Beth Kanter: Non-profits need to take more risks if they're ever going to progress

Digital is not a tick-box exercise, writes our guest columnist - you need a strategy to make it work for you

Beth Kanter

I was in the UK recently to deliver workshops to non-profits and social enterprises. My visit included a dinner with a number of people in the sector from organisations including the Small Charities Coalition, Comic Relief, Marie Curie and the Good Things Foundation to discuss digital transformation.

We kicked things off with how much the world had changed in the past year since the elections in both our countries and the impact of connectivity. We also talked about the next generation of disruptive technologies, such as bots, bitcoin, virtual reality, artificial intelligence, even self-driving cars, and the implications these will have for non-profits. Now, more than ever, it is imperative that non-profits continue to leverage the power of connectivity for social good through innovative approaches and solid strategies.

But none of this is new. Yes, technology is growing at a rapid pace and platforms and the environment are continually evolving, but the missions of non-profits remain the same. Every organisation should have a strategy that sets out how it will achieve its mission; we now have an additional layer – digital.

Whether your non-profit has a turnover of £100,000 or £100m, you must have a strategy that encompasses how digital can help you achieve your goals. You can’t simply ignore the change. When it comes to digital, think about where you want to sit in terms of being an early adopter, taking a moderate approach or being a laggard (professional tip – you don’t want to be a laggard!).

The good news is that whether you’re an early adopter or taking a moderate approach, there is no right or wrong place to be on the spectrum. Being an early adopter can bring big rewards, but there are also big risks, so you need to assess what level of risk and reward is right for your organisation.

Too many non-profits think that having a website and a Facebook page means they’ve ticked the digital box. Digital is not a tick-box exercise; it’s about understanding the needs of your audience and the needs of your non-profit and seeing how digital can meet or service those needs.

At the other end of the spectrum, there are charities that chase after a "shiny object", the latest and greatest technology platform. But without a strategy, this can be a distraction and a waste of resources.

As Mandy Johnson, chief executive of the Small Charities Coalition, said: "Digital is about embracing solutions to challenges we are facing, so it absolutely starts with identifying those problems. It is about thinking about the challenges that we are facing collectively through digital technology."

Now, many reading this will be thinking this doesn’t apply to them because their non-profit is tiny – but that is where you are wrong. The beauty of technology is how accessible it is to everyone. Take the example of the Climate Reality Proect, which built a Facebook chatbot to meet a need. The chatbot is designed to educate supporters and build the number of people who sign up for action alerts. It’s a simple bot, using close-ended options to funnel supporters to different options on the lower rungs of the ladder of engagement.

The task of capturing email addresses from Facebook is completely automated and available around the clock. This is an excellent example of a simple way to get started using bots strategically, and it doesn’t take that much u-front design time or customisation. In fact, it was built by the organisation's communications person.

Before getting stuck in to the latest technology, or "shiny new thing", ask what it will achieve, strategically. If you can answer that question, jump on in. And what if it fails? Failure is fine. In fact, failure is good if you can learn from what went wrong and share your lessons with others. We must take considered risks, because not moving forward and being left behind is a far greater risk to non-profits than taking a chance and getting it wrong.

Beth Kanter is a trainer working with foundations and non-profits based in the United States. She was in the UK as a guest of Lightful

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