This is a guest blog by Ian Mclintock. Ian has held various chair and CEO roles, been a passionate volunteer for 40 years and worked in the sector since 2003.  He regularly blogs and posts on a wide range of charity sector matters, primarily on LinkedIn and Twitter.  He is currently building the Charity Excellence Framework – an online platform for trustees and senior staff. Follow Ian on Twitter. 

My Damascene Conversion

I’m 57 years’ old and a long time ago, in a career now far, far away, I had to carry one of the original ‘yuppie’ phones the size of a brick, 24/7.  I swore I would never have another.  I was one of the last people I know to own a mobile phone and, as I don’t need to see a picture of anyone’s kitten, until 5 years ago, had no interest in social media.  Not any more.

It’s really useful and easy to do

It’s free, simple to use, an easy way to stay very well informed, sharing my experience helps others and learning from them is incredibly useful.  I work very long hours, but because I mainly use social media whilst waiting for a train or in a coffee shop, it far more than pays me back for the time it takes.     

But it’s also essential

Social media has exploded in the last 5 years, but too many of my generation still see digital as something young people do.  It isn’t – 41% of over-75s have a social media profile.  We need to see this for what it is – a fundamental shift in society that will impact charities in all areas, on a large scale and is happening right now.  Yet only 3% of charities consider their board to be digitally savvy.

A recent report estimated that charities lost out on £1.5bn in donations last year due to lack of digital effectiveness.  Then there’s GDPR, which will protect the rights of individuals in a digital age, new platforms and risks for finance, and new ways of engaging beneficiaries and stakeholders.

Any board that doesn’t understand digital impact, doesn’t have the skills it needs.  Newer technologies, such as AI and blockchain, are already in use in the sector.  Leading strategy is a Board responsibility and any strategic plan that doesn’t now take digital into account is seriously flawed.  Fifty percent of charities don’t have a digital strategy, do you?

It works for any size of charity

Here are some examples of my own:

  • Open Gardens – We open our village gardens for charity. We reach thousands using posters and signs, which takes hours (usually in the rain), but tens of thousands using our Facebook page and local community pages.  Setting it up took about half an hour.
  • Community Company – I’m chair of a not-for-profit company that makes grants. We need to reach under-represented groups, not least those who don’t have access to social media. We may not be able to reach all of them, but we can reach those who can, so we do.
  • Cultural charity – In my last CEO role, we made digital a major element of our Christmas campaign and increased donations to £16,000. Not huge, but a 400% increase in 2 years.

In none of these examples was anyone involved a digital expert.

So, why do we have a problem?

We may be old, but we’re not stupid and social media is only one of many issues competing for our attention.  Some of us see it as ‘instead of’, rather than ‘in addition to’, or don’t understand how cost effective and easy it is and, because of this, don’t appreciate that even the smallest charities can use it.  Many of us simply aren’t aware, so we need to make the case.

And to do it well.  I once sat in an exec meeting to hear a comms guru talk about the huge traffic stats for our new site.  Much of which was Russian/bots and, when I asked about the stickiness, it went very quiet.  Enthusiasm is great, but there are too many over optimistic individuals, so we’re wary.  The argument is compelling, so marshal your facts and make the case in language we can all understand.  And why not try reverse mentoring – it worked brilliantly for me and was great fun too.  If I can do it, anyone can.

But, fear of change is probably the biggest issue. Why should we buy into something we don’t understand, when we can continue to do what we’ve always done; it’s safer.  Except that it isn’t.  Again, make the case.  However, instead of asking us to approve your mega master plan at the outset, no matter how good it is, start with something that’s low risk and less scary. It’ll be easier for us to accept and your success will build our trust in your abilities.

And, we’re not the only problem. Some of you are too.  In one charity, I became fed up listening to endless talk about lack of digital engagement.  I suggested to the comms officer that he prepare a short brief for the Board outlining what we were doing and why, and how they could help simply by following, liking and reposting, then follow it up with an e mail with all our social media links. Nothing.  If we don’t get it, we need your help to do so.

Winner or loser, your choice

Rant over, but it’s not a counsel of despair.  There are huge opportunities and, as in any time of change, there will be winners and losers.  Which your charity will be, depends on what you do about it, now.