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Digital approaches for the COVID era

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For many nonprofit organizations and institutions, the coronavirus pandemic is an existential threat—spaces are shuttered, programs are paused, and funding is frozen. Leaders in the field are planning for myriad scenarios while acknowledging that pre-pandemic patterns and relationships may never return.

With the clock ticking and organizations pressed for creative thinking, my colleagues and I are having daily conversations with clients about the role technology can play in responding to these disruptions. Although the best solutions are tailored to the specific needs of an organization and its audience, we believe the general themes emerging from these strategy sessions have value across the sector.

The five concepts below can act as conversation starters with your team and partners. These concepts recognize that people around the world have turned to digital approaches, tools and experiences to lessen isolation, bridge distance, and create the connections that define our humanity. To address that shift, the mission-driven organizations we work with are increasingly prepared to take bold steps. There’s a newfound openness to experimentation, both by organizations and the audiences they serve.

Start conversations

The first reaction of many organizations has been to ask how to get material out to their communities. Especially for institutions built around visitors, collections, education, or other location-specific public experiences, this is a natural instinct. In most cases, we agree that distribution of core content should be the first order of business—but these steps alone won’t distinguish your nonprofit from peer organizations competing for the same audiences or limited funding.

Instead, think about digital approaches and experiences less as broadcast and more as dialogue. Create ways for audiences and communities to engage with your team or, better still, each other. An activist organization might promote small-group discussions between audience and staff, attracting new people to its network. A research coalition might schedule virtual panel discussions with program directors, experts, and funders—marrying livestreamed Q&A and social-channel integration to advance visibility while at the same time inviting audiences into knowledge sharing and collaboration. A theater company might host breakout sessions with cast and audience following a virtual performance, enhancing a fragmented experience by creating deeper, more memorable connections to the material, performance, and community.

These opportunities to build connection and community are powerful experiences for audiences and potent ways to demonstrate an organization’s relevance.

Be more personal

You may be familiar with digital personalization—complex, algorithmic software solutions that shape and deliver content to meet the tastes and expectations of individual consumers. Today, we’re suggesting something faster to implement and easier for organizations to achieve: “personification.”

Talented people drive missions forward, whether they’re at the smallest local nonprofit or the largest university. Finding ways to bring team members to the forefront may humanize your offerings and help reestablish connections the pandemic has disrupted. Imagine a museum hosting small-group virtual tours, streaming Q&A sessions with conservators, or launching daily Twitter takeovers by curators. Bringing the experiences and personalities of behind-the-scenes staff to the foreground changes the traditional relationship between audience and institution, building intimacy and pushing back against the loss of social cohesion caused by recent events.

Reach new audiences

Building on the ideas of conversation and personification, organizations might reexamine long-held assumptions about audiences. As the tools used to share content and engage people change, new opportunities to reach more diverse communities might arise. Similarly, the pandemic has altered the terrain for engagement—we’ve seen the rapid acclimation of older audiences to digital approaches and an increased appetite for digital experiences across all demographics.

Shaping initiatives to new constraints or responding to emergent market demand can spark new ideas. To inspire your team, begin by listening to the challenges expressed by your current audiences and think about solutions for organizational relationships currently in limbo. For example, a public garden may no longer be able to invite visitors to its grounds, but with minimal staff, it could launch a virtual garden school initiative to support summer camps and schools scrambling to provide quality programming.

Tailoring your organization’s content and expertise to the needs of the moment builds lasting connections with new audiences. In the example above, each child and parent engaged might take away a positive impression of the organization; the same is true of the new partnerships established with educators and counselors. These satisfied participants are then more inclined to visit, promote, and support your organization—making your organization healthier in the long run.

Build new alliances

At a moment of profound dislocation, cooperation between organizations and institutions has the power to create new spaces for connection and community. By partnering with peer institutions or organizations across different scales and sectors, you can use common interests and aligned values as threads that bind people together.

As importantly, collaboration between organizations can provide essential support to other mission-driven entities. Even an organization considered a direct competitor a few short months ago might yield a positive alliance. By leveraging the unique capabilities of each partner, conversations deepen, content becomes richer, discrete audiences become shared communities, and all partners benefit.

Candidly assess what your organization brings to the table as well as your blind spots. Then explore new models for digital approaches to collaboration. It might be as simple as aligning peer institutions around a common hashtag or content theme to promote awareness. Or it could be a fundamentally new approach to programming.

Imagine a group of small colleges subsidizing a series of outdoor, livestreamed conversations between climate scientists and environmental organizations with open Q&A periods from prospective students. The colleges provide space and technical facilitation, showcase their campuses, and highlight important work on urgent challenges. This approach enables the schools to speak directly to engaged members of future classes—and possibly alumni and potential supporters as well—while building partnerships with organizations struggling to be heard as COVID-19 commandeers news coverage. By coordinating publicity across many schools, organizations, and participants, the signal cuts through the noise.

Take smart steps

For each of the examples cited above, it’s easy to imagine a full spectrum of implementations, from simple, fast, and free to complex, slow, and costly. Our recommendation is to identify a series of initiatives and pursue each at multiple points on that spectrum. Start with what can be done immediately and with little expense. At the same time, build the strategy and resource allocations necessary to execute more robust versions. Phasing outputs in this way delivers a host of benefits:

  • Early experiments test market appetite with minimal cost.
  • Developed projects and programs provide essential qualitative and quantitative data to shape subsequent offerings.
  • Mature platforms build awareness and expand audience reach at scale while signaling leadership and providing markers for peers and partners to follow.

In many conversations we’re having, organizations are feeling the pressure to avoid mistakes. Budgets are tighter, resources are spread more thinly, and operational paradigms continue to adjust to evolving circumstances. Often, organizations are facing existential questions that can make conversations about building communities and engaging audiences seem like distant goals from better days.

But the ability to connect with others, to inform people, and to inspire action is the oxygen mission-driven organizations need to survive. The techniques above can help nonprofits build lasting partnerships, support aligned organizations, and chart their own paths through this period. They can help improve visibility, expand audience reach, attract media coverage, and strengthen existing relationships while establishing new ones.

Organizations seeking to solve their immediate challenges and position themselves to thrive in the future should incorporate digital approaches and experiences and tools as the foundation of new strategies. It doesn’t matter if COVID-19 is with us for mere months or years, or whether old habits return or our new models become more permanent. Preparing for an increasingly digital future will pay dividends.


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