Trustees speaking at a desk

How can trustees help charities harness digital?

By Giulia Todres 23 February 2021 4 minute read

NPC recently hosted an online seminar, in partnership with the Clothworkers’ Company, on how trustees can help charities harness digital technology through and beyond the Covid-19 pandemic. Chaired by NPC trustee Fran Perrin, who is also the Founder and Director of the Indigo Trust, and Chair of 360Giving, our speakers at this event included: Zoe Amar, Founder of the digital agency, Zoe Amar Digital; Matthew Corner, Chair of Tutors United; and Alex Butler, a trustee of SafeLives. They shared with us their insights into making the most of digital.

Covid-19 has accelerated the transition to digital for many organisations across the sector, with charities moving to remote working and transforming services almost overnight. Charities have been #NeverMoreNeeded than during this time and many have adapted their use of digital technology to meet this need, using video-conferencing software to replace in-person sessions, developing online platforms for peer learning and sharing information through podcasts and social media.

The Co-op Foundation defines the phrase ‘digital’ as ‘applying the culture, practices, processes and technologies of the internet-era to respond to people’s raised expectations.’ Changes that might have usually taken years were achieved in just a few short months. These changes may, at times, have been daunting—our State of the Sector research suggests that before the pandemic, charities were not very confident about their use of digital. However, looking beyond the pandemic, digital working practices look highly likely to become part of our ‘new normal’.

Charities will therefore need to decide which aspects of their remote working offering to carry forwards, and how to integrate digital innovations with their more traditional approaches. So, what can trustees do to help their charities to continue to harness digital, right now and into the future, across all levels of the organisation?

Further develop your board’s digital skills

Zoe Amar told us that trustees need to provide challenge, scrutiny and guidance on digital, to help organisations stay relevant and to be as successful as possible in the digital-era. But how can trustees do this when they don’t have digital skills themselves? The Charity Digital Skills Report 2020, by Zoe Amar and the Skills Platform, found that two thirds of charities rate their boards as either having low digital skills or having room for improvement.

This skills gap hasn’t changed since the first Charity Digital Skills Report in 2017 but perhaps charities now have an opportunity to capitalise and build on the ‘forced’ shift to digital that we have seen as a result of the pandemic. Boards should now look to take stock of their digital skills, improve the digital knowledge and the skills of all trustees, and consider recruiting a ‘digital trustee’. Platforms like Getting on Board may be able to help with this last point.

Digital trustees can bring contacts, skills and an understanding of the strategic advantages of digital to a board. However, the value in recruiting a digital trustee will be limited if the rest of the board does not have the knowledge or the skills to make decisions about digital. Boards should therefore foster a learning environment, where people are not afraid to ask ‘stupid questions’, and skills and knowledge are generously shared. The recruitment of a digital trustee can also help to ensure that boards represent a wider range of voices, this NPC blog details how to improve diversity and inclusion on trustee boards. Moreover, to make sure that efforts to improve board diversity are meaningful and support the retention of trustees, charities should focus on building inclusive cultures and practices, as this piece on the development of the Charity Governance Code highlights.

Supporting staff

In the first few weeks of the pandemic, many charities shifted to using digital in their work and quickly supported their staff to gain new skills on software such as Zoom. They also provided them with hardware and data to allow them to continue with their work from home.

SafeLives worked with Catalyst to identify the digital needs of their frontline staff that support people affected by domestic abuse. They found that the needs were often easy to meet, such as supplying staff with laptops and internet dongles, allowing them to help people during this challenging time.

Boards continue to have a role to play in supporting staff to digitally upskill. For example, Tutors United’s trustees stepped up and support their staff by providing some coaching in order to help them with the transition to online working. Trustees may also wish to bring in experts to support their organisation and can find volunteers with the right skills using platforms like Reach Volunteering.

As charities adapt to digital delivery, boards must also ensure their organisations have access to the necessary guidance, information and policies on safeguarding and data protection.

Using digital to deliver your mission

As the vaccination drive hopefully begins to yield results and restrictions start to ease, charities will need to consider what their business models should look like going forward. After pivoting during the pandemic, many will be considering implementing a hybrid model, combining digital and more traditional approaches to service delivery.

Charities must be guided by the people they serve when making these decisions. Digital services are not accessible to all—in fact research from Ofcom suggests that 13% of adults in the UK are non-users of the internet.

When re-designing services, charities must consider the needs of the people they support and the realities of their lives. Alex Butler suggested that charities ask themselves: ‘how would they be using technology?’ and ‘what barriers might they be coming up against?’.

Where possible, charities should involve service users in the re-design process. Not only does this give service users power by involving them in decision-making, but when done well it can help to ensure that services truly meet people’s needs.  Tutors United transitioned to an entirely online tutoring model during the pandemic. When developing their approach, they realised that they had to consider that many children would be accessing the sessions using mobile phones. They also found that they needed to provide tailored support to parents, to make sure they could help their children to get online. Matt Corner told us that going forward, the charity will operate a hybrid model, tailoring their support based on need, geography and resources.

Start small

The path to becoming a more digitally confident organisation can seem daunting and there may be a temptation to think that everything needs to be done at once. But as charities juggle limited resources and increased demand, this is likely to be the best way to set yourself up to fail.

Bite-sized chunks can be the best way to get started with your digital transformation. Take stock and build on what you’re already good at. Be realistic about what is achievable for your organisation and develop a shared understanding between staff and trustees. Prioritise what you will tackle first and do your research on what the most appropriate solutions for your organisation might be.

For more on any of the points raised in this blog, you can watch a full recording of this seminar here. For further guidance on how charities can get the most out of digital, check out our blog on what help is available for charities transitioning to digital or visit Charity Digital.

Covid-19 has accelerated the transition to digital for many charities. Here's how trustees can help charities harness digital and integrate innovations with some of their more traditional approaches: Click To Tweet