Leadership Spotlight On… Linda McBain, Chief Digital Officer of Save the Children UK

21st November 2022 by Jo Hastie

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On Wednesday 7th December, AAW will be hosting a special event in London focused around the cultural and organisational changes NGOs need to make to embrace the full potential of digital.

One of our key speakers at this event will be Linda McBain, Save the Children’s Chief Digital Officer. We caught up with Linda to get a sneak preview of some of the things she will be helping us explore when we get together in December.

Linda McBain image

Tell us about your journey in digital

Before moving to the charity sector in 2007, I worked agency side and became their de-facto technology person because no one else could understand computers. I then got my first ‘digital’ roles in the charity sector at CAFOD and British Red Cross before moving to Save the Children in 2011.

What does a Chief Digital Officer do?

I sit at the intersection between the wider business as a whole and technology, thinking about the role of digital and data and how we really utilise it to deliver more impact for children whether that’s improving our finance systems, fundraising and marketing or our wider relationship with the global movement. It’s less about the ‘tech bit’ and more about people, our culture and ways of working.

What advice would you give your 25-year-old self?

I have always held on to the thinking behind the saying ‘comparison is the thief of joy’. It is really important for you to create your own path and think about what is going to make you happy and what you want from life. I am happiest and do my best work when I am able to be my authentic self.

How would you respond to Deniz’s blog on the failure of the third sector’s approach to digital?

I am quite optimistic compared to Deniz’s pessimism, so between us we are a good balance!

I don’t think this is simply a charity sector issue. I see many similar issues across sectors from old companies who have a lot of legacy ways of working and technologies. If you weren’t set up as digital by default, then shifting your business model can be tough.

Deniz is right in saying that change isn’t happening fast enough but the reasons behind that are not purely digital ones.

Charity governance is often overly concerned with risk and risk management which holds people back in this area. We see this most obviously in the way organisations plan and budget -  most charities just roll targets over year on year which doesn’t allow for significant changes. We need to be thinking about longer term growth, testing new channels and developing new necessary skills.

I believe there is a risk that the sector is being left open to the potential of more disruption from players who might come in with a digital-first model.

Where do you think Save the Children has made progress?

I don’t think we have everything right yet at Save the Children, but we are thinking across the whole organisation about how we coach staff to prioritise data as that first step to adopting an insight approach to drive growth.  Data is very powerful, but as a sector I wonder if we are utilising it as much as we could to make smart decisions.

We have also adopted more agile principles in the way we work  - focusing on putting the user first, and working collaboratively towards common goals, bringing the right skills together to deliver.

We have invested in our technology, built-up teams and developed skills – but digital is always evolving and changing so it can be difficult to stay up to date.. It’s about carving time and budgets out for a continuous learning and development approach.

What do non-digital leaders need to do now to help their organisations become more digitally enabled across fundraising, service delivery, engagement and social change?

Recognise that they don’t have all the answers, but they don’t need to either. Engage with experts and staff across the organisation who are doing the work every day. Leaders need to become the agents for empowerment and focus on removing barriers for staff to provide the right environment so they can do their best work.

Linda McBain, Simon Waldman and Deniz Hassan will both be speaking at AAW’s free event on 7th December in Moorgate, London focusing on the cultural shift that organisations should be considering to enable digital transformation.

We are now close to capacity so if you would like to join us or know more about the event, contact jane@aawpartnership.com.