David Ainsworth: How ‘digitally native’ do trustee boards need to be?

Digital technology is iterative, fast-changing, and involves frequent shifts in direction. Is it enough to have a single digital trustee?

Charity boards aren’t renowned for their digital literacy – rather the reverse.

Part of that is down to age. The majority of trustees are retired, after all. There’s a non-trivial number of trustee boards where the average age is over 70. None of this screams "digital native".

But that’s too simple an explanation. There are also other issues. In particular there are big discrepancies between the way trustee boards want to operate, and the abiding philosophies that govern them.

Unfortunately, this is an area which is only going to grow in importance for charities. It’s something trustee boards need to get their heads round. The last three months or so, when very few of us have seen the inside of an office, have been a crystal clear illustration of how vital it can be.

So let’s start at the beginning. What the hell are we talking about when we use this word "digital" anyway?

Well, it’s really just about information moving about over the internet, whether via computers or mobile phones, and whether it’s via social media or CRM or email. Since moving information around is a very significant proportion of what charities do, it stands to reason that if we got better at it, we could help more people.

Broadly speaking, we can identify a few different areas where it makes a difference. One is administration. If people can more readily book holidays, or access records, or share spreadsheets, you can run the charity more efficiently.

Another is about ways of working. If you can do all that information-sharing, you can work wherever you want. You can record information in real time.

Another is communication. Digital is a broadcast tool to reach your supporters and beneficiaries and get them to take actions – ask for help, or write to their MP, or give money.

Another is data. You can gather more information about what you do, and others do, and use that to refine what you do to help people.

Lastly, you can actually deliver your service digitally, as so many of us have had to do, rather suddenly, over the last months.

But the trouble is, once we take all those factors into account, we may be left with a different question. Should we even be doing what we’ve been doing? Isn’t it possible that now we live in the digital age, there is a wholly new, better service? Or a new, more pressing problem to solve?

Digital technology also comes with new tools and ways of working. Mostly because it’s easy to build something small, try it out, see what happens, and then either change it or ditch it. It is easy to put a prototype in front of your service users, see what they do, and adapt. For this reason, digital technology is iterative and fast-changing. It involves frequent shifts in direction as new information becomes available.

It can also be relatively high-stakes. Implementing a new website, a new CRM, or a new digital service can be costly, time-consuming and difficult. It can require new tools and external partners. Often, each small step in digital transformation reveals a dozen other steps which are also tricky.

None of this sits well with the traditional model of the charity board. While there is much to defend and to love about voluntary trusteeship, it is not agile. It’s relatively slow. It's built for clearly defined projects, with clearly defined scopes and metrics, which fit with a cycle of quarterly scrutiny.

So what do boards need to do about this?

Well, get to grips with the philosophy, first of all.

This is not a bad idea full stop – because digital comes with a number of tools for decision making which are arguably just better suited to developing strategy than the ones your charity is currently using, whether that strategy involves computers or not.

In particular, there is a heavy focus on discovering and defining the scope of the problem before starting in on a solution. The best and most successful charities we see are those with a clear and relentless focus on user need, and the mindset of digital providers offers a good way to help do this.

You can see, then, why there is an argument about whether it’s a good idea to have a single "digital trustee" or a "digital strategy".

Digital technology is likely to impact on all aspects of the organisation, and so it needs to be understood by everyone on the board. There may well need to be significant spending and staff resource, which need trustee buy-in. But digital projects are not always successful, so they need close scrutiny too. There may be a lack of clarity about what needs to be achieved, or the charity may invest in the wrong tool or the wrong partner.

Of course, it may be a good idea to bring a couple of individuals onto the board who feel comfortable with digital technology and the underlying theories of implementation. But like the finances, it’s not good enough for one person to understand and make all the decisions.

It has to be something the whole board understands and owns.

David Ainsworth is a trustee at Getting on Board

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