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Digital transformation: Losing sight of the shore

At NetHope, we’re embracing the opportunity to chart a path to digital transformation that is relevant for international nonprofits.

August 2, 2017

By Lauren Woodman, NetHope CEO

This is second in a series of blog posts that will explore the factors that drive digital technology and how NetHope will lead and support it. 

“On ne découvre pas de terre nouvelle sans consentir à perdre de vue, d'abord et longtemps, tout rivage.”  -- André Gide, “The Counterfeiters,” 1925

Almost a hundred years ago, André Gide’s novel-within-a-novel was poorly received by the public for its multiple, complex and then-scandalous storylines.  Today – and perhaps after his Nobel Prize in literature in 1947 – “The Counterfeiters” is considered a must-read of Western canon.

Gide’s characters struggled with finding the freedom to determine their own paths in life. For Gide, change was inherently positive, as it opened the possibility for characters to progress, to move forward. At the same time, though, only development driven from within was positive: change forced upon one by externalities beyond one’s control was negative and, for his characters, resulted in tragedy.

As digital transformation shapes our world, maybe Gide is worth re-reading.

What does positive change look like?
Not enough nonprofit leaders understand that our sector must embrace digital transformation; at least some of this resistance comes from a lack of shared understanding about what positive change might look like for an international nonprofit. What’s appropriate for a technology company or a manufacturer is not always appropriate for a nonprofit organization. But the fact that there are no easy templates to follow doesn’t exempt us from the need to change.

We’re more likely to define “digital strategy” by what it is not: IT plans, social media marketing, new “digital officer” roles, mobile apps. All of these may be elements of a broader digital strategy, but within and of themselves, each is insufficient. It’s time to push off from the shore.

What is a digital strategy?
An effective digital strategy is comprehensive, flexible, nimble, and empowers an organization to respond to both current and future opportunities and threats. A good digital strategy is inspired by powerful, readily accessible technologies, and delivers unique, integrated business capabilities in ways that are responsive to constantly changing market conditions. A transformative digital strategy is a business strategy for today.

This definition – adapted from MIT Sloan School of Business professor Jeanne Ross – recognizes the importance of and is grounded in technology, but is not limited by technology. A good digital strategy delivers results relevant for the organization, whether that is more children educated, more refugees served, more elephants saved. It recognizes that an organization’s structure and capabilities are equally important. People and process are critical elements in bringing the value of technology to life to achieve the mission.

“Disruption for disruption’s sake is not a good idea in terms of creating long-term sustainable value," says Scott Painter, who founded TrueCar. We know this story all too well in the international nonprofit sector. Hundreds of millions have been invested in technology, but we have failed to embrace the totality of transformation that allows us to recognize the full benefits that these tools can deliver. 

Barriers are not resourced-related
We see the impact of this across the NetHope membership. Only 30 percent of NetHope members have a digital strategy in place. Surprisingly, the primary barriers to doing so are not resource-related, as is so often the case.

The biggest challenges reported by NetHope members are organizational structure, skills, and leadership. Our organizations are siloed, following models that put operational services like HR, finance and IT in service to program delivery. We underinvest in skills development, limiting our ability to adapt to changing needs.  We are hierarchical, make slow decisions, and inhibit the dynamic, integrated nature of digital organizations.

Given the work we do, we are rightly concerned with limiting risk. Changing the way that international aid is delivered is quite a different thing than changing how one hires a taxi or reserves a hotel room. When lives and livelihoods are at stake – and the precious resources of our philanthropic supporters –  we are right to tread carefully.

But we should also be faulted if we allow healthy sensitivity to risk to prevent us from being bold and charting a new course for the sector. When lives and livelihoods are at stake – and the precious resources of our philanthropic supporters – we are wrong to tread too predictably.  

Transformation must come from within
For many organizations, the prospect of rapid change is a terrifying, unfamiliar challenge. Embracing change on multiple levels – building people capacity, reimagining process and operations, leveraging technology  – is daunting. But like Gide’s characters, change driven by outside forces will be far more challenging than the change we bring upon ourselves. For digital transformation to be relevant for our sector, it has to come from within. 

At NetHope, we’re embracing the opportunity to chart a path to digital transformation that is relevant for international nonprofits. We believe that with our members working together, we can develop the resources and tools needed to ensure that our organizations will continue to have a profound impact on communities around the world. It won’t always be easy or comfortable, but it is necessary and important.

To paraphrase the quote from “The Counterfeiters” at the opening: To cross an ocean, you have to be willing to lose sight of the shore.

Welcome aboard.

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