Published: 12 November 2019

Your charity won’t get better at digital without doing these three things

In the ten years I’ve been working in digital teams across the sector, we’ve been having the same conversations;

“Everyone needs to understand digital”.
“We need to upskill our teams”
“Digital needs representation at the board!”
Etc, etc, etc.

We need to understand that on the whole, things have not moved on over this time, and that we are in danger of seeing an even greater skills gap appearing within organisations because our knowledge cannot keep up with the pace of technological change. There’s a real risk that charities could get left behind and become irrelevant.

I’ve been regularly frustrated by getting a foot in the door with chief execs and trustee chairs only to have conversations hijacked by talk of their own digital misadventure. Setbacks involving their cheese shop and their favourite horses, actual examples of what’s been shared with me in somewhat-derailed conversations – and their not really understanding why it’s so important that we get better here.

It’s positive that I’ve been able to get such audiences, but it’s not embedded digital anywhere. And that’s a problem.

I wrote recently that I’m bored of hearing about digital all the time. I’ve also written about the digital leadership challenge we face as a sector, and most recently I gave a presentation at the CharityComms Heads of Digital special interest group based around sharing my thoughts on this timely theme.

So with a view to giving this whole thing a bit of a kick, I’m sharing my thoughts on three things your organisation can do to get better at digital. Ready? Let’s go.

  1. Sort out your leadership

    Digital leadership is not about technical ability. It’s about understanding all the tech stuff, sure. But most importantly, it’s about being able to translate that so that others can understand it. It’s about knowing how to do that and tailoring your approach based on who needs to know this information. This is a real skill, and one that must not be overlooked or underestimated.

    When it comes to digital teams at a large proportion of charities, they generally sit within the Communications department, reporting to a Director of Comms who probably comes from a PR, campaigning, marketing or brand background. But not really from a digital one.

    There are some “progressive” organisations who have senior digital roles operating at board level, which I think is to be applauded because – IMPORTANTLY – these people have the skills and ability to inform decisions at the most senior levels.

    If an organisation has a more traditional Comms department structure, I want to challenge Chief Executives to look at who leads those functions. Be bold and brave and try to get a previous-Head of Digital into the role.

    Current Heads of Digital – you want to affect real change? See what you can do to get on the executive team…

    Current Heads of Digital should have all the skills needed to be a successful Director of Comms; risk and reputation management experience, PR know-how, data and compliance awareness, stakeholder and project management skills, people skills… All things the Heads of Digital traditionally get involved with and need to master in order to do their jobs well.

    If any Chief Execs are reading this, why would you not do this?

  2. Close the skills gap

    You are wasting your time.

    Ever get annoyed by having to have the same conversations with teams ahead of every project you work on? Tired of explaining why we don’t need another blog because no one reads them?

    Or for the millionth time advising people how we can run a series of adverts across Facebook to help someone meet their objectives? Or that no, you can’t have five asks in this one email – it just won’t work as well as it could…?

    It’s 2019 and we should not need to be going over the basics all the time.

    To get around that, you need to be an advocate for people within your organisation, supporting investment in training and building skills within teams to empower people to do more for themselves.

    There are things that everyone should really have a basic understanding of, and it is your job to trust and invest in your people – in your team and beyond. You can decide what those things are too, and maybe align them with your organisation’s objectives to support wider work. The world’s your oyster and you can make a difference.

  3. Trust people

    You have to trust people to make the right decisions. Your team. Your peers. Other teams. You can’t do everything.

    What you can do is set clear boundaries or principals for your organisations. This steers them on a path and you can then have confidence people are going to work a particular way or make sensible decisions. Do this quickly by stealing someone else’s and adapting them to meet your needs. Here’s something Cast prepared earlier for service design. At least use this to give you some direction.

Don’t skip good governance

The future of delivering better digital work for our charities relies on good governance. By having the right leadership in place, the right skills and the right levels of trust, you’re on the right path to this; and on the right path to success.

As a digital leader in your organisation, some of the implementation here might be up to you. Hell, it might all be up to you. But you want to strive for greatness and you can help drive this improvement by using the skills and resilience you’ve obtained over the years to really push for change.

But one final point to remember…

There is no one-size-fits-all answer here

All our organisations are different. What works for one will not work for another because we all operate in different ways and have different challenges. But what I urge you to do is speak to your peers about what works – and what doesn’t – and use that information to pick and choose the things that you can do to make a difference in your organisation.

Not to put too fine-a-point on it, but the future of digital in charities rests in the hands of our current heads of digital and the people they empower across organisations.

No pressure.

But you can be the difference here – so let’s not still be talking about this in another ten years.

Credit: Markus Spiske on Unsplash


For those of you interested in finding out more about digital take a look at the lineup for next week’s CharityComms Charity digital conference here.


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.