6 insights about digital trustees

Written by Zoe Amar, Charity Marketing and Digital Communications Expert and Freelance Consultant

Over the last few years I’ve spoken at hundreds of events about digital. Without exception, the subject of trustees always comes up. Most often I meet charity leaders who are worried about the digital skills gaps on their boards. This is borne out by research that 69% of charities cite their board’s digital skills as low or having room for improvement.

But there are tech leaders who are keen to be trustees. I’ve spent 5 enjoyable years as a digital trustee. During this time I’ve sat on 2 different boards and have also undertaken several other non exec roles, including chairing The Charity Digital Code of Practice, in which digital leadership and governance is a big theme. I’m going to take a break from trusteeship for a little while to concentrate on my role as Chair of the Code and running my social enterprise. However trustees are always on my mind, as I think digital is fundamentally changing what we need from the role. Digital skills are now life skills and many of the areas which trustees are responsible for, from strategy to managing risk to large scale procurement will have a significant digital element. This is why digital is now core to fulfilling the responsibilities of a trustee.

I’ve learned so much from being a trustee and I can vouch for how it helps improve lateral thinking, confidence in dealing with challenging situations and understanding what it’s really like to be on the other side of the board table. Getting the right person into a digital trustee role can be transformative for the charity and the individual involved.  That’s why Reach Volunteering, CAST, SCVO and Zoe Amar Digital have collaborated on a quick 1 page guide to help charities who want to find a digital trustee.

Here are my top 6 reflections on digital trusteeship:

  • Find the right one for the stage you’re at. I met a charity CEO recently who had a talented and senior digital expert on their board. But they weren’t quite sure what to do with them. It was as if they had bought a Porsche and it was sitting in the garage, waiting until they had learned to drive. Fit is important here. That’s why in our guide we major on what skills you should look for depending on whether your charity is starting out in digital or more advanced.
  • Joint objectives can work well. It’s vital that the staff team work together- but not too closely- on digital. A good working relationship with the appropriate boundaries, allowing the trustee to remain objective, is vital. Chairs could set shared goals between the executive and trustees, establishing milestones and looking at progress at joint meetings. Expectations about the pace of change should be understood on both sides. I’ve seen charities lose highly skilled digital trustees who were used to working at speed, and who got frustrated by a slower pace.
  • Consider a shorter term. Us digital people move around between roles a lot. We love intense projects with a tighter time scale and clear goals. Why not give your trustee a shorter term? This may make it more attractive, especially to younger trustees. Millennials may not want to commit to 4 years on a board, but they might commit to less time if it was a good, challenging learning opportunity.
  • Think about whether it really needs to be a trustee role. One charity CEO told me that he was struggling to find someone who would commit to being a digital trustee, despite being in a city which is a bustling tech hub. I advised him to create a digital non exec advisory role so he could benefit from this expertise without locking them infor several years.
  • Make them feel valued. Being a digital trustee is a tough gig. One of my peers told me that he was hired to be disruptive, but felt that he wasn’t listened to and became marginalised. His chair could have stopped this by recognising his contribution, offering constructive challenge and support, and encouraging the rest of the board to develop their own digital skills.
  • Use The Charity Digital Code of Practice as a resource. It is there to help get the conversation going about digital around the board table, and will help all trustees understand what their charities are doing well in digital, and what they need to improve. And that shared knowledge is the best way to avoid the most dangerous misconception of digital trusteeship: that it starts and ends with one person.

Being a trustee is a fantastic experience that I would recommend to anyone. But it needs to be well thought through on both sides if it is going to work.

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