Digital is a strategy, not just random tactics

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Here’s my supposition: we’re thinking about digital all wrong. First off, there’s rarely consensus when we do try to think about what digital actually is. Secondly we usually think about it as tactics, which just limits the potential for whatever it is you want to do - from a one-time campaign to a five-year strategic plan. Thirdly, most charities and nonprofits I come into contact with aren’t thinking about the ways that that digital is changing the way we work. At Xlerate Toronto in November, I’m going to explore what this means and what we can do about it both immediately and long term.

Let’s dive in with the question: what do we mean when we talk about digital these days?

Because we all know it seems to mean something bigger than it used to. And it means different things to different people. We need to actually ask this question in our workplaces every once in a while.

Some truths about digital:

  • It might have started off in your organization as a tactic or number of tactics, or just under one department, but it needs a bigger strategy now. Or will soon. Or should soon. Digital includes comms, fundraising, technology, and increasingly, operations and processes (both internal and client/user-facing). Anything else this large and unwieldy should be thought through, and more to the point; be thoughtful.
  • Digital is amorphous. And as it relates to marketing/comms and fundraising, sometimes it makes more sense to have it separated out as its own team, other times it makes more sense to embed it.
  • When digital is understood as a strategy, it can amplify impact across many areas of an organization.
  • Digital might start as something to do, but if you want to be digital-first, digital will become something you are. I know, I know: #deepthoughts.

I’ve been talking to organizations for about two years about digital. Here are some things I’ve learned:

  • Trying to define digital is the fastest way to silence a room.
  • Everyone thinks their organization has a solid handle on where digital fits into their organization, until they start to talk about it. Then it gets messy.
  • Digital tactics aren’t connected up into the bigger picture strategy (be that fundraising, comms, or ideally both).
  • Decision makers don’t know what to do with digital, which sometimes leads to inertia due to intimidation or uncertainty. They usually don’t know how to hire for it, nor know how to create an environment for a digital-first culture to thrive.

It’s a sorry state in the social profit/nonprofit sector right now.

So then what is digital exactly? And how can you at your organization define it in order to use it / be it / slay at it?

Key takeaway: Set time aside with the strategic thinkers and decision makers within your organization to actually define it. Is it about the tech? Or how you engage with your constituents / the consumer experience? Or how you deliver services? Or how your organization operates and functions, including the culture? Trick question - it’s all those things. Seriously, when an organization invites digital to the grownups table, those categories (tech, constituent experience, service delivery, operations and culture) tend to really help get a lay of the proverbial land.

Try to get alignment for what digital means for your organization within a framework that includes your organizational vision, goals and objectives. That alignment needs to include the language and terms you use as well as the strategic stuff. That internal alignment is critical.

To be fair, you’ll also need help from leadership. Even if they don’t know the destination, which is scary, they need to support the idea of map-creation, and support everyone who creates the map together.

Digital is a strategic enterprise

We’ve spent almost 30 years now thinking about digital as a tactical enterprise. Layer in email but don’t have an actual strategy for email other than ‘grow the list’ or ‘keep the list engaged’. Be on the social platforms but rarely ask which platforms or tools will best serve the goals of your campaign. Meanwhile other core functions within the organization have a strategy that drives the tactical executions.

It’s time to think strategically about digital, which you’ll be able to do once you have internal alignment. It’s time to invite digital, which has been at the kids’ table for its entire existence, to the grownup table. Give it a seat and a voice.

Key takeaway: Once you have a foundation for what it is and how to talk about it and think about it, build it into the main organizational strategy. This can mean many things, depending on what guiding documents you already have or are working on, like your plan for the year, your larger strategic plan, and/or your 5 year plan. Maybe it’s including a digital plan into your existing departmental annual strategic document. Maybe it’s writing a larger strategy with a new digital-friendly or centric POV in mind. This depends on what you already have. The point is: digital needs to be included.

Questions you’ll want to ask: why are we doing this (both top level, and how the campaign goal ties up into it)? Who are we doing this for (audience)? Make clear how digital strategy supports the overall org strategy by:

  • Articulating the short- and the long-term goals for the digital strategy
  • Defining what success looks like: KPIs, success metrics, analysis/analytics/reporting

Why this matters: no strategy, no program. No program, not enough dedicated staff, goals or KPIs. No goals or ways to measure success, no smart tests to use as a case study to show the ED or board. And the longer digital remains in the realm of tactical-only - or the last part of campaign planning, the less digital’s potential can be understood. When your most senior level digital person is at the manager level, it’s much harder to talk strategically with the ED or board. The conversations, the questions, just never happen.

I see this squeeze happening: at the bottom end, we’re using digital more and more in tactical ways: as part of campaigns or programs, to help deliver services, to find new audiences, to leverage our organizations’ strengths, to speak to our constituents where they are. We’re using social platforms, email, mobile, texting, we’re integrating online and offline in smarter ways etc... And on the other end, digital is truly disrupting the way we work because digital is a way to think, not just a way to communicate. It’s not just a channel or four, it’s a discipline that intersects all the channels.

Digital is changing how we work

That squeeze is a question: “how do we address this? And do so in a way that adds value to our organization?”. My answer might surprise you: taking a good look at your internal culture, including everything from talent (job descriptions, hiring, retention, employee happiness) to internal structures (how roles are structured, decision-making autonomy, agility) to leadership. It’s not that leaders have to have the answers, it’s that they need to be curious, inspire curiosity, and empower their team to seek out the answers.

These are, more or less, the core characteristics of a digital-first culture:

  • Supporter/consumer-centric
  • Transparent
  • Collaborative
  • Empowered
  • Data-driven
  • Agile / iterative
  • Innovative

How close or far do those feel from the characteristics of your organization? Are those words you use?

To be honest, the culture stuff is a big topic in and of itself, and I can’t do it real justice here. I’m fascinated by it, and recognize how easy it is to talk about but how hard it is to actually change in real life. I hope this is enough to spark your curiosity and FYI I’ll talk much more about this at my Xlerate Toronto session.

Conclusion

We’re starting to see terms used in the business world and wonder how they might apply to us in the social profit / nonprofit sector: digital transformation, digital disruption, digital maturity, digital-first. I’m here to say that these lofty ideas aren’t beyond us. That often the smaller organizations have an easier time implementing this stuff. That some focused attention and some ongoing thoughtfulness can go a long way. A few more thoughts to wrap this all up: 1) You can’t skip over the fundamentals. You can’t not have a digital strategy, a living document that situates your organization, telling yourselves where you are now and where you aim to go, and that articulates digital’s strategic role within your organization as well as the tactics that tie up into the strategy. 2) Digital creates value and once it’s understood as a strategic enterprise and is realized in the everyday work of the team, that value will become much more evident. 3) If you really want to mature, digitally, you’ll have to think about culture, leadership and talent. Digital-first/mature organizations prioritize those things because they clearly affect the goals and objectives of organizations.

I’ve talked about these ideas at a few conferences in 2018, and I’m excited to bring them to Xlerate Day Toronto on November 2nd 2018. As a co-creator of Xlerate, one of the main reasons I dreamed of such a conference was to have a home to talk about what digital means and looks like within the social profit sector. Now that some organizations are trying to be digital-first, it’s only more important.

Here’s a framework that tries to show digital maturity on a continuum

If you asked me to use one characteristic to sum up what it takes to get from where you are now to digital maturity, I’d tell you the word is curiosity.

I think you’re curious because you’ve read this article. Is your organization curious? Let me know what you think either in the comments, or by reaching me at ryann.miller@grassriots.com, or see you at Xlerate Day Toronto!

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