What’s it like being the Clerk or Chair of a Local Council?

Cambridgeshire Town and Parish Councils

At Cambridgeshire ACRE, we think there is a lot to be gained from local councils sharing their views and experiences with each other. For every council spending time at its meetings discussing youth provision, there’s another council that’s putting some really good ideas into practice. And for every experienced clerk out there, there’s probably one who’s not quite sure how to tackle the next item on his/her ‘to do’ list.

One of our ideas for encouraging more networking and share of ideas is to profile a parish council by chatting to its clerk and chair and writing up those interviews to share with others in the same position.

We’ve started in the parish of Haddenham and Aldreth, in East Cambridgeshire, about 7 miles from Ely. Around 3,345 people live in the main village and its nearby settlement. There’s shops (groceries/post office, take-away, butchers, hairdressers), a primary school, several community meeting places…

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Charities & donors: What would you like more research about?

We need more thought about what happens in the small organisations that make up the bulk of the sector.

Giving Evidence

Giving  Evidence and think-tank Charity Futures break new ground in researching what matters to charities and donors

Charity Futures, the new sector think tank led by Sir Stephen Bubb, is launching a major consultation to find out the topics on which donors and charity leaders most want more research to help them in their vital work.  Clearly this is essential for ensuring that charitable activity and giving can be based on sound evidence.

Giving Evidence will run the consultation, which invite input from any charity, foundation, public or private donor in the United Kingdom. Through an open ‘crowd-sourcing’ process, including a series of focus groups across the country (do join! see below) and a couple of rounds of public, open, online survey, the project will invite charities, private donors and institutional funders to say where more research would be of most use. The project is supported by a distinguished advisory group of funders, private donors…

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Why we don’t need a charity digital code.

Today saw the announcement that a new charity digital code of practice is to be developed. Lots big names from the charity digital sector involved, significant funding (I assume) from Lloyds Banking Group and the Co-op Foundation.

There will be a consultation in the summer – digital/online? There will be versions for big and small organisations, it will set out good practice. It will make no difference to the majority of groups we at CCVS work with, or to the vast bulk of charities or community groups across England and Wales.

Look at who is involved

“The Charity Digital Code of Practice will be developed by a steering group of charity leaders (in consultation with the wider sector) including representatives from the Association of Chief Executives of Voluntary Organisations (ACEVO), The Small Charities Coalition, the National Council for Voluntary Organisations (NCVO), Office for Civil Society, and the Charity Commission.”

I say as a critical friend, NO.

I say as a believer in the importance of small (my version) charities and community groups, NO.

I say as a local infrastructure organisation, NO.

Digital is important (See yesterday’s blog) I really believe that. I am not against the idea that we need to invest nationally in digital skills for charities and community groups, in fact the more investment the better! But I do not think that we need to spend money on this piece of work, that money would be better spent on useful things that will make a difference. So what do we need.

Firstly, some assumptions.

  1. Most local infrastructure organisations will have a pretty good idea of the needs in their area, after all most ask in one form or another (see our annual survey reports here )
  2. Most of those not engaging with digital do so though a lack of understanding or apathy (this was highlighted in the Lloyds report UK Business Digital Index)
  3. Many of those who want to do more don’t have the funding to do so even if they can see the benefits. Again it was in the Lloyds report and we know that.
  4. The best way to engage local groups is through local infrastructure. I am biased but it is true; and even more so for those groups that think that email is the highest form of digital worth bothering about.
  5. The big organisations (say income over £500,000) are big enough and have the resources to find their own solutions, even if it means engaging with their local infrastructure.

So what should be done?

  • Investment – lots of it at local level. To include
    • Grants for small groups to access tools and training
    • Investment in local infrastructure so they have the skills to help those in their area (does anyone else remember the SKILD programme run by NAVCA for development workers).
  • The development of free training tools and resources for groups to adapt and use. (This would be a great national product).
  • A bank of exemplar case studies for groups with no staff, low incomes etc.
  • Tools that were free to use for small organisations that replicate some the more expensive and useful tools.

If we are to get charities and community groups to embrace digital and benefit from it we will need to do two things. Give those that know a bit and want to learn the resources and skills to do it. Give those that don’t see digital as useful a set of compelling reasons why they need to change their mind, and then the skills and resources to act on it.

So YES, local exemplars to help change minds.

YES, more investment.

YES, more digital.

Let us build digital from the bottom up and not the top down.

How do you solve a problem like digital? How do you catch a cloud and pin it down?

Taking my inspiration from the fantastic Sound of Music I need to address this whole digital business. But first here is the original song for a little light relief.

Digital has been in the news a lot over the past few weeks. This blog is not about personal data, about Facebook, or about the dark arts of profiling. It is about a growing digital divide in the charity and community organisation world. It is about the missed opportunity of not ‘doing digital’ and it is about the skills of staff, volunteers and trustees.

My emphasis is unsurprisingly on small charities as that is where my heart and passion lie and it is here that I think that digital opportunities are being  most missed. I also think that in these small organisations there are generally less likely to be people with the skills, time and resources to change the organisations digital strategy and make changes.

Why do digital

Like it or not digital, websites, social media etc. is here to stay. Whilst some people may have deleted their Facebook accounts over the recent data scandals, most of us won’t as it is too useful both personally and at work (although I bet all of you delved into your security settings to see what apps you had given what permissions to!)

Last year the House of Lords published a report ‘Stronger Charities for a Stronger society‘. This states

“The integration of digital technologies into people’s lives and the changing nature of communications, particularly through social media, have significantly changed the environment charities operate within. These changes present new challenges but also considerable opportunities for charities.”

They set out three reasons why charities should do digital

Digital fundraising

I think this is key, whether it is about successful crowdfunding; about having a clear and obvious ask on a web page (One of my favourites); or about adopting new technology (Mind trials contactless donation terminals), we all need to get better at utilising digital to raise money. With so many sites offering free setup and doing so much work for you even small charities can develop online giving strategies and make the most of facilities that allow credit card donation and take care of giftaid etc. Small charities can also benefit from other ways of asking for money such as donation through Facebook and from the different rewards programmes that exist such as Amazon smile.

Awareness raising.

The report says

“Ten years ago, you might have needed to know someone at a newspaper or to be invited on television, or you might have needed an advertising budget. Now you can jump that, so it levels the playing field for small and large organisations.”

This is key for organisations of all sizes, do you use social media to contact your local council and Councillors? Are you raising awareness and using online petition sites however niche your issue may feel to the rest of the world? This is one close to my heart (More info here). Have you got a blog? These are a great way to tell stories, inform people about your work and share related information. Check out Parkrun UK.

Engagement

Digital communications also allow for better engagement with existing supporters, volunteers and beneficiaries. Despite recent changes to the Facebook algorithm social media and other digital tools are still a great way of keeping in touch and sharing. If you want an example of showing beneficiaries what they achieve look no further then this). As the CEO of an infrastructure I am a member of the NAVCA Chief Officers Information Network, this is an email group that allows NAVCA to interact with the CEOs of its members, and at the same time allows us to share, ask questions and find out what others are doing. I find it invaluable! At the same time Facebook groups bring people together and can be a catalyst for their own community to form. Why not set up your own group like this?

Done well digital engagement with those with a link to your cause or organisation will be about a conversation not just about telling. It will build bye in from supporters, it will develop long term relationships, and it will result in more committed supports and volunteers.

To this list I would add effectiveness and efficiency. There are all sorts of digital tools out there that, with a little practice, can help us to do our work more effectively and efficiently. It seems that everyone has their favorites and it will depend on you skill and the task in hand which you use. Why not check out this list on the Charity Connect website (which is also a great digital tool/platform/place/thing).

Finally on why do digital, Felicity Christensen – Communications & Events Manager, Small Charities Coalition adds in her Blog that it is fun, and it can relieve the isolation that those in small charities often face. This I think is an excellent point and one not to be overlooked by small organisations.

Every year Lloyd’s Bank publish the UK Business Digital Index. This measures the digital capability of 2,000 small businesses and charities across the UK, using a combination of actual online behaviour and survey analysis, to understand their attitudes towards digital technology. This shows that

lloyds benefits pic

And yet we know that many charities are not doing digital.

 

Barriers

The headline from this years Lloyds report report states

“The 2017 Index has highlighted that whilst more businesses and charities are becoming more digitally capable, there is a growing minority of organisations with low capability. This year, 1.6m small businesses and over 100,000 charities lack Basic Digital Skills.”

This charity figure does not include all those unregistered community groups and clubs that exist in our communities, many of whom will not be making the most of what digital can do for them.

The report highlights the barriers to doing digital

lloyds barriers to digital

Many of these things were echoed in the House of Lords report. With the Cranfield Trust highlighting the differences between big and small organisations

“With a far more competitive funding environment and many more communication channels open through social media, small- to medium-sized charities are racing to catch up with marketing and communications skills in order to compete with larger charities with established marketing activity.

The FSI highlighted the issue of funding

“Small charities often face a difficult trade-off, [they] want to innovate but if innovation requires investment they are often not able to move forward as they have minimal resources for development [and] instead the majority of their income is needed to cover service delivery. This suggests small charities are still far behind in the digital arena in comparison to larger charities, who are more likely to be able to afford to direct resources to this area.”

The 2018 Charity Digital Skills Report produced by Skills Platform also highlights barriers, these are similar and show

“A growing number of charities now see funding as their biggest obstacle, rating it at 58%, up from 52% last year. It now replaces skills as the greatest barrier.

Skills are now seen as slightly less of a constraint for charities, however they are the second largest challenge for them (51% as opposed to 57% last year).”

The issues of skills and leadership are also key. The Charity Skills report highlights

“There is a growing expectation that charity leaders must understand trends and how they affect their charities. 63% now want this.

The majority of charities (69%) cite their board’s digital skills as low or having room for improvement.”

This is reinforced by the Lloyd’s report

“Another factor is digital leadership – of charity leaders, only 58% state they have got the knowledge or experience they need to help their charity to become more digital (see appendix 29). One in three do not believe they have access to the right technology to help their organisation become more digital”

The take away from this is that the key barriers are

  • Apathy or a lack of understanding
  • Funding and resources including time
  • Lack of skills and leadership

These have to be addressed in order to enable charities to move forward. Our own research echos this and highlights it is the smallest organisations that are most likely to not be using social media and digital tools. If digital is such a benefit then we at CCVS and other organisations need to do more to make digital accessible and relevant to our members.

What are we doing

Here at CCVS we recognised that digital is something we need to think about both in respect of our own work and in respect of helping our members and the local sector.

Our concern is echoed by Cambridge City Council who have invested significantly in developing the digital skills of the local people. As part of this we have worked in partnership with Cambridge Online to develop a series of training courses for small organisations. these are designed to give people skills around social media, digital marketing and crowdfunding, but also around telling stories.

We have also worked with The Hub at Cambridge University to develop our own strategy on how we can use digital to extend the reach of our advice and training. This report sets out a way forward that we are currently looking at implementing, and we hope to build on this to develop a comprehensive digital strategy for CCVS.

We are one of those organisations that wants to do more digitally but that suffers from a lack of time and resources. Our trustees are on board, and our members want to see more flexible ways of benefiting from what we do. We have to prioritise work to fit the resources and we know there are some things we would like to do but can’t at this time. Digital has already brought us benefits but by the time we catch up there is a good chance things will have moved on even further and we may all have been replaced by an AI!