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The days of a siloed approach to digital within charitable organisations and other not-for-profits are numbered.

In the modern world only the fully integrated will prosper for their cause.

The ‘digital world’ isn’t a thing anymore. It’s just ‘the world’. Show me a millennial who hasn’t voted for a reality show singer, dog (or dog stunt double) or D-list celeb while dual screening, and I’ll eat my iPhone cable.

And just as digital is now an integral part of our everyday home lives, so too should digital be an integral part of our everyday working lives.

The idea that a digital team or department should sit on its own, a separate team in a corner, trying to generate the next #nomakeupselfie success, is a soon-to-be-outdated notion.

Cancer Research Vine post

To truly understand, live and breathe digital, organisations should be nurturing an army of digital experts, across departments and disciplines. And this is particularly relevant to non-profits, where digital technology, if harnessed appropriately, could and should deliver the next step-change in social impact. 

This is one of the key messages to come out of a compelling report, written by freelance charity consultant Julie Dodd. The New Reality, based on interviews with more than 50 senior leaders and digital experts from both inside and outside the non-profit sector, reveals that true digital transformation requires a complete shift in culture and company mission. 

Interviewees, including directors from the likes of RSPB, Macmillan Cancer Support, Parkinson’s UK and Asthma UK, are clear in their assessment: The development of digital strategies within non-profits was seen as a clear sign of progress a few years ago.

But these days, this separation from the organisation’s overall mission is actually starting to “reinforce a perception that technology is just another department with its own goals, rather than an enabler for all”. 

So how do you go about breaking down the silos and driving a digital culture across an organisation?

Embed good digital practice

A cultural shift of this ilk has an impact on staff, so HR should be at the heart of this digital transformation process.

From upgrading digital capabilities across the organisation, to recruiting a digital-ready workforce and anticipating and managing an increased staff turnover, the human resources departments within non-profits are perfectly placed to drive this step-change. 

The Cystic Fibrosis Trust has seen major increases in staff collaboration, through the introduction of innovative technology.

By ensuring all applications are in the Cloud, and arming its staff with laptops, mobiles and some robotics (for people who can’t physically meet because of the infection issues with cystic fibrosis), described as a ‘Segway with a mini iPad on it’, they’ve taken transformative steps in just six months. 

Promote a test-and-learn methodology

‘Test and learn’ is a necessary tool in an organisation’s digital arsenal. Small wins can convince and reassure budget holders, and lead to greater innovation and investment in this area.

The New Reality interviewees support this, citing a proactive ‘just get on and do it’ attitude in staff as essential to facilitate true digital transformation in non-profits.

The popular ‘newsroom’ approach is a case in point. Would charities and brands such as Adidas be investing in a real-time, agile approach to content publishing today if Oreo hadn’t proven the success of the approach, thanks to its legendary (if now tediously over-adulated) ‘dunk in the dark’ tweet during the 2013 Super Bowl blackout?

Share ownership 

Digital directors are crucial cogs in this transformation, and should be nurturing digital capability across their respective organisations. The good news? The New Reality findings show that they’re already doing this in many instances.

According to Amanda Neylon, head of digital at Macmillan Cancer Support: 

We picked an area of focus and spent a lot of time on training staff on social media. We’ve trained nearly two-thirds of the organisation in social now, so instead of having three people in the social media team, we’ve effectively got 1,000! To support that we’ve also put social media in as part of staff objectives and job specs.

Better still, the research shows digital directors are showcasing good digital practice by actively devolving ownership of digital skills to everyone across their organisations, to the point where they themselves are becoming surplus to requirements.

Luke Surry, head of digital at RSPB, states:

I would love for the digital team not to be needed because it’s just a part of how everyone works. We’ve quite a way to go before we get there.

If charities can start to adopt this approach, digital will become less of a job description, more of a way of working. Or to put it another way, courtesy of Kay Boycott, CEO of Asthma UK: “Having a digital strategy will soon seem as ridiculous as having an electricity strategy.”

If you're looking for help with Digital Transformation in your organisation or need to find information on the subject, then you should check out Econsultancy's various reports on the subject as well as our digital transformation services page and talk to to the team about how we can help.

Gina Roughan

Published 17 June, 2015 by Gina Roughan

Gina Roughan is editorial director at digital agency Zone. You can follow her on Twitter or connect via LinkedIn.

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