Successful Digital Transformation in A Nonprofit Starts with Its People

what is digital transformation

What is digital transformation?

The term digital transformation can mean different things to different people. Depending on your role and focus area, your objectives and processes will differ greatly. To a communications director, it might mean having a website and social media channels. To an IT director, it might mean moving from on-premises to cloud-based software and infrastructure. To an administrator, it may mean shifting away from paper or excel and towards a more dynamic, less manual tool and process. Often, it’s easy to think that digital transformation is all about technology, or is driven by technology. But the truth of it is that digital transformation covers a much broader spectrum with people at the heart of it. Specific parameters will be unique in each organization, but the core desire underlying a digital transformation journey is to enable tools and people to interact in ways that enable them to do more, more effectively.

“Digital transformation is a journey, not a destination. Every organization’s starting point is different and each organization will experience digital transformation uniquely. But it’s always less about technology and much more about people, culture, vision, and the capacity building required to effect the desired change.”

~ Erik Arnold, Global CTO – Tech for Social Impact, Microsoft Philanthropies

As you can see from Erik Arnold’s quote above, digital transformation is about so much more than technology itself.  While technology can be a tool or the catalyst, digital transformation is even more so about people and processes.

What does digital transformation look like in a nonprofit?

At Heller, we are working every day with clients who are undertaking digital transformation, or rather undertaking one or more pieces of their digital transformation journey. Some examples from our recent client work include:

  • A large regional food bank is moving from paper volunteer forms to an online intake and digital check-in process for onsite to volunteers
  • A national health-based nonprofit is transitioning from multiple disconnected databases of donors and volunteers to a single CRM
  • An international student mobilization organization is moving from mass emails to highly personalized, relevant and targeted email and SMS communications
  • A hospital foundation is moving to new digital fundraising tools to provide a more engaging experience for event participants and donors
  • A regional art college is moving to a centralized classroom scheduling tool to support more effective resource allocation based on real-time numbers and key requirements

When done right, each of these initiatives has the potential to be truly transformative, not just for the nonprofit, but for its constituents. Digital transformation is not a one-size fits all change initiative and each organization must forge its own path through the digital landscape based on its priorities and its constituent needs.

Why people need to be at the heart of nonprofit digital transformation

As in the first example above, many of our food bank clients are in the process of transforming their volunteer operations from paper forms and phone calls to a self-service online experience. A digital volunteer management solution ensures that volunteers are able to sign up for the specific shift(s) they want, make changes, and be quickly notified about their particular shift through automated email or text messages. What used to take multiple human touchpoints can now be accomplished more efficiently and at the volunteer’s convenience as a result of digital transformation.

Replacing a paper-based process is, however, not as simple as “digitizing” the forms themselves. What works in a paper process doesn’t always translate to a digital process. A paper form requires humans to gather the responses and manually enter the data into a system. A digital form needs automation. That means the questions themselves might need to change, and the response options will almost surely need to be updated to allow for digital processing, using criteria-based rules. The staff who are responsible for managing the volunteers have to adapt to new processes of understanding the registrants’ data and adopt new ways of engaging with their volunteers in this new world.

More importantly, simply replicating a paper form in a digital form tool doesn’t often result in an intuitive user experience. What makes sense on a single piece of paper doesn’t always makes sense in an online experience.

This is why people need to be at the heart of any digital transformation. Each transition will be unique and will impact the end users in a distinct way. That’s why at Heller, we recommend starting with the constituent experience in mind.  Start by asking yourself – what do you want the overall experience to be like for the volunteer who is applying, signing up for a shift, changing a shift, or learning about a change in location? Starting with the constituent in mind also helps break down internal silos that can be significant barriers to digital transformation within the organization.

Change management is critical

It’s easy to see that moving a process from “analog” to digital will impact processes and people, but it is also apparent that it’s not as easy as simple substitution of data media. The transition requires change management, which is all about ensuring people have the support they need to make a successful transition. In an organization’s digital transformation, those impacted could be internal, external, or both and you need to think about all aspects of the processes that will impact people involved to manage the change. If you launch a new volunteer portal for sign up and your staff struggle with the data they receive and volunteers find it cumbersome to use, neither are likely to adopt it, and the transformation will fail as a result.

“Change management is the process, tools and techniques to manage the people side of change to achieve the required business results.”

~ Prosci

Here at Heller, we think about people first. We build change management into our work at every stage of your digital transformation journey. If you are looking at undertaking specific digital transformation and want to talk about how Heller’s change management experts might be able to help, please contact us. If you’re curious to learn more, check out how we brought our change management knowledge and expertise to the NetHope community in Puerto Rico.

About the Authors

Jeffrey Appell
Jeffrey began working with nonprofits in 1997. Starting out as an intern at the San Francisco chapter of the Anti-Defamation League he went on to be a Development Associate at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco and then at... Read More
Catherine Moore
Catherine has served the nonprofit sector for over 20 years, defining and guiding the strategic pathway for technology, marketing, and fundraising at the Canadian Cancer Society and others. She is skilled at understanding and addressing the human concerns that arise... Read More
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