Seven tips for leading your charity through its COVID-19 digital transformation process

Published on
April 7, 2020
in
How Tos
Joe Roberson
Embracing digital change, experimentation and failure for charity leaders. You are not alone.
Header graphic with text 'The Charity Digital Leader's Mother Trait: They embrace digital change, experiment purposefully and are willing to fail'

Digital transformation has suddenly become mandatory for charities. Prompted by the UK government’s movement restrictions, the sector is getting to grips en masse with Zoom, Slack, MS Teams, Google Docs, and Miro and asking ‘How do we take our offline services online?’.

“The current moment sees organisations needing to undergo a ‘digital transformation’, that would typically take a few years, in the space of a few weeks. - Cassie Robinson, The National Lottery Community Fund: Day 1

That puts charity leaders, many of whom haven’t yet had digital leadership training, in the tough position of having to lead a process unlike any before.

But we’ve seen many leaders rise to the challenge. We’ve seen them embrace change, experiment rapidly and risk getting it wrong. This is exactly the trait our pre-COVID research identified as the mother trait of effective digital leadership.

The Mother Trait: Charity digital leaders embrace digital change, experiment purposefully and are willing to fail.

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Be reassured

Rapid digital transformation is possible. Here’s some support on that.

It’s OK to fail. Especially the first time. And everyone is in the same boat. Even charity leaders with the most digital experience are having to embrace change and experiment.

And Catalyst is here to support you. We’ve analysed the traits and capabilities of successful digital leaders, and matched them to the current situational concerns of charity leaders. Here we present our findings as practical guidance.

Concern #1: “I don’t know enough about tech and digital”

Maybe you feel you should know more. Perhaps you have staff who lack confidence too.

“One person used the analogy of it being like oxygen masks in a plane. Another organisation described receiving 300 emails per hour which was making it impossible to do anything else other than respond to those immediate needs.” — Cassie Robinson, Day 2

1. Show that you don’t know. Role model curiosity

Because charity digital leaders accept they don’t have all the answers and aren’t afraid to ask for help. They ask questions rather than staying silent. They are open to new ideas and are constantly learning.

At a time like this how could anyone know enough? Show your staff your willingness to learn new skills and approaches. Be ready to ask questions, even if you’re afraid to show you don’t know the answer. Be humble. Be curious. Behaving in this way will give your team permission to do the same.

What to do

2. Find out your team’s existing skills — all of them

Because charity digital leaders draw on internal and external expertise where necessary.

It might yield some surprises. And it might show where your organisation needs support.

Ask those with the most skills to train and coach you and other staff members. If you’re still short, look externally.

What to do

  • Run a team skills audit. Ask about digital skills they use in their personal life. Nothing is off the menu.
  • Ask those with the most skills to run remote ‘lunch and learns’ and training/coaching sessions for other staff. Video calling and screen share tools make this possible.
  • Find skilled volunteers through Reach Volunteering

3. Talk to your peers

Because charity digital leaders are collaborative: they make connections with other organisations and experts to learn and share.

Organisations are reaching out to each other and forming new alliances and partnerships. This is happening incredibly quickly. — Cassie Robinson, Day 1

Talking to other leaders will right away help you feel less alone in your ‘not-knowing’. It’ll show you how others are dealing with this situation and reveal reassuring glimmers of what’s possible. Now is a time when new partnerships are forged and old relationships strengthen.

What to do

  • Call or email your charity neighbours. Ask on Twitter and LinkedIn too.
  • Sign up to Coffee Connections — our charity peer connecting service
  • Ask questions and see what others are doing and grappling with on the Digital Charities Slack group’s 16 themed channels (2 minute signup).

Concern #2: “I’m worried about making mistakes or letting people down”

Likely you’re feeling some degree of anxiety or overwhelm, as well as perhaps a renewed sense of purpose. You want to rise to the challenge but feel unprepared for the scale of change needed. You’re worried about things like choosing the wrong software, failing to reach your beneficiaries, or delivering digital services ‘in the wrong way’.

4. Cultivate a willingness to try

Because charity digital leaders embrace digital change, experiment with it purposefully and are willing to fail.

“I looked at the sudden change of need as an opportunity. This is what gave me the energy to approach digital head on. Knowing that the organisation could come out of this stronger.”— Nik Harwood, CEO, Young Somerset

The COVID-19 situation requires that we get our processes and services online. Likely you’ll have already done some of this. First you should be aiming to set up the minimum needed, and then to continually add (iterate) from there. Because of this it’s important to have a review process that shows you what’s working and what isn’t.

What to do

Concern #3: “I’m not sure how COVID-19 has affected our users’ needs”

Everyone’s circumstances have changed. You need to understand what’s going on for your service users in this new context. Then you can decide whether to try and deliver the same services online, or if something different is needed.

5. Do remote user research

Because charity digital leaders put users at the heart of everything they do. They focus on their changing needs, behaviours and expectations

Oxford Young Women’s Music Project usually uses its stock of teachers and instruments to help young women. Now they are running live YouTube gigs showcasing their artists followed by discussion-based sessions over google hangouts and follow up self-serve activities before the next week’s gig. This arose out of a small amount of user research.

Remote user research is like remote user involvement. You don’t need to do a lot. Start small. Work in small bursts.

What to do

Concern #4: “I’m worried about making our digital delivery safe for our users and staff”

Safeguarding can feel like a big scary issue, especially if you don’t have much experience of online delivery and information security. You won’t be the only one feeling this way. It’s easy to worry.

6. Approach safeguarding systematically

Because charity digital leaders are bold: they rethink existing practices and make informed decisions.

Safeguarding is just as important online as offline. But it needn’t be any more difficult to plan for and practice. You’re looking to apply the same principles as you would offline. Explore this new terrain and you will learn how it works.

“It’s easy to overthink digital safeguarding. For example just because there’s a means of recording an online conversation doesn’t necessarily mean you should. Would you record a face-to-face meeting in the same way? Follow your offline practice as much as possible.” — Jane Griffin, LGBTY Scotland

What to do

Concern #5: “I’m feeling less connected to my staff”

Suddenly you’re not able to physically see your team. You can’t feel the office atmosphere.

And your team can’t see you either. Your presence has changed. Some may find this difficult.

7. Be visible, trust your team

Because charity digital leaders are visible and trust everyone in their team to play their role.

Leaders are more than just what they say, or how they say it. They are what they embody. So you’re going to need to show up digitally, using all the remote working tech at your disposal to keep connected.

And you’ll need to establish an online culture, particularly around continuing all the small chats that might happen in the office, in the kitchen, or when staff stick their head around your door for a minute. This means using chat tools more and using video when before you might have used the phone.

What to do

Go forth and lead

We really hope these ideas help. Remember that if you’re a digital leader, right now:

  • Curiosity is your friend
  • Vulnerability is your greatest strength
  • A positive attitude is your best ally

We wish you all the best in leading your team on this digital-first journey. May you follow a path of great transformation!

Hat tips galore to Tori Ellaway for her help in putting this guide together.

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