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Zoe Amar

However exciting your plans are for digital chance are you won’t be able to execute them without the support and guidance of your leadership team. Louise Macdonald OBE, CEO of Young Scot, and Simon Hopkins, CEO of Turn2Us told us what they’ve learned about digital leadership, from why charities need to do it, how they’ve developed their skills in this area and the risks as well we opportunities they’ve encountered along the way.



  • Understand how getting to grips with digital will help you and your charity. Think about what you need to learn- would a course, a mentor or spending time with colleagues in digital help you?
  • Remember that digital leaders are made, not born. Just when you get on top of another concept another will come along. Continuous learning, testing and improving is key
  • Enjoy it. Digital represents many exciting opportunities. Embrace the chance to learn and help your charity become sustainable for the future


  • Why digital leadership is not an optional part of being a CEO (Harvard Business Review)
  • 7 questions for CEO about digital transformation (McKinsey)
  • How to be a digital leader (Forbes)

For Macdonald, the benefits of digital are clear, as it gives her a direct line to, ‘meaningful conversations with young people across the country. As well as being able to share opportunities and listen to their concerns and ideas, I get to highlight the fabulous work and the positive impact young people make to Scotland.’ 

Hopkins feels that the case for going digital is simple: ‘It’s essential that we understand the possibilities it presents for the simple reason that it’s increasingly the preferred choice for most people in how they go about their daily life.’ And this needs to be considered across every possible touchpoint with stakeholders, whether it’s ‘accessing helpful information and services online or via their phone,’ or ‘raising money or growing advocacy,’ charities must ’remember that we have to make it as convenient and non-bureaucratic as possible to support us.’ Hopkins believes that ‘digital channels add choice and, assuming we believe that accessible choice is about empowering people and putting them in control of their own situation, isn’t that part of our essential ethos as a sector?’


‘"If you are not online then you are invisible – so you need to ask yourself if that is okay. The good news is the financial barriers to getting online are now pretty low and online tools have made the process easier than ever."

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Image of Simon Hopkins
image of louise macdonald

With its new ways of thinking, behaving and operating, digital is changing the way charity leaders work Louise Macdonald OBE and Simon Hopkins shared their views and experience on digital leadership.


Macdonald thinks that digital offers massive potential to democratise information, pointing out that ‘search engines are becoming more localised and personal with the information they provide.  There are huge benefits for smaller organisation to reach the right people at a time when their services will offer the most impact and search engines can help you to do that. We’ve embraced a similar approach at Young Scot through our local information hubs on and we are keen to expand on this content in the future.’ 

As Hopkins says, digital has already changed the way we all work, from the use of social media to ramp up campaign activities to something as simple and ubiquitous as a “Donate” button on a website, and the ability to donate immediately and conveniently by text.  However he thinks that as a sector we are still at the start of our journey with digital. ‘I think we are only scratching the surface of using digital to personalise the help we offer to those we exist to serve, ‘he says. ‘We should constantly be asking ourselves the questions: how can we use digital assets to make our wider systems of help easier to use? How can we use digital solutions to lessen the stress of getting support from people who are already vulnerable? 

Simply put, Macdonald thinks that charity leaders have a choice... 


Macdonald is a firm believer that charity leaders must learn from their audience and, in particular, end users. ‘In our case, young people told us that they expect us to be digital first but remain inclusive,’ she points out. Leaders need to look at the tools their audience is using as much as behaviours: ‘Like any service development process, it starts with working with users, asking the right questions and being ready to act on the answers together.’ As part of this Young Scot have adopted a multi-platform approach to digital, going where young people spend their time online, and producing innovative content so that the charity can share information and opportunities in an agile way.

Hopkins encourages leaders to get learning: ‘I don’t think there’s any substitute for making sure you have strong digital evangelists in your network. Sometimes you just have to surround yourself with the right people and have a real sense of curiosity.’ As well as attending the
Third Sector Digital Leaders programme he asked ‘lots and lots of questions’ then tested out his ideas on people he trusted to give an honest opinion. One of main things he learned was that, ‘You just have to be brave and run the risk of getting a few things wrong – no one ever learned anything by keeping their head down.’

This is a journey which will involve many unknowns and Macdonald wants leaders to enjoy it. ‘The rule book has been scanned, digitised, compressed, copied and then dumped in the recycle bin, ‘she counsels. ‘You are in space where you can experiment and use technology to get closer to the people that matter to you than ever before – as leader if you embrace this is will take you and your organisation to exciting new places.’

Louise Macdonald OBE - Young Scot


For Hopkins this involves nothing less than a seismic shift in the way that charities support their beneficiaries. ‘For many people, all the help they need to get back on their feet is out there. It’s just that it’s fragmented.’ He asks, ‘How different would it look if all – or most – of the help they need was revealed the first time they ask for help, irrespective of where they reach out first? Digital can help us change this. We should have the guts to try it.’

Macdonald feels that, as well as joint campaigns, digital has opened up new ways of collaborating for charities. Young Scot listens to the young people they work with, ‘using co-design models, “open” engagement channels and ensuring they are at the heart of everything we do.’


Hopkins thinks leaders should consider how they can use digital to scale. ‘In 2014 we agreed a new strategy that was unashamedly digital-first, ‘he says. ‘This was partly to allow us to help as many people as possible in a way that is truly financially sustainable – the help we give is, sadly, going to be needed in the long term so we have to be able to make the pledge that we are in this for the long run.’ At Turn2Us Hopkins and his team focus on developing services that are, ‘unashamedly digital – greater personalisation, online access to grant applications, webchat and so forth.’

Having invested time and efforts in digital, Macdonald is pleased to see this paying off: ‘I’m really excited about how we can continue to harness the smart technology of the Young Scot National Entitlement Card to offer new solutions to tackle inequality. With around two thirds of all young people holding a card we have a critical mass that we can use to deliver interventions and assistance to help young people to flourish. And our new digital platforms are delivering some incredible results around campaign delivery and engagement via social channels, so seeing where that goes next is a thrill.’


Leading has always involved taking people with you and digital hasn’t changed that; it simply offers news ways to do it.  Macdonald finds that, ‘As leader I am always asking and giving the space for our wonderful staff to be bold in their approach. Evolving your services and offer can mean being brave and prepared to try new things – but in terms of digital, it is better to approach it as a “people” process, not a “tech” one: the people you serve and how you support your own people to deliver in the best way possible. Then look at how digital supports all part of that.’

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