Current nonprofit sector research and recommendations for effective day-to-day practice from ASU faculty, staff, students, and the nonprofit and philanthropic community.
Illustration by Yuxin Qin
The reason that we begin with the question – How can nonprofits strategically implement digital tools to achieve impact? – is because our society has shifted from being a “civil society” and into a “digital civil society,” according to a report from the Stanford Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society. Technology and connecting digitally are no longer optional, and rather have become essential disciplines for every industry and nearly every person. If nonprofit organizations are going to thrive while accomplishing their missions, then transforming their systems and using ever-evolving digital tools is required in today’s world.
According to an article from the Public Administration Review, to “improve organizational performance,” nonprofit leaders should dedicate adequate money and resources to information technology .This means that each nonprofit must be technologically educated, have the needed digital infrastructure, budget for future needs, staff appropriately, and use digital analytics for highest impact. These disciplines are not what we have seen in much of the American nonprofit world, as 72% did not have a digital strategy before the coronavirus pandemic. Not surprisingly, those that did have a digital strategy have done far better. “Larger, contextual shifts” (e.g. pandemics, climate change, economic variations, and donation ups and downs) should be assumed as inevitable future dynamics.
Knowing this, nonprofit leadership must hire well in order to solidify their digital aptitude and relational commitments to stakeholders and beneficiaries, as recommended by The Bridgespan Group. Nonprofits must never forget that they are called to be active participants in the lives of people, learning stories, and, when appropriate, storytelling for further impact. In the “five p’s” of strategic nonprofit storytelling, it is said that people need connection with people, and people are drawn to help when they learn of needs, places of hopeful change, and when there is an urgency to get involved. This makes storytelling a necessity and a digital discipline.
Every nonprofit leader knows that boosting their digital tools and footprint will come with financial costs, which is why so many leaders “skimp” on technological upgrades, as stated in the journal article "Acquiring New Technology." It increases their overhead, which can make the organization look as though they are doing less for those in need, and therefore, many simply hang on to older modes of operation. According to "Grasping the Future of Digital Society," what they should be doing is selling their leaderships on the necessity of technological expenditures, at least, the ones that fit their mission and budgets. Contextual adaptation and innovation are essential leadership qualities, especially in a continuously changing world.
This is where current digital tools can strategically empower a nonprofit’s impact, according to "Nonprofit Visual Storytelling." This journal article also informed that content can now be shared globally, through pictures, videos, and the written word partnering for heartfelt connections, even converting people into “evangelists” for the overall mission. Over five billion people have mobile phones, and 81% of the U.S. population have smartphones, making it easier to connect than ever before, as noted by the Pew Research Center. Organizations can even develop their own smartphone applications, streamlining all information and invitations through one source. Emails, still a primary source of communication, can be accessed from anywhere. Websites, once a perk for technologically advanced businesses, are now “digital handshakes” and an organizational imperative for success. And, as found in Public Relations Review, social media has changed the game, offering organizations great analytics, customizable and cost-effective ways to engage, and easy processes for stakeholders to “evangelize” to their chosen digital networks, known as “friends,” “followers” or “subscribers.”
An article featured on BusinessSoftware.com highlights that new technological innovations have also benefitted internal organizational management, with software options galore. Today’s internal management software can track and categorize every donor interaction, gift, and desired style of communication, and they can manage physical and virtual events, cover all areas of fundraising, and are easy to use. It should be noted that many of these software options cost around $100 a month, but nonprofits are finding it is well worth the money, especially considering the added cybersecurity features and digital support, as reported by Double the Donation.
Chad Wheeler, the CEO of Open Door, a nonprofit working to alleviate chronic homelessness and human trafficking in my home of Lubbock, Texas, has come to use all of the previously named technologies. He claims that moving from a scattered, shotgun-style approach with digital tools and into a discerned, contextual strategy has empowered their impact exponentially. Today, Wheeler believes their organization can end chronic homelessness in Lubbock, even within the next few years, simply because digital tools have given them the ability to tell stories, reach people, and receive donations in ways never before considered.
To summarize, the world is now digital, and civil society is digitally interconnected. Nonprofits must assume this worldview, discern their contexts, educate themselves on available digital tools, and figure out how best to utilize them with stakeholders and beneficiaries. At this point, the livelihoods of countless people depend upon these efforts.
Josh Haynes is a graduate of the Master of Nonprofit Leadership and Management program at Arizona State University. Professionally, Josh is the director of community impact for Madera Residential in Lubbock, Texas. He and his wife have been married for nearly 20 years, and they have two children, a daughter and son.