Zoe Amar: Why charities need strong digital leaders

After the rapid digital adoption of lockdown, 2022 was always going to be a year of transition as face-to-face activities resumed. So what does this year’s Charity Digital Skills Report, our annual barometer of where charities are at with digital, tell us about trends across the sector? And what should leaders do to stay ahead? 

I draw comfort from evidence in the report that charities remain committed to digital. The vast majority – 82 per cent – see digital as a greater priority as a result of the pandemic. When the sector couldn’t offer its vital services face-to-face during lockdown, technology became the lifeline that kept the sector functioning and able to support people during a global health emergency. 

But although digital was hardwired into the sector by the pandemic, our report reveals that leaders need to take action to make the most of the opportunities it offers. 

Charities want stronger digital leadership from their chief executive and trustees. For the fourth year running, charities told us the most important thing they need from their leaders is a clear vision of what digital could help them achieve. This was a priority for 58 per cent of organisations, up from 52 per cent last year. 

Having an idea of what success looks like makes it much easier to move forward with digital. 

If you don’t have a sense of this, take a look at your organisational vision and think about how digital can help to achieve it. 

Maybe it’s about reaching a greater number of people, offering them more support or improving outcomes. Either way, it should all lead, ultimately, to increasing your impact. 

Speaking of impact, digital is an area where we shouldn’t be afraid to expect more from trustees. 

Almost two-thirds (64 per cent) of boards’ digital skills are either low or have room for improvement. Despite this, more than half of boards either don’t have any plans to increase digital skills or don’t know what their plans are, and just one in five charities (21 per cent) has buy-in and support for digital at trustee level. 

The obvious answer is to recruit a digital trustee (surprisingly, only 6 per cent are doing this) using services like Reach Volunteering

I encourage leaders to ask potential trustees at the interview stage where they see digital being part of their charity’s strategy, and how they would provide the right scrutiny and support for technology through their role. 

What questions would they ask to weigh up a digital investment case that comes to board? What data would they like to see about digital to ensure oversight? What kind of help could they offer to staff that are dealing with technology challenges (without crossing over into operational issues)?

This year more charities are considering working with suppliers who share their ethics and values. Last year 35 per cent were looking at this; now, more than half (55 per cent) are interested. I would love to see more trustees asking about technology suppliers’ commitment to values. 

The pandemic has shown that digital is part of most, if not all, of your charity’s work – much like inclusion. As digital becomes incorporated further into charities, leaders need to ensure that they seize the opportunity to break down existing power dynamics, otherwise they could end up being perpetuated. 

One in four charities told us that they do not have diverse teams developing digital products and services and are not conducting user research with diverse communities. Ask your team what they are doing about this and how you can support them in increasing inclusion in their digital work. 

The Charity Digital Skills Report offers leaders plenty of food for thought about how their charities are performing digitally, and what effect this is having on their impact. 

I hope the 2023 report will show that leaders have gained confidence with digital and are willing to be bold and ambitious about how it can help their charities support more people and make even more of a difference. 

Zoe Amar is the founder of Zoe Amar Digital

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