Building a digital career in the charity and public sectors

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Amanda Neylon, winner of the 10 Digital Ladies Leader for Good Award 2017, shares the secrets of her career success as a senior female digital professional.

Building a digital career in the public or charity sectors often requires developing different skills to the corporate world. Amanda Neylon, programme director at NHS Digital and former head of digital at Macmillan, is winner of the 10 Digital Ladies Leader for Good Award 2017. This award celebrates people who have made a significant impact on the third and/or public sectors.  

In an inspiring interview with 10 Digital Ladies, the networking group for women working in digital practitioner roles, Neylon offers her insider insight into what drives her and about her leadership style. 

Here we have summarised the key highlights from the interview:

"It’s not all about being a techie"

Neylon believes roles have become a lot more specialist, with a huge amount of opportunities for people in digital across different areas, in many different ways.

"It’s not all about you being a techie, it’s not about you being a designer - there’s huge amounts about communication and engagement", she says.

"I still do go to conferences and be one of few women, or be around a table and be the only woman, so I think there is still quite a lot of work to do around senior leadership. But it is improving and I do think that we are doing a good job at the lower levels to get as many people from diverse backgrounds into the technology area."

"I started doing digital because there was a gap"

Having learnt her digital trade at General Motors, Neylon started doing digital because there was a gap. She explains: "I was on the graduate training scheme and the new media manager left, and it was a bit like - "Ah Amanda’s bought something on Amazon -  let’s get her to do it!".  

"My training ground was having relatively big budgets to do things on the web to support new car launches, supported by great tech companies and agencies. That’s how I learnt digital. I worked for GM for 7 years. And got a great grounding in web delivery."

"Can you have a mid life crisis at 28?"

"Can you have a mid life crisis at 28?" Neylon continues. "I quit my job, sold my house and went travelling for two years. Part of that travelling was about really understanding what I wanted out of life. I loved digital, and had learnt huge amounts from the corporate sector and General Motors, but I wanted to put it into something good. 

"So when I came back from travelling I looked at which charities were looking for website managers, as they were called at that moment. Diabetes UK were looking, I had a look at their website, thought there was a lot I could do and ended up working there."

That was Neylon’s first step into the charity world. That’s when she realised how much amazing work you could do with digital to help charities both in terms of fundraising but also in service delivery. "So that’s where I got my passion for charity and making a difference, but my passion for digital definitely came from the corporate sector", she adds.

Most of her roles are about how do we make the organisation really think digital, how do we make the most of technology, how do we help patients and customers really use technology to help them in their everyday lives.

"Success is when I am learning"

Success can be measured in different ways. For Neylon: "Success is when I am learning, and doing new things and really being excited and motivated about what I do. I like to be able to plan, deliver and then make things happen - but I like to move organisations when I feel I have run out of challenges. 

"At Macmillan we were able to build to deliver huge amounts of digital services to people affected by cancer, going through some of their most difficult times. Now I work for the NHS - the health service as we know, has some challenges  - so how can we use technology to change people’s lives, and help the NHS - who can’t be excited about being involved with that?"

"For a charity to make a real difference, you need to run it like a business"

Neylon recognises that in the charity sector there are lots of great people who care about the cause and are there to make a real difference. However, "in order for a charity to make a real difference, you need to run it like a business", she enthuses. "For example you make sure you are getting your fundraising in, using everything effectively, it’s not just about handing out the money to people.

"No-one goes into the public sector or charity sector for the money - so in terms of leadership it’s about harnessing that passion, but also being really pragmatic and being able to make decisions.

"I learnt digital in the corporate sector, but what I learnt in the charity sector is how to be a leader. Someone said to me a few years ago: "You should be creating future leaders - not future followers." Though it sounds like a throwaway phrase, it really resonated with me, because I realised that I had actually been doing that, creating followers. So I changed the way I thought and acted."

Career tips 

Neylon offers the following career tips for those wanting to move into the public or third sector from the corporate world:

  • Know your audience: There isn’t a major difference between the corporate sector and the charity sector. It’s still all about who is your audience, what do you need them to do, what do they want to do, and how do you enable technology to do that.
  • Develop personal resilience: It can be even more important in the public sector than the corporate sector as there’s quite a lot of governance, you have to go through quite a lot of hoops.
  • Be empathetic: You will deal with people who are facing different challenges to what they might do in a bank or retail organisation.
  • Don’t mistake this for an easy option: If you are a senior leader in any organisation, and particularly the charity or public sector, your life is just a complex with exactly the same challenges as any other senior leader. Working for a charity is not an easy option!

Neylon concludes: "The public sector and charity sector are very different. People bunch them together quite a lot, but they are actually very different. So therefore leadership and the way that you behave is the most important thing, then you map that to the type of organisation you are in."

Amanda Neylon will be speaking at the 10 Digital Ladies event, ‘Digital Transformation in the Charity and Public Sector’ on 30 March 2017 in London. 

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