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Nonprofit Management

The Seven Patterns of Nonprofit Digital Teams

What we’ve seen across all organizations, regardless of size, is that digital teams are the biggest predictor of online effectiveness.

This is the third and last post in a three part series on digital teams for nonprofits. You can download the benchmark report referenced in the article below for free.

We have been planning and building websites for social change institutions for nearly two decades, and over that time have worked with some of the most well-known social brands in the world, as well as hundreds of lesser-known groups. What we’ve seen across all organizations, regardless of size, is that digital teams—their structure, leadership, and how they are affected by the culture of the institutions where they work—are the biggest predictor of online effectiveness. Without well-structured teams, strong leadership, appropriate skills, and an aligned internal culture, you simply can’t do all the great things you want to do online, sustainably over the long term.

This summer we set out to learn more about the state of digital teams in the nonprofit sector. Finding few resources on the topic, we decided to create the world’s first digital team structure benchmark for the nonprofit sector. We did this in order to start a conversation about the importance of building better teams and the importance of investing in them.

Senior online leaders from 67 nonprofit organizations contributed to the final report. Here are seven of the most important patterns we observed:

Digital teams are communications teams.

Most digital teams live within the communications department—not surprising, since most of digital work is related to communications. Very few digital teams still report to IT. Interestingly, a small—but, we expect, growing—minority of “digital supergroups” report directly to an executive director. This can be an ideal location to lead new engagement functions, drive innovation, and lead change across silos, and we expect to see this model used more in the future.

 


Most teams need more full-time help.

Most teams are small and share responsibility for digital with others inside the organization. While the size of many teams concerns us, the collaborative model that most teams use to manage digital is healthy. One interesting finding was that mid-sized teams (6 to 10 full-time staff) have more full-time equivalent contractors than staff (an average of 8 per team). While this model offers obvious flexibility, it can also be financially inefficient and may reflect a lack of success on the part of team leaders in advocating for appropriate skilled staff.

Teams overinvest in social media and underinvest in user experience.

Social media was the most common team responsibility—not surprising, given the enormous attention paid to this field over the last five years. The next most common responsibilities were strategy, content editing, and project management. The least common were research and user-experience design. This is a concerning contrast to the make-up of many best-in-class corporate teams, which use outcome-driven models that invest heavily in both these disciplines. Many teams also appear to not value design, technical development, or analytics work, as these also ranked on the low side.

More and more are moving from reactive to proactive.

Fully 28 percent of teams describe their culture as “strategically led”, with an additional 50 percent reporting a “somewhat proactive” culture. This is important; fully 60 percent of teams are expected to always manage new initiatives, not merely act as a service desk. This reflects an important recent trend across most industries, where the digital function has evolved from a “service shop” function to more of an innovation and leadership role.

Poor structure holds them back.

Team structures are barely adequate. More than half of the online leaders we talked to report that their team structures need improvement, with an additional 15 percent reporting that a poor structure is holding back their performance. Only 32 percent say that their team structures are appropriate for the demands placed on them. We expect this last number to increase as more institutions re-structure their digital teams in the coming years.


Digital programs could have more impact.

On the whole, how effective are our digital programs? Unfortunately, 55 percent of respondents describe their programs as “somewhat effective” at serving the needs of their constituents and organization, with another 9 percent reporting they are either mostly or highly ineffective. For a sector that prides itself on innovation and impact, and where the successes of others are so easy to see, having a majority of the sector self-report lukewarm success is disheartening.

The future is brighter.

Here’s the good news: 57 percent of respondents report plans to increase their digital spending next year, with only 10 percent expecting a drop. This is significant given that overall, nonprofit budgets have flat-lined, while the importance of digital and the expectations that senior managers are placing on digital to support the entire organization are continuously increasing.

All of this research points to the fact that institutions are in transition. Some are still structured and resourced in ways that reflect the organic evolution of the web or its legacy functions (ie. publishing). Others struggle with how to balance the needs of multiple internal customers with driving new forms of technical and engagement innovation—all with teams that have not been able to keep pace with the demands placed on them. In most cases, digital is increasingly important to the overall success of the institution, yet the resources, leadership, and mandate haven’t yet emerged to fully support it.

In the coming years, digital teams likely will continue to mature and shift from reactive service, to proactive leadership and innovation hubs that drive fundamental change in how institutions operate. Many organizations will restructure and reposition their digital teams to meet the increasing internal and external expectations placed on the digital experience. And finally, team leaders will need to better make the business case for appropriate staff and funding in a resource-constrained environment. Only then will these teams receive the positioning and resources they need to be consistently effective.

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COMMENTS

  • BY Brent MacKinnon

    ON October 28, 2011 08:17 AM

    I’m very glad that Jason and Christopher decided to write on Non Profit Digital Teams. Your summary dovetails with many of my experiences of being part of or facilitating these teams. You have given me a useful framework that I can use to refine goals, tactics and strategies.

    It seems to me that there is a missing benchmark category in the 7 Patterns. A benchmark pattern that looks at how workers, teams and management, learn & collaborate together and use that learning to increase performance outcomes would be very useful pattern to include in the study. There may be pieces related to learning and collaboration in the full report so I will dive deeper into those earlier published articles. 

    I like that the future looks a bit brighter with organizations planning to increase digital spending. In the closing summary the report says - “In most cases, digital is increasingly important to the overall success of the institution, yet the resources, leadership, and mandate haven’t yet emerged to fully support it”.

    I believe that workers learning and collaborating together to meet professional and organizational goals with or without digital is the most import factor - not digital “buy in” (if that is what you mean by digital).  I think the investment in a learning & collaboration pattern will determine the overall success of the institution and as important, the success of individual worker/learners.

    Thanks for your great work Jason and Christopher.   

  • It’s truly amazing to see 57 percent of respondents planning to increase digital spend next year, in a time when any kind of spending is under huge pressure. But your point about contractors vs. full-time help would be very well taken by most digital team leaders, in the for-profit world as well as non-profit, as well as your point about over-investment in social media. Excellent job on the report.

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