Picture of five people in an office setting

Why a digital trustee. Digital trustee or just project support? Three different types of trustee.

Your charity’s trustees use a range of wisdom and skills to lead your organisation. You may have trustees that lead on finance, strategy, operations, communications etc. 

But do you have a digital trustee?

A trustee with digital wisdom and experience of working in the digital sector? 

A trustee that helps your organisation grow digitally?

If you don’t have a digital trustee you’ll find it much harder to grow. 

“58% of charities believe that their board has low digital skills or room for improvement. 68% of these are unclear on or don’t have a plan for how to grow these skills” - Charity Digital Skills Report 2021

How a digital trustee helps

A digital trustee will:

  • Bring digital expertise to all board discussions - so you are considering digital opportunities and impacts in your decisions
  • Champion digital within your team - so others become aware of its importance
  • Help build digital literacy across your board - so everyone can think about how digital can strengthen strategy and operations
  • Help all trustees share responsibility for digital - just like they do for other areas
  • Help with specific digital projects from time to time (but this isn’t their main purpose).

Digital people want to become trustees

The UK is not short of digital experts interested in becoming charity trustees. Their reasons are the same as anyone else’s:

  • They feel passionately about an issue  
  • They realise they have skills and experience that charities can benefit from
  • They want to gain experience, applying skills in new ways and to new areas
  • They want the reward of making a meaningful contribution to others

3 million people (10% of the UK workforce) work in the tech or digital industry. That's a lot of potential trustees to choose from. Third Sector Lab’s digital trustees matchmaking events currently attract more digital people wanting to become trustees than charity people seeking a digital trustee. 

Digital people might include people working in

  • Digital communications and marketing
  • Product (websites and applications) development
  • Service design
  • Data management

And other digital disciplines and sub-sectors. 

How to work out what you need

“Find a digital trustee to help you think strategically about digital, not just because you have a digital project you need help with.” - Ross McCulloch, Third Sector Lab

Charities sometimes struggle to work out what they need - whether its a trustee or someone to help them on a short-term project. 

If you need digital help on a project…

…and you’re not thinking about organisational change or growth through digital...

...then you want to procure someone with a specific digital skillset suited to your project. They can help you work out or implement a solution.

Probably you need a freelancer or an agency. You’ll probably pay them their standard charity rates. If you’re lucky they may help you pro-bono (though free isn’t always the best option).

If you need help to think about digital across your organisation...

...and you want:

  • a challenge to your charity to use digital better
  • more insight into digital opportunities you’re not aware of
  • help for other trustees to become more digitally savvy
  • to bring digital deeper into your strategy.

Then you need digital expertise at board level - a digital trustee.

Three types of trustees

Reach Volunteering’s three tiered model of digital trustees is still relevant. We’ve reworked it a little, and left out what each type of trustee would do.

Tier 1: Generalist - for small organisations and those starting out with digital

Tier 2: General-specialist - for organisations with a good digital infrastructure wanting to build capacity in a few particular areas

Tier 3: Service specialist - for digitally experienced organisations looking to innovate and deliver more digital services

What type of trustee does your charity need? 

1. Generalist

You need a generalist if:

  • You are a small charity or starting out with digital, or 
  • You have a basic digital infrastructure (and probably no digital strategy).

A generalist will:

  • Understand the potential of digital and the digital landscape
  • Have a broad knowledge of lots of areas, even if they specialise in one.
  • Be well connected to other digital people
  • Have a great ability to explain tech terms and jargon in ways that the rest of the board can understand
  • Be keen to empower the board

2. General-specialist

You need a general-specialist if:

  • You are a charity with a solid foundation of digital practice 
  • You want to develop further in certain digital areas

A general-specialist will have all the attributes of a generalist (these are still important!), plus:

  • Knowledge and experience in particular areas you wish to develop in
  • The ability to lead new ways of working in a particular area

You might want to develop a more specific role description for a general-specialist than you would a generalist.

3. Service specialist

You need a service specialist if:

  • Your board is digitally confident (you may already have a generalist)
  • Your organisation is using digital confidently across its internal operations
  • You want to develop your digital services over the next few years. 

If you are in this position then it is also likely that you know enough about digital to know what you don’t know! So you can appoint a specialist with this in mind.

A service specialist will have all the attributes of both a generalist and a general-specialist. They will also:

  • Understand best practice in digital service design (including user research, prototyping, rolling out and maintaining digital services)
  • Have experience of working with product teams using agile methods to design and build
  • Be experienced in procuring digital agencies and freelancers

You will need a specific role description for a service specialist. 

Useful resources

Image attribution: gdsteam on Flickr. Licensed under Creative Commons 2.0

Our Catalyst network - what we do

Support & services

Our free services help you make the right decisions and find the right support to make digital happen.

Learn what other non-profits are doing

39+ organisations share 50+ Guides to how they use digital tools to run their services. Visit Shared Digital Guides.