Charity Finance Banking Survey 2024

The questionnaire is now open for responses. Share your views by 28th February to receive a free copy of the published survey report and one lucky person will also win a £100 John Lewis voucher.


Zoe Amar: How charity leaders can win at digital

22 Nov 2019 Voices

Zoe Amar looks at what it takes to be an excellent digital leader in 2019.  

If you know a charity leader with a sore head today, it may be because they were celebrating at the Social CEOs awards. Our winners were announced yesterday evening at a special event at Launch22.

The charity leaders who triumphed this year represent organisations from small charities to household names, showing how digital excellence isn’t just about who has got the biggest budget. The class of 2019 are using digital to champion their causes, show how their charities are making a difference and build relationships with everyone from donors to beneficiaries to funders. 

The leaders who excel at this are being creative about how they get their messages across and aren’t afraid to speak out. They are willing to take risks, be visible and are courageous about trying new things. 

All these achievements are even more impressive as we know from the launch of our recent trolling report that some CEOs have experienced shocking online abuse. 

Here are the key lessons we can all learn from this year’s winners. We hope this will lead to more charity leaders being bold, strategic and imaginative in how they use digital.

Be a challenging voice

The award for overall winner of the top CEOs went to Polly Neate, CEO of Shelter. She was unanimously selected by the judging panel for this award, who praised her inspirational and forceful style. Neate’s ‘tell it like it is’ approach makes people stop and think. She breaks down the complex world of housing into valuable, bite-sized insights. Neate is unafraid to call out those she doesn’t agree with, reminding them why the needs of the people her charity help are so important. 

Neate’s colleagues report that her example has encouraged her charity to use more storytelling and push boundaries on social media. She also uses Instagram to share snapshots of her life as a CEO, from Shelter charity shop finds to events she is speaking at. 

Be yourself 

Jon Arnold, CEO of Tiny Tickers, which helps babies with serious heart conditions, was commended by the judges for how he represents his charity’s work with conviction and confidence. 

Arnold talks about the issues which affect those who his charity supports sensitively and with compassion. He also discusses his connection to the cause. A small charity with a CEO who has lived experience is a powerful combination on social media, helping the organisation garner valuable attention and attract like minded supporters. I was so moved by what Jon said when I first came across him on Twitter a few years ago that I donated to his charity soon after. 


The multichannel, multimedia CEO

Continuing a theme we saw last year, CEOs are thinking about how they can share plenty of rich content on Twitter, as well as extending their presences out to other platforms. Our judges were impressed by Rob Murray, CEO of Cancer Support Scotland, and how he uses GIFS and images to give his digital presence personality, with a vibrant and fun feel. 


Both on Twitter and Instagram Rob talks about his other work as Scouts Scotland Commissioner for Community Impact. This gives his digital presence depth and shows his interests outside of work. 

A well-chosen image can put both the CEO’s digital presence and their charity on the map. Louise Macdonald, CEO of Young Scot, tweeted this image of Greta Thunberg, which gained 59.4k retweets. It’s emotive, topical and draws attention to her charity’s cause. 


Don’t hide your beliefs and values

Karen Pollock, CEO of the Holocaust Educational Trust, was praised by the judges for leading with her values front and centre on Twitter. This can be challenging in the current divisive climate online. Charity leaders who are undeterred in the face of trolling will inspire others to stand for what they believe in. 


The sector needs more visible trustees

The average charity trustee is 60-62, whilst 64 per cent are male and 92 per cent are white. If we are to attract more diverse, younger trustees then we need to encourage trustees from all backgrounds to bang the drum for their charities, and to talk about what they have learned. 

Dana Kohava Segal, chair of Emergency Exit Arts, and winner of the Best Trustee on Social Media, is a great example of a trustee who tweets with huge pride about her charity. 

People first, not digital first

The winner of the best Digital CEO, Helen O'Donnell of Children’s University, was selected because of how she is helping lead her charity through a time of transition. 

Historically, Children’s University has run a paper-based programme to encourage, measure and recognise children’s participation in learning beyond the classroom. Under Helen’s leadership the charity has launched a new digital platform which aims to reach 30,000 children and increase its social impact. Helen’s passion for digital and data has enthused and empowered her team. She has convinced “tech-sceptic stake-holders” to see the potential of digital, and worked closely with them and other colleagues on the culture shift and change management critical to its success.  

This speaks to how digital leaders must model the behaviour they want to see across their charities. The winner of Best Digital Leader, Emily Casson, digital marketing manager at Cats Protection, has pioneered an approach at her charity to test and learn from new digital channels. Since 2018 this has led to 21,000 new leads being generated, with 24,800 new regular givers acquired that year. Her colleagues praised her for inspiring them to "think big, start small, scale quickly". 

Where next? 

This year’s winners show how digital has taken root in the sector and how ambitious, passionate leaders are running with it and helping their charities embrace it as part of their mission. We hope that next year’s winners continue to show how charity leaders can transform the world we live in through big ideas, strong values and true grit. 

To see the winners and get more resources to help charity leaders with social media see 

For more news, interviews, opinion and analysis about charities and the voluntary sector sign up to receive the Civil Society News daily bulletin here

More on