A boardroom table

Your senior leaders must support digital for your charity to grow. Here are some methods to help them get behind you.

In many charities, a key step on the digital journey is getting support from senior leaders. If the chief executive and board don't buy in, progress will be slower.

In some charities, this isn’t a barrier. The chief executive is where it all starts. They’re the one who demands the introduction of new technologies and ways of working.

But in others, the chief executive and other senior figures can be late adopters. Many digital leads find they have to make the case to the CEO to prove that digital is worth investing in.

This is an article about how to tackle that challenge. It's based on:

  • Insights from digital mentoring programmes
  • Research conducted on behalf of the Catalyst network
  • The work of Zoe Amar, a digital consultant

Why do barriers exist?

If your senior leaders aren't interested in digital, there must be a reason why. If you want to change their minds, you need to understand where they are starting from, and what matters to them

There are many potential barriers.

One is inertia. Digital transformation is messy and complicated. Why makes changes if things are going well, the charity is running a surplus, and everyone seems happy?

Or perhaps it's down to leaders' own technological knowledge. They may worry about showing themselves up. Digital demands changes in ways of working. It needs some understanding of technology from senior leaders. It requires a willingness to use new approaches and ways of working. Senior leaders are used to certain structures and processes. They may not want to embrace change.

Then there are practical factors: budget, time and resource. Chief executives might not have the personal capacity. Or they think that staff don't. This is a valid objection. Charity digital projects do involve change, and sometimes it is painful. Few of the charities who fed into our research said their own processes had been seamless and easy. So it's right for charity leaders to be wary.

This wariness may be made by worse previous bad experiences. Many charity leaders will have seen charities invest lots of money in big technological projects which went wrong, such as new websites and new CRM systems. So if you're trying to get buy-in from leadership you could be asked to show that things won't go wrong this time.

Finally, it might be down to culture, and openness to change, particularly when you're dealing with trustee boards.

Trustees are often older, further away from the everyday running of the organisation, and less enthusiastic about radical change. They can be more risk averse. There's a risk of groupthink. They make decisions much more slowly.

However two advantages exist with boards. First, if senior staff say they need something, boards will find it difficult to refuse. Second, the people on a board will change over time. There is scope to recruit new individuals with the necessary skills. As the idea of a “digital trustee” becomes more common, boards are likely to become easier to persuade.

How to fix it

So, with those barriers in mind, how do you make the case for behaviour change?

Charities and experts gave us some techniques which worked for them.

1. Understand the people involved

Think about the standards of evidence and proof that your senior leaders prefer. Are they most interested in what their peers have done, or in data, or personal experience? Whichever tool is mostly likely to change their mind is the one you need to use.

2. Show what happened elsewhere

One tool available is to use case studies and examples from other charities. Show that other, similar charities have implemented digital changes and that it led to success. This will support you to do the same. Many senior leaders like to emulate best practice as preached by their peers. 

3. Get external validation

Involve external individuals such as consultants, mentors, and professionals from digital agencies. They may not need to say anything different from the message of the digital lead. But because they are external advisors brought in for their knowledge, their word often carries more weight. 

Other things which help include getting an award, being accepted for an external digital support programme, or receiving some funding – even a small amount.

4. Build internal support

If you’re making the case for change, the chief executive is probably the best place to look for support. But this isn’t always possible. Chief executives are often not easy to approach or influence. In   which case, try to find support elsewhere in the organisation. Which other members of staff can be persuaded of the value of your case? Build a consensus within your team, and among other senior leaders. Then use this support to persuade the CEO and the board.

5. Use research

You should be able to show the value of digital by gathering evidence from service users. Does your user research and user data shows that service users are keen to access the charity’s support via digital channels? Can you show that you need to use digital channels to remain relevant to those users? If so, use that information to make the case.

6. Make the financial case

You can also show the financial value of digital. Digital can help raise new funds, make significant savings and save staff time. If you can show that a short-term investment will bring long-term gains, that's a powerful tool. To a cash-strapped chief executive, digital will appear a valuable asset, rather than a problem to fix.

7. Get a small win

Making the case for digital becomes considerably easier if you can show that it is working. We recommend starting small, and making one system work better – often an internal system. Not just to persuade your CEO, but because that's the best way to deliver digital change. Once you've got that proof, you can use that to show that digital is useful.

8. Help senior leaders grow comfortable with digital

To get your leaders comfortable with digital, teach them the skills they need. Help them understand the technology, the language, and the ways of working, and why they exist. If your leaders feel comfortable with digital, they are much more likely to back it.

9. Show that change is necessary

It's much easier to get leaders on board if change is necessary. Maybe you need to change to suit funders, or to win a contract, or because your old systems will no longer do they job. A lot of charities have had to adapt to new ways during lockdown, for example.

Information to help you take these steps

  • Charity Digital Code
  • Better Design Principles
  • Trustees Covid 19 Checklist

If you’ve already started to win some of the battles but want to move further and faster, try using an assessment tool: Digital Maturity Matrix

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