How the charity sector can grow the next generation of digital leaders

3 women using laptops around a table in a business meeting

Written by Zoe Amar, Chair of Charity Digital Code

The UK is facing a huge digital skills gap. Earlier this summer Deloitte launched a study which showed that just 12% of executives think that graduates have enough digital skills (down from 20% last year), with more than three quarters of organisations struggling with recruitment and a mere 16% having confidence that their team can deliver their digital strategy. So where does this leave the charity sector, where smart people who can solve some of the biggest social problems are its main asset, but which cannot offer the same paychecks as Facebook and Google?

I speak to many digital leaders in charities who worry that the financial package they offer candidates may not stack up against those offered by big tech companies. However career and recruitment expert Victoria McLean, founder and CEO of, thinks that attracting great digital talent isn’t just about renumeration. McLean believes that, ‘Finding the right people starts with creating a great company culture. When HBR asked 1,700 workers what they wanted from a job, they all said that having a good manager and being part of a great management culture were important. According to PWC’s research, Millennials, in particular, want their work to “have purpose, contribute something to the world and they want to be proud of their employer.” In fact, 75% said they would take a pay cut to work for a socially responsible employer.’

Charities often have flatter structures and are able to give their staff good development opportunities. They can work this to their advantage when hiring. McLean points out that, ‘Another big attraction for potential recruits is opportunities to learn and grow. A Deloitte study found that those who were planning to stay with their employer for more than five years were twice as likely to have a mentor and career planning programme than not.’ Meanwhile digital leadership is a big theme of the forthcoming Charity Digital Code of Practice and is recognised in the sector’s own Social CEOs awards.

I asked two charities to share how they are developing the digital leaders of tomorrow. Over at leading cancer charity Macmillan the team think that charities can attract and nurture digital talent by offering personal development plans and ensuring that individuals are given opportunities that work for them and help them collaborate across teams to build their profile across the organisation. Tracey Murigi, their website manager told me that the charity offer, ‘in-house development, graduate schemes, internships, training budgets and the chance to attend conferences and networking events. This is something our Learning and Development department constantly think about with input across the organisation.’

Over at NSPCC, Head of Digital Clive Gardiner is taking an ambitious approach to building digital skills throughout the workforce, starting with the digital team then pushing this out across the charity, using Econsultancy’s online course Fast-Track Digital Marketing. Gardiner has developed a creative way to share learning and make it relevant to staff: ‘On completion, I’ve asked digital team members to write a blog about each module on our intranet to illustrate how that topic is dealt with at NSPCC – and then to each encourage at least 2 non-digital team members onto the course and coach them through to completion. This way we build common skills, frame that learning in our NSPCC best practice and then spread the knowledge into other areas of the organisation.’ His team are also working on a raft of initiatives to foster digital skills. Gardiner says these include, ‘reverse mentoring (eg a social media officer coaching a senior colleague); a quarterly innovation newsletter sent to all staff highlighting 10 interesting external developments to stimulate discussion and ideas; our highly popular Digital Dunk blog; and roadshows and clinics where the digital team visits regional service centres. All of these are designed to demystify digital and make it accessible and approachable for staff in all areas.’

Macmillan and NSPCC’s approaches show how digital skills programmes need to be about more than the traditional route of face to face training. In my experience, staff now expect to learn on the go and to have varied learning offers, suiting a variety of learning styles and working patterns.

Finally charities need to be looking at both sides of this issue. Just as they’ll need to think outside the box to bring in staff with strong digital skills, the digital team must invest in their own leadership skills, challenging and coaching the rest of the organisation along the path to change. Kate Maunder, Divisional Manager at TPP Recruitment Ltd highlights Scope as an example of best practice as they have, ‘created an entire digital engagement division to focus solely on how they can incorporate digital into everything that they do.’

Like any other industry the charity sector is facing stiff competition to develop and hire cutting edge digital leaders.  They need to do this to mirror the way that digital is changing their audience’s behaviour, helping their charities be relevant, influential and sustainable. If they focus on employees who share their values, are keen to learn and who are hungry to change the world then they might just put themselves ahead of the pack.

Share your views on The Charity Digital Code of Practice by 9am on Tuesday 25 September. Submit your nominations for this year’s Social CEOs awards, including the four awards for digital leadership here. Nominations must be received by midnight on Friday 28 September.

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