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| Posted by: Tristan Shirley

What does digital really mean? We asked Chris Wade, Director of Engagement at MND Association

For our second instalment in our digital interview series, we spoke to Chris Wade. Chris spent 13 years with Victim Support where he held several roles including Head of Volunteering, Head of Learning and Development, Regional Manager and Chief Executive of Victim Support Nottinghamshire. Chris is now the Director of Engagement at Motor Neurone Disease Association and is responsible for volunteering, HR and learning. Here he shares his thoughts and experience of digital in the sector. 

What does “digital” mean to you?

Well, digital is such a big a subject isn’t it? Digital gives us the ability to work better and more efficiently, and encourages a two way relationship with our stakeholders. Given the type of organisation that MND Association is, we are dealing with people who can be quite isolated and we can use digital as a tool to be better connected to our beneficiaries. Social media is definitely an example where anyone can engage with a wider audience; we have thousands of members and now we can hear from them directly, and by using it carefully you can make sure you don’t just hear the loudest but hear the majority, not just to hear opinions but generate ideas.

I also see digital as a marketing tool - for example businesses like supermarkets will use digital systems to better understand their customers and tailor the shopping experience accordingly. We have to be ethical, but as a sector we can also use techniques to learn from our beneficiaries’ or supporters’ desires and adapt our services to better serve them. The charity sector can be at risk of losing pace with the commercial sector, and if we want to maximise donations and engagement then digital is a big part of that, both in terms of how we work efficiently and how we can drive impact.

What’s the best use of digital you have seen – in or out of the sector?

This is an interesting question for me, as ultimately I think the hardest part is how you can make digital make an impact on your stakeholders. One example that has stuck in my mind is the world food programme – they did a pilot where they use iris scanning technology connected to blockchain to be able to accurately distribute aid to refugees, without the use of money and paperwork. I would love to come up with something like that!

You need the skills, but you also need a project management culture that encourages innovation. If we restrain people by policy and procedures we can hold people back; it is easy to talk about databases, websites and Twitter as all of those things are great, but to be really good at digital you need to think outside those boxes as well. Let’s encourage big picture thinking.

As a Director how do you get people to think strategically about digital?

I don’t know if I have this cracked, but for us a start was embedding digital skills throughout the organisation rather than creating a digital team that works in a silo. It reminds me of a saying: ‘you don’t have an electricity department why do you need a digital department’. For me that represents the fact that digital is a way of doing things - it’s not what you do it’s how you do it. For example, we wanted to increase our use of video and so rather than have just the communications team learn the editing software we rolled out the capability to a number of our staff across different teams. If you have digitally skilled staff you can create digital transformation throughout. But ultimately you have to know what you want to achieve – you do need a direction and an overall strategy, and it can’t be just a scatter gun effect. We will be putting digital into our recruitment strategy as it is easy to look in the rear mirror with the number of volunteers registered and focus on what we’ve always done, rather than looking to the future and what you could be doing differently. 

I do think one barrier is that people can struggle to see what they can do with digital; connecting teams and functions together can be really difficult especially in large and complex organisations. It’s relatively easy to have a digital solution for one team but how can we make it work for a whole organisation? Overall for me it is not about overcoming strategic resistance to acting digitally, but rather a lack of imagination. Executives struggle to imagine what opportunities digital solutions can deliver or try to replicate non-digital solutions in digital ways.

So Chris, as you work in HR and volunteering, do you think there are people being left behind in the digital volunteering space?

I hear more often that volunteers won’t use digital tools, but I rarely hear a volunteer tell me that. For a number of years the whole volunteer programme for marshalling the Tour de Yorkshire was done online, from skype interviews to engagement solely through a volunteers’ portal. Of course volunteers have digital skills!

What we want to do is give volunteers the opportunity to shape and have an input in their involvement. At the moment organisations are at risk of doing things to volunteers rather than with them - it should be about balance. I see more sophisticated digital marketing campaigns in fundraising rather than volunteering, which is a shame. Volunteers have an impact and attracting a volunteer isn’t about just putting out a job ad, you need to compete with a wider number of different demands on people’s time; not just volunteering elsewhere, but meeting friends, looking after the family, caring for parents, or even watching the TV. Ultimately it’s about marketing a choice.

I try and involve volunteers more now as I see that they want to have more ownership to what they are doing, and shape their destiny if you like! I think there is scope for technology to not only help us communicate better but to gather those ideas and for them to be able to shape their volunteering experience both with us but also laterally with each other, but there is a lot of exploring still to be done there. 

Android or iPhone

For me it is iPhone every time. I like the way iPhone interconnects with other devices and yet some of the functionality is wisely locked down so you don’t end up fiddling with something – sometimes less is more!