Zoe Amar: What trustees should do about The Charity Digital Skills Report

There have been improvements, but digital skills at board and executive level could still be a lot better, writes our columnist

Zoe Amar
Zoe Amar

Where are charities at with digital? It’s the question we’ve tried to answer in the second Charity Digital Skills Report, which we launched last week with Skills Platform.

Let’s start with the good news: there have been some small improvements. Forty-five per cent of charities don’t have digital strategies, which is an improvement on last year’s figure of 50 per cent. And 15 per cent of charities have been through the digital transformation process and embedded it, compared with 9 per cent last year. Almost two-thirds (64 per cent) are currently preparing for the General Data Protection Regulation and are sure they will have everything in place for when it comes into force.

It’s good to see these positive developments. The rest of the data, however, tells a different story. As someone who’s been a trustee for almost a decade, sitting on the boards of three different charities, I am concerned to see that more than two-thirds of charities (69 per cent) say their board’s digital skills are low or could be improved, an increase of two percentage points on last year, with 78 per cent either unclear what is being done to change this or saying their organisations don’t have any plans. Only 4 per cent of charities are looking to recruit digital experts to their boards, a statistic that correlates exactly with Reach Volunteering’s data on trustee placement.

Charities also expect more from their leadership teams in digital. Sixty-three per cent say they want their leaders to understand trends and how they affect their charities, and 53 per cent want them to have some experience or understanding of digital tools, an increase in both cases from 2017. And there has been a nine percentage-point increase in worries about the lack of leadership support needed to develop more digital products and services (52 per cent).

It's the gaps in leadership and governance that worry me most about this year’s report. So what can trustees do about this? Here are a few ideas.

  • Get digital on the agenda for your next board meeting. As trustees are ultimately responsible for everything their charity does, they need to own digital and lead from the front on it. How are you delegating digital to your management team?
  • Be prepared to ask difficult questions. Is your leadership team managing digital effectively? Is it operating within agreed policies, the law and budgetary constraints? If you don’t know the answers to these questions, it’s time to get a digital trustee or another adviser.
  • Get your chief executive onside. Hopefully, they’re providing the right support to their team to encourage the development of the right digital products and services. If not, they will need to create a culture where staff feel comfortable sharing new ideas. Does your chief executive and their leadership team know enough about what stakeholders want and what other digital products are out there? This will help them spot opportunities and make informed decisions.
  • Do a skills audit for your board and leadership team. What technical skills do they have? They don’t need to be able to develop apps in their lunch hour, but they should know enough to understand what gaps they have to fill at operational level. Your board’s learning and development in this area should be made a priority.

The upside of the report is that it shows a sector that wants to change. Charities need their trustees and management teams to provide the necessary leadership. Now is the time to take a look around your boardroom table and ask how you’re going to meet this challenge.

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

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