6 big questions charity digital leaders need to ask

By Ross McCulloch (Director, Third Sector Lab) on 18th Oct 2019

Two things help or hinder the progress of digital evolution in any organisation – culture and leadership. Charities led by a senior team who trust their staff and understand the potential of technology, whose culture is focused on openness, experimentation and entrepreneurship, are the most likely to make a success of digital transformation.

73% of charities want their senior team to offer a clear vision of digital and what it could help them achieve.

There is a clear message from the Charity Digital Skills Report 2019 – charity professionals are looking for strong digital leadership. In my experience facilitating the SCVO Digital Senior Leaders Programme, charity CEOs focused on digital evolution need to be able to articulate what is happening, what ought to be happening and challenge teams to make it happen. While digital change can feel overwhelming there are six big questions digital leaders need to consider:

1- What is the problem we’re trying to solve?

Street Soccer Scotland have saved 30 hours of admin time (per coach per year) on just one document utilising Prontoforms. It started with tackling the one big problem all their soccer coaches faced – filling in paper paperwork was massively time consuming and data had to be manually entered when they were back at the office. Player registration forms are now filled in on the pitch on an iPad – Prontoforms automatically sync the data to their Salesforce CRM.

Similarly, Addaction had an issue with many over-50s shunning face-to-face and group services. They started with this problem and built a simple web chat tool for their website, supporting thousands of people online. Many of whom would never have accessed a service in a physical location.

By understanding the internal or external problem they’re trying to solve, charity leaders can ensure they are focused on service transformation enabled by digital – not digital transformation.

2 – How are our users living their lives and how can digital help us meet their expectations?

Tom Loosmore of Public Digital has a beautifully simple definition of ‘digital’ that all charities should consider when thinking about their digital transformation journey:

“Applying the culture, processes, business models & technologies of the internet era to respond to people’s raised expectations.”

It’s why Catalyst Housing Association’s fuel poverty team now offer a free ‘snap your bill’ service via WhatsApp. They’re giving tenants a vital service at a time that suits them and they’re doing it on the most popular app in the UK. They understand how people live their lives and the expectations they now have in the internet era.

3 – How are decisions made across our organisation?

“You can achieve great things with small means if the culture is right.”

Charles Bodsworth, Assistant Director for Digital Transformation at Imperial War Museums, is clear that ‘digital’ is about more than just the tech. It’s about transparent ways of working and making decisions that differ from the old top-down models of the past. We need to empower staff & volunteers to really understand the challenges and needs of users & supporters. No more focus groups or Surveymonkeys asking users what they want or what they will do.

Embedding service design approaches and principles across teams can help ensure that your charity is truly user-focused. This doesn’t need to be about big one-off expensive interventions from external consultancies – we should be empowering and training charity professionals to think more like designers.

Alongside the use of service design, charity leaders should be asking how, if at all, data is being used as a decision making tool. Data-driven organisation FirstPort is using grant making statistics to better understand gender imbalance within the social enterprise world – which will help shape future policy, open up debate and ensure greater equality in the sector.

All charities, regardless of their size, should be striving for a culture where data is seen as key decision making tool, ensuring funds are spent where they are most needed. Technology, such as a CRM or data-visualisation dashboards, can help boards, senior managers and frontline staff unlock this decision making culture.

As Steve MacLaughlin, Director of Internet Solutions at Blackbaud, puts it: “Without data decisions are left to tribal knowledge or worse, the whims of the Highest Paid Person’s Opinion (HiPPO).”

4 – What digital skills do our staff and volunteers have?

This seems an obvious question but it’s amazing how many charities embark on developing giant digital strategies or roadmaps without understanding the digital skills of staff and volunteers. The Essential Digital Skills Framework lays out 5 types of essential digital skills for life and work:

  • communicating
  • handling information and content
  • transacting
  • problem solving
  • being safe and legal online

If leaders want staff to embrace digital change it’s vital that they understand what support and training they need to get there. Programmes like SCVO’s Digital Champion Training help build the confidence of frontline staff and help tackle social exclusion by supporting people in communities to develop essential digital skills.

Leaders need to take responsibility for developing their workforce to ensure their charity can meet the needs of people’s raised expectations in the internet era.

5 – How seriously are we taking cyber security to protect ourselves and our users?

While it’s important that charities seek expert help when it comes to cyber security, it’s vital that senior leaders and boards have an understanding of the key issues and where risk lies in their organisation. The National Cyber Security Centre’s ‘Cyber Security Centre Small Guide’ is a great starting point, looking at the importance of backing-up data, protecting your organisation from malware, keeping mobile devices safe, using passwords effectively and avoiding phishing attacks.

Charity leaders should be taking advantage of the various Cyber Essentials Accreditation grants available at the moment – giving your organisation funding to work with a security specialist.

6 – What is out there already?

“For 90% of ideas for tech for good, there will already exist code or platforms that provide 80% of the required functionality. Whilst this clearly isn’t enough for the full 100% product/service it is more than enough to start with, at low cost, to really test and develop the idea.”

The Centre for Acceleration of Social Technology (CAST) are clear that a culture of reuse is the biggest accelerator of tech for good impact. Whether it’s the CRM that tracks volunteer impact or the online support tool for your users – always assume that the solution exists. Speak to organisations tackling the same social issues as you – what can you learn from them and how can you collaborate.

Visit organisations who have made success of specific platforms before investing in them – this simple step can save time and money while greatly increasing the chance of success. Leaders should be delegating responsibility, empowering staff to explore other charities making use of data as a decision making tool, embedding service design approaches, using flexible technology, shifting to the cloud or putting cyber security measures in place.

If you’re a voluntary sector senior leader who would like to explore these issues along with your peers, the SCVO Digital Senior Leaders Programme 2020 is currently accepting applications.

A version of this blog originally appeared onCharity Digital News.