Why I choose digital maturity over digital transformation

The charity sector’s digital know-how is improving and we need to measure the change, says Jo Wolfe.

How do you know that your work has value? If you sold ice creams for a living, it would be pretty simple to figure out — do people buy your cones? Do they come back for a second scoop? In charities, it’s more complicated. Income is only one part of the story and there’s never enough Neapolitan to go around. Complex key performance indicators are wheeled out to measure the impact of services on the lives of beneficiaries.

In digital, we often focus on the big numbers — website visitors, Twitter followers and a host of other vanity metrics like social media reach or ‘opportunities to see’. In reality, these are the hundreds and thousands on top of the ice cream. Lovely when you get them, but not enough by themselves. More substantially, we can measure conversions — fundraising income, service sign ups, campaigns supporters, information downloads. Those have even more value than a Calippo on a hot summer’s day.

Results like this are only one part of our work in charity digital. We also have the tricky job of challenging and supporting our charities to adapt to an increasingly digital world. It’s change management at its most extreme — as soon as we get buy in for the new status quo, technology and best practice change again. We have to constantly respond to stay current, or risk being “disrupted” and left behind. Time to get the blender out and turn that ice cream into a milkshake.

Why do I talk about digital maturity rather than digital transformation?

Maturity implies a process of maturing along a continuum, rather than a radical event like a transformation. Do we expect charities to emerge butterfly-like from their digital chrysalises having transformed from luddite caterpillars into digital-first organisations? It sounds delightful, but it’s contrary to what we know of a sector where change is often painfully slow. The digital advancement of charities isn’t a binary switch from 0 to 1. It requires thousands of (more often than not small and poorly funded) organisations to make incremental improvements over time.

In recent years, a seemingly infinite number of articles and reports have been published on the topic of digital transformation in charities. Their case studies and quotes were by turns motivating and depressing. If charities don’t invest money in digital, overhaul their practices, recruit more people, improve skills at all levels, and develop more digital products they’ll cease to exist. Or be replaced by startups which, like Uber, have fewer moral qualms.

I’m not knocking this view per se, but I don’t think the reports and the handwringing are working. For one thing, they tend to be written and sponsored by digital agencies who profit when charities decide to invest in the kind of high-end tech digital transformation projects require. For another, this reactionary thinking belies the work of digital teams in many charities in the UK today. A sustainable change in digital maturity is already happening right now in charities like the one I work for Breast Cancer Care.

Where else can we see digital maturity in action?

The penny has now dropped that people of all ages will seek information and support online as well as offline. Tech funders are stepping up, like the brilliant CAST, who are working with Breast Cancer Care on a new tech for good project. Charities are able to make the most of new funding streams from the likes of Nominet Trust, NESTA and the NHS Innovation Accelerator to build effective digital services for beneficiaries. Take a look at Dementia Citizens for a great example of this trend.

Digital fundraising might be one of the most hotly debated phrases in the industry after digital transformation, but significant income is now coming through online, and many charities are now seeing higher growth in digital fundraising than more traditional offline channels. That’s vital when direct mail is flat-lining and contacting people by phone may be a thing of the past. Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) is one charity doing some inspiring digital fundraising, while supporters of Anthony Nolan are raising money and awareness through social media on the charity’s behalf.

What should you do if you can’t get investment to improve digital outputs for your charity? It’s easy to complain that others ‘don’t get digital’, but I’ve heard amazing stories of digital leads in charities turning that paradigm around.

  1. Start by proving the value in what you do by measuring your current state and aspirations.
  2. Make as many cost neutral improvements as you can to demonstrate impact.
  3. Use your success to build relationships with senior management. Yes, this is the hard bit. Check out Digital Leadership by Branislava Milosevic for some useful resources.
  4. Follow up with a case for gradual investment based on results.
  5. Ensure you have the right team in place to deliver your change programme.
  6. Continue to focus on results, develop your digital offer and iterate based on data.

Can we really measure digital maturity?

Along with a colleague, I developed and launched the Third Sector Digital Maturity Matrix within Breast Cancer Care so I could measure the impact of our digital work over-and-above the hard numbers of acquisition and retention. Our self-assessment tool allows any charity to understand how digitally mature they are now against their aspiration for one year in the future. It also makes pretty spider diagrams. (A big thanks to Diabetes UK, MSF and Stroke Association who helped us pilot the tool.)

Breast Cancer Care Digital Maturity Matrix. Current state 31% / Aspiration 56%

If we can also quantify our current digital maturity across dimensions like technology, content, analytics and governance we can better advocate for ourselves as digital professionals, and make an evidenced case to senior management for increased investment. What’s more, we can track our progress over time as we address the gaps. Agree this sounds like an awesome idea? You can get involved right now.

Perhaps a research agency or sector body would like to take over the Third Sector Maturity Matrix to track the increase in digital maturity across the sector over time? Then we might have a better idea of the pace of change and the real barriers to maturity. I’ll happily discuss this with any takers. Tweet me @msjowolfe.

Where digital maturity is concerned, there will always be more work to do. We should recognise that in many charities, the good work has at least begun and we can start to measure its value. Let’s all celebrate that with an ice cream.