Zoe Amar: The battle for digital skills on boards

Getting more digital skills onto boards will help charities to be more relevant and efficient, writes our digital columnist

Zoe Amar
Zoe Amar

As someone who’s a serial trustee and who advises boards regularly about digital, I am worried about the lack of digital skills amongs trustees. Earlier this year, when working on The Charity Digital Skills Report, I was shocked to see that almost three-quarters (71 per cent) of charities said their board’s skills in this area were low or had room for improvement.

Our sector is not unusual. A McKinsey study revealed that only 17 per cent of boards in the corporate world sponsored digital programmes, compared with 35 per cent of boards at high-performing organisations. If charities are to grasp the opportunities and manage the risks associated with digital, trustees must upskill so they can make informed decisions quickly, delegate appropriately and ensure that their charity is best positioned for disruption.

The Charity Commission responded by creating Making Digital Work, its guidance for trustees, which it published last year and with which (full disclosure) I was involved. It’s incumbent on trustees to raise their game in digital. How many organisations can you think of that have digitally savvy trustees? I asked this question to a roomful of charity leaders a few months ago and was surprised when only a few hands went up.

A growing number of charities in my network want to develop digital nous on their boards, so we ran an event on this as part of our Digital Discovery series. I asked our speakers to share their insights.

Craig Wyna, head of digital at the Charity Commission, feels that charity governance is changing, just as the way we live and work is evolving in the digital age. "Good governance means embracing change and adapting dynamically to changing social and economic environments," he says.

There is a high bar for charity governance in the wake of the failure of Kids Company, and one of the big challenges facing our sector at the moment is how we meet these standards while ensuring that processes have enough flex to help boards move quickly. Your charity will miss out on the next #Icebucketchallenge if you have to wait for trustees to make a decision at their meeting next month.

Charities need to be more innovative and show leadership in digital – and so do boards. Mark Goodridge, chair of Parkinson’s UK, feels that "the term digital trustee is actually a misnomer. As a sector, we need to make sure that all trustees have a good working knowledge of digital and the appetite to do things differently. At Parkinson's UK we've done a lot of thinking on our board about what the digital charity of the future looks like and how the model is being disrupted."

Julie Dodd, Parkinson’s UK’s director of digital transformation, advises any charity struggling to get its trustees to buy into digital to "spend time with them, walking them through the areas where you need support, exploring the issues they have reservations about and helping them understand the background to the business case".

Janet Thorne, chief executive of Reach Volunteering, believes that when recruiting digital trustees charities should think through "the current skills gaps on your board and your strategic direction, but also consider communication skills: a digital trustee’s primary role is to translate what digital means for your charity to the rest of the board". Good technical skills are one thing but a digital trustee should also be brilliant at influencing, she says.

As our digital skills report showed, getting more digital skills onto boards will help charities to be more sustainable, relevant and efficient. Charities and their boards will need to adapt to survive. As Wyna puts it: "We shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that implementing mass digital change is a challenge for the commission and for the sector. It’s important to make sure we can walk before we run, that we deliver effective change that makes a real difference and that we always remain focused on what users want and need."

Zoe Amar is the founder of the digital and marketing consultancy Zoe Amar Communications

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