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Nonprofit Management

Influence and Impact: The New Nonprofit Digital Team

A recent report examines the evolution of digital efforts at nonprofits and the challenges that lie ahead.

In my digital strategy and organizational change work at Communicopia, I consistently find that the structure and culture of an organization’s digital team, and the focus of the individuals who work in it, more directly correlates to sustainable online success than almost any other factors. Yet while organizations invest increasing resources in digital technologies and tools, they pay comparatively little attention to internal digital structures.

In 2011, we launched the world’s first research report on nonprofit digital teams, which illuminated the value of reviewing and restructuring digital programs to develop sustainable innovations and create organizational impact. We shared highlights in our Stanford Social Innovation Review article “The Seven Patterns of Nonprofit Digital Teams,” and more than 1,000 digital leaders from around the world downloaded the report.

Two years later, we sought to find out how digital programs have evolved. For our new report, launched this week, we gathered data from 88 people responsible for digital at their nonprofit. About 25 percent of respondents were from very large organizations (200-plus staff), 25 percent from large organizations (51-200), 30 percent from medium-size organizations (21-50), and 20 percent from small organizations (1-20). Half were American, 30 percent were international, and 20 percent were from my home country of Canada. A wide variety of cause areas were represented, including environment, human rights, international development, and social justice.

Here are some of the most interesting things we found:

A move from platform building to optimization

We saw a very positive maturing of digital programs and leadership across the board. Digital leaders have increased their internal influence, successfully advocated for more resources, and built larger and better-skilled teams.

They also have stabilized their main digital platforms (websites, social media, email)—partly due to the slowing growth of new channels and other “shiny objects” they’ve had to chase after—and are now focused on more-strategic optimization of existing channels to produce stronger outcomes. Most leaders report that their digital work is gaining more consistent attention from senior leadership—something we’ve long advocated for, as an essential part of realizing the full potential digital has to offer organizations.

These developments show how far the sector has come from the days when most digital teams were reactive, overwhelmed, and still positioned as tactical web publishing shops with little ability to shape their workflow, much less drive innovation outside their own department. It’s tremendous news.

Potential for institutional transformation

They hybrid model for managing teams is gaining acceptance.

While the “centralized” model for managing digital, where one team serves the whole institution, is still the most common, more institutions are creating more progressive, “hybrid” team structures. Hybrid teams are small and focused, and support other digital staff throughout the organization. We’ve also found that hybrid teams are much better suited to innovation, and they are now more common than centralized ones in medium-size and very large organizations.

More exciting is that almost all teams reported that they were driving transformation in their institutions’ work beyond digital, offering much needed new thinking on advocacy, fundraising, and campaigning. Forty-two percent of teams are now “expected to drive transformation” versus 28 percent in 2011.

A focus on business case and impact

Respondents running effective programs increased by 27 percent.

Besides innovation, an increasing number of today’s digital leaders are getting better at presenting a clear business case for their department’s efforts. While the return on digital investments has often been difficult to quantify, 37 percent of team leaders said that senior management believes the digital team delivers tangible value to the organization.

In terms of social impact, the majority of respondents reported running mostly effective or highly effective programs—an increase of 27 percent from our 2011 results.

While both numbers must continue to rise, this shows tremendous development over only two years.

Room for improvement on culture, people, and marketing

Despite this significant progress, most teams reported that they still don’t have the people they need to do their best work. Many still struggle with poor team structures, weak internal collaboration, and inconsistent cross-channel communications with supporters. This, along with the fact that organizational cultures are slow to adapt, continue to damper digital program success.

It is perhaps unsurprising that 40 percent of teams reported that they are under-funded. But even among well-financed teams, budgets for both research and development and supporter acquisition or advertising remain painfully small compared to equivalent averages from the corporate sector.

A “golden age” for digital?

Our 2014 report shows many positive trends in the digital field. We may well be entering a much more stable and productive time, during which we integrate digital innovation into the very fabric of our institutions.

Digital leaders need to continue to sharpen the focus on impact to continue this upward trend in staff development, resources, and influence. As a little of the shine inevitably wears off digital growth, it will be important for these leaders to demonstrate how digital is critical to the success—and the future—of our institutions. But we are well on our way.

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