Charity boards are failing to adapt to the digital age – this has to change

The change in technology is no longer just a skills challenge for the voluntary sector, it is now a governance issue

There is tension in the way the charity sector views digital technology. A recent report, by Eduserv in partnership with CharityComms, showed that 80% of digital specialists agree that technology requires a fundamental shift in the way charities work, yet only 34% believe their leaders understand this. And, despite the sector’s excitement about social media after viral fundraising hashtags, Lloyds Bank’s 2015 research highlighted that charities have the lowest industry sector score for digital maturity, with an increasing number (58%) reporting a lack of basic digital skills.

But using digital technology is not just a skills challenge for charities, it is now a governance issue. Organisational and digital strategy are merging into one. From communications to service delivery to fundraising, digital touches every area of your organisation. So how can boards prepare for this and adapt to agile ways of working while managing risk?

Time is running out for charities

New Philanthropy Capital warned in their recent report, Tech for the Common Good, that charities that don’t adapt to digital will become obsolete. Carol Rudge, global head of not for profit at Grant Thornton, agrees. “Digital is a game changer and like it or not, is here to stay,” she says. “Without an informed and considered digital strategy – and more importantly, the internal governance and operations to support it – funding may erode, huge opportunities will be missed and charities will face an uphill struggle against their peers who have embraced it.”

This seems daunting, but it’s a huge opportunity. Megan Griffith Gray, head of digital and communications at the National Council for Voluntary Organisations (NCVO), feels that we are “on the cusp of a digital revolution in the voluntary sector. We have a chance to reinvent the way our organisations are run and deliver services – but only if we’re brave enough to take it.” NCVO’s own digital strategy grew out of a five-year organisational strategy and it is moving towards digital service delivery, rather than just communicating through digital channels or publishing information online.

There’s no place for technophobe trustees

Encouraging trustees to take simple steps, such as using social media, should help to increase their confidence in this area. Tech entrepreneur Mary McKenna says: “If charities are serious about grasping the opportunities that digital presents, they need to start using digital tools as part of their everyday modus operandi.”

Angela Style, chair of Endometriosis UK, has seen the benefits of this. “As trustees, we need to understand how young women communicate and get information,” she says. “So we recruited a young trustee, and she has helped to make sure that digital is central to our strategy. Social media also helps with priority setting at the board, giving us real-time information about what is important to women with endometriosis.”

Digital understanding is as vital as fiscal know-how

McKenna recommends that boards “bring at least one digitally savvy trustee on to their team and digital should be given the same level of importance as finance and audit, because the risks attached are as serious and far reaching”. Kai Adams, head of the charity recruitment team at Green Park, points out that charities are “lagging behind” the private and public sectors in recruiting for digital roles. He advises boards to find digital experts who have “an appetite for change, and who will share a huge amount of time and expertise”. Influencing skills are essential. In turn, boards will need to adapt to a trustee “who will by their very nature be disruptive”. All this amounts to a “massive culture change” for boards.

A charity’s online responsibilities are important to consider

Governance needs to adapt to face these changing times. James Maloney, a senior charity lawyer at Farrers, advises that “boards need to be agile enough to make quick decisions” in the digital age. Where boards must delegate to their executive team or committees, Maloney counsels that everyone should know what is expected of them, “what authority they have to act, and what the charity’s policies and procedures are – for example, for social media, crisis response or risk management. In this way, a charity can respond quickly to events without disrupting good governance.” Karl Wilding of NCVO thinks trustees need to take a practical approach: “Ultimately, you have to start with the functions, administration, principles and purpose of governance and then just think about how digital can make things better.”

Much more work is needed in order to ensure boards are prepared for the challenges digital technology presents. If action to address digital illiteracy in charity governance is not taken soon, the implications are problematic and significant.

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Zoe Amar

The GuardianTramp

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