Digital Practice: Leadership

Tori Ellaway
Sep 27 · 7 min read

Since January I have been working with a group of sector experts, including Doteveryone to research the challenges civil society leaders face vis-a-vis digital and map where they currently for support, and to identify any gaps in provision of resources and training.

Problem Statement

We started out with a broad problem statement to focus our project.

When leaders want to create change in their organisations through digital they often lack the strategic understanding of the digital design process to give them the confidence and skills to make a case of it, so they can’t get the resource, internal backing or funding required to get started.

Our evidence for this, while gathered from across many areas of our work, was anecdotal, so the next step was to validate that this was the case.

User Research

We interviewed 15 leaders from charities of all shapes, sizes and geographical reach.

We also sought the perspectives of seven digital leadership experts and providers, including freelancers.

Finally, we looked at data and research which already existed including the Charity Digital Skills Report and the IVAR/CAST led research with small charities “Start Somewhere”.


  1. We’re in the realm of unknown unknowns

Leaders overwhelmingly, and particularly of smaller charities, told us they didn’t know where to start, or how digital could help their organisations specifically.

“This is where I’m struggling. I’ve been to a couple of conferences, and training days, and not sure how it best fits with us.”

“It’s hard to start the journey because we don’t know what we don’t know.”

Many leaders reported seeking and taking part in training to improve their general leadership skills. However few sought out digital training because they were unsure what it was they needed to learn about.

Leaders who were more familiar with digital did want to find digital support and training, but were uncertain support could be trusted or would be worth their while.


Leaders proactively seek professional development, but some might not think to sign up to a digital-specific training course, especially if they are just starting out with digital.

Clearly it is these leaders we need to reach, so our plan is to work with established, generalist leadership training delivery organisations and build on their expertise, reputations and reach.

So we have forged a partnership with Clore Social Leadership to embed digital leadership skills in their existing programmes. As a first step of this work, Clore Social Leadership will be running a digital version of their Peer Journeys Programme next month, giving leaders: an opportunity to support and learn from one another as they tackle real digital challenges and build their leadership capabilities. Find out more and apply for a place.

Nora Dettor, from Clore Social Leadership

We’re also partnering with Zoe Amar Digital to see how we can help to scale their Digital Leadership training with The School for Social Entrepreneurs so that more leaders can find and access trusted support.

More partnerships will follow. In the meantime if you’re interested in getting involved in this area of work, please contact Tori Ellaway.

2. Assumed level of knowledge

Many conferences and events leaders had attended to learn about digital had instead actively undermined their confidence levels: either because they assumed delegates had a working knowledge of digital, or because the case studies were unrelatable in size, budget or types project.

“A lot of the speakers at conferences are from large organisations and it’s not helpful. Smaller charities aren’t that well-represented. You tend to be in the room with people whose lives and charities are so far removed from your own, so it’s very difficult to compare like to like”.

“I go to digital tech events, they’re talking in a way that I should already know this, but when I don’t I just switch off”.

This resonates strongly with the IVAR ‘Making Tech Imaginable and Usable’ report published recently which found that charities want to see case studies that are relevant to their size of charity and have a clear set of practical actions to follow.


CAST is creating and testing a set of ‘actionable stories’ from charities, so that other charities can see what process a similar charity took on a specific project and follow those same steps. The format for these is still being tested, and we’ll publish our first batch and call for more submissions next month.

We’re also partnering with Zoe Amar Digital to explore the next phase of development of the Charity Digital Code of Practice. We’ll be testing out a number of ideas and concepts based on user insight, one of which will be to see how we can further tailor content to charities’ size, knowledge around digital or specific challenge they need to solve. Get in touch with Zoe Amar if you’d like to be involved in this phase of testing.

3. There is a lack of understanding around skills needed

Many leaders acknowledged that their organisations lacked the right skills for them to be able to make more effective use of digital, but struggled to know what skills they needed, how to bring them into their organisations or how to upskill their existing staff. This was true of both trustees and tech partners too.

“When we’re advertising for a digital trustee — what are we looking at in terms of skills they have? What tells me they’re going to be what I need?”

“General digital literacy is low at our organisation”

“There are digital competencies that orgs need to have in everyone, then some specialists as well”


There is a clear need for more information and case studies around skills and competencies, and how to start to bring these into the organisation through training, new recruits, external support or trustees. Catalyst will be exploring through various partnerships whether training around skills would be helpful for leaders as part of wider digital leadership content.

There is already some early stage work going on around trustee and board skills by SCVO, Reach Volunteering, Zoe Amar Digital and CAST. For more information and to get involved, contact Tori Ellaway.

Innovation Unboxed, Think Social Tech, and CAST have recently carried out some research into digital maturity frameworks available, some of which provide skills assessments or audits. One of the next steps for this piece of work is to identify the different journeys charities take to develop their digital capacity, and to understand indicators for progress — both of which are crucial for us to build a clearer picture of the steps charities need to take to upskill their teams and organisations.

We also want to encourage charities to be more open about the skills they have in-house, which external skills they hire in, what works and the challenges they find around this so others can learn from their experiences. If you’d like to share or get involved, please get in touch with Tori Ellaway.

4. Peers

Leaders draw heavily on peer connections, both internally within their organisations and externally, to find support, though some leaders reported it being difficult to meet new and relevant connections.

Where there are strong CEO and chair/trustee relationships, these can provide valuable mentoring and coaching opportunities. Unsurprisingly, where these relationships are less positive, leaders feel less able and less supported to move on with digital and other areas of progress.

“I have a good relationship with the chair of the organisation, or I might go to another board member if they have the right expertise.”

“I tried to bring together local organisations doing similar things”


Peer networks are an invaluable but relatively underexplored conduit for the exchange of digital knowledge. Catalyst is keen to facilitate more productive and informed digital discussions and interactions between charities.

As mentioned above, Clore Social Leadership will be running a digital version of their Peer Journeys in October, as part of a partnership with CAST. The programme is for leaders looking to learn from and support one another as they tackle a specific digital leadership challenge within their organisation, and build their leadership capabilities. Find out more and apply for a place.

Though not specifically for leaders, CAST has been trialling a scheme called Coffee Connections, which connects people from the charity sector at random so they can take time out their day and make a new connection (either in person or remotely). Feedback so far has been very positive, and we’re now opening it up to new participants — find out more and sign up here.

Next Steps

We’ll be cracking on with the projects and partnerships mentioned here. We expect to learn a lot from each initiative, and we share our findings with Catalyst so that we can be sure that our priorities are all responding to the changing needs of the sector.

Here’s a summary of ways to get involved:

  1. Leadership training To discuss the Clore Social Leadership partnership — contact Nora Dettor; To apply for a digitally focussed Peer Journey (application deadline is 30th September 2019) — click here; To contribute and learn more about the Digital Leadership work — contact Zoe Amar.

The Catalyst

UK collaborative to bring a social purpose to the digital revolution. From CAST, City Bridge Trust, Comic Relief, DCMS, Esmée Fairbairn, Paul Hamlyn Foundation and The National Lottery Community Fund.

Tori Ellaway

Written by

The Catalyst

UK collaborative to bring a social purpose to the digital revolution. From CAST, City Bridge Trust, Comic Relief, DCMS, Esmée Fairbairn, Paul Hamlyn Foundation and The National Lottery Community Fund.

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