Ten ways to make your charity genuinely digital  

By Nicola Pritchard 29 January 2019

This isn’t a conversation about technology: it’s a conversation about people, about society, and about how organisations like ours need to respond

Julie Dodd, Parkinson’s UK

Too often in charities, ‘digital’ is seen as being a bolt-on to an existing strategy. Really, putting it at the heart of our work is a critical part of helping the social sector meet the needs of modern society.

So why the disconnect?

On 14th January 2018, charity consultants NPC invited experts from both the tech and charity worlds to Clothworkers Hall in London to discuss how trustees can help their charities to put digital thinking at the heart of their strategies.

We were joined by a stellar line-up; John Monks, Co-Founder, Curve, Partner at Cambridge Hack, Trustee of ActionAid; Julie Dodd, Director of Digital Transformation, Parkinson’s UK, Trustee of Young Minds; Ben White, Managing Director, Reason Digital; Jim Bowes, Chief Innovation Officer, Panoply, CEO Manifesto, Trustee Asthma UK.

Below we’re sharing the top 10 lessons these experts relayed on the day;

Don’t think about ‘digital’ as an isolated function

‘Digital’ per se should not be on the board meeting agenda. Any conversation about how digital solutions can help your charity should be part of a thorough examination of your organisational strategy—including an interrogation of needs, behaviours and exploring how other organisations might be tackling these needs through existing digital solutions.

Agree on a vision that everyone understands

Julie described how Parkinson’s UK rethought their assumptions before embarking on a digital transformation. It was important to get people thinking beyond websites, social media and emails, and towards ‘applying a culture, ways of working, devices and tools of the internet-era to respond to people’s needs and expectations’[1].

Integrate digital into all operations

Start with the assumption that everyone needs to be on the journey, rather than a select digital team. For Parkinson’s UK, this meant creating a number of new roles such as ‘service transformation lead’, ‘product management lead’, ‘supporter engagement lead’. For smaller charities this might mean moving away from tactical roles being dispersed and siloed, towards centralised and consistent ownership for digital functions. Acknowledging this is not an instant process is important.

Set the risk appetite

John Monks, Co-Founder of Curve, explored the similarities between feelings of excitement and trepidation in the moments before we make brave decisions. Being aware of the personal feelings surrounding risks can help create what John described as a ‘space for safety’ and encourage discourse.

Create and protect the investment

It’s one thing getting investment, and it’s another actually using it for what you need. John described the importance of ringfencing, ensuring later projects don’t get reframed as ‘innovations’ and end up eating into funds.

Ask the dumb questions

The role of trustees as facilitators of discussion is not to be underestimated. While having someone on the board with a technology background might be helpful, all trustees need to be engaged and confident about the role digital has in their charity.

Don’t prejudge the right solution

Ben White from Reason Digital warned that prematurely leaping into solutions such as ‘an app’ or a ‘campaign website’ can be counterproductive. As a trustee, you may have assumptions about what your charity needs but you should leave these at the door. Ben added this is also a common pitfall when talking to suppliers. Don’t constrain them to your solution if their expertise suggests you should be doing something else.

Look for already existing tools

Ben emphasised that charities too often ask for bespoke systems to be built, wasting valuable resources developing tools that could have been adapted from elsewhere. Research the tools in the public domain before making a call on whether a bespoke solution is really needed.

Start small

Testing is critical—particularly to ensure some solutions are ruled out before investment is thrown at them. Ben suggests, 95% of budgets should be spent on the implementation and optimisation, with only the 5% going on the initial prototype. Jim Bowes recommended running simultaneous experiments on the solutions that are critical to the charity mission to diversify the risk if one fails. Jim also emphasised the need to prepare and plan for failure. Though ‘fail fast’ might be a common phrase in the tech world, expectations in the social sector are often different.

Learn your lessons

Our panellists recommended the use of some form of maturity model – such as the Digital leadership framework and diagnostic tool – to help you understand where you are now compared to where you want to be in future. There are many ways in which a charity may or may not be digitally mature; be it service delivery, product management, infrastructure, staff behaviours and attitudes or specific expertise. Through effective facilitation and challenge trustees can help their charities identify key points of leverage, whilst keeping a firm eye on the end goal.

We hold regular events on data, digital, impact measurement and other topics of use to the social sector, why not sign up for one? Or, for notification of upcoming events to your inbox, subscribe to our newsletter.


[1] Borrowed and adapted from Coop’s definition of digital


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