Are you a digital dinosaur?

Chief executives need to realise digital isn't just the future, but also the present, says Craig Dearden-Phillips

Say the words "digital strategy" in a room full of charity chief executives and you will get one of three reactions. A third of the room, let's call them the Dinosaurs, glaze over and think "this one is for the techs, not me" and check their emails. Another third, the Deniers, feel secretly embarrassed that they don't properly understand what "digital" means, despite knowing that it matters on some future level - but, they hope, just beyond their forthcoming retirement.

The final third, the Deluded, consists of people who think they know all about digital because their organisation has a pretty good website and, as chief executive, they spend a lot of time on Twitter.

One person in that room does have a handle on what digital means for our sector. The trouble is that she works far below chief executive level. In fact, she is the 26-year-old PA of one of one the Deluded chief executives who think they know it all.

Her name is Ella. What Ella understands that her boss doesn't is that digital isn't about technology. It's actually about what technology enables you to do, and what it enables you to do is exciting and life-changing. Ella knows, from her own life, that the way everyone she knows consumes, learns, influences and relates to each other has changed far more quickly than the fusty charitable organisation she joined as a graduate three years earlier.

Ella thinks, correctly, that the charity is in trouble. Most of its services started in the pre-digital era and remain tethered there, even when the market they serve is migrating online in front of their eyes. The charity is kept frozen in time by managers and staff who were recruited in the pre-digital era and who think they can carry on providing services that were launched before Ella was born, in 1991, and which haven't changed a whole lot since.

Being a child of the noughties, Ella understands in a way that her boss simply cannot that any organisational strategy for the charity has to be, by its very nature, a digital strategy. Ella knows, intuitively, that everything the charity does needs to reflect the fact that all but a very small number of people now live online and that this is the starting point.

Things have changed

Back in the office, they talk about the workshop. Ella points out to her boss that he doesn't have to look too far to see how far digital has changed our lives since she was born 26 years ago. The web, she points out, didn't exist then, outside the defence and academic sectors. Since then, nearly everything has changed. She reminds him that people who need help - her own mum, for example, who is unwell with breast cancer - tend to find support from people like themselves online through peer networks such as cancer.net.

And she points out that those who want to get heard by politicians now make their feelings known through sites such as 38 Degrees and change.org. She herself signs online petitions regularly, one triggering a debate in parliament due to the weight of numbers signing up.

Digital strategy is not the add-on chapter in the business plan. It is about rethinking, from first principles, this question: how do you deliver your mission?

Craig Dearden-Phillips

Feeling brave, Ella opines that sectors such as care, in which the charity they both work for operates, are changing fast because of digital. On her phone, she shows him, to his amazement, "Uber care"-type platforms, which a disabled friend of hers is using to connect to freelance carers on an app.

It follows, from all this, that if their charity wants to make an impact, it has to use the online world as a starting point in working out how. "But how?" asks the boss.

There are three ways, Ella tells him. First, any direct services in the future should be offered in the here and now through Skype-like applications or instant chat, as on retail sites. At the moment, she says, a client has first to register online as a member, then telephone to make an appointment with an adviser for an assessment, which gets them a service in about three weeks. And then they need to pay for this by credit card on the phone. "Already lost or bored? So are most of the charity's clients," Ella informs her stony-faced boss.

Second, Ella says, "the charity needs to move away from reliance on a large establishment of staff 'experts' and instead facilitate powerful peer networks using existing platforms such as Facebook, WhatsApp, Instagram and Google". There is no need, she reassures her boss, for fancy new tech or web platforms to lure people from their channels of choice. Just find people where they are now and convene the conversation. This way, Ella points out, digital allows people to "co-create": make something of value together, to campaign, to make change. Translated into the charity world, this makes for services that are not only hugely cheaper, but also hit more people (no more waiting on hold).

Third, Ella advises, the charity needs to move from offline to online influencing. Digital here is rebalancing power, something that all leaders are having to get used to. Digital, she reminds her boss, changes all kinds of relationships: between consumer and producer; between consumer and consumer; and now, between government and the governed. To this end, charities such as theirs should be investing in powerful online campaigns rather than playing expensive parlour games to get 30 seconds with a government minister's special adviser. "Get digital right", Ella tells her boss, "and they will come to you."

One charity that has stated in public that it wants to move quickly into digital is Scope, the disability charity. In April 2017, it announced a brand-new strategy that will see it become a new type of organisation, one that is focused fully on supporting disabled people in the digital age. The charity's ambition is to be recognised, by 2022, as the go-to organisation for disability, directly reaching two million people a year across all disabled groups.

Scope understands, as few other charities do, that people with disabilities live online. This means the charity needs to fashion its offer to reflect this if it is to take full advantage of the opportunity that fact opens up for influence, support, advice and impact. It's brave, laudable stuff, but woefully uncommon in our risk-averse sector.

First principles

My point is this: digital strategy is not the add-on chapter in the business plan about jazzing up your website, cranking up your Twitter offering or prodding the chief executive to write the occasional blog. Digital strategy is about rethinking, from first principles, this question: how do you deliver your mission?

I invite you to reflect for a second. Back in that room where digital strategy was under discussion, which of the three types are you: Dinosaur, Denier or Deluded?

Whichever type you are, it's time to realise that 26-year-old Ella is right: digital isn't just the future, but it's also the present, and charities that don't respond to this will, very soon, be the past.

Craig Dearden-Phillips is managing director of Stepping Out and convenor of Social Club, a forum for chief executives

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