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.
Parkinson’s UK Chair of Trustees, Mark Goodridge shares his thoughts on what digital means to his organisation and the opportunities it offers. This blog is published as part of the building boards for a digital age campaign.
Mark’s approach to leading Parkinson’s UK is open and exploratory, and this is reflected in his approach to digital. From his perspective, technology has always influenced how organisations are structured, so the challenge any organisation is to make sure that they are structured around today’s technology rather than yesterday’s. This offers Parkinson’s UK some exciting opportunities.
‘The way things are is often shaped by the legacy of older technology,’ says Mark. ‘This is why we should keep asking if they are fit for purpose. Like many large charities, Parkinson’s UK has many branches which provide a localised way to fundraise, to connect with individuals on the ground, and to offer peer support. To some extent, this structure is, in itself, a product of the technology available at the time it developed. But times change and so we have to look at that structure in today’s context.
‘People are diagnosed with Parkinson’s at an earlier age and these people often have jobs, families, commitments, that mean that face-to face group sessions may not be the best option for them. But it’s not just younger people who want digital services.
There is a tendency for people to assume that older people are not online – but they are.
‘Digital offers opportunities to do some things much better. Local groups will always play a valuable role, and we can further support these groups through digital channels by helping them to collaborate and share good resources. But there is a huge range of different kinds of people who need to access quite detailed information from us – from people with Parkinson’s to carers to Parkinson’s branch secretaries – and we need a very sophisticated information architecture to accommodate this effectively.
‘We have great content on our website – very well respected information – but Parkinson’s can be a complex illness which affects people in quite different ways.
Online services can offer greater personalisation – and this is crucial in helping people with difficult and complex needs which often cluster in quite individual ways.
‘Parkinson’s UK has great reach – we have over 35,000 members – but this still does not constitute the majority of people with Parkinson’s, and their carers. We want to support many more people, and digital offers us some intriguing ways that we might do that – connecting and mediating mutual support for example, or bringing together particular demographics such as young people with Parkinson’s.
We will never be able to do it all, all by ourselves, but we can play a role in enabling others to do more, and digital can help us do this.
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.
The new National Trustee Survey by ACEVO and nfpSynergy has an interesting and surprising finding that has not surfaced in the commentary. Third Sector News ran with the headline Trustees under pressure. But there was some more positive news buried within the survey.
The question about board skills elicited an interesting and unexpected response: trustees ranked web/digital/online skills as the ones that they most needed on their board – far ahead of the kinds of skills that people tend to assume that boards most want, like financial or fundraising and income generation.
The nearest competitor for this pole position was ‘campaigning’. The detail is informative too: trustees were asked to rank skills from the ‘most needed’ to ‘already had sufficient expertise’.
Digital skills came out clearly as winner across the board – both the most needed, and the least held.
And now to a point I’ve heard made quite a few times: it’s not that boards don’t see the point of digital skills, and therefore haven’t prioritised them – only one per cent felt that digital skills were not relevant to their board. Compare this with the 12% who thought campaigning skills were not relevant.
Reach is an ardent advocate of the need for trustee boards to embrace digital. We recently launched a campaign to promote digital expertise at board level and to help boards recruit in these skills – building boards for a digital age.
However, whilst we are convinced of the underlying need, and can happily agree all day with other like-minded organisations about how important this is, we weren’t sure if many charity boards felt the digital skills gap so keenly. Now we know that they do.
Trustees are often accused of being risk averse and old fashioned. I read this survey as an endorsement of trustees’ attitudes – their willingness to look forwards, to embrace the new and unfamiliar, and to consider how their organisation should operate in a new digital world.
Happily, there are some great people with digital experience that are ready and keen to join trustee boards – have a look at some of their profiles.
It’s time to plug that skills gap on the board and recruit a ‘digital trustee’!
This article was authored by NPC’s Director of Development, Tris Lumley for the building boards for a digital age campaign.
It’s great to see an increasing focus within charity governance on what’s needed from a board in today’s (and tomorrow’s) ever more digital world. Recruiting trustees with real experience of digital in other sectors is a great start, and will certainly help a charity navigate the huge opportunities and challenges that digital presents.
But just getting some digital experience on your board is only the start.
If charities really want to embrace the potential of digital transformation, they have some big questions to grapple with, going to the heart of their governance and their mission.
In Tech for common good, NPC’s first report on digital transformation in the charity sector, we started to lay out the enormity of the challenge (and the opportunity). As we’ve already seen in the private sector, digital technology upends existing business models, disrupts entire industries, and redefines relationships between businesses and their customers, suppliers, and competitors. It’s incredibly exciting to think about the potential for social purpose organisations to radically redefine how they operate with digital technology infused into their strategies, operations, communications and engagement with service users. It’s also more than a little terrifying for most boards to even start to go here.
When Tom Loosemore, ex-Deputy Director of GDS (the Government Digital Service) spoke at NPC’s recent annual conference NPC Ignites, he made it very clear what’s required to succeed in a digital world, and to develop effective digital products and services. Rather than the traditional strategic planning process (write strategy, develop detailed requirements, build something, deploy to users, etc.) good tech development totally upends this process. It starts with really getting to understand users’ requirements, and then quickly prototyping something. Testing it out with users then means much more than asking them whether it works for them —it’s about observing their behaviour in detail. Then learning from that testing, and iterating the solution. This process, often referred to as agile development, is the key to all the successes of GDS. Build, test, learn, iterate.
So what relevance does that have to charities’ governance?
It’s incredibly important to recognise that this approach is almost the antithesis of charities’ traditional governance models, and to their fundraising and operations. Boards like to develop strategies slowly, through strategic planning processes that often take many months, and ultimately result in weighty tomes that feel like they are written in stone. These strategies then filter into fundraising and operations from the top-down, resulting in funding applications and programme designs that are pretty rigid and long-term. Grant-makers are asked to support three year programmes based on a set approach, and promised reporting against fixed milestones. The strategy sets the design principles that everything else is built on.
That’s all overseen by a governance model based on the rhythm of quarterly meetings. Tick, tock, steady as she goes.
What Tom Loosemore really drove home in his speech is that top-down strategy doesn’t cut it.
In his words, strategy is delivery. Understand users, build, test and iterate rapidly.
While many charities are starting to wake up to the huge potential of digital technology, I don’t think many have yet begun to confront just how much they need to change to harness it. Fundraising will have to adapt to putting the user at the centre, and being open about not knowing yet how a charity’s products and services will meet their needs. And governance will have to adapt to providing strategic oversight of an organisation that’s rapidly changing, flexing, and to adapt the startup world’s jargon, even pivoting entirely.
GDS did this by being established outside of the silos and bureaucracy of departmental structures. Whether, and how charities will take on the flexibility they’ll need to succeed in a digital world is far from clear.
This article was authored by Director of Policy and Communications at the Charity Commission, Sarah Atkinson for the building boards for a digital age campaign.
Nowadays, more than ever, digital is at the centre of our everyday lives. As a result, charities need to have the skills and confidence to navigate and exploit technology for their organisation. That’s one of the reasons why we are supporting building boards for a digital age, a collaborative campaign to increase digital expertise on charity boards.
The benefits that technology can bring to charities are wide-ranging; they include the chance to reach a greater audience, to engage more reciprocally with supporters, and to increase operational efficiency. There are also risks that come with digital, from cyber fraud to data protection breaches. Having trustees with digital expertise on a board means that charities will be in a good position to exploit these benefits for their charity, but also to mitigate the risks, and be better prepared to manage any problems quickly and effectively. Digital can also support strong governance if trustees are able to use technology to access information and make quick decisions, increase insight into their charity’s activities, and ensure that when trustees delegate, they are using technology to clarify what the charity’s policies and procedures are.
If you have a digital background and are thinking of joining a charity board, there are huge benefits to taking on such a vital role.
Trusteeship is an excellent way to get involved in your community and help a cause that matters to you. It introduces you to new experiences and people, and allows you to develop new skills, stretch yourself and apply your knowledge to real, fresh challenges. What’s more, spearheading the use of new technology amongst trustees to ensure your organisation makes the greatest difference possible will be extremely rewarding.
Of course not all charities are lucky enough to have a trustee board with strong digital expertise. With the support of Grant Thornton and Zoe Amar Communications, the Charity Commission recently launched a new resource, 12 questions about digital for trustees, to highlight the issues that boards should consider when approaching digital.
Across 12 wider areas where digital could have an impact – such as strategy, culture, and service delivery – we’ve looked at the key questions trustees should ask as a starting point to navigate the digital opportunities and risks in that area.
For example, when it comes to using digital to build your brand, do you have a website that is easy to navigate and optimised for all devices?
Are you considering the digital trends when it comes to fundraising, such as the rise of crowdfunding?
We hope that boards that don’t yet have a trustee with digital expertise can use this tool to start a conversation and to increase their collective understanding of digital. We also hope that digital trustees, those with a deeper familiarity with and appetite for technology, can use it to evaluate where on a digital journey their charity is, and where there are gaps or opportunities, to ensure the sector isn’t left behind as we move to an increasingly digital future.
Sarah was appointed Director of Policy and Communications at the Charity Commission in October 2014. She is a board member of the Professional Association for Childcare and Early Years and a member of the Chartered Institute of Public Relations Professional Practices Panel.
Reach has launched building boards for a digital age to increase the digital expertise of charity trustee boards. Working in collaboration with partners, we will be supporting boards to recruit ‘digital trustees’ and maximise their ability to lead their charities through this digital age.
Every charity is operating in a digital world now. When you make decisions about any element of your operations, digital is a key component, whether you chose to embrace it or not. How you should store and organise your data, how best to communicate with beneficiaries, donors and funders, how you promote your services, how you deliver them, and how you measure their effectiveness – these are all digital questions.
Many charities shy away from digital because they fear that they have insufficient expertise, and they worry that digital projects can be expensive, tricky and risky to implement. And they can be all those things.
But the benefits can also be huge – greater reach, scalable services, efficiency savings, to name but a few. And the risk of ignoring digital is even greater – a slow but fatal slide into irrelevance or obscurity.
It is crucial that charities have a strategic approach to digital. Not digital for digital’s sake, but for the contribution it can make to your charity’s strategic goals.
Your board needs to have the expertise and knowledge to:
• see the huge opportunities that digital offers your charity
• make informed decisions about the risks that it brings
• champion digital innovation
• ask probing questions of your plans.
I know from first-hand experience (having led Reach through its own digital transformation) that board buy-in to the project was essential. It made all the difference having trustees with digital expertise who really understood the process. They provided proper oversight, helped source experts, and most crucially of all, kept their nerve at sticky moments. But even if you don’t have any big projects planned, you still need to be considering what role digital should play in your strategy.
We are supporting charities to build their board’s digital expertise, by working together with public, private and voluntary sector partners to provide:
• useful resources and guidance
• links to training
• direct support to recruit trustees with digital expertise.
Digital is a topic that the whole board needs to engage with but it can really help to have at least one trustee with specialist knowledge. Someone that can champion the role of digital and ask more searching questions. We are therefore focusing our efforts on helping charities to recruit digital trustees.
Working with partners, we are building a pipeline of prospective digital trustees. We will promote charities’ digital trustee positions through these and other partners; through our TrusteeWorks recruitment service; and through LinkedIn and other channels.
If you are already thinking about recruiting, we’d encourage you to upload a role with us by 4 November so that you can take advantage of our big push this November. This will include promotion with key partners, a tailored search on your behalf by our TrusteeWorks team, and lots of social media promotion during Trustees’ Week (7 -13 November). And all of this is free!
You can also register to receive regular updates from our campaign and links to free resources – just complete the newsletter sign up details on this page.
I’ve been spending the last few months working with Scottish charity chief executives and senior staff on the OneDigital action learning programme. It’s one of the most exciting pieces of work I’ve ever been involved in.
Many of the charities participating are taking a fresh look at the fundamentals of how they work. Their starting point is service users and supporters, not digital tools. They’re making simple changes to transform the way their staff work, and allowing them to get excited and empowered about the vital work they deliver.
All of this work is propelled forward by the broader OneDigital programme and the Scottish Government’s digital strategy. However, having worked with these charity leaders over the last few months it’s clear that we need radical change if the sector is ever going to truly embrace digital.
Effective leadership needs to be the starting point. The charities taking part in our action learning sets have embraced change because they’ve got passionate, effective leaders. Senior leaders and trustees can no longer rely on junior staff to make key strategic decisions about digital. It’s not just about social media, it’s not just about the server that sits in your cupboard and it’s not just about your fundraising database. This is about looking at what you do with a fresh pair of eyes, experimenting and empowering staff and service users – it needs to be about real culture change. It’s about seeing the transformational potential of digital service delivery.
For many organisations all of this leads to one fundamental question: is your chief executive or chair ready to fundamentally reassess how you do things in light of the potential offered by digital?
Charities need a new relationship with technology. Let’s end the age of the giant IT infrastructure system and aim to get to the point where IT becomes invisible.
We need to ensure all decisions we make are based upon effective use of data. We need to be geared up to spot societal trends. It’s vital that we respond quickly to the needs of our communities and we need to be able to truly measure the impact we have.
We need to move away from seeing data as a tool to win and report on funding, it’s about delivering the best services we can, when and where people need them.
Funding is going to be key to all of this. That doesn’t necessarily mean more tech-focused niche funding streams. In fact it would be much more productive if funders simply encouraged more people to make digital-first grant applications to mainstream funding streams. That’s probably going to mean training grants officers to assess projects where digital is key, and we need more funders challenging charities to think about where digital can improve outcomes.
Alongside the OneDigital team, I’m currently working on a charity senior leaders’ digital call to action. This will be a blueprint for change, shaped by those taking part in the action learning programme. Hopefully this will kick-start a wider conversation about the need for effective leadership, culture change, flexible technology, smarter funding, and collaborative data. Less strategy, more doing.
Ross McCulloch is the founder of Be Good Be Social training and events, as well as Director of Third Sector Lab – a digital media agency working exclusively with charities, housing associations and social enterprises. He has worked with a wide range of clients, including Relationships Scotland, SCVO, Oxfam Scotland, Enable Scotland and Breakthrough Breast Cancer. Ross also sits on Foundation Scotland’s Impact and Innovation Committee and is Chair of Comic Relief’s Community Cash Glasgow funding panel.
This article was authored by Zoe Amar for the building boards for a digital age campaign.
Trustees should be aware of the wider digital trends and how they could affect their charities. They should refresh their knowledge regularly in this area, and agree how they can best incorporate digital into their organisational strategy.
Boards need to agree the big picture overview of how their charity will use digital. All areas need to be on the table for this discussion. Our starters for ten are: digital fundraising, more targeted communications, scaling up service delivery, building relationships with key stakeholders, or simply as a catalyst for change to their business model.
Boards should be aware of areas where things can go wrong , from data protection to reputation management to understanding how the charity will take digital products and services to market. Trustees then need to know how those risks can be managed.
Boards will often be asked to sign off on significant investment in digital (for a small charity, this could simply mean a new website, and for a global NGO it could be a digital transformation programme). Trustees must ask the right questions to evaluate these proposals and they must know how they will judge if they have been a success.
Boards need to satisfy themselves that their charity has the right people in place to drive digital change, whether at trustee or executive level, and that their skills are being kept sharp.
Trustees must be confident about challenging their executive on the results they are getting from digital. This means understanding the story behind the data they are being presented with and interrogating it for insights. They must also be clear on the vision of where digital should ultimately take their charity.
Often the executive drive digital change but where this is not happening, boards need to ensure that they have buy-in from all trustees, the executive, staff and volunteers for greater adoption of digital. This includes keeping people motivated and interested for the long term, which is particularly important if the charity is embarking on digital transformation change.
Whether that is collaborating with a digitally savvy organisation who has the skills that the charity lacks, or looking at the potential to use systems already in existence (why reinvent the wheel?), boards can tap into their networks to leverage contacts and resources that will help their charity on its digital journey.
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.