In my digital strategy and organizational change work at Communicopia, I consistently find that the structure and culture of an organization’s digital team, and the focus of the individuals who work in it, more directly correlates to sustainable online success than almost any other factor. Yet while organizations invest increasing resources in digital technologies and tools, they pay comparatively little attention to internal digital structures.
In 2011, we launched the world’s first research report on nonprofit digital teams, which illuminated the value of reviewing and restructuring digital programs to develop sustainable innovations and create organizational impact. More than 1,000 digital leaders from around the world downloaded the report.
Two years later, we sought to find out how digital programs have evolved.
What’s new, what’s changed, and where are things going next?
For our new report just launched this week, we gathered data from 88 people responsible for digital at their nonprofit. About 25 percent of respondents were from very large organizations (200-plus staff), 25 percent from large organizations (51-200), 30 percent from medium-size organizations (21-50), and 20 percent from small organizations (1-20).
Half were American, 30 percent were international, and 20 percent from my home country of Canada. A wide variety of cause areas were represented, including environment, human rights, international development, and social justice.
The full report is available as of today free at www.DigitalTeams.org.
Here are some of the most interesting things we found.
A move from platform building to optimization
We saw a very positive maturing of digital programs and leadership across the board. Digital leaders have increased their internal influence, successfully advocated for more resources, and built larger and better-skilled teams.
They also have stabilized their main digital platforms (websites, social media, email), partly due to the slowing growth of new channels and other “shiny objects” they’ve had to chase after, and are now focused on more strategic optimization of existing channels in order to produce stronger outcomes. Most leaders report that their digital work is gaining more consistent attention from senior leadership—something we’ve long advocated for as an essential part of realizing the full potential digital has to offer organizations.
These developments show how far the sector has come from the days when most web shops were reactive, overwhelmed, and still positioned as tactical “Kinkos copy shops” with little ability to shape their workflow, much less drive innovation outside their own department. It’s tremendous news.
Potential for institutional transformation
While the “centralized” model for managing digital, where one team serves the whole institution, is still the most common, more institutions are creating more progressive “hybrid” team structures.
Hybrid teams see a small, focused team supporting other digital staff who are distributed throughout the organization, a structure we’ve found is much better suited to innovation. Hybrid teams are now more common than centralized ones in medium-size and very large organizations.
More exciting is that almost all teams reported that they were driving transformation in their institutions’ work beyond digital, offering much needed new thinking to advocacy, fundraising, and campaigning. 42 percent of teams are now “expected to drive transformation” versus 28 percent in 2011.
A focus on business case and impact
Besides innovation, an increasing number of today’s digital leaders are getting better at presenting a clear business case for their department’s efforts; While the return on digital investments has often been difficult to quantify, 37 percent of team leaders say that senior management believes the digital team now delivers tangible value to the organization.
In terms of social impact, the majority of respondents reported running mostly or highly effective programs—an increase of 27% from our 2011 results.
While both numbers must continue to rise, this shows tremendous development over only two years.
Room for improvement on culture, people, and marketing
Despite this significant progress, most teams reported that they still don’t have the people they need to do their best work Many still struggle with poor team structures, weak internal collaboration, and inconsistent cross-channel communications with supporters. This, along with organizational cultures that are slow to adapt, continue to damper digital program success.
It is perhaps unsurprising that 40 percent of teams reported that they are under-funded, but even among well-financed teams, budgets for both research and development and supporter acquisition or advertising remain painfully small when compared to equivalent averages from the corporate sector.
A golden age for digital?
Our 2014 report shows many positive trends in the digital field. We may well be entering a much more stable and productive time, during which we integrate digital innovation into the very fabric of our institutions.
Digital leaders need to continue to sharpen the focus on impact to continue this upward trend in staff development, resources, and influence. As a little of the shine inevitably wears off digital growth, it will be important for these leaders to demonstrate how digital is critical to the success—and the future—of our institutions. But we are well on our way.
This article was originally published in the Stanford Social Innovation Review. You can download the full report at DigitalTeams.org. You can also follow the authour Jason Mogus on twitter @mogusmoves.