Stella Smith: Forget the tech, charities rely on people skills

We might be getting too technology-dependent, because how we work together is vital

Stella Smith
Stella Smith

How dependent on technology are you? I had a surprising realisation last week when I left my phone at home and subsequently spent the day feeling totally bereft and disconnected from the world.

I hadn’t realised I was so reliant on my phone, but without instant access to the
internet, social media and messaging apps, I was completely lost. Look around any crowded place and it’s apparent that I’m not the only one. We all seem to be obsessed with technology.

Our sector, too, is developing an unhealthy preoccupation with the exciting world of tech. So many charity managers seem to be eagerly awaiting the implementation of a new piece of snazzy software, a website revamp, or the arrival of someone with amazing social media skills. Everyone is convinced that new technology will answer their prayers.

In our race to get tech-savvy, though, we’re in danger of missing a fundamental point: charities are about people, and it’s how we work and communicate with each other that will determine our success.

There is a myth that charity staff are by nature "people people", innately good at building relationships. As a result we can take people skills for granted and focus our training on job-specific skills such as project management or fundraising.

There has been particular concern that sector staff are falling behind where tech is concerned, with the National Council for Voluntary Organisations recently reporting that 36 per cent of voluntary bodies believe their staff lack IT skills. We should have at least as much concern about our lack of people skills, such as influencing and building team relationships.

I’m not a Luddite and see the benefits of IT. It’s fabulous to be able to hold internet conference calls, to email people with docu­ments in seconds and to store and retrieve essential data easily. Efficiency and speed make technology an invaluable tool, and there are many instances where it can enable us to move faster and save money.

But we would also move a lot faster and save money if we were better at conducting meetings and holding difficult conversations with people.

It might be convenient for an organisation to use technology to manage data
or produce standardised communications, but when it comes to sensitive or difficult issues we need people who can commu­nicate well. If you’ve ever had a problem with your home broadband or electricity supply you will know that, when you’re in need, there’s nothing worse than dealing with technology. The last thing you want is to be directed to a website or left to do battle with an automated phone line. We want someone to talk to, to listen, to empathise and help us work it out.

Whether they are service users, volunteers, staff or members, charities bring groups of people together to change things. If they are to work well they need people skills. Technology has its place but it should be on the sidelines of our work not centre stage. In a world that seems to value one-way polarising social media monologues, our sector has a critical role in facilitating conversations and dialogue across communities. These are the skills we need to learn now. Maybe I should leave the phone at home more often.

Stella Smith is a consultant and facilitator

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