The importance of digital transformation of nonprofit organizations has grown significantly over the last decade, but it has been accelerated since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. The measures of social distancing led to the necessity of flexibility and urgent adaptation of the NGOs to digitalization in a very short period and to start working remotely. For organizations not already well established on their way on a digital-first journey, this has forced a significant emergency digital transformation, previously unplanned.
When the countries first went into lockdown, it was a significant test to small and medium organizations, in terms of their capabilities, to adjust to remote work and everyday digital functioning. For those who had previously established digital initiatives and policies as part of a wider transformation strategy, the effects were lessened. For others, it was an evidential challenge and everyday struggle to get into the right course of remote work.
When I first started to talk to my colleagues about the importance of digital transformation of the nonprofit sector, not only NGOs, but also public institutions such as governments, municipalities, museums, schools, etc., they were acknowledging the need, but not as something should be done immediately because we can still function as we do right now. The COVID-19 pandemic has forced the conversation to the here and now, and not necessarily on a timeline that the organizations would have chosen on their own.
Digital Transformation Strategy
As nonprofits started implementing emergency social distancing measures and closed offices, this has required even field staff to work from home. This is where the need for a digital transformation strategy comes in.
The best digital transformation strategy depends on a set of characteristics specific to the sector, including meeting the needs of key stakeholders. There are three main stakeholder groups that nonprofits need to take into consideration, which are beneficiaries, employees, and donors. Due to the specific characteristics of the organization, such as size, funds, the number of employees, and the field they work in, the needs of the stakeholders can vary, based on which the NGOs’ digital transformation strategy should be developed and implemented accordingly. Going digital properly entails a personalized approach that will ensure impact for each of the stakeholders involved.
The process of creating a digital transformation strategy starts with extensive analysis and answering essential questions such as the what, why, how, and who. And as digital transformation by definition is holistic and requires integration and collaboration, developing the strategy is a process of building bridges between the current state and desired long-term plan. Digital transformation means that there will be an integration of modern information and communication technologies in every level of the organization, which transforms the organization’s management, operation, outcomes, and deliverables, and its overall social impact.
Challenges in digital adoption
As I already mentioned before, almost all NGOs have used digital technology for years in various forms, but many of these organizations have struggled to go digital due to lack of resources, funds, the nature of the field they work in, or various other reasons. Operating within these constraints means that staff often need to go into local offices to access reliable power, computers, printers, and the internet. In many cases, these challenges mean that fieldwork is required, and sometimes the categories of the beneficiaries the organization works with are requiring direct face-to-face meetings. There are many organizations where the staff lack digital skills. These challenges that NGOs are facing make the transfer from analog to digital more difficult.
These challenges have meant that in many areas, the kind of routine access to digital technology many people take for granted, is seen as expensive and unfunctional. But digital transformation helps the resiliency of these roles as well, even if that cannot be done completely online. For example, an organization that has gone through a digital transformation and is enabled to work remotely can better focus its limited supply of personal protective equipment on those essential field staff who have the greatest risk and need.
Recommendations for implementing the digital transformation
Many NGOs are now opting for going digital as the benefits and advantages of such a revolution are very promising. However, some organizations may experience challenges, as mentioned before, in developing a stronghold on this transition of technology. How can we overcome such difficulties? What are the right ways of implementing our digital transformation strategy?
NGOs themselves can take active steps to prevent the situation and make an emergency digital transformation successful. NGOs’ leaders must address these focus areas to effectively amplify their organization’s use of digital technologies and carry out their mission in the uncertain environment:
- “Impact First” leadership. Prioritize efforts of delivering the most value to the mission over lower-impact, niche use cases. Invest in and use digital technologies that are proven to be effective and efficient. It brings your organization closer to people. Finding the right digital technologies is a must as it will ease the way for you to reach the right beneficiaries and relevant stakeholders who are willing to interact with your organization. Why leverage this kind of digital technology? The common answers are to build value and improve efficiency. You need to prioritize strategies empowering all these digital technologies. You need to know what their uses could be, understand their functions, and take advantage of the big data and information you collate. Doing so can boost the quality of the services your organization offers as well as work productivity.
- Empower staff to use digital tools. Enable and motivate employees to effectively operate in new digital organizational models and use digital tools to increase impact. The organizational culture will always resist new digital disruption and technology. However, gradually encouraging staff and volunteers to adopt the benefits and advantages of digital technologies can allow the entire community of workers and even beneficiaries to adjust to the new technology. The organization will operate effectively if this evolution of technology is supported rather than rejected or completely ignored.
- Ensure that digital leaders are included in the project development and operational planning. Be flexible as a leader in order to get support from the staff. It is very easy to get caught up in stressful situations and demanding workloads. But you must have a good team and support from each member so you can get the work done and ensure quality in all of your projects.
- Hire competitive talents that will fit the current skill requirements. Before the era of remote working, hiring a new member in the organization was not easy, due to limited finances. Now you can hire a competent freelancer, only for the tasks and projects that you need him/her for. That is how you will combine competitive skills and talents throughout the organization. The digital revolution foresees a flexible and enhanced digital vision, which you can put to advantageous use. You may opt to use this digital vision in hiring employees from all other departments, and thus matching the right people with the right jobs would be much accurate and better in the long run.
- Intentionally co-create a new way of working in collaboration with a representative and inclusive sampling of the workers who will use the new tools and techniques. You can host a contest of a brainstorming competition that will help provide effective solutions. The organization may give small grants for the IT candidates to come up with solutions for your anticipated problems that you are trying to solve. Challenge them to “hack” and present their ideas by pitching them in the most creative and convincing ways. This not only provides you with valuable solutions but also points out the best candidates for you to hire.
- Develop Strategic Partnerships. Build strategic partnerships to respond, recover and rebuild using digital opportunities. Accommodate the needs of the beneficiaries and the target groups your organization is working with when creating digital strategies. Now it is easier than ever to connect with similar organizations as yours in order to work together on a project of the same interest. Not only with the NGOs, but you can also develop strategic partnerships with the governments, public institutions, businesses, social enterprises so you can implement projects, user-friendly applications, and websites, as a strong foundation to drive in beneficiaries’ attention, allowing them to accept the technology more easily and interact with your organization with loyalty. The role of nonprofit and for-profit sector partnerships has shifted during the pandemic and the growth of digitalization. Traditionally, NGOs have benefitted from corporate partnerships in several ways, including increased funding, greater marketing exposure, shared resources, and the ability to attract new volunteers. Recognizing that many nonprofit organizations are lacking in their digital capabilities, several technology companies have started to offer free services for a limited time to help them survive in the current environment
- Go beyond headquarters and ensure effective ongoing conversations with field staff about their digital capacities, needs, and challenges. Keep communication open between IT & other departments. Digital transformation involves the entire company. Therefore, active communication between all departments must be kept open in order to easily disseminate information if there are problems within the system. This digital strategy is simple and self-evident, but still many NGO leaders overlook this strategy in digital transformation. The whole company is a team in itself, thus communicating is both a need and a responsibility. Try to find ways the fieldwork, that initially seems to be impossible to get digitalized, to make it possible.
- Explore solving common digital challenges with other similar mission-focused organizations. In many cases, developing a shared platform may allow more scalable solutions at a lower cost to be deployed more quickly. Seek advice from organizations that have successfully implemented digital transformation. Ask them how did they do it, so you can get valuable answers and professional advice from those firms that have successfully implemented their digital transformation. They have been there and done that, therefore they know better. Seeking help from successful individuals or businesses may also allow you to obtain further strategies on how to take the whole process to a higher level.
- Develop user-friendly digital systems. A digital system is built to support and perform daily tasks and functions that machines could do to dwindle down the struggles of the human workforce. It also allows you to get better results in a shorter time. Make sure that digital systems meet certain qualifications so they are user-friendly. In other words, ensure that the purpose of having digital technology is justified. The systems should be efficient, easy to navigate, easy to install and remove, easy to operate, without the need for third-party software, effective in handling errors, and should abide by set standards.
- Risk reduction must go hand-in-hand with innovation, especially in a crisis. An emergency can create incentives to ignore principles of security, privacy, responsible data, and good design just as those things are needed the most. Security is often considered important but usually is not taken as a priority. This could lead to breaches in the system. Cloud and data analytics can be very useful in performing many tasks for the entire business. Analytics should not be set aside, since can extract patterns and witness trends from big data inputted into the system. Collecting countless meaningful data together, and having them organized and analyzed by a computing system, can bring your organization to higher levels of success. It will be useful if you design your own digital transformation platforms. Nevertheless, new technologies have been released and continually offer improvements. Measuring user impact metrics, ROI, and other meaningful interactions and transactions and use them to make technology better. Make sure that the technology you implement is user-friendly as this moves people to use it and it will be easily accepted in the workplace.
- Develop Digital Fundraising Strategy. Find a way how to reach donors more effectively, enable seamless donations and sustain donor loyalty. Over the last few years, the nonprofit sector has seen significant growth in online donations, which have increased at a much faster rate than overall fundraising. Online fundraising has become table stakes in the industry. Although most organizations have set up basic portals for online donations, there is an opportunity to take advantage of the growth in giving across less conventional online channels, such as dedicated apps and social media platforms on both smartphones and tablet devices. Online donations also enable nonprofits to execute other fundraising strategies, such as recurring monthly donations. This fundraising tactic is favorable to organizations as it provides a predictable revenue stream and enables them to plan for the future. To receive the donations required to continue spreading their missions, nonprofit organizations should develop an online strategy aimed to increase donor loyalty and reach donors on their preferred channels. A large portion of NGOs’ revenues relies on large events or in-person fundraisers. These events also enable other revenue channels such as sponsorship and other donations. Nonprofit organizations need to develop meaningful virtual fundraising and community-building events as the nature of these events will likely change to respond to donor behaviors. This investment will help nonprofits to ensure they receive enough funds to deliver their mission.
The digital transformation has to be done properly, and the time is NOW
Every NGOs’ digital transformation will look different depending on the specific characteristics of the organization such as digital maturity, organization field of work, capacity, and revenue. However, developing a digital transformation strategy embedded in the organization’s strategic priorities is imperative to the success of the organization. Technology will continue to change the way organizations operate and rigid decisions will become costly and unsustainable. Organizations that embrace digital change will survive the current financial difficulties and find new ways to carry out their mission that accelerate impact and results.