The key role of the charity digital lead

Published on
October 7, 2020
in
Perspectives
David Ainsworth
We look at the growing number of charities employing dedicated digital leads - and whether this trend is key to strengthening the sector's digital capabilities.

Over the last few months, Catalyst has continued to work hard to understand what factors help charities  build digital capability, and to run successful digital projects.

We know that there are a lot of things that go into it – funding, mentoring, good relationships with agencies, buy-in from staff, chief executives and trustees.

But one standout element is the person, sometimes people, leading the digital work within the charity itself. Very often, especially at a small to medium-sized charity, this person is ‘the digital function’ of the organisation.

What has become clearer is that the story of digital success in the charity sector is the story of having strong digital leads. But that doesn’t always mean someone with ‘digital’ in their job title, it’s often the person tasked with, or motivated to, lead the new digital work.

Becoming a digital lead

When our Digital Journeys project mapped out the path charities went on to digital maturity, the early stages were titled “we’re curious” and “we’re starting out”. 

The process seems to begin with someone being given responsibility for digital, often as part of a grab-bag of other responsibilities.

Usually it isn’t someone hired because of digital. It’s someone working in the communications, services or operations department. They get asked to have a think about a digital project, or propose one themselves, and they take it on.

They’re often already very busy, because there are a lot of dedicated people working in charities who will want to do more to help or add value, no matter how much work they already have. But they pick up this little digital thread and start to follow it. Gradually, they find more and more things they could improve, or fix, or make ‘digital’ work better for their charity. They get involved in the website, the CRM, the comms channels, the services, the payment systems, the booking systems, the HR systems, the new chatbot. As part of this they engage more and more with design and data as key parts of digital.

Soon they find that digital is more than a whole job, by itself, and they aren’t doing anything else that they were supposed to be doing.

Eventually it becomes clear that digital is going to need to be a full-time job, and they have to stop doing whatever else they were doing, backfill the role they’d actually been hired for, and concentrate on this full time.

Once that’s happened, it’s then a full time job. If that person leaves and goes elsewhere, the person who replaces them has a job title like Head of Digital or Digital Innovation Manager, or some such thing.

Over time, these people develop internal reporting relationships, and a budget, and external contractors to manage, and this is what we mean by a “digital function”. It’s similar to an HR function or finance function or comms function – a thing which has to happen for the charity to continue to operate. Whilst digital becomes more and more a part of the roles within the rest of the organisation, there’s still a need for this ‘function’ to show leadership and ensure alignment.

How important is this role?

The evidence we have suggests that this role is absolutely crucial to the success of digital in a charity. When we sat down to write about the Tech for Good programme, delivered by our incubator charity CAST in partnership with Comic Relief and the Paul Hamlyn Foundation, our analysis focused very much on the need for a strong digital lead, and for the charity to give them the space, time and resources to learn. The Digital Journeys project was really the biography of the charity digital lead. The same findings also shone through in recent research into how tech for good communities supported charities.

These findings are all the more compelling because they feel so much like common sense. You don’t expect strong financial controls at a charity without a finance lead. You don’t expect strong comms from a charity with no comms lead. If you’re looking for strong digital capabilities at a charity, of course you’d expect it needs a strong digital lead.

So it feels inevitable that we’ll see the further emergence of a new profession of charity digital leads, building on what is already seen within advancing and advanced charities.

The difference is that HR and finance and comms and so on are very well understood disciplines. They’ve been around a long time. Digital technology is a new field, and so the job of leading on it is inevitably new too. In most charities it’s barely a job yet, or not even a job.

But it needs to be. The Charity Digital Skills survey showed that charities with greater digital maturity were able respond more quickly to the challenges of COVID-19. If we want our sector to be more resilient and responsive to future shocks, we will need dedicated professionals to lead this digital work.

The direction of travel seems only one way. Digital is here to stay. 

Who are these people?

One thing that many of the current crop of charity digital leads currently have in common: they aren’t actually experts in digital. Some digital leads are brought in expressly to lead of digital transformation, but that seems to be the less common route. The typical digital lead is much more likely to be an expert in their particular charity who has fallen into digital work. Often, expertise in how the charity itself works is a key requirement when it comes to actually getting anything done.

There seem to be some personality traits and skills which are commonly shared across the group of individuals we’ve worked with, who are filling this new role of digital lead.

A lot of people in the position seem to be good at getting projects moving, and good at building connections across their organisation. It seems to require a curiosity about how things work, and a willingness to experiment and try new things, as well as persistence and an ability to work across a multitude of tasks.

Beyond that, though, it can be anyone, at any level of seniority, from any part of the charity.

What does this mean for everyone else?

It means that we’re currently seeing the emergence of a whole new profession which has never existed before.

It means that the job of supporting digital leads is not like the job of helping finance leads. In a lot of cases, the job is helping them to even exist.

Across the Catalyst network we're seeing an increasingly shared set of standards, and a developing best practice. We’re helping to normalise and codify principles and processes involved to support these digital leads.

The organisations within Catalysts are at the forefront of that process. As they work together more, we will see more and more shared understanding of how digital service delivery is done.

In the same way that there are very standard ways of doing financial reporting and communications in the sector, we are likely to see the creation of standard ways of developing services, holding and using data, and managing internal ways of working.

And as we see the emergence of shared best practice, and standard ways of working, we’re likely to see more and more of the standard structures that surround a profession.

We know the things that professionals want to further them in their profession. Conferences with their peers. Training courses. Networking systems. Research and best practice guidance. Thought leadership. Professional support. Mentoring. Advocacy on their behalf. A body of agencies and consultants and similar organisations to share specialist knowledge.

All of these things will need to be created or strengthened to help the new profession of charity digital lead, as it comes into being. Some already exist. Some do not.

This then creates a pair of hypotheses to be tested - that strengthening digital leads is the key to success (or at least a very significant factor) and that it would be useful to have an entity or organisation to support them - perhaps a professional association, perhaps a membership network, perhaps a community of practice. But something, certainly, dedicated to helping them grow and build their capacity.

We look forward to being part of the journey that strengthens and extends this ecosystem, supporting vital charity digital leads.


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