Nonprofit Hero Zoe Amar is widely regarded as one of the charity sector’s leading digital experts. She founded digital agency and social enterprise Zoe Amar Digital in 2013. Read her interview here.
Nonprofit Heroes is our series of interviews with industry experts, successfully proven fundraisers, and nonprofit heroes with stories and tips to inspire your charity to use technology to your advantage and do good, better.
Let’s start with some background information – who are you, and what do you do?
My name is Zoe Amar and I run a social enterprise and digital agency, Zoe Amar Digital, which helps charities and other nonprofits lead digital change successfully. We’ve worked with everyone from The King’s Fund to Breast Cancer Care to Anglia Ruskin University. I’m also Chair of The Charity Digital Code of Practice (more about that later!).
I co-founded the Social CEOs awards and co-authored The Charity Commission’s digital guidance for trustees, ‘Making Digital Work.’ I’m also co-author of the annual barometer of where the charity sector is at with digital, The Charity Digital Skills Report.
I’m also a trustee for Future Care Capital and sits on the Board Audit and Risk Sub-Committee at the Samaritans as their digital expert. Last year I was lucky enough to win an Inspiring Communicator Award from Charitycomms.
In addition I have two small children so life is pretty busy!
What was your first job?
My very first job when I left university was teaching English in a secondary school. It was a brilliant and really fun role. I still use a lot of the same skills now as I run a lot of workshops and speak at plenty of conferences. That job taught me the value of communicating well and how it is a lifetime’s work.
How did you get into the charity sector?
In a very roundabout way. I’d always been interested in charities (I remember vividly joining Amnesty when I was 12) and I always wanted to do a job where I made a difference. I left teaching as I had a burning urge to go to law school, so I trained and qualified as a lawyer but after practising for a while I was keen to do something where I was helping more people.
I’d done pro bono work with a legal charity for a few years by that point and I thought the sector might be the place for me. So I quit my job and found a placement with a national charity through the Reach Volunteering Scheme, which matches professionals with charities. After I’d been at the charity for a few weeks they offered me a job as their first Head of Marketing.
Tell us about Zoe Amar Communications and your journey there so far
After having my second child I wanted to do something more flexible so I founded my agency.
Starting a business when you have a toddler and a baby is really hard, but we celebrate our 5th anniversary this summer and have grown to be a team of 11.
We’ve advised hundreds of charities and I’m really proud of the feedback we get from clients. We do huge amounts of thought leadership work and pro bono (we spent 10% of our billable time on the latter last year).
This year we took the decision to become a social enterprise. We’ve developed a digital leadership framework which we use with clients to track our social impact, using what we learn to fine tune our content and our services so we can help more charities.
You're involved in developing The Charity Digital Code of Practice. What is that project about?
The Charity Digital Code of Practice came about as a number of reports had shown over the last few years that the charity sector is falling behind in digital. So Office for Civil Society, DCMS’ Digital Enterprise Delivery Taskforce, the Charity Commission, CAST, Tech Trust, ACEVO, NCVO, and Small Charities Coalition as well as other organisations have come together to develop a framework for success. It’s been funded by Lloyds Banking Group and the Co-op Foundation.
By using the Code, charities can use digital to increase their impact, develop skills and improve their sustainability. I’m chairing this project and am really excited about it. We have just opened our Consultation on the draft Code so please do get involved and tell us what you think of it.
What are the biggest digital leadership challenges that charities face right now?
Leadership. I am seeing some great digital projects by charities and lots of really talented digital managers rising through the ranks. But not all organisations have a CEO or trustees who really get it yet, and are willing to provide leadership in this area. That’s why the Code has been developed.
If you could change one thing to improve anything in the way charities communicate, what (or who) would you change, and how?
Everything needs to be based around how our beneficiaries and other supporters want to communicate, not what we think is best. What channels do they use (both on and offline), what content would engage them and how do we measure success?
How do you think digital leadership in charities will change in the years to come?
It will become more of a priority, from getting the right people into the right roles to training existing leaders. Parkinson’s UK are such a great example of a charity who have a CEO (Steve Ford), a Chair (Mark Goodridge) and a Director of Digital Transformation (Julie Dodd) who are united in a joint vision of what digital can help their charity accomplish. That’s really powerful and makes it much easier for your staff to get behind.
Do any tech innovations come to mind that has made your life easier and saved you time or money?
In and outside of work I am very dependant on my iPhone! It’s not an especially high tech piece of kit but I use it to manage my communications, organise my diary and find out information.
My favourite apps are: Evernote to write notes on the move which I sync with my laptop, Headspace (for meditation), Twitter (I’m an addict) and Shazam (I love finding new music.)
A few quickfire questions:
- Your Desert Island disc, if you had to choose one?
I still love ‘Leftism’ by Leftfield.
- PC or a Mac?
PC. I know….
- The most used app on your smartphone?
WhatsApp. I am in too many groups!
Finally - do you have a nonprofit hero or heroine? If so, who and why?
I am a huge fan of Polly Neate, CEO of Shelter. She is very digitally savvy, whip smart, and looks out for other women in the sector. We have some amazing female leaders in our sector and we need to celebrate them more!
Thanks Zoe for being our nonprofit hero!