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?

QUESTION

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?

IDEAS

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.):

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

RESOURCES

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

Wanted: More Amazing Organizations (only the focused and passionate need apply)

We are not really Charity:Water fanboys. It may look that way given that this is the second post in a row highlighting them in some fashion. Perhaps it seems Charity:Water is able to operate on a plane or in a way that provides few transferable lessons for other nonprofits. Or maybe it is because Charity:Water isn’t an advocacy organization like most we work with so their experience doesn’t provide learning opportunities.

But damn. Their new September campaign (don’t go there yet…haven’t linked to it for a reason) and the context in which we came across it today shouts out as a teachable moment about the power of focus, passion and having a simple call to action.

Earlier today for reasons totally unrelated to this post we were looking at the home pages websites run by some of America’s leading conservation organizations. Great organizations doing vast amounts of positive work around the US and internationally. We know leaders and staff of many of them. Some are current or past clients.

We invite you to click the links below. They will open in new tabs or windows. Check out the homepage of some or all and gather a quick impression of what they’re working on, what’s moving them and their members and what their passion is RIGHT NOW. Go on…

Checked them out? Great.

Now, head to Charity:Water. Look at what’s there and perhaps watch a video (yeah…you’ll figure out which one). We’ll wait a minute. When you come back we’ll discuss. Continue reading “Wanted: More Amazing Organizations (only the focused and passionate need apply)”

Priority Inbox and learning to love creating relevant email

Gmail - Priority InboxA bit has been written here and there about Gmail’s Priority Inbox. In online terms, the feature is hardly new, having been unveiled in August, 2010.

For a while now, email marketers have been discussing the value of segmentation, relevance and only sending subscribers what they want. Word to the Wise, which blogs on email deliverability issues, recently had a great quote on the “perfect” email:

The perfect email is no longer measured in how perfectly correct the technology is. The perfect email is now measured by how perfect it is for the recipient.

Nonprofits have largely steered clear of the conversation. But Priority Inbox and other systems are entering your recipient’s inboxes and may radically change the way subscribers interact with your messages.

As inbox placement becomes increasingly complicated (going way beyond a reverse chronological list) with spam filters and both automated and manual “priority” filters largely driven by relevance, organizations can’t assume that delivered email is being shown to the recipient.

Gmail Priority Inbox and other options
Gmail Priority Inbox and other options are becoming more visible to users - and more likely to be used. Click image for larger version.

Continue reading “Priority Inbox and learning to love creating relevant email”

Slow Action: Engagement with Intention

Slow Food International’s website has a quote from Carlo Petrini, Slow Food founder and president, at the top of the homepage that does a great job summing up what the movement is about:

“Slow Food unites the pleasure of food with responsibility, sustainability and harmony with nature.”

Tortoise and the Hare sculpture in Copley Square, Boston. Photo by Leo Reynolds, Flickr.
Tortoise and the Hare sculpture in Copley Square, Boston. Photo by Leo Reynolds, Flickr.
Set aside the “food” part for a minute and let’s talk about “slow.” I know, nobody wants to deal with slow. In our culture – and organizations – slow seems counter to progress. And progress, moving forward and change is what we want. Most often, change needs to happen now. Or tomorrow. Or at least by that key deadline for donations at the end of the month.

Take a look at our communications with constituents. Emails are action alerts. We strive to create a sense of urgency. There is so much “noise” out there that we presume that if the tone isn’t critical, dire and needing action today then we’ll be ignored.

There is nothing slow about what we’re doing. In fact, we can be so frantic that constituents can’t keep track of who we are and what we’re doing.

What’s missing is not so much the “slow” but rather engagement and intention. Campaigns roll out quickly, perhaps even unexpectedly from the view of the member.

One concept at the base of slow food is “oneness.” A deep understanding of food issues – and agriculture, nutrition and humane eating – is fostered over time by establishing relationships with other people, recipes, animals and the meals themselves.

What’s often missing is an intentional plan and commitment to helping people create relationships with issues – and with other people in and around the issue – over time. Immediate needs and critical issues are not sustainable over time. Relationships – deeply felt bonds – can be held onto and built upon.

Perhaps we need to up our expectations: both what we hope for the time and investment that people will make in our issues AND the level of guidance and support that we provide to constituents.

In most organizations we can’t have personal engagement plans for each and every person that comes through the door (or the inbox) but we can create general guidelines and strategies to implement them. Maybe we say that 50% of new subscribers will take a second action within 45 days (and while that may not seem impressive it would be a big reach in most organizations). Then we need to measure for that and create, assess and adjust our tactics to meet that goal.

This might be a start. We could create similar plans for Facebook and other social network constituents – and I would argue that those networks need clear goals, plans and resources to move fans to action-taking contributors to issues.

Engagement and relationships are a process. The tortoise didn’t beat the hare with quick action but through intention and commitment to a plan. If organizations are going to be good stewards of their goals, issues and donor resources then there needs to be a commitment to strategic intention that builds and deepens relationships over time.

The Missed Beat in Social Media

Photo by Flickr user Franco Bouly.
It’s tough to engage now in a serious conversation about successfully running a nonprofit without social media playing a central role in the discussion, but at some point it will be so deeply embedded in our thinking and workflows that we won’t be talking about it as a distinct subject anymore. But even the best of the folks figuring out to effectively use social media strategies in building great nonprofits and advancing mission-based work mostly seem to miss a critical beat, and the worrisome part of that for me is the risk that this missed beat stays missing even as social media thinking becomes more deeply embedded in our work.

The most simplistic conversations start with an exhortation: if you aren’t doing social media you have to start right away! The sophisticated conversations at least start a few steps back, pointing out the importance of setting clear goals, being strategic in which social media tools you use and how you use them, and having a strong evaluation tool so you can figure out how well it’s working and make adjustments along the way.

Even those discussions, however, often miss what an even more critical step, namely having a clear understanding of the point of using the social media in the first place (an issue that Jon Stahl, Gideon Rosenblatt, and my BrightPlus3 colleague Ted Fickes bantered about in the comments section of a recent blog post: “The Engagement Pyramid’s Missing Step“). ‘Engagement’ doesn’t mean much unless it’s tied to both a clear goal and a clear understanding of what’s required to accomplish that goal.

It sounds so obvious, but most nonprofit discussions of social media strategy and technique seem to hint at this obliquely (at best) or overlook it altogether.