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Beyond Survival: Post-Disruption Nonprofit Digital Strategy

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This is the first post in a 3-part series. Stay tuned for part 2 and part 3. 

Faced with existential crises thanks to the pandemic and the social upheaval of the past year, businesses of all stripes (nonprofits included) went into survival mode. Alarmed at how unprepared they were, they sped up their digital transformation. They scrambled to connect with donors in new and fresh ways with an updated nonprofit digital strategy. They confronted their biases and justice agendas.

Plans came off backburners. Timetables were compressed from years into months. And now, having survived, nonprofits are left wondering how to move from surviving to thriving.

2021 will be the year of transition. It will be this way for everyone, and nonprofits are not immune. Think about what changed for you, your nonprofit, and your constituencies.

These are all great adaptive strategies, but now what? 

Do you discard all the innovation and progress and go back to “normal”?


“Normal” Was a Place Where Many People Hid their Heads in the Sand

The events of the past 15 months were a windstorm that blew the sands everywhere so fiercely that there was no place left to hide. We’re now past survival mode and in what digital prophet Brian Solis calls the novel economy: a place where the old playbooks are no longer useful.

Here’s how Solis views the three phases of where we’ve been and where we’re headed:

  1. BC = Before COVID. Think back to how different things were. What was the state of the world? What was the state of your brand? What was the state of your constituent relationships? How did you demonstrate relevance and urgency then vs. now?
  2. AD = After Disruption. We need a bit of time to take a step back, evaluate what worked and didn’t work, and realize we’re not in a “new normal” but an “interim normal.” We’ve just experienced the biggest disruption in living memory. Now the only thing normal about the phase we’re in is everyone is in this same transitional space, focused on politics, new social behaviors, and the associated socioeconomics. We’re setting the stage for a post-COVID world.
  3. AC = After COVID. To adapt and thrive, says Solis, businesses and organizations must take a more profound and humanistic approach to transformation. The conversation must be reset, moving away from how do we do this to why are we going to do this and finally to how do we build from there?

3 Planning Pillars for What Happens Now and Next

Everything you do this year sets the stage for who you’ll be—how your brand will be perceived—in the years to follow. Moving from a transaction-based strategy to a transformational one is a process, one requiring dedicated and systematic focus and a team approach. Everyone must be on board.

From my perspective there are three pillars of transformation required of nonprofits that want to thrive in the post-disruption, after-COVID economy.

Those pillars are:

  1. Digital
  2. Donor experience
  3. Culture

We’ll break these down one at a time over this and two subsequent articles.

Pillar #1—No Longer Optional: Your Nonprofit Digital Strategy in 2021 and Beyond

The next phase of business evolution is upon us, and it’s digital first. Even before the pandemic hit, Solis wrote: “Digital transformation will start to become synonymous with business modernization and innovation.

His prescience was proved right when the organizations that had worked on their digital communications pre-pandemic did more than survive; they thrived.

Prioritize Digital Transformation. It’s Mission Critical.

To stay competitive in this novel economy requires new strategies and practices. 

A new survey from McKinsey finds responses to the Covid-19 pandemic sped business adoption of digital technologies by several years—and many of these changes will likely be here for the long haul. In fact, funding for digital initiatives increased more than anything else—more than increases in costs, numbers of people in technology roles, and numbers of customers.

Survey findings suggest executives are taking note: Most respondents recognize technology’s strategic importance as a critical component of the business, not just a source of cost efficiencies. More than half of respondents said they’re investing in technology for competitive advantage or refocusing their entire business around digital technology.

Once people walked toward online channels; today consumers are running towards them. 

McKinsey survey respondents were three times likelier now than before the pandemic to say at least 80% of customer interactions are digital in nature. At the organizations that experimented with digital technologies during the pandemic and among those investing more capital in digital technology than their peers, executives were twice as likely to report outsize revenue growth.

There’s no reason why the same will not hold true for social benefit sector businesses. People are people. When their experience of the world changes, they adjust their behaviors accordingly. If other nonprofits are making it easy for would-be donors to connect and you’re not, you’re going to be operating at a competitive disadvantage. This will affect your bottom line ability to deliver on your mission.

“Identify and then eliminate the obstacles standing in the way of the desired behavior.”Kurt Lewin

Digital product acceleration is trending across businesses worldwide.

Survey results suggest a seven-year increase, on average, in the rate at which companies are developing digital products and services. When respondents were asked why their organizations didn’t implement these changes before the crisis, just over half said they weren’t a top business priority.

The crisis removed this barrier. If you don’t offer what your constituents want, need, and expect, your ability to communicate and build relationships will quickly deteriorate.

Digital Transformation Action Steps

“Very soon technology will improve donor participation and retention by making it ridiculously easy to give…Technology will allow donors to do what they want to do anyway…We’re two decades into the internet era; why is it still easier to buy a book about hurricanes than help a storm’s victims? How many times do we go to online giving sites and give up?” Daniel Mansoor (see Science, technology, and design: A new framework in fundraising)

Yesterday’s best strategy may not be the best nonprofit digital strategy for today.

We’re in unusual times right now. It’s not business as usual. Thriving today requires a state of hyper-awareness and an ability to be agile. You need to test and learn quickly in order to move forward with confidence.

Here’s what you should do now.

First, do a self-audit to evaluate which nonprofit digital strategy is working for you and which are holding you back. Look at innovations from last year.

Next look at the lingering status quo. Ask yourself:

  • What did you adapt or add last year?
  • You may have thought at the time this was temporary, but take stock. Was it yielding positive results?
  • How was the ROI?
  • Could it be tweaked to be even more effective?

Next look at what you didn’t change from the BC period. Ask yourself:

  • Does your website home page look outdated or static?
  • Is your website mobile responsive?
  • Do your donation pages require multiple clicks to access?
  • Do your donation forms require the donor to complete too many fields?
  • Are you keeping up with your blog or e-newsletter?
  • Are you keeping up with your social media posts and responses?
  • Are you using text to your advantage? Video? Personalization?

If you don’t feel confident about doing this evaluation on your own, hire someone. If necessary, point your boss to the McKinsey survey showing digital strategy is a core part of business success in 2021 and beyond.

After the audit, use the tools at your disposal to build donor relationships you’ll need to achieve sustainability.

You can’t build meaningful connections with folks unless you know what matters to them. Google Analytics can help you learn what donors care about via the web pages they land on, articles they open, and links they click. A/B testing can help determine which language resonates and which does not.

Reports produced from larger outfits like M+R and NextAfter, who have access to research from hundreds and thousands of nonprofits, can also help inform your nonprofit digital strategy.

As the fundraiser, it’s imperative you work closely with marketing and IT staff to ensure you’re always working from the best and most current data.

Closing Thoughts: Time to Thrive in the Digital Age

In order to meet customers where they are, donors included, brands must go digital—and fast. The point isn’t just to digitize to become “modern” but to do so because it impacts your bottom line. More and more, philanthropic dollars are coming through and across the digital transom. It’s how donors find you, connect with you, and even how many will invest with you.

How will you meet constituent expectations and make it ridiculously easy for donors to give?

Assess the Digital Strategies You Currently Use

Here are a few questions to consider as you assess the nonprofit digital strategy you currently use:

  • What has been working best for you over the past year and what do you know about your constituents’ communication habits and preferences?
  • What do you need to do a more effective job of eliminating obstacles to engagement?
  • How are you measuring commitment and ROI?
  • How are you tracking and evaluating what works or doesn’t work?
  • Do you know your areas of strength and weakness?
  • What opportunities and threats do you see on the horizon?
  • What must you do to be competitive?
  • How can you put a plan in place—within the next month—to improve and reap the rewards?

Actively Imagine New Possibilities

What new things might make sense given what you’ve learned and are continuing to see as trends?

First consider some of the experts’ predictions about work in our digitally-revolutionized age. To stay relevant you must continue experimenting to find new ways to stay connected and engaged. Of course you won’t want to replace all in-person connections with digital connections, but how can you enhance it using digital tools? How can you create authentically human digital journeys and experiences that drive meaningful connection?

Put Data Front and Center

Digital touchpoints can be objectively tracked and evaluated in a way that’s not possible with more subjective interactions. 

Future fundraising decision-making should be rooted in data. Determine what you’ll track moving forward (e.g., website views, blog views, email and social media opens and clicks; action conversions; shares) and develop systems to make data-based strategies part and parcel of your strategic, always-developing fundraising program.

As you make new hires and consider ongoing employee development, keep in mind that data literacy skills will be foundational to every role at every level of an organization in 2021 and beyond and will critically shape who survives and thrives as leaders going forward.

Stay tuned for the second article in this three-part series: “Beyond Survival: Post-Disruption Nonprofit Donor Experience Strategy.”

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