What’s the right structure for your charity digital team?

How you structure your digital team can make all the difference in how your charity is able to deliver its digital-related services – charity digital expert Zoe Amar spoke to three leading charities with very different approaches.

Guest Writer | 25th Jul 18

Zoe Amar is founder and director of Zoe Amar Digital, a social enterprise and digital agency that helps charities and other nonprofits lead change with confidence, developing strategies which increase their resilience, income and influence. She is also chair of The Charity Digital Code of Practice. She is the co-author of The Charity Digital Skills Report and co-founder of the Social CEOs awards. Zoe and her team share digital resources for charities over at zoeamar.com and @zoeamar.  

Here’s the question I’m asked more than any other: ‘What’s the perfect digital team structure?’ It’s on a lot of charities’ minds at the moment as they either look to build out their teams, take their use of digital to the next stage, or plan how they can give a small team some clout.

My view is that there is no one size fits all answer, but I decided to talk to three different charities with very different approaches to their digital teams, to find out how they are tackling this issue.


What does your digital team look like?

Alex Holden is Director of Communications at Target Ovarian Cancer. Their digital team consists of a digital communications manager, who looks after all of their channels, messaging and scheduling. Having just one member of staff in digital means that they are reliant on the rest of the charity for aspects of delivery.

As Holden told me, they “operate a relatively decentralised model where each team is responsible for their web content, their social media posts, Facebook advertising and e-shots.”

The digital communications manager also has a part time, paid intern who helps with day-to-day social media management, monitoring and analysis. The team have proven their worth and will grow to become a Head of Digital Communications and a Digital Communications Executive.

Over at Breast Cancer Now, Joe Freeman, Assistant Director of Digital Engagement, leads a digital team which is, as he told me: “a more ‘traditional’ model, split into three parts, to manage the website, digital marketing and social media. It sits within the Communications department, which for me works as we’re close to the action relating to content, campaigns, brand, news and reputation management.”

Clive Gardiner, Head of Digital at NSPCC, has a team which comprises four key units. Gardiner says that: “Digital Engagement ensures all owned content on our platforms, across website and social, is focused on the user and driving to business objectives working on a varied range of campaigns across the business. Part of this team focuses on driving the best quality traffic to the site and looking after conversion rate optimisation.

Meanwhile, Digital Production project manage the development of existing assets and new platforms and features (this includes working with agencies), Data and Analytics manage data analysis, focusing on users’ needs, and the Intranet team look after that platform.

Key takeaway: All the teams I spoke to had been structured around channels or aims, e.g, engagement.  In our work we’ve seen a shift from the former to the latter. What’s your experience of this?


Centre of excellence, hub and spoke or honeycomb?

Another question I get all the time is whether it’s best for your digital team to be a centre of excellence (one bespoke team), hub and spoke (where there is still a core digital team but they partner with other departments on digital activities) or honeycomb model (a digital team dispersed across the organisation).

Whilst Holden’s team are decentralised by necessity, both Breast Cancer Now and NSPCC are planning how to make this change. It also needs to be guided by the stage your charity is at with digital.

Freeman says: “I’m well aware that in other organisations, digital is often more split up – but for us, at this time in our charity’s life, our structure works. We operate as a centre of excellence, working to grow how we operate our hub and spoke approach which is working well where we have high levels of digital skills in other teams.”

James Barker, Associate Head of Digital Engagement at NSPCC, explained that their team were established as a centre of excellence 3 years ago. The team are now ready to change.

He says: “For us moving forward, the hub-and-spoke phase aims to delegate, train and facilitate certain digital duties, skills and behaviours so these become part of everyday business-as-usual across the organisation. This shift will be underpinned by encouraging some non-digital team colleagues to undertake the Econsultancy modular e-learning Fast Track Digital Marketing programme.”

Key takeaway: Changing from one model to another requires foresight, planning and investment in skills across your charity.


What do you wish you had learned earlier?

Holden and Freeman advise digital team leads to let their staff play to their strengths, focusing on what excites them and what they do well.  NSPCC’s digital team see patience as an important quality. Organisational change takes time.

“You need to find a way to explain why change is important for them and their teams,” Gardiner told me. “Fail fast and learn quickly.”

Key takeaway: Think about where your digital team needs to excel most to help your charity right now. Recruit and train accordingly.


Who should lead on digital?

What’s going to make the biggest difference to your charity? Someone with the right personal qualities, or a new senior hire? Holden thinks character is more important than a fancy job title. “If an individual can inspire their colleagues about how digital can make a difference, then it doesn’t matter what level they are,” she says.

Freeman has noticed that some charities are hiring Director of Digital roles, and that this may work when digital teams need to grow. However, he argues that digital leadership isn’t just about the digital team, and this skill should be well represented at senior management team level.

“Arguably, all Chief Executives should play an active role in the development and growth in this area for any organisation and lead by example,” he told me, citing the new Charity Digital Code of Practice and its emphasis on leadership.

Key takeaway: Whoever heads up your digital team needs a mandate for change, and to be supported by the CEO, their senior management team and board. Passionate colleagues working at grassroots level will also motivate those around them.


What should digital teams plan for?

The experts I spoke to highlighted three key areas. Firstly, expect your team and their colleagues to play a bigger role in recruitment.

At Target Ovarian Cancer, Holden’s CEO insists everyone has digital KPIs. The CEO’s active Twitter presence caught the attention of one of her team, who applied for their job specifically because of it.

Meanwhile Gardiner advises charity digital teams that the only constant is change: “Digital innovation continues to rapidly change and reshape the professional and personal lives of almost everybody in the UK,’ he says, ‘so we constantly learn and develop individually, departmentally and organisationally so we can optimise our effectiveness in helping young people.”

Key takeaway: Your team needs to be agile, fluid and offer creative advice on how to attract talent.


In conclusion, there is no right or wrong answer to what the perfect digital team looks like. The only rules are that the team needs to be designed to help your charity achieve its goals, support more people effectively and to get great results. And it’s imperative that the team has the right leader with sponsorship from the CEO and trustees.


How does your charity structure its digital team? Let us know in the comments section below.