The health of teams working on digital strategy, platforms, and tools at nonprofits has long been an indicator of their adoption of or resistance to wider trends around innovation and impact. Over the years, we’ve observed that nonprofits are significantly more effective when their digital team plays a strong leadership role in organizational management and campaigns. We’ve also observed that organizations that structure their digital teams like the web itself—distributing power to create multiple centers of open innovation most organizations—tend to achieve better digital program performance.

Last fall, we asked 80 advocacy-oriented nonprofits about the state of their digital teams and programs today. Responses to our 38-question, online survey—the third we’ve conducted—came from the senior-most person responsible for digital at groups based in the United States, Canada, Australia, and the United Kingdom. Forty percent of respondents were from small organizations with fewer than 20 staff, 39 percent from mid-size or large organizations with 21-200 staff, and 16 percent from very large organizations with 200-plus staff.

The study revealed that having digital leaders in senior management, shaping new campaigns and initiatives, and distributing digital skills throughout departments are indeed characteristic of today’s most successful digital teams.

What’s the state of nonprofit digital teams today?

First the bad news: Most nonprofits are struggling mightily with how to structure their digital programs. Our report found that three-quarters of digital teams have been re-structured within the last three years—and almost a third more than once. Yet only 11 percent said the way their organization manages digital is highly effective. Half of respondents reported that their structures work “somewhat well,” leaving an unfortunate 41 percent stuck with internal structures that create significant problems or simply don’t work. That’s a lot of painful change leading to uncertain results.

Diversity and inclusion is another sore spot. While a majority of respondents’ organizations now prioritize diversity in hiring and campaigning, 59 percent of digital teams reported that less than 25 percent of their team is comprised of people of color or LGBTQ people, and 34 percent have less than 10 percent diverse staff. This hardly reflects the makeup of the communities most of these organizations aim to engage and mobilize.

And despite all the buzz about engagement—the practice of involving supporters more meaningfully in advocacy work beyond petitions or donations—one-way broadcast campaigns continue to dominate the way nonprofits campaign. In fact, 43 percent of respondents reported having no staff dedicated to engagement; 75 percent do not consistently track supporter engagement metrics; and 64 percent have a budget incapable of achieving their engagement goals. If we pursue what we value, these numbers show the sector doesn’t yet value engagement by putting sufficient staff or financial resources into it. Nonprofits are leaving significant impact on the table as a result.

But now the good news: Digital continues to drive growth in nonprofits of all sizes, with 70 percent of teams growing over the past three years. Organizations are distributing new digital roles across multiple departments, something for which we have long advocated as a way of creating a “leaderful” culture of innovation. Digital teams are breaking out of the silo of communications departments, with 60 percent fewer teams now reporting here, reflecting a shifting understanding of the value digital adds. In fact, compared to three years ago, 44 percent more teams now report directly to the executive director.

We were also pleasantly surprised that a full 85 percent of respondents are now asking supporters to take real-world actions at least once a year—a proven way to make campaigning work more successful. A majority of organizations—51 percent—now offer offline actions monthly. They are also embracing new innovation frameworks, with 47 percent adopting the “lean startup” approach of “failing fast” and data-driven decision-making, and 30 percent adopting a “product management” approach that dedicates a highly skilled leader or team whose sole responsibility is to manage complex software and other complicated technology platforms.

The characteristics of high-performing digital programs

Nonprofits succeeding at digital have some common characteristics others can emulate. Our report revealed that effective digital programs have three common characteristics:

  • Digital expertise at the senior management level
  • Digital leaders involved in decision-making on new campaigns
  • A hybrid or intentionally independent digital team structure

All of these highly effective digital programs have someone with direct digital experience at the top level of management. Of the most effective digital teams, 50 percent lead decisions on new campaigns and initiatives, and 33 percent are involved throughout the decision-making process. Unfortunately, the practice of empowering digital teams is far from standard. Almost half of the organizations we surveyed either merely consult their digital teams on new initiatives or inform them of decisions after others have made a plan.

Since our first report in 2011, nonprofit leaders have been trying to figure out how digital should fit into their existing organizational hierarchies. This year’s data shows that while an equal amount of teams are structured in the centralized (one department serves all digital needs) and hybrid (digital skills are distributed yet led by a core team who owns strategy) models today, the most successful digital teams distribute digital responsibilities. A full 50 percent of the highest performers today use the hybrid model, with 25 percent reporting an intentionally independent structure (where two or more digital teams share digital responsibilities but in a highly collaborative environment). Centralized teams fit nicely on a command-and-control org chart, but they generally don’t fit the pace, breadth, or scale of digital opportunities today.

How to make a stronger digital program

We believe that the success of high-performing teams stems from the fact that their organizations take digital seriously as a discipline that can amplify impact across multiple areas of their organization. As a result, they benefit from the full transformative potential digital offers to reach new audiences, mobilize people, build power, and scale campaigns. In that spirit, we humbly offer four recommendations for nonprofit leaders to build stronger digital programs.

Nonprofit leaders—digital and otherwise—must make engagement more real in our organizations. Senior leadership needs to reckon with the fact that they can’t win big change without building real people power, and that engaging supporters to deliver campaign activities is a massive opportunity to multiply the force of perennially overburdened staff. Leaders also need to stop re-structuring complex digital programs and related departments on the fly. Instead, they should lead a grounded, multi-month process that starts with listening—both inside and outside the organization—and then make the bold changes necessary to remove roadblocks and unlock potential, even when those changes mean breaking apart existing fiefdoms.

Digital teams also need to make sure they are diverse and reflect the communities nonprofits aim to serve. These times demand new thinking and new forms of power building, and we won’t get there by listening to the same old voices. Finally, more digital staff should seek leadership training in management, strategy, coaching, and communications to become the kind of open digital leaders the world needs now.

Digital leaders must continue to play catalytic roles in making social change organizations more effective, adaptive, and transformative. The path is clear; we just need to take it.