The State of Digital Leadership in the not-for-profit sector

2015 Report

Another year has passed and the results of this year’s The state Of Digital Leadership in the not-for-profit sector survey are in. Overall, the survey shows a slightly more positive picture than the year before, but a change still too slow to catch up with the challenges and opportunities of today’s market.

While the results of the survey demonstrate that many charities are making some level of investment in Digital and digital roles, there are still some which have no Digital Leads in their organisation.

This could be the consequence of the attitudes towards Digital described in the latest Lloyds UK Digital Index report:

“…over half of all charities do not believe that having a website would help increase their funding and nearly 70% state the same about social media. With the number of charities with basic digital skills falling, in contrast with UK […] market trends, attitudes are of key concern.”

Digital Leads offer charities their best chance of enabling – and sustaining – an urgent and necessary digital transformation. The current slow pace of investment in the existing Digital Leads – to help them influence upwards and guide their organisation through the process of digital transformation – is a concern. With every year that passes without investment in Digital Leads, charities move closer to a point where they will have to make an even more significant (and therefore more painful) leap to change or face a slow death.

In a recent speech, the outgoing Cisco CEO, John Chambers, warned companies that if they don’t change now, they will die in five years time.

“Companies fail because they keep doing the right thing too long,” said Chambers at the annual Cisco Live conference in San Diego. “Disrupt or be disrupted.”

This message has been present in the commercial sector for decades and we have seen some household names (e.g. Kodak) disappearing because they didn’t keep up with the rise of increasingly digital lifestyle and its impact on markets. Charities have escaped this fate for some years but they will not be able to delay the process of making their operations digital for much longer due to the pressures of the market where more personalised and real-time communications are becoming the norm.

Both private and public sectors are growing digital customer services with great success. They are responding and anticipating people’s expectations by trying to fit into lifestyles and needs by focusing their whole businesses on customer experience and customer behaviour. People expect this approach from every brand they communicate to in the digital space. When this doesn’t happen, it impacts on their experience of and loyalty to that brand – whether this is government, company or a charity.

Survey results

The State of Digital Leadership in the Not-for-Profit sector 2015 survey was conducted in April 2015 and had 63 respondents, balanced evenly between small, medium and large charities (more so than in 2014 when the proportion of large charities – income more than 40 million – was over 40%).

In order to provide a snapshot of Digital Leadership in not-for-profit organisations, the survey focuses on four key components of a digital strategy. It asks about:

  • Digital structure and leadership: What digital roles have organisations have invested in and where they sit in the organisational hierarchy; is there a Digital Lead in the organisation responsible for digital strategy?
  • Digital planning: How integrated digital teams are in the organisation-wide planning?
  • Evaluation: How digital operations are evaluated; whether the organisational hierarchy is aware of the contribution digital operations make towards achieving organisational objectives?
  • Systems: How far digital teams are involved in discussions around data flow and data management (given that this question is usually at the heart of the productivity of most not-for-profit organisations).

The full results of the survey are available in the survey PDF available here..

Digital activity does not bring about transformation

Digital teams remain polarised between ‘one-man bands’ and large teams of five or more. This probably reflects the bias of the sample towards very small or very large charities.

The sample has relatively few teams of two, three of four digital specialists. What’s concerning, is that there are still charities with no digital team at all. In these cases the responsibility for Digital is simply an add-on to the existing responsibilities of a communications manager.

This lack of prioritisation of digital communications and activity has also been captured in the Lloyds Digital Index 2015 report:

“The overall limited progress in obtaining skills, particularly among charities, perhaps reflects the fact that there is no increase in the amount of investment organisations are making to develop their skills, with more than 75% investing no money at all.”

Social media roles remain the most popular activity or channel-based role, while the presence of a strategic Head of Digital or Digital Director role is on the same level as in last year’s survey. This reflects the fact that for a few years now there has been much excitement about social media both at the top and grassroots levels of organisations but little planned transformational thinking aligning Digital to the organisation’s ambition, strategies and goals.

The number of people with responsibility for digital communications other than within digital teams has grown this year, indicative of charities’ understanding of the importance of ‘mainstreaming Digital’ or a ‘hub and spoke’ team structure’.

While ‘mainstreaming of Digital’ is a good direction of travel, it works best with clear strategic leadership on Digital where strategy and processes are held and managed from. When this is happening in an organisation there is a senior digital role who owns and develops these processes and ways of working. Alternatively (or at the same time) there is a developed planning and business processes where Digital is present from the very beginning (‘Digital first approach’).

Mainstream Digital too soon and you will not mainstream at all.

The recently published ‘The New Reality’ report puts an interesting challenge to charity and digital leadership: “In the New Reality, your CEO is your Head of Digital.”

This feels like the right vision, but we all know that in order to get to this new reality, charities, their SMTs and Trustees will need senior Digital Leaders to help guide them towards it. For some charities this will be possible to achieve in two to three years as ‘The New Reality’ suggests, for others it will take longer.

With so little in a way of senior digital roles as this survey suggests, the destination where the CEO is an organisation’s Head of Digital seems a very long way away.

The good news: digital influence is on the rise

involved-in-planning-2015While the number of strategic digital roles is currently not growing, the influence route, is definitely in the ascendant. There is a demonstrable shift towards the inclusion of Digital within planning processes (45% versus 25% last year). And many more Digital Leads and teams are also now working at both a strategic and operational level around campaigns (40% versus 23% last year). Digital influence is on the rise.

This is the highlight of this year’s survey, an encouraging trend that can help deliver consistency of a charity’s message and brand. It also shows that charities are starting to make the most of the resources and talent they have.

To benefit from this positive change, charities also need to invest more in Digital Leadership as only then they will be able to turn digital influence into financial and social impact. Only a purposeful, planned digital transformation will ensure that resources and inputs on Digital (including from external experts, consultants and agencies) is assimilated and effectively encoded into the way the organisation works.

Do charities know the value of Digital?

The survey findings on how Digital is reported and evaluated in non-profit organisations show an unchanged picture from last year. Digital is still not making any breakthrough to the top table of non-profit strategic planning and the contribution of Digital to overall strategy is deemed to be “patchy” by almost 60 per cent of respondents.

Similarly, when it comes to metrics, Digital is tending to report on non-financial, process-based metrics like email clicks and opens or engagement measures like social media likes or followers, rather than by its contribution to income or donor retention for example.

Metrics that get closer to financial outcomes like the percentage of new supporters from Digital, or web-conversion rates or volumes are generally less reported on. Likewise supporter experience indicators like multi-action takers are rarely reported on – most likely due to the complexity of data management to get closer to the 360 view of a supporter.

This picture could be symptomatic of a number of things:

  • the weak overall evaluation of activities at an organisational level
  • lack of digital strategy which shows how Digital supports organisational objectives
  • lack of integration and supporter centric communications which means that teams still mainly operate and evaluate success in their own silos
  • challenging data processing (collecting data from different sources) which makes cross-organisational reporting difficult

Many organisations will have these challenges but they shouldn’t be a barrier to establishing a baseline (as imperfect as it will be) and working to improve the internal data processes to enable better evaluation.

What is needed to help accelerate the process of digital transformation?

Many organisations feel that they don’t have the skills in their midst to help them lead digital transformation, that they lack funds to employ the right talent.

In reality many non-profits do have digital talent in their organisation who know people, the internal processes and the culture of the organisation. With the right support to help them develop further their digital skills, but more importantly, their influencing and leadership skills, organisations would benefit from the institutional knowledge and commitment to the cause of their Digital Leads.

Digital Leads need support in building digital strategy (as a part of the organisational strategy), in developing influencing skills to ‘sell’ and implement that strategy with the rest of the organisation as well as leadership skills to help them build and manage their team and/or other people in the organisation with responsibility for Digital.

The executive and governing bodies of not-for-profits need to start thinking strategically about Digital, beyond Twitter followers and the corporate website. Developing the understanding of transformational nature of Digital is something they should invest their time in by talking to their Digital Leads and other experts in this area. By doing this they will be able to work with their Digital Lead to jointly take the organisation into the process of digital transformation.

While a lot of professional development can be achieved through peer to peer exchange, training and seminars, the best way to build confidence is to practice by doing and learning from mistakes. Often senior managers fear that junior staff will say something inappropriate (being unaware of the politics on the top level of an organisation) thus keeping them from high-level discussions, choosing to represent digital knowledge themselves or not at all. That way organisations are continuously losing the knowledge, insight and experience that Digital Leads could bring to the table.


This second annual snapshot, the State of Digital Leadership survey, is one of many reports which seeks to understand the digital maturity of charities. It identifies some positive, but spasmodic, progress on digital action, and increasing levels of digital influence. But no substantive or concert- ed progress on Digital Leadership, leading to reliable and sustainable transformation and so, ultimately, to social and financial impact.

The opportunity for charities now is to take a good analytical look at their existing tactical investments in Digital, and use these as strategic assets in transformation. This doesn’t just mean their datasets, technology platforms and agency partners; it means, most of all – their people.

The most cost-effective, and resilient way to change is from within. Their aim should be to empower Digital Leads as individuals inside charities, to look beyond their current focus on delivery or digital knowledge set and recognise their own potential as change agents and leaders.

At the same time Digital Leads inside charities need to step up, skill up, and “suit up“ and to take on the mandate as Digital Leaders. Complaining that “management doesn’t get it” will not accelerate the slow pace of change many want to see.

July 2015

I hope you enjoyed reading this report and found it useful or thought-provoking. If you would like to contribute your thoughts on the topic of Digital Leadership or this report please go to and comment on the blog post there. Alternatively please get in touch with Brani on any of the channels below:


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