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It’s time for charities to invest in digital leaders

1 April 2016

Over the years leading digital in organisations and working as a digital consultant, there's one important thing I’ve learned: however big or small, organisations need digital leads to guide them through the process of digital implementation and transformation.

It’s the best way to ensure digital delivers on the mission of the organisation and prepares the organisation for the next generation of supporters. Without a digital lead, money may be wasted on bad briefs, poor recruitment decisions may be made and digital agency relationships can go sour. 

Everyone should be digital, so why do we need digital leaders?

The emphasis on digital transformation has sometimes been misunderstood as the idea that because “everyone is digital,” digital leadership is unnecessary. For some charities like Macmillan, a commitment to digital has meant digital leaders are genuinely no longer needed. Last month, the charity announced its head of digital, Amanda Neylon, would not be replaced once she leaves the organisation. In her own words:

“…I don’t think they need me anymore. Basically, I have transformed myself out of a job.” 

Some organisations took this step very early – Amnesty International lost their digital lead and digital team in a traditional sense a few years ago. Since then, those digital roles have emerged in different ways. 

Many senior teams have not accumulated enough digital experience and still fear it, treat it as an additional channel (rather than culture) and don’t see how it can significantly contribute to delivering the strategic objectives of an organisation. A strong digital leader can help to ensure the processes (for planning, recruitment, evaluation), systems (for data, content, marketing) and strategy needed to truly transform organisations are implemented. It’s likely that charities will continue to need strategic leadership from experienced specialists (as is currently the case with communications, IT or fundraising) as a sector for a while. 

Lack of investment in digital leaders

Many organisations still don’t have a digital lead; someone responsible for delivering digital projects and digital strategy. The 2015 State of Digital Leadership in the not-for-profit sector report found that 30% of organisations surveyed do not have a designated digital lead. In some cases, the role exists but the organisation is not investing in that person’s development and not using their knowledge and expertise to shape long-term organisational strategy. The result: by not being involved in strategic decision making, digital talent has to deal with the consequences of choices made and becomes frustrated having had no stake in the decision making. Digital leads often end up feeling undervalued and believe management “doesn’t get it”.

On the other hand, digital leads sometimes lack the skills that would enable them to lead and provide support to senior management. Colleagues and management might be reluctant to approach digital leads because they fear they’ll be made to look stupid or get a straight ‘no’ as an answer. To compensate, they may sideline the digital lead. Overall, it’s not a productive working relationship on either side.

As with any other area of an organisation’s work, not everyone is cut out to be a leader. However, it’s worth seeking digital leadership amongst the talent already in the organisation – people who know the culture, processes and the issues an organisation works on. If no one is available, leadership needs to be brought in from outside of the organisation.

Changing the tactics 

After listening to many digital leads over the years complain that management doesn’t get it, I decided it’s time to change tack. Management overall still doesn’t really get it, so what can digital leads do to change their approach and behaviour to help them get it?  

In order to gain trust and support from management, it’s important to be able to ‘stand in their shoes’ – understand what motivates them and what makes them anxious. Learning how to negotiate and recognise the barriers in their own behaviour as well as the behaviour of others will help digital leads influence and build more productive relationships. 

Empowering digital leads to manage internal politics and build relationship at all levels in an organisation is often not a high priority, but it’s the key to accelerating the process of digital transformation. 

Digital Leadership Forum

To help digital leads develop these skills and become digital leaders, I started Digital Leadership Forum, which provides a space for reflection, learning and personal development. It’s an opportunity to slow down, take stock of the past year and plan ahead. This year, we’ll focus on four themes: learning about yourself as a leader, managing up, having challenging conversations, and developing resilience. 

Find out more about the event or get in touch if you’d like a chat about it. 

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Branislava Milosevic

director, Digital Leadership Ltd

Brani Milosevic is the founder and director of Digital Leadership Ltd, digital strategist, mentor and trainer for non-profits. She’s forged her digital leadership experience over more than 15 years in some of the biggest UK charities.