Published: 8 October 2019

The digital leadership challenge

People in our sector talk about digital a lot. There are digital experiences, “digital first” programmes, and talk of digital transformation is rife. It’s like some sort of plague set upon us and expected to miraculously make us more efficient and effective overnight. 

But how well is any of this working? Or how many can say they’re nailing all things digital and have it all worked out? The challenge here is that the world of digital is evolving so quickly, that our skills and understanding need to catch up with the developments in technology. And charities aren’t best known for their speed or agility. 

On top of that – we’re experiencing a skills gap here. A gap that we need to really look at closing – and quickly.

So what should we do?

It all starts with leadership, and an understanding of what’s important here and how best to meet the needs of your organisation. There is no one size fits all answer either – your charity is beautiful and unique, and what works for someone else won’t necessarily make you better. But you can learn from it. So meet people. Talk to them about what they’re doing. Or spend some time in the “My Career” section of the CharityComms website and see how they can help. 

The right leadership

It is perhaps becoming more commonplace, but on the whole, senior digital roles at director or executive team level are few and far between.

In a lot of organisations, digital teams still exist and they probably sit within marketing or communications departments. And there’s not necessarily anything wrong with that. But what that means is that those who lead those departments aren’t generally from digital backgrounds.

They’ve inherited digital teams, and worked with them. But they’ve come from marketing, brand, PR or policy backgrounds – and that’s where their specialism is. Which is fine. Because you can surround yourself with an excellent digital people and digital experts; but is that enough? Is that enough when digital is becoming more and more important and is becoming a larger blip on the radar of chief execs and trustees?

Spoiler; it’s probably not enough

Action on Hearing Loss have a digital director (and he has cut the word “digital” out of all the job titles of those in his team – exciting). Versus Arthritis have a director of digital, technology & data. Chief digital officers are becoming more common place – including a new chief digital, services & innovation officer starting at Bloodwise.

There are of course more examples, and I’d wager these named organisations are doing much more interesting and exciting things, or are at least positioning themselves well to have some significant impact in the future. They’ll be great to watch.

Why? Because they will arguably be better able to implement a digital culture and ways of working that puts user-based principles and approaches at the forefront of the work of the charity. Digital work will be better represented at the top table, in the big meetings and at the right level of influence.

I think this is a positive step. But I absolutely recognise this isn’t right for everyone right now. Or at all. And probably isn’t even an issue for some, especially “millennial organisations” who were born in this digital world, and don’t have to deal with the legacy structure of an older organisation. This distinction between how we all need to cope with digital is what makes it so tricky to deal with. There is no right or wrong…

Exciting times

I think those working in digital teams are extremely well placed to serve an organisation because their experience is based on people. Engagement, interaction, data, risk management, feedback, project and stakeholder management – the real stuff that makes a difference when used properly to build the foundations of the work we undertake. We’re pretty experienced in all of this as senior digital staff.

So if digital remains within communications and/or marketing departments, I would love to see more directors who come from a digital background looking after them.

I have worked with excellent directors who do understand all this, and are doing brilliant jobs. I need to clarify that because I’m not here to annoy or upset. I just worry that this isn’t enough anymore for our sector, and we are in a real danger of seeing a growing knowledge gap when it comes to how to make the most of constantly emerging technology and the ever-changing use of channels.

This would be a disaster; meaning the organisations we love and cherish because of their impact could get left further and further behind, becoming less relevant to those we exist to help. There’s a real risk that faster-moving business could make our work redundant. 

Remember digital is an enabler

Lily from Barnados tweeted to me recently about digital, succinctly hitting the nail on the head: “digital is an enabler, a channel, something to integrate with and enhance what you’re doing – not a product or panacea”.

This succinctly sums a lot up for me, and we need to enable organisations to do digital better – or work out how to do it better, and plan for the future. To ask the right questions and challenge assumptions. Digital can’t exist in a silo. It must be embedded across an organisation, and digital representation at a senior level is one way we must all consider to help us do this. 

Photo by rob walsh on Unsplash


Joe Freeman, digital strategist, freelance

Joe has lead digital teams at Sue Ryder, Breast Cancer Now and most recently, Bloodwise. He’s passionate about charities better using digital to meet their goals, and how charities can best adopt a digital culture, ensuring this strategically helps organisations to deliver and communicate their aims.