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Challenging Assumptions About Adapting Nonprofit Programming to the Digital Realm Featured

Challenging Assumptions About Adapting Nonprofit Programming to the Digital Realm Juan Jose

Seventy-four percent of nonprofits responding to a recent survey conducted by CAF America ( said they had “adapted programming to the digital realm” when faced with COVID-19 challenges. Sixty-three percent said they had done so successfully. There’s  no question that nonprofits across the country have responded admirably to the obstacles the past year placed in their paths. But to be candid, from what I’ve seen in my capacity-building work, the reality is that the nonprofit sector needs to hold itself to a higher standard of success if it’s going to keep pace with demand and continue serving communities.

What do I mean by this? For the majority of nonprofits, adapting programming looked a lot like simple replication of in-person meetings and classes using Zoom or other online tools. That’s a sensible, rapid response to the sudden challenges of the pandemic. It allowed many nonprofits to continue providing services without disruption. 

But is it truly a successful adaptation of programming to the digital realm? 

If you define success as avoiding a prolonged disruption of services, sure, lots of organizations have succeeded. But if your definition of success includes both quality of services and longer-term results, then moving online isn’t enough--organizations are going to have to redesign the programs themselves and not just the delivery methods to sustain impact using digital ways of connecting,

For example, imagine an organization running a cancer support group. In a digital environment, it needs to be thoughtful and creative about how to use the videoconferencing platform features in a way that gives people a rich experience, feels safe and private (including from other household members), and lets everyone participate in a way that works for them. It might also consider how other aspects of the program could ease the increased mental load of communicating virtually (see: Zoom fatigue). The optimal agenda, length, and facilitation style for a virtual support group might look very different from an in-person one. 

For nonprofits to embrace this evolution, leaders will have to champion the need to change. I’m not entirely confident that the sector as a whole is helping to prepare them for such measures.

For instance, 91 percent of survey respondents said they had “effective leadership that can guide them through the pandemic.” But not one of the statements or capacity-building opportunities in the survey asked about technology. If asked about leadership’s capacity to set technology strategy and optimize the efficacy of technology tools, would respondents have indicated such a high level of confidence?

By looking at this data with a critical eye, by no means do I intend to disparage nonprofits or CAF America. Almost without exception, nonprofits have shown ingenuity in responding to a crisis and should be applauded for that response. That versatility and dedication is what drew me to a career in the nonprofit sector, and I think it’s time for us to summon more of it and challenge our assumptions by pushing ourselves to do even better.

Digital natives are moving into nonprofit management positions. They grew up with email and the internet, with the attitude that digital technology can solve problems, and they aren’t afraid of it. Plenty of great tools already exist. What leaders need now is digital strategy. (The survey report calls this out on page 12.) They need the skills and information not only to select digital tools that are a good fit for their needs, but also to optimize their use of those tools. 

Program design is not the domain of typical IT people, so unless leadership grasps the importance of technology strategy and tech-positive cultures, these digital program adaptations will not succeed over the long term. Organizations will fail to unlock the value of their technology investments and start seeing gradual declines in the impact of programs that have gone digital. 

On the other hand, if leaders do equip themselves to optimize digital program delivery—and if funders provide appropriate resources and risk tolerance to support the long-term development of tech-savvy leaders—then we can not only avoid a decline but also dare to hope for even better outcomes in the future.  



Karen Graham is Managing Director for Education and Outreach at Tech Impact, a nonprofit whose mission is to empower communities and nonprofits to use technology to better serve our world. Since 2003, it has partnered with hundreds of organizations around the world to help each one realize the potential of technology to achieve their mission and improve outcomes.

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