Leading charities in a digital society

By Laura Bunt, former Public Digital consultant and the CEO of YoungMinds.

Public Digital recently co-hosted a roundtable discussion with Green Park and leaders from some of the UK’s largest charities and civil society organisations.

I talked about leading digital transformation in frontline welfare and mental health charities. Mike Bracken talked about the way the internet is changing whole sectors and what this means for leaders today.

We wanted to reflect on the challenges and opportunities for digital in this field; not just how organisations and services need to evolve, but also the way digital is changing our economy and society and how charities as mission-driven organisations should respond.

It felt like part of a much bigger conversation about the next wave of digital transformation in the charity sector: how social organisations can continuously adapt to achieve their missions and collaborate towards shared outcomes in a rapidly changing world.

Thanks so much to everyone who came and contributed to the conversation.

The story so far

One of Public Digital’s foundational insights is that the internet and the technologies that it enabled have so radically changed people’s lives that every organisation’s operating model must adapt accordingly. 

Traditional ways of doing things are ill equipped to respond to these new expectations, behaviours and needs. Forms of organisation that served us in the industrial era of production lines and predictable outcomes are struggling to cope with uncertainty and the need to continuously adapt and respond to change.

How an organisation thinks about digital - both technologies and their social impacts - is therefore really a discussion about how it achieves its mission today. For charities, this encompasses how organisations are governed and managed, how they design and deliver services, how they work and develop people and culture, how they engage with communities and advocate for change, and how they achieve their charitable objectives.

This isn’t a new challenge. Over the past few years, we have seen different waves of digital transformation moving through different stages of change.

The first wave centred on marketing and communications. Website redesigns, new ways to reach and engage supporters, digital campaigns to find new audiences and scale our work.

The second wave focused on how charities design and deliver services, perhaps driven by the need to increase reach or reduce the cost of delivery at scale.

The pandemic triggered a third wave: changes in how organisations communicate, work and operate, forced by the overnight shift to remote working and online delivery.

We’ve seen a whole new set of institutions, roles and working practices evolve in response to each wave. Organisations like CAST - and the cross sector investment they achieved through Catalyst - are helping social sector leaders contend with the challenges of leading this kind of change: how to build and scale new skill sets and digital capabilities (such as design, data, or software engineering) alongside more established practices and operating models; creating space for more iterative, internet-era ways of working within governance cultures that are less comfortable with uncertainty; managing the fierce competition to attract and retain digital talent; the pressure to act on near term priorities and urgency squeezing out the space for longer term imagination and investment.

The pandemic accelerated transformation, driven by crisis. The two years since have seen a new set of crises and societal pressures emerge: rising costs of living, increased competition for funding, the climate crisis and the need to use less and do more. There is also the imperative to increase diversity and address systemic racism within the sector, shifting traditional cultures and governance models that have upheld the status quo for too long.

Leading the next wave

For many organisations, there is a fundamental dissonance between how we work and the digital environment we now work within. While previous organisational norms allowed us to assume a much more predictable and stable set of conditions, user needs and user behaviours, these are no longer fit for purpose in a constantly evolving digital age.

The next wave of digital transformation is about how organisations can be truly adaptive, to confront this dissonance. For example, this means:

  • Being close to users, understanding and responding to their needs and behaviours

  • Listening to and engaging with different kinds of knowledge and expertise

  • Having the data capabilities to be able to interpret and respond to trends

  • Creating feedback loops within services and with teams

  • Organising teams differently, empowering them around problems to solve

  • Being open and engaging with how the external world is changing

  • Embracing flexible, modular technology which can evolve over time

  • Building adaptability into strategy, operational delivery and culture, where people expect and embrace learning and flexibility in the way they work

It will also involve making sure that we engage properly in the policy discourses around internet regulation and online harms, and how we collectively address how digital is changing the nature of the social problems we exist to overcome.

Working collectively

One way to facilitate change is for us to work together more openly than ever before. This is not going to be an easy journey for any organisation, and the more that we share our experience with each other, the farther and faster we can travel together. Here are four ways that increased collaboration could help us make a step change:

Firstly, connecting digital teams. Digital roles like service designers, content designers, product managers and data scientists are in high demand, and can feel isolated in their organisations. Part of the answer is about bringing together digital roles in multidisciplinary teams - alongside operations, policy, communications and other professionals. But there are also movements to connect digital practitionersacross charities, to learn from, mentor and support each other, creating a stronger digital talent community across the field. How do we create more space for people to build these connections and share practice together?

Similarly with leadership: sharing between both senior executives and trustees. Public Digital has been working with NHS Providers to run the flagship Digital Boards programme for NHS Trust Boards for three years. I would be excited to see a similar digital training programme for leaders in the charity sector, supporting CEOs and trustees to lead change in their organisations and to explore what models of leadership this work needs.

Thirdly, charities not only face similar challenges, but in many respects operate near-identical ‘services’: receiving donations; matching volunteers with opportunities; training people. In this context, there is real potential for the use ofdigital public goods or common components shared across civil society which are well-designed, constantly iterated, reusable and low-cost. What guiding coalition would be needed from within the sector, with what external support, to explore these opportunities more deeply?

Finally, many charities share similar dependencies, such as interoperability and data sharing with Local Authorities, the NHS, or other parts of the public sector. As individual charities we can only do so much to influence change. Collectively, we can show what can be different, or define protocols to create new ways of doing things.

I recently joined YoungMinds as Chief Executive, where I know we will continue this conversation about openness and collaboration between organisations to build a better future for everyone. While the challenges facing each organisation will be as unique as their mission and services, our ability to work together feels like a prerequisite for becoming truly adaptive in the face of the vast technological and social changes happening around us.

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