Strategy and digital skills gaps

Building boards for a digital age

The strategic role of digital and how to identify digital skills gaps on the board

This article was authored by Zoe Amar for the building boards for a digital age campaign. 

Many charities have a growing awareness of the importance of digital, even if they are at the early stages of adoption. However, if your charity feels that the board isn’t aware of the burning need to use digital more strategically, they are not alone.

McKinsey’s 2015 digital study found that nearly half of the respondents’ CEOs sponsored digital initiatives (rising from 23 percent in 2012), with CEOs often seen as leading the digital agenda. In contrast, boards are far behind: just 17 per cent of respondent boards sponsored digital initiatives. Yet owning digital at board level is vital for sustainability and growth. The same study found that 35 per cent of boards at high performing organisations sponsored digital programmes.

The fact is that organisational and digital strategy are merging into one and if your board hasn’t considered the opportunities and risks that digital represents to your charity then it will be at a significant disadvantage.

Just look at Cancer Research UK and its involvement in the #nomakeupselfie campaign. If their board not been aware of the massive potential of fundraising on social media then their digital team would not have been empowered to seize the opportunity when it arose.

As a result, the charity went on to raise £8m in six days. Boards therefore need to identify the skills and knowledge gaps at trustee level so they are well positioned to adopt digital as part of their long term strategy. Ultimately, they must also be able to move swiftly to seize the golden chances offered by digital as well as able to manage risks. Here is our advice on how to ensure you have the right skills on your board to do all of the above.

Have an open and honest conversation about your strategy

For this to be effective you will need to talk frankly to your executive team about how they think digital could help your charity achieve its strategy. This doesn’t mean that digital should be a bolt on. Go back to your corporate objectives- even when they are not ostensibly relevant to going online- and discuss how digital could help achieve all of them. You’ll also need the context on where charities working in the same space are using digital, and how this fits into wider trends.

Know what kind of help would be most appropriate

If you need support with a discrete, hands on project, e.g. a new customer relationship management (CRM) system, then you might be more effectively supported by getting help from a consultant or someone who can commit to a piece of labour intensive pro bono work. Some charities even have digital advisory boards but you must ensure that this doesn’t keep digital in a silo at trustee level. It is also vital to consider what stage your charity is at with digital. For example, if you are about to embark on digital transformation ideally you should recruit a trustee with some experience of this.

Invest in the recruitment process

Whether you use an agency or simply advertise, think carefully about what you want from your digital trustee, and take the time to find the right person. Two areas which are often overlooked are: does this person have the gravitas and management or leadership experience to amplify their digital skills? And do they have the ability to influence and take people with them as the charity adapts to digital as a new way of working?

Do a skills audit

Obviously you should be doing these regularly, but do you include digital skills in this? In my experience as a trustee, generally skills audits can be very broad, assessing experience, understanding and development needs in a big picture way. Digital is now huge, and its remit includes everything from communications to fundraising to back office functions. One easy way to solve this problem is to undertake a stand alone digital skills audit for boards, with a follow up session to talk through results. Ultimately, chairs need to take responsibility for the learning and development needs of individual trustees in this area.

Know that closing the skills gap is when the work really starts

In my experience, many charities attempt to solve a problem like digital by hiring a digital trustee. But the day that the successful candidate walks into their first board meeting is just the beginning of the journey, not the end. As with any new role, the other trustees and the charity will need to change and involve the digital trustee actively in that. As part of this, boards should look at how they can adapt to the speed at which decisions must be made in the digital age.

Boards should also have an in-depth conversation about what level of risk they are comfortable with (Deloitte Digital recently published findings which showed that digitally mature organisations have a higher appetite for risk). They must ask themselves how they can make the most of the digital trustee’s expertise whilst ensuring they don’t overstep the mark by becoming too operational. And, as digital done right involves major change management, they must agree how they can support the trustee and executive through the challenges such a process will involve.

As you can see, there is much that boards need to consider when looking at how to make digital part of their strategy and ensuring that the right skills are represented at board level. By following the advice above you’ll be able to get your charity off on the right foot with digital and help it get great results.

Zoe Amar is one of the sector’s leading experts on digital. She heads up digital agency Zoe Amar Communications. Zoe also has eight years’ experience as a trustee and sits on the board of The Foundation for Training and Education in Care, as well as on the board audit and risk sub committee at The Samaritans as their digital expert. 

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