a white man, black woman, white woman and black man sitting around a table talking. The table has documents scattered across it.

Both challenges require boards to shift internal power, live their values and commit to change.

Many of us will be familiar with the digital skills gap on charity boards. It’s a common challenge that we hear from many. As is lack of diversity. As is user research with diverse communities when designing digital services.

1. Digital skills at board level: the problem

The 2022 Charity Digital Skills Report quantifies the problem. Almost two thirds (64%) of boards’ have low digital skills (or needing improvement). Yet 54% either don’t have a plan to increase these skills or don’t know what their plan is. Only 1 in 5 (21%) said they have trustees' support for digital improvement. 

2. Diversity at board level: the problem

At the same time, diversity is also a big challenge. 92% of trustees are white, 64% are men. Their average age is 60-62. And 75% are above the national median in household income (Source: Taken on Trust). 

Even more concerning: 59% of charities say that their boards do not represent the communities they serve. 

3. User research with diverse communities: the problem

At the same time, 1 in 4 charities told the Charity Digital Skills Report that they do not have diverse digital teams working on their products and services. Nor are they conducting user research with diverse communities. 

We need lived experience represented in the service design and development process. How else can we make them effective for the people we want to reach? Are we designing for them or for us?

Charity boards need to change

These 3 problems begin at board level.

The charity world has changed since the Covid-19 pandemic. Digital adoption has grown across the sector. Inclusion efforts have increased, especially since Black Lives Matter broadened people’s understanding of what it means to be excluded. 

Aiming to be an inclusive organisation is a big challenge. 

So is going digital.

But if you can solve both of them then decision making will change too. Your board's decisions will become more equitable and more inclusive of the potential of digital. 

Diversity and digital can be improved together

Many charities are already working hard to improve either digital skills or diversity representation at board level. There are opportunities to tackle these challenges in tandem. This usually involves a shift of mindset. Here are 3 things I recommend you do to make this happen.

1. Shift internal power

Inclusion means asking, at board level, whether your charity is set up to support the people it serves. Are you willing and able to put in the effort to recruit more trustees from a variety of backgrounds to the board? Are you willing to work through difficult, confronting issues?

Are you ready to start at the top with shifting power to your users, opening your charity up to challenge? Are you ready to embrace the discomfort this will generate?

Digital transformation also involves asking existential questions about your charity. Are you ready to redesign services to suit people’s online needs and behaviours? Are you ready to embrace co-design at every level of the organisation, involving your users in digital strategy and operations?

Both these shifts move power from leaders to users. This will feel new and, probably, unsettling. Sit with this feeling. Acknowledge it as a team. Talk about why you feel out of your comfort zone. Work together to embrace change.

Finally, consider how your board works together. Do certain voices dominate the meetings? Does everyone feel listened to? Over at Charity Digital, where I am a trustee, our chair helps everyone feel involved. She encourages everyone to participate in discussion, and teases out contributions from those who speak less often. 

2. Live your values and principles

Your board’s values and principles are about to be challenged. Digital transformation and inclusion require a strong values commitment to succeed. Without it they will only ever be performative.

A charity CEO once told me: “I may not be the right person to lead this organisation at the end of our digital transformation.”

That’s what living your values looks like. That CEO would have sacrificed their job if they weren't right for their charity.

What is your board, or even your organisation, willing to give up for its values? Which principles will guide your digital and inclusion leadership? Don't make any decisions without checking you've followed them.

3. Commit to change

Digital transformation and inclusion won’t happen without a commitment. Without this it's easy to become performative, or even worse pay lip-service. 

Committing means agreeing a plan, then deciding on the next step, then doing it. Following through. And continuing to step forward.

One way to step forward is to seek and examine feedback. You can do this by talking informally to staff, volunteers and users. And you can do it formally by involving trustees in user research activities and introducing them to the principles of iterative service development.


Inclusion and digital transformation both require a change of mindset. This change is possible. You and your board can lead the way by committing to both at the same time.


Photo by Tima Miroshnichenko

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