Dan Sutch, director at CAST discusses why the role of trustees in enabling charities to make better use of technology is becoming increasingly important.
The role of boards and trustees in encouraging and enabling charities to make better use of digital technologies is becoming increasingly important. This includes understanding the importance of digital and considering 12 questions that help prepare a response – but the reason this importance is increasing, is that many of the best ways of developing and using digital technologies are challenged by traditional board roles. They’re not incompatible, but some of these challenges certainly need to be addressed if we are realise the benefits digital can offer.
Jo Wolfe presents a great description of the importance of digital and how charities can respond, using the term digital maturity. For those working within charities it’s a great term to prompt ongoing development with digital, but for boards, I’d like to stick with digital transformation.
One of the main differences between transformation and maturity is the perspective of the commentator. If you’re inside a charity going through change, it is maturity – building on existing work, replacing, adding etc. etc. Change doesn’t happen in a vacuum, it builds on what already exists, it replaces and extends.
For someone who is looking at that change from a distance or less frequently, the organisation will have gone through a huge change – it may look like a transformation. Our lovely butterfly, which is the essence of transformation, might argue (if it could speak) that its ‘transformation’ was bloomin’ hard biological work and a perfect example of maturity, as it matured from caterpillar constructing a cocoon into a beautiful butterfly. We describe it as transformation because we weren’t involved in all that hard work and day to day development that constituted maturity – but from our distant view, there has been a transformation.
Recognising this perspective is important, in part to ensure we don’t place transformation and maturity as opposed to each other, but also for two other reasons.
The first is that it helps present the scale of the context-change that charities are now operating within. The change in how people search for information, access new resources and communities is a transformation. It’s the product of 10+ years of maturity which now means that the 100 billion Google searches a month are where many people start their search for support – not going to recognised brands, or even charities, as they did 10 years ago. If charities aren’t prepared and supported to respond to this transformed context, then we’re in trouble.
The second is particular to board members and more distant supporters (I know many board members will say they’re much more involved, but…) We know good digital development is fast-paced, iterative, responsive to user needs and is test-driven. We know that this means products and services that get developed can look very different from the way they are originally described. That three months of developing products inside something like the Fuse accelerator creates digital products that entirely align with the original vision, but the actual product almost always looks very different to the initial conversations. For the staff, that is maturity and good iterative product development. For Board members, they see more significant changes to an idea/project/service as they only look at it every quarter (or at least, far less frequently).
All of this leads to operational staff needing to recognise the hard work, and granular development of digital maturity, whilst the Board need to be comfortable with more transformation and significant change due to their less-frequent engagement. Or – Boards agreeing/setting out a transformational vision/permission to transform, whilst staff working through a maturity model to realise it.
The incredible Jo Wolfe, Megan Griffith Gray and I will be discussing this more at the NCVO Trustee conference on Monday. It’s an important topic so I’d love to hear your thoughts.
Dan Sutch is director at CAST
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