The Keys to Successful Nonprofit Digital Teams | npENGAGE

The Keys to Successful Nonprofit Digital Teams

By on May 8, 2018


nonprofit digital teams

Earlier this year I released the 2018 Nonprofit Digital Teams Report in partnership with Jason Mogus, principal consultant at NetChange Consulting. For the report, we surveyed those responsible for digital at 80 advocacy-oriented organizations based in the United States, Canada, Australia, and the United Kingdom about how their organizations were using digital tools, staffing their digital programs, and making decisions about digital in their organizations.

Organizations included in the survey ranged in size from only a couple of employees to hundreds of staff members. 40% of respondents were from organizations with fewer than 20 staff members, 39% from organizations with staffs of 21-200 people, and 16% from organizations with 200+ employees.

Some of the findings in this year’s survey included the importance of having leaders with digital experience, the connection between well-structured teams and outcomes, the challenges in restructuring digital teams, and the gap between the value organizations place on supporter engagement and how they are prioritizing managing and tracking it.

The Importance of Digital Leadership

This year’s research found that digital teams that are represented in senior management, influence decisions on new campaigns and receive leadership support run higher impact digital programs.

Digital is being incorporated into the campaign planning process more and more, with 17% of teams leading new campaign development, and 36% being involved throughout campaign or new initiative development processes. Importantly, 50% of teams who report running highly effective digital programs lead new campaign processes, and a further 33% of today’s top performers are involved throughout the decision-making process. No high performing teams are merely “informed” of new ideas.

digital team decision making

How involved is the digital team in decision-making around new campaigns or initiatives

Unfortunately, 42% of organizations do not have someone with digital experience at the senior-most level of management, and the larger the organization, the less likely someone with digital experience is on the executive team. Furthermore, we asked how management perceives digital’s strategic value and 50% of organizations reported that they continue to “miss major opportunities,” while 9% said management has unrealistic expectations of the value of digital. Among organizations that reported performing highly compared to their peers, a full 75% had digital represented directly on the senior management team.

The data now proves that digital teams that lead or shape decisions around digital innovation perform substantially better than those who are left out of the decision-making process. This should be a wake-up call to all campaigns and executive directors. Organizations will continue to miss (or over-estimate) big opportunities for digital to transform campaigns and the organizations themselves until they add more digital leads to senior management. The data proves digital deserves a seat at the decision-making table.

The Structures of Effective Digital Teams

Jason Mogus has long advocated that hybrid teams, in which digital roles are distributed across departments with a central team still driving strategy and leading some key functions, are better

suited to the pace and opportunities of digital innovation. The data now proves non-centralized teams run considerably more effective digital programs than centralized teams in which most, if not all, digital work is managed by just one team.

In 2014, centralized and hybrid models were also nearly tied for first at 40% and 38% respectively. This year, we found that hybrid teams and centralized teams were running neck and neck at 37% each. However, a new team structure, “intentional independent” – in which digital platforms or functions are purposefully split between multiple departments in an organization in a strategic way with strong collaboration – now represents 13% of teams. Thankfully “avoidant independent,” in which digital platforms or functions are split between multiple departments in a disconnected, dysfunctional way, and informal (i.e. no leader) have mostly disappeared. You can read more about the five models of digital teams here.

digital team structure

Percent of organizations using each team structure.

Hybrid teams are the most popular structure in small (50%), medium (41%), and large (33%) organizations. Centralized teams still dominate very large organizations at 47%, with hybrid trailing at 29%.

Centralized teams, which tend to suffer from overload, have remained surprisingly resilient, though the hybrid model is now fully proven. Intentionally separate teams that share power well are a welcome new trend.

While centralized and hybrid teams remain neck and neck as the structure in most organizations, we found that teams with the highest performing digital programs are overwhelmingly using the hybrid model. Teams using the centralized model tended to report less effective digital programs.

Of today’s highest performing teams, 50% are using the hybrid model and 25% are employing the intentional independent model.

This year’s research found that while digital programs still primarily reside in communications departments (38%), there has been a 60% decrease in this reporting structure since 2014. Increasingly, digital programs are living in the program or campaign departments (15%), and 13% of organizations run a standalone digital department. Additionally, 44% more teams report directly to the executive director today than what we found in 2014.

The dramatic drop of teams situated in the communications silo reflects a shifting understanding of digital’s unique value, though there still is not consensus on where digital belongs.

The Team Restructure Trap

As nonprofit organizations work to find the best ways to organize their digital programs, the desire to restructure is persistent. Three quarters of digital teams we surveyed have been restructured one or more times in the past 3 years, yet only 10% find their structure to be highly effective. Almost a third of the teams surveyed have gone through a restructuring more than once over that same period. That’s a lot of painful change leading to uncertain results!

Despite all this re-engineering, we found that only 11% of teams report the way their organization manages digital to work very well, while about half (49%) find their structures work “somewhat well.” This leaves an unfortunate 40% of teams stuck in structures that are creating significant problems and do not work.

Restructurings are stressful on people and organizations, and it’s painful to see so many struggle to find optimal digital structures. With all the opportunities digital offers, we should be loudly dissatisfied with ongoing dysfunctions. However, it’s critical to have a clear vision and plan for organizational change management before changing your digital team structure, even if you find that your organization is in that bottom 40%. It’s important to get a reorganization right the first time, rather than continuing to put your people through organizational changes.

The Engagement Gap

“Supporter engagement” has been a nonprofit buzzword for a decade now. Unfortunately, this year’s Digital Teams Report revealed that the majority of organizations are still not putting sufficient staff and resources into managing their supporter engagement programs.

Only 10% of responding organizations reported having a department solely focused on supporter engagement, with about a quarter reporting this responsibility falling within the communications (14%) or fundraising (12%) departments and 23% sharing the responsibility across multiple departments. A whopping 29% of respondents said they had no department whatsoever responsible for supporter engagement!

It’s tough to improve engagement practices if it’s not clear who owns them (or no one actually does!). This lack of leadership and structural confusion around engagement leadership limits adoption of many best practices.

This reality played out in practice when we asked respondents about how they track supporter engagement. The vast majority of organizations (75%) do not track supporters’ progress along a framework such as a ladder or pyramid of engagement, and almost a third do not measure supporter engagement at all. An additional question showed that only 22% of organizations consistently track engagement across departments, a key element of effective multi-channel communication. This is disappointing – organizations that don’t know what their supporters are doing or who their leaders are will miss opportunities to build grassroots leadership and amplify the force of their campaigns.

digital engagement tracking

Percent of organizations that track supporters along a ladder of engagement (or other similar framework)?


The 2018 Digital Teams Report includes a plethora of additional insights on the current state of digital teams at nonprofit advocacy organizations including data on diversity in staffing, size and growth of digital teams, the adoption of new technologies and strategies at organizations of all sizes, and much more. You can download the full report at


Austen’s current work at Fission Strategy is overseeing the strategic design, development, and implementation of online campaigns, social media and mobile apps, websites, infographics, and much more for non-profit organizations and foundations. Austen Levihn-Coon specializes in leveraging technology for social impact and has a background in grassroots campaigning and social movement theory. He is well versed in the capabilities of existing action tools and CRMs and works with the amazing team at Fission to identify creative opportunities to expand the power of these tools through integrations with social networks and other technologies such as SMS campaigns, Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn. Alongside the technical solutions, Austen leverages proven campaign and leadership development strategies in order to empower individuals and communities to create social change. In his work he has envisioned and managed the development of tools such as NRDC’s 1-Click Petition Facebook App, the American Wind Energy Association’s Tweet Congress App, and NARAL Pro-Choice America’s No Cost Birth Control Facebook App. Prior to joining Fission Strategy, Austen worked with Joe Trippi & Associates, the Energy Action Coalition, Obama for America 2008, and the Texas Campaign for the Environment

Comments (1)

  • belgravia says:

    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.

    We now suggest the above opinions from the Non-profit Consulting experiences.

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