Zoe Amar: How to hire a digital trustee

It's not a quick fix, so you need to take time and care in the recruitment process

Zoe Amar
Zoe Amar

How many of you have a digital expert amongst your trustees?

I ask this question frequently when I present at conferences, and only a smattering of hands go up. It is a problem. How can charities use digital effectively if those who are ultimately responsible don’t have the skills to make informed decisions?

As part of developing The Charity Digital Code of Practice, I spoke to many charities for which this has become a huge challenge. The trustee of one charity got into a fight on Twitter and ended up in one of the tabloids. Another trustee told me that their board had signed off on a big website procurement project but he admitted they weren’t sure what they were getting into. The website still isn’t finished and has descended into a dispute with the supplier.

As chair of the code, I’m concerned to hear these stories. That’s why we’ve said that digital skills need to be represented on all charity boards.

Getting a digital trustee is not a quick fix. I’ve been a charity trustee for 10 years, sitting on three different boards and taking on a host of other non-executive specialist digital roles. I’ve been involved in hiring trustees for the boards I’ve sat on and have advised charities about how to do this. I’ve learned the hard way that you have to take the time to do it right. That’s why we’ve worked with Reach Volunteering, CAST and the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations to develop a quick guide to help charities that want to find digital trustees.

Here are the key things every charity that is looking for a digital trustee should bear in mind.

It’s the beginning of the journey, not the end

A digital trustee is not a box to be ticked. They should be part of a wider programme of change across the board and your charity. And they need to be willing and able to help your charity put digital at the heart of its strategy. To truly use digital to help your charity achieve its purpose takes time.

Get the right person for the stage you are at

In the same way that you wouldn’t hire as treasurer the first person with finance skills you spoke to, you need to get the right candidates for the problem you want to solve. For example, a board I know has a trustee whose day job is in IT. That’s great, but the charity also needs support and oversight across all areas of digital, which means it is struggling to progress.

Think about the recruitment process

If you’re interviewing someone who has worked in cutting-edge tech companies, they might be used to working in a much more informal and fluid way. A traditional panel interview could put them off. How can you adapt it?

How will the rest of the board change?

A digital trustee is an opportunity to do things differently. I know a charity that was developing a high-profile digital product and found a trustee with plenty of experience in this area. He helped the rest of the board understand what needed to be done at each key stage, identifying opportunities and risks. Most importantly, he increased confidence and skills around the board table. Your board needs to be open to learning and growing.

Put boundaries in place

It can be tempting to ask digital trustees to advise about digital operations, but you need to be careful about them straying beyond their role into the day-to-day work of staff. Before you hire, think about how you will prevent this happening.

A digital trustee can be a fantastic asset who helps your charity broaden its ambitions and change the way it works for the better. They need to have the right skills, and the resilience and strength of character to help lead your charity into the next stage of its evolution.

Zoe Amar is the founder of the digital and marketing consultancy Zoe Amar Digital @zoeamar 

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