Lessons from the Charity Digital Code: Principle 1 – leadership

In the first of a new series focusing on the principles of the Charity Digital Code, Zoe Amar speaks to Age UK’s Lara Burns about what lessons can be taken from the ‘Leadership’ principle of the Code.

Chloe Green | 5th Mar 19
Image shows Lara Burns, Age UK

The Charity Digital Code of Practice was launched last year thanks to the combined efforts of a group of sector organisations, with the aim of helping charities benchmark their progress in using digital and learn from example. It focuses on seven guiding principles for success with tangible actions charities can take.

In this series, Charity Digital trustee and Chair of the Charity Digital Code of Practice Zoe Amar speaks with a charity that embodies one of each of the seven principles, sharing their lessons and experiences.

This week Amar spoke with Lara Burns, Chief Digital and Technology Officer at Age UK about the principle of ‘leadership’. An inspirational digital leader, Burns has worked across sectors leading innovation, transformation and change programmes for 25 years.


Zoe Amar: From your conversations with charity leaders, do you think more of them see digital as important? If not, what could change this?

Lara Burns: Age UK is a network of local Age UKs and we know that local leaders are keen to do things differently. We did a survey of local CEOs in our network and 65% prioritised being able to use digital to enable their service delivery, but 83% cited lack of funding as the major barriers, whilst skills were also a challenge.

I think this is fairly typical of small to medium sized charities. It is really easy when you are in a big charity in London to think digital is obvious and everyone gets it, but that is not always the case. Smaller charities can get stuck on what to do next.

This is where The Charity Digital Code of Practice is important. I also think there are more conversations happening at senior level about the Code and digital.


ZA: What resonates with you most from the ‘leadership’ principle in the Code?

LB: The main thing is to keep having those conversations at leadership level, talking about the imperative to be digital or to become more digital. If you are someone who is continually pushing it up the agenda you do risk sounding like a broken record, but I see this as part of my responsibility to ask those questions.

Often charity leaders tend to be mid-career and they have grown up without digital or social media, so it may be harder to see digital as an imperative. It doesn’t mean that CEOs are stuck in the dark ages, but in contrast, younger people in the workforce are digital natives. But they often don’t have the ability to influence at senior level.

Digital is a mindset as much as a skillset. The biggest challenge in any sector is for organisations who has been doing the same thing for a long time. Having a lot of legacy systems and processes is a challenge.


ZA: How are you applying the principle at Age UK, and what are you doing differently?

LB: We’re working with our local Age UKs and helping them develop their leadership. We were thrilled to get funding from DCMS and are piloting our leadership programme, focusing on service design, technology roadmaps and creating organic change.

As part of the programme we will develop assets we can use to scale. That is where we will start to see some change in the next year or two. If we can help our local Age UKs transform then that will be amazing, as they work so closely with older people.

We are building this work partly around the leadership principle from the Code, and we are doing lots around service design and data – understanding the data they collect, how they store it, and how to create a more joined up experience for users. We also have a separate funded project to help local Age UKs build a common data model and a shared case management platform. So as well as helping them with leadership principles, they can apply what they are learning practically.


ZA: What would you recommend to other charities who want to invest in digital leadership?

LB: Start small but do something. Keep talking about it. Start at the top. If you only do one thing, get a digital trustee! And if you can’t, get a digital advisor, like someone from a tech company. Sometimes people can’t commit to being a trustee, but people might be happy to give advice.


Catch up on Charity Digital’s leadership webinars: 

Want to stay on top of the latest tech news in the third sector?

Get top insights and news from our charity digital experts delivered straight to your inbox three times per week.