Bridging the digital divide to engage with non-screen users

For the Volunteer Organisers Network’s first event, Mara Barth, Learning Officer at the National Galleries of Scotland (NGS), shared her experience with engaging with non-screen users.

Mara discussed the changing nature of engagement in a COVID world, a world in which we have to keep physically distant from each other to keep safe. While digital technology has enabled some people to stay connected on social media, video conferencing applications and other online platforms, not everyone can use or access these platforms.

Mara gave the following tips for engaging with non-screen users:
Be clear about outcomes and goals

When reaching out to non-screen users, it is important to be specific about what you hope to achieve. Will you be delivering a one-way communication to audiences or volunteers, who will then complete a task in their own time, or will you be facilitating a dialogue with them? Are you aiming to combat loneliness, to teach a new skill, or something else? Keep in mind that one outreach method or activity will not be suitable for everyone, so focus on a set of key goals.

Work with partner organisations

Look into organisations, community groups or charities that already engage with non-screen users. These groups can point you to existing research and best practice for engaging with non-screen users, and they can put you in contact with potential participants or volunteers. Collaboration is also mutually beneficial for partner organisations- engagement with culture and heritage contributes to their audiences’ wellbeing

Think outside of the box

With the pace of digital development rapidly accelerating in the wake of COVID-19, it can sometimes seem difficult to think of engagement options that aren’t screen-based. To  help you think outside of the box, you can take inspiration from these non-screen-based engagement options:

  • Engagement packs: Since the summer of 2020, NGS remotely connects with their audiences by posting out art packs with art supplies and creative prompts. Developing and posting packs with creative prompts and supplies could be a task for a volunteer that does not or cannot use screen technology.
  • Treasure hunts and trails: Treasure hunts and trails are a great way to engage local audiences and communities and to get people safely outside and active. For example, NGS developed a trail through the sculpture garden they have on site.  Creating treasure hunts is a possible task for a volunteer that does not or cannot use screen technology.
  • Teleconferencing: Many video conferencing applications (Teams, Skype, Zoom) also have teleconferencing options, enabling people to call in from a mobile phone or landline to have a chat. Teleconferencing is a great way that volunteer organisers can host group activities or training sessions for non-screen using volunteers.
  • Postcards and letters: Postcards and letters are low-tech ways to keep in touch with audiences and volunteers. Volunteer organisers could also encourage volunteers to send postcards and letters to each other to maintain a sense of community.
  • Buddy programmes: Volunteer organisers can encourage volunteers to keep in touch by creating a buddy programme, in which two volunteers are responsible for checking in with each other over the phone or by post.
Make space to listen, learn and adjust

Reaching out to new audiences or trying out different forms of engagement can feel daunting, but it’s important to remember that it is a learning process! Make sure to build feedback opportunities into any programme you develop, either in the form of short questionnaires or by asking a few casual questions of participants or volunteers. This will help you better engage with people in the future.


Question & Answer

The event included a Q&A portion with some great questions from attendees:

Q: In the wake of COVID-19, organisations created and used more online/digital content. Do you think that with digital fatigue and the deepening of the digital divide that organisations will focus more on digital accessibility and engaging with non-screen users in the future?

A: Mara echoed attendees’ sentiments that the amount of digital content can be overwhelming, and hoped that organisations would be more mindful of the digital divide. She suggested that as pandemic restrictions loosen and the weather improves, organisations could get creative with engaging audiences outside. She also suggested that organisations could continue the new engagement techniques that they’ve learned during the pandemic to reach new audiences after the pandemic. For example, art packs that are currently being posted to audiences’ homes could be used post-pandemic during informal group events where participants have a chat, a cuppa and do some art together.

Q: Any tips for how to engage volunteers across a language barrier?

A: Mara suggested bridging a language barrier by creating an activity that communicates with images, or by collecting and sharing recorded audio. Attendees also suggested working with partner organisations like the Scottish Refugee Council (SRC), which connects refugees, many of whom are multilingual, with volunteering projects. SRC also recommends setting up an informal volunteering buddy system, wherein one participant can act as an informal translator for another. A volunteer buddy system is also a great way to welcome those who may be unsure about volunteering – studies show that many people are more willing to try volunteering if they can do so with friends.

Q: How did you attract attendees for teleconferencing events?

A: Mara shared that collaboration and partnership is key for locating new audiences. She attracted attendees for teleconferencing events by circulating information through the Macular Degeneration Society’s network.

Q: How have your “old” ways of working, like in-person guided tours for people with visual impairment, informed your new way of working and engaging remotely?

Mara explained that NGS have moved their guided tours for people with visual impairment online by continuing to provide written and verbal descriptive text to audiences. Some participants have actually shared that the online version of the tour was more accessible for them because they could zoom in on images to see more detail.


To learn more about including non-screen users, check out Community Maker’s Including people without technology, and the Centre for Ageing Better’s Helping out: Taking an inclusive approach to engaging older volunteers. You can also contact Mara with any questions at mbarth@nationalgalleries.org.

If you want to be the first to know about the next Volunteer Organisers Network event, join the Make Your Mark campaign by filling out this short online form. Joining the campaign will subscribe you to a monthly e-newsletter with top tips for heritage volunteer organisers, give you access to a peer-to-peer volunteer organiser network and help promote your volunteering opportunities to marginalised groups.

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