Zoe Amar: How to be a digital leader when budgets are tight

You don't need to spend lots of money to achieve your digital ambitions. But you do need to follow these simple steps

Zoe Amar
Zoe Amar

Being a digital leader simply means having a vision of where your charity is going and how digital can achieve it. So what can you do if you have the appetite for this but not the means?  

In the same way that it is possible to cook a good spaghetti bolognese with store-cupboard ingredients, charities can use digital to increase impact and be more sustainable by working smart with what they have. That’s a key message of the Social CEOs awards and we’re keen to recognise good digital leadership across the sector, regardless of budgets.

I asked charity leaders to share what they did with little or no resources. Here’s what they said:

Do less, but do it well Once you and your team start using digital it can be like turning on a tap. Everyone wants to do everything and before you know it a bewildering proliferation of projects have sprung up. Even if many of these projects are low cost, they are still going to take up staff time. It is better to choose fewer projects based on strict criteria. Peter Wright, head of marketing at the independent Christian charity Thirtyone:eight, says that charity leaders should "test and experiment and find what works for your business". Then they should invest in the areas that give you the best return. This could be email, social media or other channels. "Better to divert more budget to one or two areas you know are performing well for you than spreading your budget thinly across a wide range of activities," says Wright.

Get pro bono expertise Charities have an immediate advantage in that there will be people willing to share their skills for free. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Lara Burns, a consultant and former chief digital officer at Age UK, created a series of digital-awareness sessions at the charity, where external experts from Twitter, Facebook, Microsoft, the Government Digital Service and tech organisations shared their insights with the charity's wider staff team. If your brand isn’t a household name there is still plenty of help you can access. Burns points out that there are also networks of tech professionals who offer volunteering locally for smaller charities, such as Reach Volunteering and CITA. "Some of our local Age UKs made really good use of this sort of advice," says Burns.

Get creative If your budget is tight, you might have to look at how to make your existing software work harder for you. This might include mapping what your existing tools can do against staff capabilities and working out how to close any gaps through training. One charity I know did this and found out how much time could be saved once staff were skilled up. Or you might need to think outside the box and use free or low-cost options. Russell Findlay, chief executive of the Speakers Trust, told me that his charity communicated with more than one in five state secondary schools in the country using SalesForce’s free charity licences. Findlay explained that this had given Speakers Trust a platform that has transformed how it captures and shares impact data, brought to life with a cost-effective plan for the data-visualisation platform PowerBi.  

Focus on people Your staff and volunteers are the engine that will help your charity use tech to succeed. If money is tight, supporting your team to improve skills, work together effectively and innovate is a savvy move. Laura Dawson, director of data and technology services at the London School Economics and Political Science, says leaders need to take "a Rottweiler approach to killing off the ‘not-invented-here’ silo behaviour between teams". Dawson adds: "Fostering good relations between teams, rather than putting up with sub-par behaviours, is again a great way to make sure you don’t waste money."

Scarce resources for tech can feel disheartening, but turn this into an opportunity and look at what you can do with what you have.

Zoe Amar (@zoeamar) is the founder of the digital and marketing consultancy Zoe Amar Digital. Nominations for the Social CEOs awards can be made here. All entries must be received by midnight on Friday 27 September

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