Digital trustees: an answer to the charity digital skills gap

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Janet Thorne
Janet Thorne leads Reach Volunteering as Chief Executive

Trustees' lack of digital understanding is undermining their charity’s ability to move forwards in key areas according to a new report. ‘Digital trustees’ can help close the gap, and if you recruit the right person, they can empower the whole board to engage effectively with digital.

The Charity Digital Skills report, published today, finds that 69% of charities think that their trustees are lacking digital expertise, and a third of charities cite lack of understanding or buy in from trustees as one of the biggest barriers to their organisation getting the most from digital.This really matters because staff think that, unless this changes, their charity will suffer. They worry that that it will only ever use digital tactically and not strategically, that it will miss out on opportunities for digital fundraising and for reaching its audience – and that they risk looking irrelevant.

If this wasn’t bad enough, few think that their board is planning to do anything to change things. Thirty per cent say that they have no plan and 48% just don’t know. Only 11% are planning any training in this area and a measly 4% are recruiting a digital trustee.

Interestingly, that 4% correlates neatly with the proportion of trustee placements made through our service last year that were digital trustees  (16 out of 473). This bothers us – not least because we run an initiative to encourage more boards to recruit digital  trustees Building boards for a digital age. We’ve been blessed by plenty of willing digital folks offering to join boards, but demand from charities has been stubbornly slow.

Why so?

Well from the conversations I’ve had over the last few months, here are some recurring themes...

Trustees don’t see digital as a priority 

Trustees have a lot on their plates, and there are plenty of competing priorities for their time. If trustees are not knowledgable about digital, then they don’t see the many opportunities that digital can offer their charity to further their cause, or to implement their strategy. And they definitely don’t see the risks of ignoring digital. This is a circular problem: digital is not valued because of a lack of digital expertise.

Digital should be a whole board thing

At the other end of the spectrum, people argue that you shouldn’t recruit a ‘digital trustee’ since the whole board should get digital. This seems a strange argument to me. Boards happily recruit treasurers, or trustees with expertise in marketing, legal, HR and so on. The responsibility is always collective, but individual trustees can bring a depth of experience to the table to help champion an area of work, make better informed decisions about risk and opportunity, and to scrutinise more effectively. If most of the board is digitally savvy, then perhaps there is no need for a digital trustee, but in most cases…

Fear

Trustees, and CEOs, are not confident in their ability to identify the expertise they need (digital encompasses a wide field after all), and then to judge if the prospective trustee actually has that expertise, and will be able to contribute effectively to the board. It doesn’t help that digital is often linked with ‘disruptive’. Will digital trustees fit in?

The solution

Happily the solution to all three issues is the same: recruit someone as a trustee, external advisor or whatever roles makes sense to you, who:

  • can see the ways that digital can help your charity achieve its purpose and deliver its goals
  • can articulate this is a language that you and the rest of the board can understand, and in a way that makes sense for your organisation
  • who is willing to play this translation role for the board and help you embed digital in your organisation’s strategy.

We can help

We can help you on your way with some useful resources:

And we have some excellent prospective trustees looking to share their digital expertise.

What’s stopping you?

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