January 26, 2017

Build culture and infrastructure that is fit for digital engagement

To make your organisation fit-for-purpose, you need to challenge your operating model. In the digital age, partnering with other actors to contribute to a shared cause is part of your core competence. In order to do that, more investments have to be directed to your digital infrastructure and to your human capital.

1. Fundamentally challenge your operating model

By default the amount of skills, expertise and capacity to achieve your purpose is larger outside than inside the organisation – no matter how big you are. But building an effective ecosystem of like-minded actors to achieve more than the sum of the parts, requires much more than IT investment to connect. It needs your boldness to fundamentally rethink the operating model by which you create value. Adapt your current business model or incubate one of the new emerging CSO models such as the online brokerage or the social enterprise model. A study by the Boston Consulting Group on Navigating a World of Digital Disruption and a superb book on Digital Adaptation for CSOs by Paul Boag provide interesting advice for this journey.

2. Make alliance building the default option

Foster a culture that accepts alliance building as the default option for greater and more sustained impact at all levels of the organisation. Plan’s CEO Anne-Birgitte Albrectsen announced at the Global Perspectives conference in Bangkok in 2015 that building alliances – in particular beyond the usual suspects – will be a key priority for Plan to achieving impact in the future. This short video maps the key building blocks to achieving collective impact. Set accordingly targets and monitor performance. Amnesty International has set itself clear objectives around alliance building and the empowerment of others to support an externally focused culture and practice.

3. Invest in digital infrastructure and people capacity

While you do not need the latest fashion of IT technology, you will need robust digital infrastructure and staff capability to use it. It’s a large investment but unless it is made, your organisation is likely to be disrupted by the speed of digital connectivity in a very short period of time. Speak to donors like Sida and Oak Foundation who understand that they need to invest into the infrastructure of CSOs. Look for pro-bono suppliers like TechSoup. A good example for pro bono support is Purpose helping Oxfam establish the Worldwide Influencing Network (WIN) platform with the WIN team providing services to Oxfam country offices and partners to enhance their campaigning capacity. It’s not a one-off investment. Technology and people’s communication habits, change fast. The Bernie Sanders campaign quickly moved from e-mail and phone calls to text messaging to stay connected with young supporters.

4. Push for transparency – invest in protection where really important

Identify key issues of safety, privacy or legal obligations. Invest heavily to protect data in these areas. Although transparency builds trust, it is still only in its infancy within most CSOs. As part of their open data project, Greenpeace released two years of chemical research hoping that it is useful to other change-makers. ARTICLE 19 plans to provide donors with access to the first level of their internal online project management and reporting system to allow them to track progress.

5. Stay nimble – stay close to people and partners

There is an inherent danger that successful CSOs institutionalise and become internally focused. Consider 350.org which grew from a small initiative by seven university students into a global climate movement. When deliberating to set up national offices, they looked into options such as running them virtually or being hosted by other CSOs. Accountable Now is hosted by the International Civil Society Centre to keep the organisation as lean as possible.

6. Know what people and partners think!

Regularly ask partners, staff or donors to rate you from 1-5 on the questions below. Add one open question for qualitative feedback. Compare results over time.

  1. Have we fundamentally reviewed the opportunities of value creation in the digital age?
  2. How well-suited is our infrastructure to support stakeholder engagement?
  3. Is our operating model sufficiently lean to stay close to people and partners?