Last week, I attended a fascinating Charity IT Leaders event and listened with particular interest to the keynote talk delivered by my colleague Jos Creese. Until recently, Jos was also president of the BCS – the Chartered Institute for IT and his chosen theme for the year was IT apprenticeships. As such, he was keen to tell the audience of charity IT leaders that as a sector we need to focus much more on inspiring people to join the IT profession.
Of course he was right to do so. As a country, we’re currently facing a growing digital skills crisis. Jos was very clear that there is a general issue with the way IT careers are perceived, something that starts at school and results in too few people wanting to join the profession. He also argued that this perception is not helped by media and government giving the impression that IT and IT apprenticeships are about technology alone, and particularly software engineering. In other words, there is far too much focus on what technology is rather than what it can do.
But why, you may well ask, was he putting this point to charity IT leaders in particular? Isn’t this a much bigger issue that needs to be tackled at a national level?
Jos’s answer to this was an emphatic "no". In fact, one of his main points was that, rather than take a back seat on IT skills and "hoping for the best", the charity sector is actually in a strong position to take a lead and sell IT as an exciting, innovative and more rewarding place to be when compared with other professional careers.
Some might argue this is not realistic, given pay differentials with the commercial sector. But when you think about it in a different way, he could be right. In many progressive charities, IT is no longer back-office; it is a front-line service that defines the way we work and engage with partners, customers and volunteers. It touches people's lives.
The charity sector also has the advantage that it is incredibly diverse and more varied than most sectors. You have the choice to work for the smallest to the largest organisation. You can find yourself within a purely philanthropic association or work for an organisation that engages in highly commercially focussed activity. Always, there is the common goal of providing help and resources for those in need.
Both these factors should make charity IT an exciting place to be – especially for ambitious young people who want to choose careers that will give them much variety and job satisfaction.
Of course, this is not to say the task is going to be easy. Anything but. As Jos explained in his CITL talk, there are at least a couple of things that need to happen to make it significantly easier.
First, as charity IT professionals we need to start fostering a much closer relationship with our HR departments. At the moment the vast majority of charity HR professionals just don’t get what’s currently happening in IT, which means that many of the IT job adverts they write are downright boring, are not reflective of what’s really happening or even aware of digital transformation and its potential impact. If charities want to sell themselves to the best young aspiring IT professionals, they need to change this immediately and do more to educate HR on what IT is currently aiming to achieve.
Second, chief executives and leadership teams need to play their part too by giving IT the board-level decision-making power it deserves in this modern era, dominated as it is by digital technologies. At the moment, many technologists in charities are still perceived as backroom engineers. The reality is actually very different because our role is key to supporting volunteer networks, fundraising, partnerships and customer-focussed delivery. Boards need to recognise and actively seek to change how IT is seen, used and delivered in their charities – not just to improve the way they are run, but to help promote the organisation as an interesting and innovative place for an IT specialist to work.
If these things happen – which at the moment is still a big if – we will start to see a career in charity IT become established in people’s minds as the exciting, practical, impactful, fast-moving and innovative environment that it really is. And right now, I don’t doubt there’s anybody in the sector that wouldn’t see that as a very positive thing.
John Simcock is director of charities and third sector at Eduserv, a not-for-profit provider of IT, digital and web development services