Tris Lumley: Trustees can apply lessons from tech and user-centred design towards a charity's strategy

It's all right for trustees to feel trepidation about the increasing role of digital, but the right approach can help all board members get to grips with it

Tris Lumley
Tris Lumley

Most charities are already acutely aware of the many challenges they face in recruiting and developing a trustee board that provides all the skills they need for effective governance today. Those challenges are only made more difficult by the advent of digital technology and data, with some calling for every charity to have digital skills on their trustee board.

As NPC’s State of the Sector research found, nearly half of small and medium-sized charities don’t have digital strategies, and more than a quarter of all charities don’t. Many existing trustees might be forgiven for feeling fear and trepidation, or at least confusion, about the potential of technology within their future work.

We’re 100 per cent supportive of efforts to add digital skills to charities’ boards, but we think that it’s possible to take a different approach to understanding the potential of digital technology for charity boards, and that’s to start with deepening their understanding of their beneficiaries and service users.

As the technology sector knows well, good technology development is shaped through user-centred design – developing, testing and iterating around the experience of real people trying out prototypes of the tech you’re building. This approach marries well with the user-centred principles and values of the charity sector – we’re organisations that exist explicitly to work on behalf of those we aim to serve. So it stands to reason that tech development in the charity sector should build on user-centred design.

What does that mean for trustees? One aspect of a user-centred approach is ensuring that trustees are representative to some extent of the people and communities they exist to serve. But in addition to ensuring trustee boards have diversity, trustees can also position themselves well to understand where technology can play a role in their charity’s strategy and operations by getting to grips with their beneficiaries’ experience and expectations of technology.

How do service users use digital technology today? What products and services do they use to help them with information, advice and services that relate to the charity’s products and services? How will they expect to use technology to access products and services, today and in the future?

Trustees armed with answers to these questions will be well placed to think about strategic decisions relating to the use of technology in their charity’s work. Conversely, without this understanding, trustees might find their assumptions about beneficiaries’ use of technology are just projected from their own experience.

We believe at NPC that there’s huge value to be found in deepening charities’ commitment to user-centred approaches, which is why we’ve recently published a briefing paper on User Mapping Techniques. And while boards should certainly be recruiting new trustees with digital skills, existing trustees can gain a great deal by understanding their beneficiaries’ expectations of digital technology today, and in the future.

Tris Lumley is director of innovation and development at NPC

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