Help your charity maximise digital developments

  • Being digital is about more than just having a website, it is about how organisations can use technology to deliver services and run their operations
  • Many charity boards lack digital skills, confidence or experience
  • We look at how to help boards ask the right questions and develop their skills

Guest blogger Zoe Amar looks at how charity leaders need to be more proactive about the use of digital skills and technology that could benefit their organisations.

I recently ran a workshop for charity leaders on how they could get more out of digital. The mood in the room was upbeat in spite of the challenges the sector is facing.

Many attendees were excited about the possibilities for offering more services online. Others were enthusiastic about the opportunities for digital fundraising, or the new ways of working and collaborating that digital represents.

However, when it came to discussing the barriers they faced, the majority cited their boards as one of the biggest challenges to their charities going ‘digital first’. They felt that boards needed to get up to speed in this area, but trustees lacked the skills and confidence required to make this a reality.

Lack of knowledge a wider issue

And it’s not just charities that are grappling with this issue. When I talk to colleagues in the private and public sectors, they are also keen to help their non-executives develop digital skills.

In 2015, McKinsey undertook a study that revealed that nearly half of the respondents’ CEOs had sponsored digital initiatives (up from 23% in 2012), with CEOs often seen as leading the digital agenda. However, boards were far behind, with only 17% of respondent’s boards sponsoring digital initiatives.

You might ask what difference this makes, but the same study found that 35% of boards at high-performing organisations sponsored digital programmes. In other words, if you’re looking for sustainability and growth, your board can’t just pass digital off to their staff team.

Having worked with many boards and with experience as a serial charity trustee, here a few tips on how to help your board drive forward a digital agenda.

1. Get your board on board

Acknowledge that digital is something that the whole board needs to own. I developed guidance for charity trustees about digital with the Charity Commission, and this is a good place to begin if you need to start a conversation within your board.

It covers many of the areas that are the bread and butter of most board meetings, such as governance and strategy, and offers insights into how digital is a game-changer in all of these areas.

Many boards are tackling this issue by recruiting a trustee who is a digital expert. However, this won’t completely solve the problem, as other trustees must also be open to learning from them, and willing to adapt the organisation’s strategy for the digital age.

2. Assess your skills

If your staff team is going through a digital skills audit, I’d recommend that your board participates. It’s vital to obtain a detailed picture so you can assess where training or development is needed.

A skills audit should look at how trustees are using digital already, both within and outside of their role, as well as asking about opportunities and risks for digital across the organisation.

Board members should take an active role in implementing the recommendations of the audit. Most boards will find that the learning curve in digital can be steep initially. NCVO’s digital skills audit is a good place to start.

3. Understand how digital integrates into strategy

Developing trustees’ digital skills is a good idea, but learning is much more likely to stick if you make boards aware of how it will make a difference. Ask your executive team to walk your board through where you are with digital (you could use the Charity Commission guidance as a checklist of key areas). Next, bring the conversation back to your charity’s overarching strategy, how digital can help you deliver your vision and mission, what your competitors are doing and how to manage any potential risks.

4. Embrace digital as a learning opportunity

I’ve worked with many trustees who feel daunted by digital. Being a trustee can be stressful, and digital strategy can seem like yet another thing to get on top of. But ultimately digital can help your charity be more efficient, save money and generate more income.

The recent Lloyds Bank Digital Index showed that charities that are excelling in digital are 28% more likely to report an increase in funding than those that aren’t. And 87% of respondents said that going digital saved time, while 52% reported cost savings.

A good charity chair therefore needs to make digital manageable and accessible for boards by building it into discussions around strategy, governance and other key areas at every board meeting.

How does your board measure up?

In my experience, once trustees take their first steps with digital they often become enthusiastic about the potential it offers.

What would help your board engage with digital?

See also how digital is your charity or non profit? Five questions for trustees to help them assess digital.