We are really pleased to read the recommendation in the House of Lords Select Committee on Charities report, that charities should have a digital trustee. If charities are going to really engage with digital (and they really must!) they need leadership that understands the opportunities as well as the risks. Boards that do not understand how digital is changing the world that their charity operates in will never invest sufficiently in it. Having a trustee with expertise in this area can make a big difference.
Reach launched a programme last year to tackle this very issue. Supported by the Charity Commission, Zoe Amar and IBM, building boards for a digital age provides charities with the guidance, inspiration, and, most crucially, a pool of keen, prospective digital trustees. We have recruited some great candidates, but the uptake from charities has been slower. Research last year found that trustees ranked digital skills as the most needed on their boards. And yet this skill set remains one of the least demanded in our trustee recruitment service, despite our campaign. Perhaps boards find it all a bit daunting?
Elsewhere the report seeks to encourage a stream of more diverse and skilled trustees, recommending that ’employers should be encouraged to give greater recognition to trustee roles in recruitment and progression of their staff’. This would be great – but from where we sit, there is also a need to encourage charities themselves to invest a bit more time and effort in how they recruit trustees. Not many charities do it well. How you recruit is a key part of getting the right people, with the right motivations. The traditional tap on the shoulder approach is problematic not just because it limits diversity, but also because it fosters a ‘hobbyist’ culture.
The supply of willing trustees is only part of the problem.
The report also looks more broadly at how charities are taking to digital. This is the third report published in one week which focuses on this issue – see Lloyds Bank Foundation’s Facing Forward report on smaller charities, and Charity Digital Skills which hones in on the sector’s lack of digital skills. The Committee’s recommendation that the Big Lottery provides support to infrastructure bodies ‘to share knowledge and best practice on innovation and digitalisation’ is very welcome. The suggestion that the tech sector provides training and development opportunities is also right. However, I think that the report misses a trick by not seeing the connection with volunteering. There are many people with the right expertise willing to donate their skills for a social purpose, and they could play a big role helping smaller charities develop their capability and capacity. Volunteers could help breach the digital skills gap.
On the subject of volunteering, the report takes the enlightened and all-too-rare approach of recognising that the chief challenge is not in finding more volunteers, but in finding sustainable ways to support and manage them.
‘Investing in volunteers is a way of respecting their contribution as well as increasing their value to the charity’, says the report.
I couldn’t agree more! However, I think that the report’s exclusive emphasis on volunteer managers is wrong.
Many smaller charities do not have a dedicated volunteer manager because volunteers are embedded within different teams, and centralising the role may not be appropriate. The answer is more investment in volunteer recruitment and management, regardless of organisation structure.
Throughout, the report keeps the needs of small charities in its sights, and makes many welcome recommendations about governance, finance and commissioning. Infrastructure organisations are called on to do quite a bit more, although there is scant reference to the fact that many are dwindling or have closed altogether. Still, recognition of their role is something.
Reach will continue to run its programme, supporting charities to recruit trustees that can help embed digital at a strategic level. We will also encourage charities to recruit volunteers that can lend their expertise to implementation.
We are pleased that the House of Lords Charity Select Committee report has helped focus attention on digital, and particularly on digital trustees. We hope that more charities will now act on this recommendation.
This blog is part of the building boards for a digital age campaign.
Are you thinking about becoming a digital trustee? Or perhaps you have you just begun the process? Here, Reach digital trustee Dominic Tinley, offers some advice based on his own experience.
In my case, Reach wanted a trustee with digital expertise to support the board overseeing the major digital redevelopment of the Reach service and website. Others may need someone at Board level to ensure that existing digital operations are performing at optimum level or help develop an entire new strategy to achieve the charity’s objectives.
Is the charity seeking website experience or is it a long-term strategy for digital communications, customer service experience and business improvements? Do they have a clear idea of what they do want or need?
You’ll be taking on a long-term commitment at a board level. Unlike short-term projects you may have taken on as a digital expert, board responsibilities may consume more time than you can give. Boards traditionally meet four to six times a year, but additional time may be required on an ad hoc basis. Do inquire what might be expected.
Technology is developing quickly, but many small charities are a few steps behind, so you need the patience to explain technology to others and support them in building their knowledge. As a digital expert you may be used to working on well-funded projects, or in a team environment where there are other specialists to provide support. In a small charity, you will need to be more self sufficient, but this also provides a great opportunity to expand your knowledge. You’ll be learning about all other aspects of running a charity and build your skills in other areas – from fundraising to marketing, from accounting to volunteer recruitment.
Unlike short-term projects, this will be an ongoing relationship. It’s important everyone can get along. As a prospective digital trustee it’s important to meet the other board members, to meet the Chair and the Chief Executive Officer. Take your time over this. In joining the board as an observer you can get a feel for the organisation and others can get a feel for you.
Are the charity’s objectives those that your feel passionately about? Not only will you have helped the charity become more sustainable, but you will benefit, too, in knowing that you have contributed to a cause you care about.
Dominic Tinley is a digital expert and trustee of Reach Volunteering. Read more about the Reach story.
This case study was authored by In-Deep for the building boards for a digital age campaign.
In-Deep Community Task Force is a small charity founded in 2002 that works to support communities and tackle Isolation in Westminster, Lambeth and Battersea. Our turnover is in the region of £40,000 per year, funded through a combination of grants and fundraising activities. We are completely volunteer run. Our board currently has five active members, including our Chair and Founder, Charity Secretary, Treasurer and one service user.
One of our trustees works for Microsoft. Microsoft’s London base was formerly around the corner from our main site in Westminster. They were keen to encourage their staff to volunteer and as a local charity we were connected with them through our volunteer centre, One Westminster. As a result we have had a number of volunteers from Microsoft join us over the years. One of these volunteers was Kate. She had been a long-term volunteer before agreeing to join the board of trustees in 2015.
As an organisation we knew that our website was not meeting our needs.
It was difficult to maintain and we had to rely on a former volunteer to update content, which was a very slow process as the volunteer in question was often hard to reach and had little time available. This meant that we couldn’t keep the site up to date, which was a problem as we are often introducing new services and running one off events. It also didn’t send the right impression to potential funders and partners to have a website that was out of date.
Kate quickly carried out a review of our site. As well as picking up on the problems we were aware of, she also identified a major risk that we hadn’t identified.
Apparently search engines are moving to a stage where they will automatically read the content of a site and what they find determines where the site appears in search results. The technology behind our site was apparently so dated, that search engines would shortly not be able to read it at all, and it would stop coming up on searches all together.
Kate put together a proposal for the development of a whole new site. This would be based on open source software so wouldn’t cost the earth. It would also be very simple to use so that our regular volunteers would easily be able to update the content. With the board’s support Kate put together a call for developers, which she uploaded onto an online marketplace for web developers. As a result we received responses from developers all over the world. Kate ran a selection exercise with the board and we are currently working with a developer in India to put together a brand new site for just £500. Kate is also going to train a group of volunteers to manage the site.
The new site will be easier to navigate and ensure that we can keep our service users and their families up to date on our new and existing activity. It will also help us to reach new service users. Finally we will be able to present a more professional image to funders, potential donors and partners.
My advice to other charities would be that a board member with digital knowledge and skills is invaluable.
This has been a big piece of work, so having a board member in charge has made the process simpler and easier. As a first step talk to a volunteer broker, like Reach Volunteering or your local volunteer centre. They may have connections with IT companies that can help with volunteers. I know that many IT professionals are keen to use their skills to help charities and community groups.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.