Experts from Catalyst break down the key steps on a charity’s digital journey
This article appears courtesy of Catalyst. Part Two of Two.
Earlier this month, Catalyst published new research, looking at the key points in a charity’s journey to digital maturity.
The research is based on interviews with 15 charities who’d taken significant strides in building their digital capabilities, although all of them said they were still on the journey.
Through talking to these charities, we identified a number of consistent staging posts, common obstacles, and things that charities could do to make the journey easier.
Here, very briefly, is a summary of the key findings.
We mapped out a journey that started with “curious” charities taking their first steps with digital, then “starting out” charities who were moving along the journey, and “advancing” charities, progressing through later stages of planning and development.
The “curious” stage was all about the challenge of getting going and knowing where to start, particularly with no money, limited capacity and low levels of digital skills amongst staff.
The “starting out” stage was defined by a clear goal and a digital project, often with an external agency. By the end of this stage, there was usually a move towards tackling digital strategically.
Finally, the “advancing” stage was about embedding a digital culture, digital expertise and a digital strategy, as well as tidying up legacy issues and replacing “good enough for now” solutions from earlier stages of development.
We found consistent steps that charities passed through on the journey, although each of course faced different challenges at slightly different times. The journeys were not linear or simple, and there were many individual wrinkles for each organisation, but we were nonetheless surprised by how much the overall arc of progress had in common.
Once a digital project was in place, getting internal buy-in from staff often became a priority. As new digital tools and new processes were introduced, they challenged conventional ways of working and required staff to learn and change, which generated resistance, and required digital leads to make the case for their approach. Many wished they had laid the groundwork for this earlier, and got staff more engaged at earlier stages.
The digital leads we spoke to started upskilling everyone and getting them involved in digital decisions. This included their CEOs and boards. As this started to work, they increasingly found themselves pulled in lots of different directions, from presenting at a board meeting to advising staff on setting up laptops.
It would be around this time that they realised digital was becoming a priority for the organisation and they could not do it alone for much longer.
The other big challenge at this point was getting support from boards and CEOs. Often those who set the strategic direction of the charity weren’t ready to invest, to help prioritise, and to make decisions about where to go next with digital However, by this stage, they needed to.
A few things really helped here. It was useful to have a diagnostic tool, or code of practice, to help advocate for the need to change and the breadth of digital beyond one project or role or function. It was also useful to have some kind of external recognition - funding or an award - because this validated the digital lead’s importance and ability. And it was very useful to have an external consultant, such as an expert in culture change or strategy, to provide an independent voice, and show that the digital lead was following good practice.
By the end of this stage, things had changed. Digital was now a part of the organisational strategy. It was properly resourced and considered at the top level. Digital was no longer a project but part of the organisation.
What was really interesting at this point was that the digital lead’s role shifted significantly. The journey was no longer just their responsibility. Nor was it just about them. They were now a point person within the organisation, with connections at all levels.
They had to make sure everyone had digital skills and competencies now, as well as looking at what digital roles they had in house. This was really tricky to assess and decide.
At this stage, there was a reasonable amount of managing upwards and sideways, because the overall leadership of the organisation, as well as leads in other teams, had to be involved in culture change and staff education. At this point, digital leads often leaned heavily on the expertise of pro bono mentors, consultants and agencies.
The digital lead also felt a big responsibility at this point to be a custodian for good digital practice. People relied on them to know what was a good idea, what wasn’t and how to do this. At this stage, peer networking became particularly vital to help the digital lead understand what was important in their role.
But quite often, when it was all getting very exciting, interesting and clever, something would break. The process of digital transition within charities was often rapid, chaotic and difficult to manage. Different parts of the organisation often progressed at different pace, and often solutions implemented early in the process were now recognised as due for replacement.
At this stage, systems needed upgrading and resourcing properly. Figuring out how to do this was a massive sticking point.
This was something that often needed funding, either internally from reserves, or preferably from some kind of capital grant. Funding was absolutely necessary throughout the digital journey, but it became particularly important here.
Many of the charities we worked with had not reached this stage, and others were in the middle of it. None really felt they have come to the end of it. So the final pattern is the least thoroughly defined.
At this point, the focus moved towards continuous improvement - key services being designed to meet user needs, learning shared openly and actively, and ensuring that all services prioritised accessibility and inclusion.
Nobody involved in our research felt they had come through this process and were fully confident that they were at an advanced level of digital maturity. All of them felt there was more to do.
Overcoming these hurdles required time, money, and support - both within the organisation and outside. Digital leads were able to help themselves by using a test-driven approach, accessing mentoring support, researching existing guidance, and undertaking discovery research.
Charities were able to help by offering digital leads time and space to work. It also helped when colleagues and leaders became involved in projects, and when other staff members received training and support to upskill themselves in digital. New digital trustees were also a particular source of support.
External support that was useful included digital maturity frameworks, advice from other charities, Tech for Good communities, pro bono volunteers and mentors. At any stage, funding for digital was a vital tool.
Charities are clearly making progress along the digital journey. The digital leads we worked with had made significant improvements within their organisations. But there is obviously much further to go. There is still a huge amount that the digital community, as well as charity infrastructure, can do to improve the ecosystem of support for charity digital leads, and do more to bring them together. Mentoring, advice, training, guidance, peer networks and of course funding were all crucial tools for helping charities make progress along the way, and there is still more we can do to make charities’ journeys easier.