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Digital in the charity sector with Zoe Amar
Episode 125th November 2022 • The King’s Fund Embracing Digital • The King’s Fund
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Zoe Amar's agency helps charities navigate pathways through digital change. She is co-author of the annual Charity Digital Skills report. In this episode, she talks with The King's Fund's Sharon Jones about the challenges and opportunities that are presented by the transition to digital ways of working.

The Charity Digital Skills report is at https://charitydigitalskills.co.uk/

Transcripts

SHARON:

Hi, I am Sharon Jones, head of Digital Innovation at the King’s Fund and today I am going to be speaking to Zoe Amar. Zoe is a co-author of the charity Digital Skills Report, Chair of a charity Digital Code of Practice, founder of Zoe Amar Digital and is respected as a leading light across the sector.

ZOE:

Hi Sharon, thank you so much for having me today, I’m really excited to be here.

SHARON:

Thank you for taking part. So you have worked across the charity sector since 2008, and in 2017 you created the charity Digital Skills Report of which we have just got the latest results the other month. Can you talk about what it is, why you created it, and what the biggest changes you have seen in the past five years?

ZOE:

So 2017 feels like a very long time ago, doesn’t it, in the digital era. It was actually a very pivotal point, because that was the time when we were starting to talk about digital much more as a sector and grappling with what the possibilities could be as well as the challenges and I was someone that was involved in this space. I was really keen to understand what the trends were and that meant, as ever, getting hold of the data of where the sector was at. So I looked around at what else was out there and there wasn’t anything that was really mapping the digital developments and trends across the sector and at the time I was working very closely with the charity called the Workforce Development Trust and we decided well why don’t we set something up, so it can be really useful, free resourceful charities and that is how it began. And we’ve seen some really interesting changes during that time so before we spoke I was having a look back at some of the stats from 2017 and when the report began only half of the charities we spoke to had a digital strategy where now it is 56%, so not a huge improvement but some improvement and there have been some improvements in the skills as well, so there are more charities that are confident, for example about social media. So we can see that the dial is gradually starting to move and hopefully by having a mirror held up to the sector once a year and looking at the data and seeing where the sector is at charities and then we can get a sense of “this is where we are in relation to this, these are where the trends are and also here are the opportunities and challenges that other organisations are facing.”

SHARON:

Well thank you, I mean it is really helpful to see, there is so much data now in that report, and it is good to see, as I entered it for our own charity, and it is interesting to find out where we kind of are as a sector as a whole. What do you think are the opportunities and what challenges do you think are still very much present?

ZOE:

Well I will start with the challenges side of things, there was some very interesting challenges that emerged this year. So it is called the Digital Skills Report for a reason and actually we saw skills being particularly significant issue this year, so up-skilling staff and volunteers was the second greatest barrier to digital progress and that is faced by more than a third so 38% of charities, and one of the perennial challenges we see in the report every year, that does not seem to be shifting and that in itself is a cause for concern is that almost two thirds so 64% of boards digital skills are either low or have room for improvement and there has been very little change in that since 2017, despite the pandemic and that of course worries me.

SHARON:

Well, what do you think what can be done about that?

ZOE:

I think charities have got to look at what they can do that is within their gift. We do work closely with the Charity Commission on things like the Charity Digital Codes of Practice and I think they are aware and supportive of the fact that digital is definitely an issue for the charity board. So I think the biggest area where charities can make a difference is to look at how they recruit, where they recruit for trustees, so rather than going to the usual suspects, thinking about what they really want to achieve from the role of Digital Trustee, how they are going to get the rest of the board up to speed because as I always like to say, a Digital Trustee is the start of the story rather than the end.

SHARON:

Yes.

ZOE:

And making sure that that trustee has some very clear goals around what they are going to be scrutinising and supporting and also inputting into the strategy around digital.

SHARON:

What surprised you about this year’s findings?

ZOE:

What was really interesting this year was that there has been a real growth in confidence about remote work, so charities are becoming much more confident about using digital for communications and remote working and more than half, so 52% said that they were excellent in this area which I found really encouraging because last year only 41% rated themselves as excellent and I was really pleased to see that there was more focus on well-being around remote work. So 35% of charities said that they were interested in helping staff work remotely without compromising on their well-being and that has actually doubled since last year. So again, I think those two things are really encouraging and they also speak to the importance of ways of working when it comes to digital and how that is as much a of digital skill as the more technical aspects of how you do certain tasks and how you grow your expertise in different areas in digital.

SHARON:

Yes absolutely, it is so important to have that in well-being piece kind of embedded amongst all the other side of the strategy that you might have. So, having a shared definition of what digital is, it seems to be quite hard for organisations, why do you think that is?

ZOE:

It is a great question because I think it is such a perennial challenge across the sector it is one of the first things that charities ask on every project we work on and the reason why I think it is really important to answer that question is because if you do not know what it is, and of course everyone comes at it from it from a different angle, whether it is from a consumer or the fact that you work in finance and your more familiar with Excel and other people working in service design they are more familiar with products. Everyone is coming from this from a different perspective and the reason why we always work with organisations very closely to create a shared organisational definition of it is because otherwise if you cannot name what it is, then how can you progress with it. How can you ask for investment for digital if this is very (inaudible 07:04) sense of what it is and how can you track your progress with it as well, so it has to stop being such a nebulous concept and I am a great believer in giving things a name and making that really relevant to your organisation.

SHARON:

Yes, definitely. Also I notice that digital skills came out as an area where charities want to build more confidence, yet it is well known that it is quite challenging to recruit good people who have got digital skills and to recruit them and to retain them. What do you think can be done to tackle that issue and how can you up-skill like whole teams across an organisation more effectively?

ZOE:

So this is very significant challenge across the sector and I believe that other industries as well at the moment and if we think about the recruitment piece first, I think there is a couple of things that can be done.

First of all I think you have to hire for the short-term but also plan for the long-term as well and what I mean by that is, I have spoken to Heads of Digital in charities where they are very realistic about the fact that even if we go to the maximum that we can, in salary, it is likely that we are only going to have this person for perhaps 18 months, a couple of years, so you have got to design the job accordingly and it may even be that the job is more appealing as a long term contract rather than a permanent option so again that might be something to consider but certainly something to plan into how the team could look and develop. In terms of thinking for the long-term I would love to see more charities considering succession planning and that is not something that I see getting talked about a lot across the sector. If you got an incredibly talented Digital Manager right now, and as we have just discussed, there is a working assumption that you may not be able to be able to hang on to them in two or three years’ time, who is your next Digital Manager going to be, and could it be an internal candidate that you could retrain up who perhaps has got a really good sense of your users and they may not even work in digital right now but perhaps they have got the mind-set and the potential and the curiosity to grow those technical skills which I think is almost the easier piece of the puzzle and just a final recommendation about recruitment. Again, I’d really like to see more charities thinking about their employer brands and the reason why I say that is obviously everyone is looking at what they can do in terms of making the salary as attractive as possible. Our charity is thinking about what they are offering in terms of like hybrid working and other benefits and training budgets and all those kind of things, but you have got to bring it back to “how can we make this really unique and appealing in the context of our organisation”, so it might be “come and join us and be our new service designer and you have got an opportunity to help achieve our mission of supporting more young people with mental health across the UK” for example.

SHARON:

Yes

ZOE:

So it's thinking about what is that employer proposition, how can we make is as compelling as possible for people to join us and how can we keep reinforcing that through our comms so that we are recruiting in a way that I would describe as continuous actually rather than going out there every time you have go a vacancy, panic, panic, having to reinvent the wheel. The organisations I see really succeeding in this area right now are just recruiting all the time, even when they do not have a live vacancy, quoting that warm pipeline of potential candidates so that when they do go out there with a job description people are interested and ready. It is very similar to fund-raising and how that has changed in my view.

SHARON:

Yes and that whole brand piece is so kind of crucial to everything at the moment and wanted to work for an organisation especially you have touched on the well-being you want to come to an organisation that kinds of fits your own individual values as well as what your organisations values are as well. I wonder if there is something in that digital piece around everybody being part of that story, that brand story so that when you recruit people, they are coming into an inclusive environment regardless of the skills they may have at that moment.

ZOE:

I 100% agree with that and I think there is even bigger question there, isn’t there, the recruitment in many ways because it is really about how you live those values and the work that you have done internally around inclusion and how much of a supportive environment you have and whether you can truly say that about all different levels of your organisation and the experience that you offer to staff and to volunteers so you are right, I think there is a lot of work to be done in that area across the sector.

SHARON:

So during lock-down, the pace at which charities had to adopt and adapt to digital ways of working was incredibly rapid. what opportunities do you think there are now for companies to build upon that pace going forward in the future?

ZOE:

So the three things that I would recommend is that because there has been so much progress over the last couple of years, there is a lot there that you can review and learn from and I would recommend to every organisation, if you have not already done it, to do a review so ideally some kind of retrospective exercise where you look at all the many things that your organisation has done differently, digitally over the last couple of years to discuss and agree on what has gone well, what could be improved and what the next steps are. So all that change means that there is a lot of learning so I think starting with that and drawing on that and thinking on what you are going to continue to do and what you are not going to continue to do is really important.

ight now and we all know that:

So I think the number one thing that you can do right now is talk to your users, even if you are just talking to five or ten of them, do it soon, do it quickly, find out where they are at with digital, you know how they are using it, what they think of the digital products and services and content they you offer, what they like, what they don’t like, what other organisations they are engaging with digitally and that they are impressed by, so that is what I would recommend. Then go back through all the different digital activities that you have and look at how you can prioritise that based on the feed-back that you are getting from your users. And then as we were saying earlier I do think there is something really key now about ways of working and the reason why I think that is so important and we have talked earlier about how that is linked to the whole skills agenda is it is also really important for getting the most from our assets and obviously our people as well are so vitally important to the sector. We do not have a lot of bandwidth to play with do we, because of the rising costs of living, everyone having so much pressure whether it is stuff going on personally or the pressures to fundraise and the people that we need to reach through our services, so there is something there about how can we be as efficient and effective as possible when we need to do a lot more with everything that we have.

What I am seeing across the sector at the moment is that absolutely there has been a huge improvement in what we are doing with digital and how we are doing it, the tools we are using, I mean the rate of adoption, the sophistication of the activities I’m seeing in a lot of organisations we work with is truly impressive. Some of that connective tissue around how, for example, do we get marketing and fund-raising teams to collaborate more effectively so that they can grow that all important digital revenue that is coming in through the fundraising products; how can we make sure that you know this team is working more closely with another team as well so that you are not all scrabbling around trying to reinvent the wheel when those business processes have not been documented. So I think we are starting to see in organisations that people are reaching this next stage of digital maturity but there is quite a lot of growing pains to go through yet and how we approach those is really important.

SHARON:

So when it comes to digital transformation, how can everybody in an organisation, whether you are in finance, whether you are in operations, not just digital and marketing, how can they all play their part?

ZOE:

There is one enormous thing which I think is especially key and I love the fact that you reference different teams there and I think that it is vitally important because it is so critical right now that we continue to approach digitals that are shared challenge and shared opportunity so whether you have a digital strategy right now or not, now is a really excellent time to review your progress as an organisation and particularly when it comes to skills to map those warm and cold spots that you have got on your staff and volunteer team because so often I find that organisations either have a massive dependency on you know a small group of people who are really brilliant at it but they have not given them the time and the capacity or the recognition to share their skills or equally there are people who are very early stage of the digital skills relatively speaking and need some guidance and support to bring people up to speed, and actually I think that links to the inclusion agenda as well. So that is one of the key things that I would recommend right now for transformation. Look at the skills you have and make sure that you can do more with what you have got and you are bringing everyone on this journey of growing their skills and confidence.

SHARON:

Thank you so much for taking part Zoe, that is absolutely fascinating and so much to take and learn from that and start trying to implement ourselves and thank you to everyone for listening, I hope you found it useful.

This is just one of a series of in-house podcasts for the King’s Fund, all about various aspects of digital workplace transformation. Bye for now.

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