Zoe Amar: Strong leadership drives compelling digital transformation

How two charities have created a clear-sighted focus on the benefits that digital can deliver

This month’s column is inspired by conversations with the chief executives of two very different charities, which are each at different stages with digital. What unites them is ambition, and a clear-sighted focus on the benefits that digital can deliver in the long term.

During a cost-of-living crisis, with funds at a premium, it can be tempting to dismiss anything new out of hand. So many of us are in short-term, fire-fighting mode, trying to get through the year.

But on the other side of this crisis lies the future. And if the recent advances we’ve seen in artificial intelligence are anything to go by, the future has a whole lot of digital in it.

So what can you do about this? The chief executives I spoke to for this piece had worked hard to develop their strategies and position their digital ask to boards as an investment, not a cost.

Both had taken a long view of what success looks like for their charities. They had mapped out how digital could help realise these ambitions, then committed to the plan.

For Michelle Janes, co-chief executive of the Jewish Leadership Council, plans were set in motion by the velocity of the pandemic. “Following a strategic review, it was clear to us that we had very necessary and important changes that we needed to make to improve our effectiveness as an organisation,” she says.

Supporting the JLC members’ needs was key. Janes and her team invested in a database to track engagement with members, and began to support their digital adoption. “We’ve made good progress in many areas and used the NCVO Digital Maturity Matrix to support our thinking around current and future digital use,” says Janes.

Over at Carefree, a charity that transforms vacant accommodation into breaks for unpaid carers, the team recently hit a milestone of gifting 4,000 two-night breaks to full-time carer. The achievement has been valued at £1m, and was achieved through the charity’s digital platform.

Like JLC’s Janes, Carefree’s chief executive, Charlotte Newman, made digital a key part of her strategy.

She says: “In March 2023 we transitioned to a completely no-code set-up, patching together a myriad of different software tools and products to launch an entirely new platform. Since the switch we have more than doubled our pace of delivery – verifying and onboarding 3,290 new unpaid carers and matching 1,521 to donated breaks.”

Making the case for investment in digital, and getting buy-in from staff, is challenging when money is tight. Newman and her team had two advantages.

First, they had a digital trustee who could translate the benefits to their board. Newman says these included the value for money provided by a no-code approach as opposed to custom builds, which she says would have both high engineering costs and technical debt attached to them that the charity could not sustain.

Another benefit, she says, was “the advantages of bringing everything in-house for quick bug fixes, iterations and product improvements”.

Second, Newman and her team have a track record of delivering big projects below budget with limited resources. As a result, they are trusted by their board to deliver “an efficient and cost-effective digital operation”.

Staff are a vital part of charities’ investment in digital. Janes has devoted time to supporting her team.

“The change needs champions, but they cannot be left to make the change on their own,” she says. “It requires all members of a team to be on board and for communication and learning to be collectively developmental.”

This can include upskilling and helping staff get the most from existing systems.

The results of the recent Charity Digital Skills Report show that the battle for digital to be seen as an investment, not a cost, is not yet won. This is another reason why digital funding in the sector is so important.

The charities I have discussed in this piece are still making progress with digital in a challenging year. The magic ingredient for this is strong leadership and a clear vision for change. Does your charity have this in place?

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

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