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How to approach digital transformation and manage change in a post-COVID world

A strategic, planned approach to digital transformation can help your entire organization work more efficiently, interact more effectively with constituents and donors, and stay resilient in times of change.

By Jeffrey Appell, Chief Executive Officer, Heller Consulting


Digital transformation is about re-thinking business processes, constituent experiences, and even organizational culture to meet changing needs in today’s accelerated digital era.

After the past couple of years, you might be thinking that more change is the last thing you want to take on at your nonprofit. But even in the midst of change fatigue in today’s post-COVID era, embracing digital transformation is more achievable than you might think.

And it’s well worth the effort: A strategic, planned approach to digital transformation can help your entire organization work more efficiently, interact more effectively with constituents and donors, and stay resilient in times of change.

Examples of digital transformation for nonprofits in the real world

Nonprofit leaders are starting to think beyond individual online interactions (like online donations and volunteer signups) to how technology can improve the full donor/volunteer/constituent experiences with their organizations.

Here are some of the ways we at Heller Consulting are seeing nonprofits start to approach digital transformation in a more strategic way:

  • Data strategy — Nonprofits are starting to recognize the need for a data strategy — a plan for integrating their data from multiple data sources (online and offline) and implementing better data hygiene practices so they can use it for more sophisticated analytics, marketing and fundraising techniques as well as to ensure a more secure and private use of data. A single holistic view of an organization’s data, plus a proactive data integration and management strategy, are important foundational steps for transforming any business process digitally.
  • Marketing automation — While many organizations adopted sophisticated marketing automation tools to scale up their email communications and online fundraising in the early days of the pandemic, now they’re beginning to think about how to use them to enable more detailed constituent journeys that are specific to fundraising, programs, and volunteer management.
  • Community/portal — We’ve seen a big uptick in interest around online community/portal technology for online engagement. Nonprofits want to allow their donors, volunteers, and other constituents to log in and update their information, access resources, sign up for engagement opportunities, conduct volunteer work, and connect with the organization and each other — in a modern, digital environment.
  • Collaboration — Most organizations turned to Zoom or Microsoft Teams to help their staff stay connected and conduct work virtually during COVID. Recognizing that, for many, a distributed workforce is here to stay, now they’re beginning to look to true online collaboration tools, such as Slack and Microsoft Teams, to help staff around the globe collaborate in real time on documents and projects — even when they’re working on mobile devices.

Managing change during digital transformation

As with any organizational change, digital transformation comes with the possibility of distractions and lack of adoption. We’re seeing more nonprofits understand how managing change in a thoughtful way can help gain buy-in, minimize disruption, and ensure the success of their digital transformation efforts.

Change management is a framework and a set of resources that help prepare an organization to launch and adopt a new project — such as a new technology implementation and rollout — as smoothly as possible. It helps ease the path toward transition by:

  • Building buy-in among people impacted by the change
  • Providing information they need to understand and adapt
  • Supporting them through the transition
  • Reinforcing behaviors that are required for them to be successful

Here’s an example from the Canadian Cancer Society (CCS): When COVID-19 hit, the CCS was in the middle of a massive restructure from a de-centralized organization to one national organization while also consolidating more than a dozen different technology systems and data sets into one system. It was a large-scale digital transformation effort at the organization, and to make the technology transition successful, it became critical to tap into change management techniques to prepare the staff for what lay ahead.

The CCS leadership laid out a digital transformation vision that clearly articulated goals and helped build communications to employees to keep them informed. The leadership also built key performance indicators with metrics into their performance management system to help guide staff members toward specific goals that were in line with the overall digital transformation effort.

Four ways to get started with digital transformation at your nonprofit

Here are some tips for taking the next step with digital transformation:

1. Create an integrated marketing plan.
If your organization typically thinks about “online fundraising and marketing” and “offline fundraising and marketing,” it’s time to make a change. Bring those two teams together and start thinking about what engaging with your organization really feels like for today’s donors.

You’ll find this starts with looking at an overarching data strategy to ensure that your fundraising and marketing data are connected in a way that supports your goals. This approach will then allow your organization to design a great constituent experience and create more personalized and meaningful journeys for those who support your organization. It will also ensure that when a donor opts out of communications from your organization, you can feel confident that removing their information from your database will truly honor their request and that messages won’t unintentionally slip out to them.

2. Develop a technology plan.
Invest time in strategic technology planning. Even if you’re looking for the easiest and most basic resolutions to your business problems, a blueprint of the future state of your technology can help you make more informed choices today. That planning can also help you determine if you need to roll out your technology and related business changes over time and help you plan what that phasing might look like.

A short-term investment of your time to do strategic planning will almost certainly save your organization time, resources, and pain in the long term. For example, when The Salvation Army embarked on a digital transformation journey, they budgeted half of the project time to be spent on planning because they understood the value of properly preparing for a large-scale change.

3. Step up your use of automation tools.
Your current technology systems probably have some form of automation capabilities built in. You might already be using them to automate some manual, time-consuming processes. Dig into these tools, and take automation a step further by automating more strategic processes such as:

  • Efforts focused on improving retention and reactivation of lapsed donors or constituents
  • Grassroots advocacy messages to encourage supporters to call or write their lawmakers around specific topics
  • Stewardship communications to deepen constituent’s engagement and affinity
  • Automated processes to manage activities around mission delivery

4. Embrace change management.
Change management is an organizational muscle that needs to be developed. It starts to build on itself. If staff members have a good experience with one project, then they’ll tend to feel positive about future projects. Over time, this creates a culture of positive change, which is especially important for technology and process changes that will come over time with digital transformation.

Take Action

While it’s true that digital transformation requires a thoughtful approach to processes, technology, constituent experiences, and organizational culture, there’s a flip side. It also requires action. Now is the time to think, plan, and build digitally.

If you see an area of your organization that needs attention, don’t wait until you have the “perfect” multi-year digital transformation plan in place to address it. Focus on that area, apply principles of digital transformation, and start seeing the benefits right away.


Heller Consulting is a NetHope Partner and participant in our Corporate Partnership Network. Interested in learning more? Contact us for information.

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