Stepping up the digital efforts in charities


Written by Gillian Murray, Chief Executive, Pilotlight

Last month we carried out a survey ‘Small Charity Leaders Insight Report 2019’* focusing on small charities’ ambitions to expand their reach, help more people and step up their digital efforts.

The report had responses from 271 charities, all of which with an income under £5m, the majority of which turn over less than £500k a year. The survey was quite wide-ranging, covering areas such as strategy, leadership and partnerships. The numbers that emerged regarding digital were very similar to those reported in 2018. An interesting outcome, as it can be interpreted in different ways – either things are not getting better, or not getting worse!

Survey findings

  • 30% of respondents cited major IT upgrades and IT failures as a key challenge this year
  • 33% had invested in training for IT/digital skills
  • A further 33% identified IT/digital as the professional skill-set they needed most

Based on this it is clear that we need to create more space for, and focus on, digital efforts and digital transformation as a strategic and leadership challenge/opportunity. My experience with over 800 charities through Pilotlight is that small charities are doing vital, inspiring work. They are also, broadly speaking, (particularly the smaller ones), under-resourced and under-financed. So, it’s the day-to-day, hands-on essential work for their user groups that take priority.

Therefore, I applaud Digital Leaders’ aim ‘to build the capacity of the UK’s leadership creating effective digital leaders, raising awareness of the importance of good leadership in digital transformation’. In the survey mentioned above, 34% of charities had invested in leadership training in the past year; barriers cited for not doing so or doing more were financial cost (69%) and time commitment (63%).

For us, access to opinion, resources and training, and especially the impetus to run our first ever webinar through Digital Leaders has been incredibly useful. Preparing our first webinar ‘Stepping into digital’ was a great opportunity to articulate how we were structuring our digital journey. Essentially, it was looking at our strategic objectives through the lens of digital and using three ‘buckets’ – culture, data/technology & strategy to shape plans and actions. Sharing our evolving story in a second webinar for Insight Live Week, we were delighted (& relieved) to realise that the buckets held water so to speak, and we were making progress. We also had some nice feedback which confirmed there is an audience for this non-specialist approach, and that sometimes taking the first steps is the hard part – so here are some simple tips to help you to get underway:

Take thinking time

I can say one thing with complete certainty – time is at a premium for charity sector leaders. Yet, before worrying about investment and resources, take a step back and think about your ambitions – how does digital support your strategic objectives and how does it challenge them? While you absolutely don’t want to be left behind, there are choices to be made and they involve all your stakeholders.

Take action

Your actions will fall out of your plan, which will fall out of your strategy, but as a leader, making a statement of intent is important. Demonstrating to your staff team and your Board that you are making digital efforts a key priority is a powerful tool. This can be as simple as setting up a working group – and using the principles in the Charity Digital Code is very helpful; I think it provides a great framework for areas of focus.

Take heart

Digital can be daunting, but it’s a wonderful opportunity for the sector, and for our leadership to come together around what has the potential to be a real game-changer. I’m excited by the thoughtful and insightful conversations that are happening and the potential for better connections and joined-up thinking in this digital evolution/revolution.

* To read the full report on the results of our survey, click here.

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