Are your trustees talking about digital?

Menai Owen-Jones, ACEVO trustee and CEO of The Pituitary Foundation, reflects on some of the reasons that trustees may not be embracing digital, what they can do to remove the barriers to digital transformation, and how the new Charity Digital Code can help

“If you don’t do technology, technology will do you.” This was a powerful message for all sector leaders, including trustees, from Pippa Malmgren, former presidential advisor and a prominent public speaker, at last month’s ACEVO 2018 conference. There’s a lot of content available about the benefits of digital, such as how it will help the sector to increase its sustainability, impact and efficiency. Yet we still hear regularly about how the not-for-profit sector is playing little, or no part, in the digital revolution.

Why is there such a gap between knowing what we should do about digital, and actually doing it?

Digital is fundamentally about mindset, changing culture, and leadership behaviours. Whilst bottom up change is imperative, the organisation will only transform if the importance of digital is comprehended at the top; this includes the board of trustees. After all, the board sets the tone and culture of the organisation.  If trustees are not talking about digital, even if the charity is experimenting with digital in parts of the organisation, it is unlikely to be widely effective, or develop any synergy to create transformational, long-term success.  As Professor Sunil Gupta wrote in his book, Driving Digital Strategy: “Creating an independent digital unit is like launching a speedboat to turn around a large ship.”

Our trustees’ duties include acting in the charity’s best interests and to manage its resources responsibly, which includes avoiding undue risk.  Many boards are risk averse, and the rapid changing world of digital can seem risky.  The counter to this of course is to think about the risk of doing nothing, or being too slow to change. Most people have a tendency to maintain the status quo and generally don’t like change. If we fail to innovate however, what will happen to our organisations in five or 10 years’ time? If we fail to change, are we acting in our organisation’s best interests?

How can trustees become digital enablers?

  1. Access the new Charity Digital Code

A good place to start is to refer to the Charity Digital Code which launched this month.

It’s a useful free framework for charities of all sizes, (and budgets), focusing on principles, what success looks like and best practice in digital. If you’re thinking about how to introduce digital to your board, you could start with adding the Charity Digital Code onto your next board agenda. Framing the discussion around the fact that digital is actually a governance, leadership and strategic issue will encourage engagement.

  1. Review your board’s composition and skills

An effective trustee board should draw on a range of skills, knowledge, experiences and attributes.

Are digital skills truly represented on your board? Does your board really know enough about digital to make informed decisions?  If not, consider recruiting a digital trustee; maybe set up a millennials advisory board to inform you about how they use digital; or consider a reverse mentoring programme, with a younger volunteer, or staff member, matched with a trustee.

  1. Refresh your strategy

Once board members are more attuned to digital, progress the discussion to how the board can ensure digital is a key part of your overall organisational strategy.

Charities should develop a digital strategy which helps them achieve their charitable purposes, aims and objectives. This may either be incorporated into the overall organisational strategy, or a standalone digital strategy. In either case, digital should be embedded in the charity’s ways of working, not an add-on.  A place to start, to inform your strategy development, could be to undertake a digital mapping exercise, looking at where and how you are currently using digital in your charity.

  1. It’s about courageous leadership

Driving change isn’t easy.  In the 21st century, trustees as leaders need courage and the ability to “understand and move between multi-dimensional spheres and silos of expertise.” (The Leadership Lab, Chris Lewis & Pippa Malmgren). Boards should accept that digital transformation can have its risks, it can take time, and the transition period could be turbulent, especially for established organisations. This is why vision, strong leadership and an effective roadmap for how the organisation is embracing digital is critical.

  1. Think long-term, big picture

Digital presents an endless number of opportunities to benefit the whole organisation.  You can improve your governance, drive your strategy, build networks, meet the changing needs of your beneficiaries, support your charity’s sustainability and ultimately increase your charity’s impact.  By championing a culture of embracing change, experimenting and scaling, boards of trustees that think digitally will be building the organisation for the future, not just for the now.

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