people of colour at a meeting in a boardroom

Photo by Christina @ on Unsplash

Whenever I talk to charities about digital it’s only a matter of time before someone mentions trustees. This #TrusteesWeek I’ve been mulling over how we can make our governance more effective after the increased digital adoption during the pandemic. 

Charities’ use of digital has grown during the pandemic. In the 2022 Charity Digital Skills Report  almost three quarters (72%) of the charities we spoke to said they are actively working to progress with digital. 73% of charities are delivering digital services. Over half (52%) are changing the way they are working to improve remote working, whilst 22%  are recruiting new digital roles or changing roles to include digital responsibilities. 

Yet we haven’t seen similar disruption in the boardroom.In  The Charity Digital Skills Report we learned that trustees’ digital skills had not improved since 2021, a picture which has barely changed since we began tracking this in 2017.. Almost two thirds (64%) of boards’ digital skills are either low or have room for improvement, increasing from 58% last year.  Despite the skills gap, more than half  (54%) of boards either don’t have any plans to increase digital skills or don’t know what their plans are. It’s no surprise that just 1 in 5 charities (21%) have buy-in and support for digital at trustee level, despite the digital growth we’ve seen  since 2020. 

My impression from this data, and many of the charities we talk to, is that governance has not evolved in tandem with digital adoption at staff level.. This could affect how we scale our digital products and services, lead to less informed decision making and create a greater degree of risk. 

Good governance in the digital age is a challenge  because as someone wise once said to me, digital is a moving target. Digital projects are often big and risky. No matter what size of charity you are, developing a new website or CRM is going to be challenging and mission critical. During 14 years of sitting on various charity boards and doing other non exec roles in the sector I have often worried that the frameworks and processes we use for oversight cannot keep up with the speed of digital change. 

However there are things you can do to help your governance take a leap forward. 

1.Be really clear about  delegation

Where is the centre of gravity for your digital transformation? It is likely to be at staff level. For that to work, the board needs to have clarity on what has been delegated to staff, and what the expectations are on both sides. This doesn’t mean that boards and the leadership team can devolve digital to staff entirely- ownership and responsibility for digital change ultimately sits with them. 

Where delegation isn’t clear it then becomes all too easy for digital trustees to overstep the line into decision making that affects the day to day work of staff. I’ve done it myself in the past. Chairs need to watch out for this and trustees should feel empowered to challenge each other about it around the board table. If you find this happening at your next board meeting ask yourself, ‘Is it right for us to be advising on this or are staff better placed to do it?’

 2. Review your oversight

Once big digital projects are up and running there should be checks and balances and oversight built in at staff, committee and board level to make sure that everything is running smoothly. I think this is an opportunity to define what kind of oversight would be helpful at each level. For  example, at staff level you might have a smaller group driving the digital transformation who are overseeing  it day to day and troubleshooting, reporting up to a digital committee and the board. 

Having had roles at staff, board committee and trustee level, and having mediated between these different groups as a consultant, I would love to see more organisations looking at the information flows between them. Is the right information getting reported up to board? How is it informing their decision making? Are they asking the right questions about it?

I recommend mapping out the information flows between each of these groups, and testing them out with some scenarios e.g. if there is a data breach, or something goes wrong with a key digital supplier, who needs to know what so that the charity has the benefit of the right scrutiny, strategy and support? Once you’ve mapped this out then it should become obvious where the bottlenecks and gaps are.

3. Get the pace right

During the first lockdown it was really encouraging to see that more boards were working in an agile way, meeting more frequently and sometimes focusing on a single important issue. Whilst boards and staff will always operate at a slightly different pace, there needs to be momentum and energy on both sides and the cadence of oversight and scrutiny needs to be complementary. 

A board should never feel like it is a drag on digital decision making. I’ve sat on boards in the past that felt like they were in a different time zone. Whilst, anecdotally, I hear that things have improved for charities in this area, boards could also ask themselves how the rhythm of their governance can provide the right level of support to staff. For example, at Charity Digital, where I’m a trustee, we intersperse our quarterly board meetings with more regular board update meetings. This helps us all feel that we are all included in and informed on what’s going on.

4. Review your board’s culture and skills

Lots of organisations I speak to are talking about psychological safety at staff level, and I’d really like to see more chairs thinking about how they create this amongst trustees. In my experience as a woman of colour boards can be environments where systemic power dynamics and inequalities can be played out endlessly. In the past I’ve been on boards where I’ve felt unsafe, and excluded. I once worked with a chair who wouldn’t look at me and would always change the subject as soon as I raised the subject of diversity. 

Claire Tavernier, the chair I’m lucky enough to work with at Charity Digital helps everyone feel involved and listened to, which means that we are all comfortable to challenge each other. If more chairs asked themselves about how they can make sure power is shared around the board table it would encourage more people of colour and those who represent different backgrounds to become trustees. A truly effective board is an inclusive one. 

Similarly, chairs need to take the lead in increasing digital skills at board level, through recruiting new trustees and skilling up those in post. As a sector we desperately need more young people on boards (the average age of trustees is 60-62) and one way to do this is to frame it as an opportunity to learn and develop, regardless of age. Chairs need to set a really clear expectation on this. We need to stop putting trustees on a pedestal and treating them as the finished product. 

5.Inform your board about user insights.

You’re probably reporting data up to your board about how users are interacting with you via digital channels and services. Yet is this really bringing them closer to understanding what users need? 

The board table can feel like a long way from the frontline. Encouraging trustees to ask ‘How do we know this is what users want? And what evidence do we have for that?’ helps bring them a step closer. You could also try what one of the digital leaders I know does and share user stories (also known as user need statements) with trustees and leadership teams, so they have a clearer idea of their audience’s behaviours and what they need. 

What next?

If we can get our governance right for the digital age it will help our strategies and scrutiny create sustainable foundation for whatever comes next. Now is the time to ask ourselves whether the way we govern is making a difference, and whether we have the right people and processes in the boardroom.