The four myths of digital trusteeship

Digital red dots
Zoe Amar
Zoe Amar is one of the sector’s leading experts on digital.

After twelve years as a trustee on a range of boards, Zoe debunks the four myths of digital trusteeship.

This year (2020) marks 12th year I’ve sat on charity boards. Having been lucky enough to be a trustee of four different organisations, and the ‘digital trustee’ for three of those, I wanted to share what my experience has been like.

It’s a subject I’ve been thinking about a lot recently as over at The Charity Digital Code of Practice (which I chair) we’ve recently launched a COVID-19 digital checklist for trustees and leaders to help them make the right decisions and plan for the future at a time when the sector has had to embrace tech by necessity. 

Here are four myths about being a digital trustee that I’ve seen in action.

1. Digital is a channel

Digital is so much more than your website, social media and email marketing. The Coronavirus pandemic represents the opportunity for your board to step back and think about where your charity is going, and what role technology will play in its future. No-one knows what this will look like yet, but the acceleration of digital since lockdown shows how tech has risen up the agenda. A good digital trustee will help you explore the options for how your charity could use digital to increase sustainability (for example, growing online fundraising) and widening its impact.

2. You only need one digital trustee

Helping a board – and a charity – embrace digital might begin with appointing a board member with expertise. But this cannot be the endgame. In the checklist (and the Code) we encourage charities to recruit a digital trustee. Ultimately though all trustees need to have a working knowledge about how digital can help their organisations increase their impact. Otherwise, how can they make informed decisions about digital, especially at the moment?

3. The digital trustee can sort out our social media/manage our database etc

I worry when I hear about trustees being brought in to undertake operational digital activities. How can they fulfil their role and remain objective if they’re being pulled into day to day activity? If your charity sees this as the primary function of the digital trustee, then they either need a volunteer to do a pro bono project or a consultant. Equally, if a new, enthusiastic trustee is tempted to get involved in digital operations then the chair might need to find a way to help them channel their passion into a more strategic activity. It’s vital that this is done sensitively for first time trustees so that they understand what’s appropriate but also that they don’t feel discouraged from making a difference.

4. One size fits all

You’ve got to get the right digital skills for the stage you’re at, whether you’re starting out or advanced. Find out from the staff team where they see the opportunities and challenges in digital and then think about what skill set a digital trustee would need to have to help drive the strategy from board level. Similarly, if you’re about to undertake a big technical project (for example, a new website or customer relationship management/CRM) you may want a trustee with experience of that so they can provide oversight and constructive challenge.

I’ve learned so much from being a digital trustee and equally I hope the charities where I’ve had the privilege of being on their board may have learned a few things from me. Yet I’ve also seen where the role can go wrong if either side makes too maany assumptions. Explore this at the interview so that you and the trustee can start off on the right foot and help build your charity a digital first future.

Read the Code’s COVID-19 digital checklist for trustees and leaders

Check out Reach's digital trustee page for more resources and information.

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