What it means to be a digital charity leader

man using mobile and woman using computer

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

Zoe Amar discusses why digital leadership is so important for charities and looks at the role digital leaders play in driving transformation.

Is digital leadership the new digital transformation? It certainly seems to be one of this year’s buzzwords. A total of 20 individuals and organisations from the non-profit sector made it into the 100 finalists for Digital Leaders earlier this year. Meanwhile, Julia Unwin, chair of Civil Society Futures, recently blogged about how social change is now driven by networks and movements, asking whether we need new styles of leadership to drive this. #Icebucketchallenge was a case in point, an organic campaign that came from nowhere and raised more than $115m (£88m) for motor neurone disease in a single month.

Yet such events rarely happen in isolation. Behind every amazing campaign or digital initiative is a great leader – and it doesn’t always have to be the CEO.

So, what is digital leadership? Is it really more than a passing fad? And why does it matter?

Leadership has changed

Digital is a fundamental part of the way the modern leader operates. It’s not just being on the channels – it’s using them to build networks, be more collaborative and respond quickly. The command and control model of leadership feels increasingly analogue, clunky and old fashioned. Your charity may have run the same services for decades but the world in which it operates has changed radically. That’s why we’ve decided to recognise digital leadership for the first time this year as part of the Social CEOs awards.

David McNeill, Director of Digital at SCVO, defines digital leadership as “leadership that’s fit-for-purpose in a modern world. We perhaps too often deliver the same services, in the same way as we always have. We need to take more time to reflect on whether our services still meet the needs and expectations of our users, as well exploring whether there are more efficient and effective ways of working to achieve the same outcomes.”

Remember the brands that were once household names but failed to adapt to the times, such as Kodak. A forward-thinking leader, quick enough to respond to change, would have spotted that their organisation had to modernise and go digital if it was to thrive.

Digital leaders drive the agenda

The 21st century charity needs to be led by someone who doesn’t just pay lip service to digital; they understand how it can be used to give them competitive advantage. James Bowman, a director at PwC who leads their charity consulting practice, says, “Successful digital leadership is about having a vision of your organisation and how digital could help realise that vision; it’s not just about putting some IT in on top of the current ways of working.”

He feels that “even now, charities are still treating digital as an adjunct to the organisation – something done by another department upstairs – whereas it should sit front and centre throughout the core business strategy.”

James cites Scope as a great example of a charity showing digital leadership. The charity recently announced an ambitious new 5-year strategy to reach more people than ever before, majoring on digital. James points out that Chief Executive Mark Atkinson “has made digital the heart of their strategic move towards becoming a very different charity.”

A good digital leader has a clear idea of how digital can not only help their charity achieve its vision and goals but isn’t afraid to make difficult decisions to achieve this.

They are bold and fearless about change

With so much in the political and economic climate in flux, digital leaders know that change is something to be embraced.

Nina Smith, CEO of North Ayrshire Citizens Advice Service, said that a big turning point for her was when she told her board that digital should not be a standalone strategic aim in her organisation’s new strategy.

She advises other leaders that “I am now convinced that if you treat digital as a separate entity, “a project” if you will, it will never be an enabler for change.” Digital leaders know that their charities will have to run fast to keep pace with digital developments if they are to stay relevant to their audience.

Digital leaders aren’t afraid of failure

I’ve been lucky enough to work with some inspirational charity CEOs leading the way on digital (including alumni from our Third Sector Digital Leaders programme) and have always been struck by their attitude. They’re very open to new idea and are full of enthusiasm for trying new things.

Sally Dyson, Head of Digital Participation at SCVO, who run a digital leadership programme, describes this as “being bold, making mistakes, learning from them and being open about the learning.”

Central to this is how you bring the rest of your charity with you. Nina Smith told me that “as a management team we started using apps and sites that would help our communication and make us more transparent. Asana, Trello and Slack to name a few. We have revolutionised out team meetings using Mentimeter and Kahoot, with staff feeding back that these are best team meetings they have ever attended. We quickly learnt to embrace failure… if something wasn’t working for us we moved on but saw this as success.”

She isn’t afraid to tell her staff that they are on a journey with digital: “We are on a continual process of ‘Plan, Do, Review’. We now monitor and evaluate more than we ever have to ensure this evolution works for the client and if changes are needed we make them, no questions no procrastinating.”

Smith says that staff engagement has improved and her charity’s culture has changed hugely.

Leadership first, digital second

As the leaders above have shown, digital leadership is emerging as a core skill to lead the modern charity. Having a vision, not being scared of change and risk, and being open to collaborating and new ideas are not new skills for leaders. But digital has created innovative ways of working that test these qualities.

Five years from now, digital leadership will just be known as leadership.

Originally posted at Charity Digital News

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