March 23, 2017; Guardian
Digital technologies transform how nonprofits connect with clients and create value with their stakeholders. Digital strategies change how we in the nonprofit sector think about our mission and its role in the current marketplace of ideas and services. Most dramatically, digital technologies have exploded how nonprofits think about data and innovation.
A recent survey of nonprofits in the United Kingdom produced a rather sobering “State of the Nonprofit Sector” when it comes to digital transformation. The study found that 35 percent of the surveyed nonprofits use digital technologies but don’t have a strategic approach. An additional 12 percent are in the thinking stages of a digital strategy, with three percent still struggling to access basic tools.
Taken together, 50 percent of the charities in the study do not have a strategy focusing on their digital approach and tools. Such a strategy would outline how the nonprofit takes a comprehensive approach to using digital tools and approaches in achieving its mission. This approach is missing due to the organizations not seeing digital as a priority. Instead of digital being seen as a set of essential business skills, it is often considered only as social media or websites, according to survey responses.
There were many concerns expressed by respondents regarding slow digital transformation, such as lack of funding to acquiring more technology solutions, skills gaps seen on charity boards, worry about losing touch with stakeholders, becoming irrelevant if technology is not adopted quicker, and feeling unprepared to take advantage of online and digital fundraising. One respondent, Jamie Ward-Smith of Do-It Trust, suggested that funders should ask that grant proposals require an outline regarding how digital solutions will be used to deliver services.
While ranking themselves high on email marketing skills, the nonprofits rated themselves low on data protection and on managing and analyzing data. Lack of skills and lack of funding topped the list in being the biggest constraints. However, current processes and infrastructure rated highly as a barrier to adopting digital. One comment stated, “Money that could be spent on digital is needed elsewhere—we don’t have the spare resources to boost digital adoption.”
The survey responses indicate that the nonprofits are desperately seeking digital leadership, wanting clear visions of how digital could help them achieve more. Very few charities rated their board’s digital skills as high, with three percent rating their board as digital savvy.
Topping the consequences of this lack of digital strategy is that 84 percent of respondents say it is important to work for a charity that is making progress in this area, with 36 percent saying that they would look for a job only with a nonprofit that is farther along the digital transformation continuum.
A sampling of comments from the survey:
- “People still see digital as a website and social media, not about behaviors, skills, governance, etc., and as long as that prevails, charities will struggle. Often said but digital transformation isn’t what is needed—business transformation is, with digital at the core.”
- “I strongly believe a better understanding of the impact of digital trends is necessary for nonprofits to still be relevant in the next 5 to 10 years. Charities need to reinvent their roles and need to be aware of the impact of technologies like Internet of Things.”
And a response from a nonprofit CEO, Vicky Browning of ACEVO, to the study findings:
- “Technology is forcing all organizations to rethink the way they operate. This isn’t just a digital issue though: It’s not about smartphones, websites or social media. It’s about identifying the tools and culture needed to help the whole organization completely rethink the way it works so that it can best meet the needs and expectations of beneficiaries.”
This survey, while small and limited to the UK, has implications for nonprofits in the United States as well. It speaks volumes about the opportunities as well as the barriers facing nonprofits and the need to seize a digital agenda. According to the comments, there is an expectation that the leaders should develop the vision of where a digital strategy could take the nonprofit. For those nonprofits that lag behind, there is a good chance that finding qualified staff will become harder and harder.
The call for action for nonprofits, as a result of this study, falls into two areas:
- Plan how to upskill.
- Get started.