Last night’s meeting of the digital leads of the UK’s major charities at the beautiful RIBA building in central London got a great turnout.  Given that it was a rare, unseasonably warm March evening a good turnout was proof to me that such a gathering has long been needed.

CharityComms theme for the night was ‘how digitally literate is your organisation?’.  I would have fallen off my chair had everyone said ‘it’s brilliant, we’ve got it totally cracked’ but the debate focussed on the change that that digital is bringing to traditional behaviours in third sector organisation and the issues around leading that change.

The conversation ranged from ‘my organisation is not digitally literate and has senior management who claim they are not ‘techy’ (you’d have to wonder if they are also not ‘phoney’ or ‘printy’) to those who understand, are investing in digital and viewing their traditional competitors efforts and matching them.  How disruptive digital is to the established charity model was mentioned much in the room as something with little understanding at senior level.  There was a strong sense that the older charities, still working off dated models, don’t yet recognise the train of change coming at them from those newer organisations and small groups who have digital in their DNA.

That we need to move from broadcast to engagement and away from being ‘command and control’ style organisations was a given in the room, but that digital way of thinking wasn’t permeating at the most senior levels within our sector and was actively meeting change resistance. It was put beautifully by a fellow digital lead that one of the problems of fronting that change is that you can become the personification of it and the target for change resistance.  Picking battles, letting success speak for you, constantly proving your point with evidence were all being used as ways forward.

It made me think how far many of us have come from the jobs we originally signed up for.  When I built my first site way back in the day I thought being good at communications and good at computers was a broad enough skillset to see me right in digital.  If I had known that one day I’d need the political skills of a spin doctor and Sun Tzu’s advice I would have probably stuck to writing.

Innovation and the difficulty of building that into traditional business planning models was discussed as another area where the third sector would need to rethink how it operates.   Vital to a digital organisation, the ability to review, test, learn, develop and fail fast is not one that feels comfortable in organisations which have always been very aware of how donors money is seen to be spent.

Embedding user-centricity into the digital model was seen as a strong way forward.  Moving the measurement conversation away from numbers and on to value, though fraught with difficulties for organisations where not everything is a transaction, was also seen as key.

To me, it is an amazing place to have ended up being, albeit inadvertently, being a digital lead in the third sector.  I am a firm believer that digital and social will revolutionise social change and it’s a privilege to be a part of that.  There will be casualties, there’s a Darwinian nature to change. It’s challenging, exhausting, frustrating and brilliant to try and move large organisations through that change and weird, if you can see the change coming at you, to feel that you must constantly persuade your organisation to move to a place where it will not get run over and, ideally, will be part of that change.  The best thing for me about last night was a chance to meet people whose blogs I have read, Tweets I have followed and hear them talk passionately about how they are working to make sure they are getting digital into the DNA of the sector.

Thanks to CharityComms and Cogapp for making the night happen.

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