Thinking about Digital Strategy and Teams

I’ve had several conversations the past few weeks about digital strategy and teams in nonprofits and media startups. They all come back to culture, teams, fundraising and the idea of digital-first organizations. Fascinating and fun topics but curious to be seeing this pop up now. Seems like the nonprofit community hasn’t talked much about digital teams recently – or not as much as five or ten years ago.

Then a great question popped up on the Progressive Exchange email list. Basically, how do we structure our digital team as we grow and evolve. People wrestling with this. It’s a huge issue impacting strategy, funding, leadership, vision and more. I threw together some ideas and resources on the question. How are you answering (or asking) the question these days?


We have a few staff who work on some aspect of digital but it’s not centralized so we lack in strategy and structure.

How do other nonprofits successfully structure digital teams. Are these teams stand-alone or are they housed under other departments? If housed in another department, which department makes the most sense?


Digital is in every role in the organization, not just a few people easily pulled into a single team. Everyone and every role can, will, needs to understand digital works.

What that means, for example, is that today digital tools/communications gives people a computer in the palm of their hand. It empowers them to be super organizers (P2P texting), fundraisers (P2P fundraising / online donations), lead their own campaigns (volunteers that lead parts of your network) and take on new roles (citizen journalism, citizen science, blogging, sharing on social media, etc.).

This changes everything about the role of the organization, its staff, and which assets of the group are valuable.

In practice, this looks different at different organizations.

Digital first leadership

What often matters most in a successful transformation is digital-first leadership. That could be an executive director who comes straight out of digital campaigning, organizing, or fundraising. Someone who gets networks, iteration, engagement, people power…can speak tech or at least not get lost in the jargon.

But in reality most execs are there to raise money, inspire, manage, set a big vision and give everyone else the tools to implement it. So a director doesn’t need to be steeped in digital so much as aware/supportive and know what to hire for while being able to let people do the work they were hired to do.

This is, in part, why you’ll see “digital director” roles. Where it works is where this role is someone with a meaningful guidance position. Access to and input on high level org, program, organizing, fundraising strategy. And some responsibility for managing digital leadership within teams. It’s going to depend on overall structure in an org. There is no one size fits all solution.

Do you need a digital department?

Where it seems most likely to get messy is when there is a digital department that sits next to a fundraising department, an organizing department, a tech department, an HR department, etc. (or teams). Then you get into questions/debates about what’s digital?

Fundraising and organizing are very digital. Tech is digital. Things quickly become turfy, siloed, easily contentious. Meanwhile you’re struggling to put the interests/needs of the audience/members/supporters first.

I have some other notes on the sort of membership and engagement strategy organizations could/should aim for if they really want to empower people to create change and sustain relationships with a “digital first” organization. But that’s for another day.

Depending on timeline and resources, it could be super helpful to talk to people building / running digital strategy and teams in digital first organizations – groups that started online or groups that have been making a transition to digital first.

Some ideas of who to talk to (not all inclusive – just some orgs I know well, know how they approach digital, know leadership, know they’ve been through digital transition, have seen in action recently, etc.):

Greenpeace UK
Australian Youth Climate Coalition
Global Zero
Rainforest Action Network
Common Cause
The Washington Bus


Nowhere near an all-inclusive list. Just what comes to mind first. All help thinking about digital teams though some are more focused on org strategy.

Digital Teams Report (2018)
NetChange Consulting

What makes nonprofit digital teams successful today? (article based on Digital Teams Report)
Jason Mogus & Austen Levihn-Coon, Stanford Social Innovation Review

Digital is a Strategy, Not Just Random Tactics (2018)
Ryann Miller, Charity Village

Understanding Digital Strategy (2018)
Harvard Business Review, 30 minute HBR podcast interview w/ Sunil Gupta, business professor and author of Driving Digital Strategy

Developing a Strategy for the Digital World (2018)
Harvard Business Review, Interview w/ Sunil Gupta

The Digital Plan (2018)
The Digital Plan book project is led by Brad Schenk who helped transform digital strategy/team at Rainforest Action Network.

Five models of digital teams (2017)
Jason Mogus, NetChange Consulting

Detangling Digital (2018)
Sam Dorman and Chris Zezza, Mobilisation Lab

Becoming a Digital First Organization (2016)
Alice Hendricks & Misty McLaughlin, NTEN

What Digital Really Means (2015)
Karel Dörner and David Edelman, McKinsey

Product teams: The next wave of digital for NGOs? (2015)
Sam Dorman, Mobilisation Lab

How to Build a High-Performing Digital Team (2013)
Perry Hewitt, Harvard Business Review

Five Dysfunctions of a Digital Team (2011…but still useful)
Jason Mogus, Michael Silberman & Christopher Roy, Stanford Social Innovation Review

Don’t phone in your social + weekly wrap

Busy week so we’re going to wrap it by kinda sorta phoning it in. And there’s the theme for the main story here.

Puppy on the phone. Don't they have earbuds or something for dogs?Earlier this week I received an email of the “take action/write congress now” nature about an issue that to me seemed pretty intense, important and, well, worthy of stepping up and clicking that button to write my Congresswoman. All in all it was pretty well written and compelling.

A couple things struck me as odd.

The PS was a call to join the organization on Facebook and Twitter. The links went to the general Facebook wall and Twitter page. If taking a shot at clouding an advocacy action with a social media call to action then make the landing page relevant to the action at hand.

There should be one clear call to action and one clear goal in your message. If one clicks the Facebook link she’s not coming back to the email, especially if the content on Facebook at that moment has nothing to do with the issue.

At this point, folks, people know about Facebook, know your organization has a Facebook page, and they know how to find it and follow your organization. Why distract from your message with a confusing call to the obvious?

Focus. Drive towards a goal-oriented conversion or don’t bother. Don’t phone it in.

Second, the message was “signed” by the organization and not a person. Perhaps this has little or no impact on the number of respondents but it sends a message that there aren’t actual people there writing these messages, staying on top of the issue…someone that could tell me personally what the hell is happening. People connect with people. Not organizations.

Wrapping up the week

Some smart thinking on the Intertubes this week:

Punk views on social media writes about the brand army. A lot of smart organizations look to identify some of their most active social media followers and give them tools to spread the word. Many others just sorta hope that will happen. Instead, look at social media following as the start of the engagement process. Empower and enable everyone there to get involved, spread the word and speak on your behalf. Create an army.

Get a digital product manager for your nonprofit. WHAT? Daniel Atwood ran digital at the impressive Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans Association for several years. He notes that digital has changed the nature of how many people view the role of nonprofit organizations. Increasingly,  folks want tools to make change directly. Heard of Nonprofits know what’s going on in their field and are often creating tools for change. Why not think of these as products for people, not just staff?

Digital teams need to get a handle on how they position themselves in the organization if they want to stop underperforming. That’s part of the message from Jason Mogus over at Communicopia, a firm that’s been putting forth a ton of smart thinking lately about digital teams. Fact is most digital staff really need to build their leadership skills and take charge of their team’s destiny. It won’t be easy but is imperative for the team success (and the organization’s).