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.
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.
Here at Reach we understand the role digital solutions have to play in enabling civil society to expand its reach and respond to the needs of communities and individuals.
For this reason, Reach was delighted to contribute to the Review of Civil Society in London, commissioned by London Funders, working closely with Greater London Volunteering and the London Voluntary into Service Council.
Our own digital journey and its impact features as a case study in the final report from the Review, The Way Ahead: Civil Society at the Heart of London and is reproduced below. Our digital journey continues iteratively, we have not so much as arrived at an end destination, but charted a course that allows us to respond to the needs of charities and volunteers alike in the future.
Reach Volunteering has used digital and online approaches to increase the scale of skills based volunteering and the impact of such volunteering on civil society organisations. For example, the launch of its online platform has enabled Reach Volunteering to support a 50% increase in activity since its launch in Summer 2015 without needing to grow its service team.
Another example is its partnership with LinkedIn. Prior to the launch of LinkedIn’s new volunteering service, Reach Volunteering worked with them to trial an approach to finding skilled volunteers by adapting the existing jobs function on LinkedIn to bring volunteering opportunities to the attention of those who had not previously come forward.
The partnership continued after LinkedIn launched its volunteering service, and is enabling Reach Volunteering to make the most of LinkedIn’s several million members in the UK to extend its volunteering offer. The initiative has attracted the attention of potential volunteers whom Reach previously had been unable to target.
For example Oxfam were recently looking to recruit Health and Safety Auditors in Aberdeen, an initiative for which Reach Volunteering would have previously struggled to find suitable volunteers. Via LinkedIn it was able to identify scores of potential volunteers. Currently 150 skilled volunteers a month join Reach through LinkedIn. When Reach’s own digital platform came online in summer 2015, this was synched with LinkedIn to streamline operations.
Reach Volunteering’s Chief Executive Janet Thorne said: “This has been an invaluable initiative that has enabled us to scale up our work in a way which was not previously possible. We have been able to achieve so much more and reach so much further.”