30th November 2021Charity Trustees Virtual Meeting on Digital

At our October Charity Trustees virtual meeting, we were joined by Zoe Amar, a charity digital specialist who took our audience through the findings from her Charity Digital Skills Report, an annual barometer of digital skills, attitudes and support needs across the sector as well as posing questions about what boards should be thinking about in terms of their digital strategy.

Here, we look at those key findings, together with a discussion about how the charities represented adapted given the challenges of the last 18 months and what should they should be considering moving forward.

Our starting point though was to frame what we mean when we refer to ‘digital’ and shared the helpful description : ‘If IT is the engine under the bonnet of a car, think of digital as the experience of driving it. It’s what you do with the technology.’

A summary of the Covid response to digital

Overall, the report indicated that the sector responded to Covid in a positive way with 83% changing their services in response to demand with 8 out of 10 charities using digital to reach new audiences.  This latter point was really encouraging, enabling charities to reach beyond their previous supporter base and allowing them to scale up what they do.  However, some challenges arose during the pandemic; 12% of charities struggled with basic tech access and with the speed of pivoting to digital, it showed in many places a lack of skills and resources to support this change.  However a third of respondents felt burned out by the demands of intense home working which creates the question of how can we protect and safeguard our team’s wellbeing.

Digital Strategy

The report showed that 60% of charities now have a strategy in place for digital and more importantly, digital is getting more air time around the board table. Charities need to have a really clear vision of what digital can help them achieve.  One charity commented that they had made a switch to digital because of necessity, not due to it being a strategic decision. “Nothing like an elegant ballerina pivot, more like a screeching handbrake turn”.  The challenge now is how charities keep the benefits brought by the move to digital, and not to go back to business as usual.

Another charity commented that while it had a digital strategy, it needed to be expressed better.  “Bringing it to the forefront with a heading in the strategic plan” and as a result having a real focus on it.

So how do charities weave digital into their strategy? It’s about getting people to speak a common language, and having a shared understanding of its meaning.  It’s about doing some initial discovery work; where is digital adding value to the people that you’re reaching in terms of services, donors, supporters and how you then prioritise. People’s behaviours have changed over the last 18 months; you need to keep talking to those you are working with to find out how their use of digital is changing.

Charities must also consider the benefits that digital has brought to the organisation; what’s gone well and how is digital aiding that, alongside what could be improved.  This puts them in a better position to understand how to take things forward.

The pandemic has also accelerated digital strategy for many. One charity commented that webinar attendance before lockdown was low, but during lockdown expanded hugely.  This particular charity had already woven digital into their strategy as an integral part of it achieving its mission and was delighted with how lockdown had moved this process forward.

The key question now for charities is to think about dusting down their strategy post pandemic and considering is it still fit for purpose?

Digital Skills on Boards

From the report, the headline around skills on Boards was mixed.  Only a third of boards provided support and buy in for digital – a significant area for improvement. Also only 11% of charities surveyed planned to up skill their trustees with 2% committing to training their Boards.  This low figure is worrying given the level of decision-making needed to be taken by Trustees in an increasingly evolving digital environment.  However, 42% of charities surveyed had someone leading on digital as part of their role which is a positive change; digital feels like it’s becoming more of a priority.

So how do we improve on the lack of skills on boards?  The view from our audience was consistent – “I don’t think anyone has all of the skills. You have got to keep reinventing, and staying up to speed.  As soon as you have it cracked, you don’t.”  With so much going on in the world, you must continually evolve, keep investing and not become complacent.  No boards will have all the right skills, there is a continual need to refresh and retrain. The key question is to think about the skills mix and if the charity has the right skills to make informed decisions, and where there might be gaps to address.

Cyber Security

With the increase in digital usage, there was a worry about cyber security and whether we are keeping up our focus on it.  With many charities storing data of vulnerable people, this is a stark reminder that charities need to have the basics in place to ensure the data security of their beneficiaries.  With scammers becoming ever more sophisticated; this should be seen as a priority for Trustees.  This comes back to understanding the common language around risk of Cyber Security and what it means at both operational level and also Board level.

Lots of charities have Cyber as a key risk on their risk register, if you don’t it’s definitely worth considering why not. Taking a good look at your controls that help prevent cyber security is something which all organisations should be doing as well as considering the need for insurance.

The impact of remote working

A number of charities have discontinued office working and even getting rid of London premises in some cases.  And many Trustees meetings will continue to remain virtual as they have worked very well from a time perspective.  However there was also a feeling of people becoming anonymous if the virtual meetings contained too many people.  This is something that simply can’t happen face to face but in a new hybrid working world, it is perhaps something we need to adapt to doing, as well as learning a new skill set – how do you get everyone to feel part of the meeting?  A key question for Trustees is to consider what works best for them, and also be mindful that everyone needs to have a voice.

Questions to ask

Finally the questions that were posed during the discussion which may be helpful to consider within each charity are:

  • Have your staff reviewed your digital pandemic response? What have you learned?
  • How can you support digitally excluded beneficiaries?
  • How might you protect the executive from the demands of intense remote working?
  • What can your board do to provide strategic support with digital?
  • How much of a priority should digital be in your strategy?
  • Are you making data driven decisions at board level?
  • Have you invested sufficiently in IT?

Please get in touch to discuss your specific circumstances.

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