The Real Reason Some Nonprofits Stink at “Digital” (And Why It Is Getting Worse)

Dilbert vagueness plan

Within some organizations, “going digital” is causing more problems than it’s solving. This isn’t because of the people who work in digital. It’s because of the people who don’t.

I’ve posted briefly on the dangers of separating “digital” and “marketing,” but this topic arose quite explicitly on the very first day of the annual MuseumNext conference last month and was inspired by a presentation from museum pro, Koven J. Smith. (Sidenote to make good on a promise:  the slides from my keynote at MuseumNext are available here.)  Though the seeds of this article blossomed at a museum-oriented conference, the threat is relevant for many nonprofit organizations and businesses in general.

“Are you saying that ideally nobody in museums should have “digital” in their title?” one person asked in regard to a point in Koven’s talk. He paused for barely a moment. “Yes,” he stated simply.

This idea was a small part of his argument (check out more of his rich thought-fuel here), but I think he’s onto something big…something that I observe everyday in my work with well-intentioned nonprofit organizations: We are breeding a culture of misunderstanding around the important role of “digital” in the future of our organizations and, frankly, it imperils the vibrancy of the very future that we are trying to ensure. “Digital” has been allowed to become an “other” (i.e. “not within my scope of work” and/or “something I don’t ‘get’”) for certain individuals in certain organizations, and, like most “others,” digital (as a concept) is misunderstood, abused, and used as a scapegoat for an organization’s cultural and structural shortcomings.

Dramatic? Maybe…but until we solve this issue, how can organizations steeped in these misunderstandings remain relevant and thrive in the future? Here’s why conceptually separating “digital” – as the rest of the organization understands it – is a problem that is making it harder for nonprofits to succeed.


1) It constantly reaffirms that “digital” is about platforms or technological skillsets and not about people (and it actually IS all about people)

Digital engagement and engagement are one in the same – they are both about people and behavior. Likewise, digital fundraising and fundraising are synonymous in successful organizations. Again, they are both about people and behavior. Digital touch can be as powerful in inspiring audiences as physical touch.  “Digital” is a way of communicating and connecting, not “knowing java” or “mastering Facebook’s newsfeed algorithm.” Sure, those skills may have value in the digital world, but they aren’t the point of “being digital.” Communication goals on real-time, digital platforms should serve the exact same purpose and mission as the rest of the institution.

An online donor is still a donor. For visitor-serving organizations, a website visitor is still a visitor (a person connecting with your brand and mission). The difference is the platform (“connection point”), and the goal is the same as “in real life.”  Digital – when it is used with audiences – IS “real life” and organizations will benefit from treating it as such.


2) Believing “digital” is about technology instead of people and behavior breeds a desire to simply translate real life to the digital realm (and that is generally a bad idea and waste of resources)

This, too, was a very popular topic of conversation amongst the thought leaders at MuseumNext: The very real-time nature of digital platforms necessitates different behaviors online than would take place in similar offline situations. For instance, a businessman may not check out your collections (if you’re a museum, for instance) at 10am in his pajamas “IRL.”  But, he can do so digitally…and that changes how we need to think about collections, engagement, social care, image rights, accessibility, membership retention, donor cultivation, and donor discovery. It’s not a one-way track wherein we simply “copy and paste” what’s onsite onto the web. That’s not engaging and it misses opportunities. If we didn’t deeply believe that “digital” was aligned more closely with technological skillsets than brand strategy, then we probably wouldn’t still be making these mistakes (i.e. posting our collections to the web or starting a simple blog, patting ourselves on the back for it, and wondering why nobody engages with it.)


3) It excuses leaders for being out of touch with the market (which is a glaring sign of bad leadership)

To paraphrase another point made at MuseumNext: It’s okay (and maybe even cute) if your grandmother doesn’t know what Twitter is or how exactly it is used. It’s absolutely NOT okay for today’s leaders, fundraisers, curators, and administrators to not be minimally facile with Twitter, Facebook and basic platforms or means of modern day engagement. Ignorance isn’t cute. It makes you less qualified for your job.

A basic facility with engagement platforms doesn’t mean everyone needs to be tweeting up a storm 24/7 – but if someone claiming a position of influence or leadership doesn’t understand what Twitter is, its benefit as a social force, or how people use it, then you’re dealing with a willfully ignorant, disconnected person. Good tip for organizations whose solvency depends on making connections with the market: Don’t hire people who live in holes.

Tough love moment (which I’ll admit may be funny because I’m an energetic, camp counselor type): I’m talking to you, people who say “digital just isn’t my thing” and write it off as something that isn’t worth your time to minimally understand. You sound stupid. Personally, finance isn’t my innate passion – but I’m a professional, functioning adult and, as such, I make an effort to understand the basics of how the world around me works.   There are no excuses for choosing ignorance and disconnection – especially for people in the nonprofit realm who often claim “education” and “engagement” as their raisons d’être.


4) It makes digital teams a dumping ground for nebulous projects

Koven Smith MuseumNext It’s difficult to read, but Koven‘s slide references a quote that was made jokingly, but may be indicative of a larger point: “If my co-workers say, ‘I don’t get this,’ it’s automatically in the digital department.”

When the digital department becomes a dumping ground for all things tech-oriented, an opportunity is lost. “Digital” is not necessarily the same as “IT.” Again, it’s about people, strategy, engagement, and utilizing new platforms in creative ways. When “digital” devolves into a language that certain employees cannot speak or a thing that they’re allowed not to understand, they become more removed from the world that we live in. That excuses and further cultivates an out-of-touch team… and that could be deadly for the future of your organization.

Does this mean everyone needs to run out and learn code? Again, no. Not even a little bit. But join the conversation and start thinking more strategically about organizational goals and creative engagement. It’s okay if you don’t know CSS (of course), but understand what the CSS is trying to achieve.

5) It silos marketers from content (which makes it harder to make connections to audiences)

“Digital” often resides somewhere around marketing within organizations – and that’s good! But if “digital” is considered too much of an “other,” then it forces web engagement teams to operate on their own. Social media is an every-department job, and often, creative engagement is as well. Marketers have no connective content without the aid of other departments. Basically, if we conceptually divide “digital” from the strategic functions of the organization, then we lose the very benefit of being “digital” – creating connections to people and creating meaning that will inspire a desired behavior (e.g. donation, visitation, participating in a beach clean-up, etc.).


Basically, when people in organizations stubbornly section out “digital” as something associated simply with technological skillsets, they are admitting to being out of touch with the very people that they are trying to serve. (P.S. Museum visitors and most bigger nonprofit donors for other kinds of organizations profile as “super-connected” with broadband access at home, work, and/or on mobile). When it comes to the inevitable pace of innovation, there is no comfort in yesterday.

If you don’t care to “get” digital, then get out of the way. Your organization is trying to effectively serve a social mission and it has important work to do.


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Posted on by Colleen Dilenschneider in Community Engagement, Digital Connectivity, Myth Busting, Nonprofit Marketing, Sector Evolution, Trends 8 Comments

About the author

Colleen Dilenschneider

MPA. Chief Market Engagement Officer at IMPACTS Research & Development. Nonprofit marketer, Generation Y museum, zoo & aquarium writer/speaker, web engagement geek, data nerd, marathoner, nomad, herbivore

8 Responses to The Real Reason Some Nonprofits Stink at “Digital” (And Why It Is Getting Worse)

  1. Seb Chan

    Yes, but . . . or, perhaps, yes, and.

    My concern with digital being part of how the ‘mission is delivered’ – and thus being in with marketing, fundraising, education, programming etc, is slightly different.

    it ignores the growing reality that the work itself (the performances in performing arts, the objects in museums, and perhaps even the organisms in zoos & aquaria) are ‘becoming or at least augmented by digital’ themselves. That’s the part that continues to be ignored – and it shouldn’t/can’t be for much longer.

    Embedded digital teams should be raising these issues and helping their organisations experiment and explore responses to these changes – which may not have immediate outward facing results – but have long term strategic benefits.

  2. Marty

    Nice post Colleen. The notion of people not ‘getting’ digital is unfortunately not a new one, even when it comes to business owners who operate online stores. Regardless of the type of organisation, people within it have to face up to the fact that digital is here and it’s here to stay. So grasp the nettle and learn to love it. It has lots to offer, after all, so should be seen as a positive force for awareness-building, engagement, and growth.

  3. Carrie Morgan

    I love this!

    Interesting comment about no one having digital in their title. I disagree, though. In many organizations, the person with digital in their title simply designates they are the go-between integrating non-digital with digital. It isn’t about silos or segregating digital out, it’s about wrapping it into the organization and introducing cross-channel and cross-platform efforts in a way the organization can effectively digest. Everyone making the effort to have an integrated seamless approach should be applauded.

    Let’s get’er done!

  4. Jasper Visser

    Thanks for this post Colleen, although I will have to disagree with you politely.

    The problem with digital in most non-profits is with the people who work in digital, not those who don’t. As a relatively new thing to most of our workforce (even the younger generations!), being a digital worker is a big responsibility. So big there are people who deserve the term ‘digital’ in their job title. At least for the coming years (so I disagree with Koven as well).

    By saying digital is about people and everything and all the other cliches of digital innovation meetings, we ignore the fact that to most people it is a big unknown, scary thing, that needs constant support, explanation and attention even in the most forward-thinking organisation. Digital is a job, a job of technology as much as internal advocacy, communication, change management, expectations management, etc. etc.

    At the same time it’s OK leadership is skeptical about digital. How much money have we squandered on apps, fancy websites and other tools without delivering real, sustainable, significant change? Of course these projects don’t fail because they’re ‘digital’, but it’s good to keep an eye on everything digital until it’s part of an organisation’s DNA.

    When somebody calls me to build a website “because the organisations has to go digital”, I’m happy. It’s an opportunity to start a debate that will change the organisation inside out, build capacity for digital and be truly successful.

  5. Chrissie D.

    Thank you for this. I’ve been trying for four years to explain these concepts and insist my agent/manager colleagues take their marketing (including digital) seriously and step up their game. It isn’t that they didn’t care…it’s the catch 22 of being small businesses and pulled in a million directions. I was finally validated at a conference this past spring. I’ll look forward to reading and sharing more of your thoughts.

  6. Karen Needles

    Digital has been around since the 1990s. Just like computers being around since the mid 1980s. Tired of hearing about educators who don’t know how to use a computer, and really upset with organizations that hire upper management who have no understanding of technology, and in most cases, get in the way of the organization moving into the 21st century.
    Thousands, if not millions of dollars get wasted on digital projects because those in charge fail to understand how the general public would use the digital collections online. They fail to understand that the idea is to not just paste documents or photographs online and call it a digital project.
    I see non profits spending thousands of dollars on grant writers who charge outrageous amounts of money, while the non profit has done nothing to get themselves organized, the structure of the content management system, etc. And before you know it they are ten years down the road, have spent all of their budget money, have no grants, and have nothing to show for the money they spent.
    There needs to be a huge paradigm shift when it comes to clearly understanding what all is entailed in creating a digital project, getting the right people onboard, both in upper management, as well as those IT doing the work.

  7. Mike Rippy

    Until “digital futurists” realize that the process is evolutionary rather than something that can modified like an eggplant, we will continue to get this kind of outlook. I believe a large part of this is that “ideating” has run rampant in the museum “digital” departments (“digital” as defined above). And as Jasper points out has allowed for literally millions of funds to be wasted on novelty projects.

    Controlling Digital is not an option (and should not be attempted). It is a juggernaut that is moving forward. Colleen got it right when she states this is about the people. It most definitely is. The museum people (a.k.a “museum pros”) need to figure out how to get out of the way and facilitate community engagement from the position that the museum staff may not be the experts. They need to look at it from the other direction even more.

    Give the community the keys to the kingdom. Museums are just now allowing people to have access to public domain imagery. When will they allow the public (not wealthy donors) to contribute to the collecting process, allow for research not based on their own programs (remove instructors), develop exhibitions? These are core functions of a museum that very few museums (if any truly) allow the general public to engage in creating.

    Eventually, I believe, more museums will realize their strongest supporters will be the thousands, potentially hundreds of thousands, of general members rather than a group of fat cats. It’s the role of the museum and by extension the community to be stewards of our cultural heritage not to become an after school program. Museums collect. Stewardship should drive every mission. That is my “ideating” moment for the day. Now its time to get to work.

  8. Dina Howard

    #truth: Digital *is* about people and behavior.

    In the early days of social media, when traditional media outlets (radio, print advertising, TV) were still reliably effective channels to influencing buyer behavior, it made more sense to silo web-based channels and differentiate them as an(other) way to connect with people. However, this sort of thinking did not anticipate buyers (people) trading time previously spent on traditional media to spend time on the internet instead. Nor did marketers expect the backlash people have made against traditional advertising approaches. At the same time that digital is replacing traditional media, people are demanding a different approach to marketing; namely, an approach that integrates seamlessly into their media experiences rather than interrupts the flow of entertainment, information, and activity. This is a radical shift in how organizations must approach people to earn their awareness, interest, and support.

    To Colleen’s point, whereas previously digital was a choice, increasingly it’s becoming the standard.

    As such, organizations are best served by understanding digital marketing and marketing are, indeed, one in the same.

    Jasper, you co-authored a fantastic handbook on “Digital engagement in culture, heritage and the arts”– I anticipate a not-so-distanct future where your framework will evolve to become the core approach of engagement strategies period, not just “digital”.


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