GetWired: Increasing the digital capacity of trustee boards

In summer 2014, the ALS ice bucket challenge went viral across social media. Over the course of a couple of months it raised over $115 million for the American ALS Association and substantial sums for other similar organisations across the world. It was a triumph for viral marketing and a reminder of just how crucial the use of technology can be to a charity’s success or failure.

And yet, even while charities yearn for their own “ice bucket moment,” plenty of them still struggle to use YouTube effectively. Charity boards don’t necessarily understand the difference between Facebook and Instagram, let alone platform-based marketing and software-as-a-service. Despite constant reminders of the importance of “going digital” – essential to innovation and systemic change – charities are still struggling to put this into practice.

A real understanding of Technology, Social Media, Campaigning and CoCreation is the in-demand skill needed to help create and support the charities of tomorrow, today. But organisations are struggling to find and retain trustees who can bring those skills to effective governance. The failure to value or develop these skills in trustees will lead to underinvestment in the digital futures of today’s charities. And in today’s volatile social sector climate, a lack of digital future-proofing is something few can afford.

However, between Silicon Roundabout, Brixton Hub and the Square Mile, London is bursting with the technology and digital skills needed to equip and support the charities of the future. Not just in terms of supplying products and services but also in training up a new generation of advisors, trustees and leaders. And with technology hubs growing up around the UK, it’s not just London either.

The problem therefore seems not to be one of supply or demand, but of the interaction between the sectors. Charities don’t know how best to take advantage of the talent out there, while tech and digital leaders also seem at a loss with respect to how to help or get involved with voluntary organisations at a governance level.

Until recently, the only way for technology and digital workers to get involved in scaling a charity’s work was through occasional hackdays or direct digital fundraising. As a result, there is incredible potential for initiatives which connect charity governance with the considerable skillsets that exist within the tech community.

Bridging the Gap: GetWired

Recognising this, the Social Change Agency and Peridot Partners teamed up during National Trustee Week to create GetWired, a conference and brainstorming opportunity devoted to bridging the gap between the charity governance and technology sectors.

Altogether the event had around 50 passionate attendees. The charities ranged from small volunteer-led grassroots organisations to large national bodies with over £10m turnover, and were represented by a mixture of chairs, chief execs and heads of digital. London’s rich tech scene was represented by a cross section of digital entrepreneurs, technologists, innovators, product designers and social media strategists, working across a range of sectors including education, travel and broadband provision.

Supported by technology investors GP BullHound and Balderton Capital, and digital development company Cyber Sushi the event was specifically designed to identify the obstacles to getting better digital skills on boards, to get people thinking about solutions and to create practical tips for both sectors going forward. We used open space methodology to explore the following question: “How can we increase digital capacity and leadership in trustee boards?”.

Below is a summary of the conclusions which arose from the discussions at GetWired. First we list the top 10 barriers to getting digital skills on boards, and then we set out 15 practical recommendations for getting past those barriers. Not all of the recommendations are new, but they could all be practised more widely. With the right support and attitude, we believe that some of the recommendations could be put into practice easily, while a few will need sector-wide leadership to change the system. Technology and the charity sector is not a new pairing. Much has been written about the digital divide and we see our work as continuing the discussions laid out in The New Reality, by Julie Dodd. However it is abundantly clear that both sides need to take more responsibility and action if we are to successfully rewire the charity sector, allowing it to continue to increase in impact into the digital future.

GetWired: Increasing the Digital Capacity of Trustee Boards

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