), in comparison to a 47% average, possess the skills required to carry out fundamental marketing activities such as strategy implementation, audience segmentation and brand building techniques. Another area outperformed by those working in agencies (48%) and financial services (55%) in particular

Behind on emerging digital skills:

Online donations are expected to increase not only in volume but in value in 2020. Yet the charity sector is well behind in core digital skills that improve user experience, inspire action and attract new and possibly younger advocates.

  • The sector performed worst in some of the newest forms of digital marketing such as usability (24%, 28% average), content marketing (23%, 28% average) and Search Engine Optimisation (28%, 34% average).
  • Just 27% possess mobile marketing techniques. This compares to 35% in agencies, 32% in financial services, and 29% for both IT/Tech and retail.
  • And 28% possess the skills needed to take advantage of paid search advertising (PPC) techniques, in comparison to 36% in agencies, 32% in financial services, 32% in IT/Tech and 31% in retail.

Strongest on traditional digital marketing:

  • The charity sector is however, well above average in email marketing (57%), where the average score is 48%, highlighting a strong footing in traditional direct marketing techniques.

Gemma Butler, director of marketing of the Chartered Institute of Marketing, said: “The complex nature of digital means that marketers need to be continually upskilling themselves just to stay in the same place. This is particularly true of the charity sector - a sector that cannot afford to fall further behind in digital skills while the pace of technology shows no signs of slowing down.”

Brand manager at the British Heart Foundation, Kimberley Ferguson commented: “Like any other organisation, charities need to continuously adapt to an ever-changing market to ensure that they meet their customers’ needs.

“With digital advertising accounting for more than half of global ad spend in 2020, charities need to ensure that they have the skills to enable them to compete in this competitive market, so they don’t get left behind.”

Chair of CIM’s charity and social marketing group, Professor Ian Bruce added: “The new pandemic world is pushing charities faster into the digital marketing world and we need to get better. The sector has good trainers, let’s use them more.”

Vice chair of CIM's charity and social marketing group, Maria Andrews said: "Marketers in the charity sector need to work even harder to ensure they are brought up to speed on the importance of digital skills and utilise these skills within their marketing strategies in order to survive and thrive post the coronavirus pandemic.

"The results of the report ought not to be too disheartening, this is a real opportunity for marketing teams to identify the skills gaps in their teams and do something about it.”

CEO of Target Internet, Daniel Rowles said: “The charity sector has historically struggled at many aspects of digital marketing and have often relied on agencies to assist them. The benchmark shows that across the board there is room for improvement as a sector, and these improvements in digital skills will help charities effectiveness, efficiency and directly impact the causes they support.

“For UK charities, this highlights a distinct problem with getting to grips with digital transformation; an area that is vital to ensure charities can continue to do extraordinary, life-changing work.”

The digital marketing bench test requires professional marketers to complete a series of tasks aimed at testing their knowledge in 12 areas of marketing, with a particular focus on digital. The result therefore is an accurate and comparable assessment of the digital skills of individual marketers. 

Marketers can take the test themselves here:


Table comparing the charity sector and the industry average:




Analytics and Data



Content Marketing



Digital Strategy






Email Marketing



General Marketing



Mobile Marketing



Online Advertising









Social Media