Digital Doesn’t Work Without Creative People

Everyone’s phone is full of voicemails about break-out groups on Zoom, text messages examining the benefits of one mass mailer versus another, and emails about whether to post a new social video on IGTV or YouTube.

Many advocacy organizations are reacting to the uncertainty of this moment by focusing on what they can control and what seems most urgent — doubling down on digital strategy. They’re shopping around for new tools and platforms, creating reams of webinar content to stay connected and relevant, and getting to grips with online fundraising.

Unfortunately, this moment calls for more than a Zoom Pro account. The digital infrastructure, strategies, and staff are ultimately insufficient if you want to get to the other side of this with more than dwindling webinar audiences. Even the best tools in the world have to be underpinned by something else to succeed — an organizational culture that supports their success.

The global climate justice group 350.org overhauled its digital and technology infrastructure during the past two years. The leadership invested in some new tools and platforms, but what really mattered was people-centered:

* Were staff in the right roles, in the right teams?

* Did they have the training they needed to use the tools we did have to their utmost potential?

* Was the data we had shared with the right people internally so that they could make better decisions?

These were some of the questions that led to concrete results like GlobalClimateStrike.net, or the Climate Justice Action Map, enabling a quarter of a million people new to the movement to turn out and join the strikes this past last September.

Here’s the good news. You’ve got this. If you can invest in your digital infrastructure, then do it. If you can’t make the investment there’s plenty you can get on with in your current set-up, regardless how much or how little digital expertise you think you have.

Luckily, advocacy organizations and social change campaigners are well practiced at operating with little more than ingenuity in a tough time. Here are three principles to help nonprofit leaders adapt to the present and plan for the future: 

It’s Okay To Take A Beat

For most groups, the past few months were all about crisis response. It was clear where attention was immediately needed — from defending migrants’ rights at overcrowded refugee camps to influencing who gets served by government bailouts.

The strategies needed now and in the months ahead, however, are likely different than what organizations had been planning before this pandemic. Returning to “business as usual” is not likely to be relevant or appropriate in the current moment.

Albert Einstein’s advice is particularly relevant for leaders who still find themselves in response mode: “If I had an hour to solve a problem and my life depended on the solution, I would spend the first 55 minutes determining the proper question to ask … for once I know the proper question, I could solve the problem in less than five minutes.”

Successful advocacy teams do this by carving out space to continuously reassess the changing landscape in moments like these when social norms have shifted, political realities have changed, and economic systems have been disrupted. The result is new opportunities to transform the status quo with creative interventions and solutions that might not have been previously possible — from advancing worker’s rights to reforming criminal justice.

Managers at Digital Democracy, an organization that works in solidarity with marginalized communities to use technology to defend their rights, have had their field work plans massively disrupted. Rather than get stuck in either reaction or paralysis, they are taking this opportunity to plan a virtual retreat for their 7-person team located around the globe. They’ll consider how they might need to shift their roles, priorities, and resources in this changed world and hope to come out better for it.

In other words, be ready to walk away from last month’s theory of change. Make re-strategizing a new habit. Take a look at tools like this “campaign canvas” or “triage tool” to help teams more regularly test prior assumptions and adjust plans more easily than typical strategy documents allow. 

Creative Tactics Over Technology 

Resources do not translate to readiness, especially for shocks like this moment. From digital rallies to teach-ins, grassroots and community organizers have deployed nearly 100 creative ways to continue mobilizing while distancing, according to this growing sample. “Far from condemning social movements to obsolescence, the pandemic – and governments’ responses to it – are spawning new tools, new strategies and new motivation to push for change,” according to reporting in The Guardian.

Established organizations can be just as creative: The Sweet Farm animal sanctuary in California rapidly found a new way to combat factory farming and educate people about sustainable food systems through “Goat-to-Meeting,” a clever program that places live farm animals on a donor’s next video meeting. 

Goat-to-Meeting might look like a technological marvel to those just getting used to videoconferencing technology, but the only special technology at play is the organization’s “operating system” which enabled staff to generate and test creative tactics on the fly. 

While big online advocacy and digital fundraising toolsets have done wonders for the organizations, they’ve also limited the imaginations around what’s possible to a small set of prebuilt tools, resulting in a predictable use of tactics like petitions or prepopulated messages to decision-makers. These tools and tactics have their place, but you risk their effectiveness when they’re overused with the same audiences and targets.

For most groups, now isn’t the time to churn out more texts and emails. It’s a time to support staff in using their talents and existing technology more effectively and creatively. Leaders can encourage their teams to answer these questions:

* What creative new strategies and tactics can we use to generate meaningful participation in a more crowded digital landscape?

* How can we reach those who remain resistant to taking action or connecting online, or who continue to be denied equitable access to digital spaces? 

Trust The People

We’re inspired by the countless mutual aid groups, bottom up solutions, and collective actions springing up globally to serve the most vulnerable. Not only are they filling a critical gap that governments either can’t or refuse to fill but they also remind us of the power of people acting together to achieve common goals.

The lesson to take from all this? As Adrienne Maree Brown says, it’s “trust the people.” If you’re in leadership, you don’t have to come up with all the answers on your own. And you definitely shouldn’t expect to execute all the work on your own.

We’ve seen better results from groups that turn to their staff, volunteers, and supporters and engage them earnestly in planning to help guide decisions and direction.

When time and resources are as scarce as they are right now, organizations can’t afford not to (a) gather key insights from supporters or beneficiaries before launching a project or (b) open more ways for more people to lead the work. Perfunctory “consultations” on pre-built plans don’t count. Putting key audiences and/or the most impacted individuals at the center of our planning not only enables you to scale your work but also ensures campaign messages are relevant rather than off base.

Organizational resilience has traditionally been defined in financial terms. In reality, resilience is and will be determined by the breadth and depth of an organization’s relationships with individuals, partners, and allies. Now’s the perfect time for every organization to ask: What parts of our work can we break off and invite others to take on or lead? 

Beyond Digital: Self-Assessment Questions

Hopefully you’ve been convinced that the organizations that continue to have the ability to build power and deliver impact a year from now will have avoided using this time to grasp for “digital” panaceas. Instead, they’ll have adopted and integrated new ways of planning, collaborating, and campaigning as standard operating procedures to reflect this more uncertain, complex world.

Here are some questions for leaders and managers to help you come out of the COVID-19 crisis even stronger than before:

  • What can you drop? It’s tempting to accelerate and add more tech-based programming. Keep in mind what you can sustain and build on and how you can make space within your current strategy for more digital offerings over the next three years, not just the next three months.
  • What can you do with what you have? You want to invest in a new email platform but perhaps your organization’s financial future is looking uncertain. There are bound to be things that you can improve upon based on what you already have and which still lead to higher impact results. Could staff with more advanced digital skills train up others through skill shares? Can you pool resources with partners and share tools, such as volunteer platforms and trainings? Are there inefficiencies in your workflows that you can iron out? 
  • Which of your staff need extra attention right now? Digital staff often feel misunderstood and sidelined from bigger strategic conversations. But now the spotlight (and much of the workload) is on them. How can you better value or support your digital staff, both now and in the long term? 
  • Where can you reduce bottlenecks and simplify sign-offs? It’s hard enough to deal with bureaucracy in the same location let alone remotely. Consider training up more of your staff so they’re equipped to proof bulk emails and update WordPress on their own. 
  • What decisions and processes can you open up for more input from staff and volunteers? Leaders are overloaded right now with scenario planning and funding considerations. What can you break off and delegate? Doing this will incentivize more of your staff to step up in responsibility and be creative.
  • What’s your digital engagement wish list? What are your new funding requirements? The current crisis might have thrown your strategy and budget into sharp relief. Do you have the systems in place to organize remotely over the long haul? If not, what do you need, and how will you make the case to funders? 
  • Who is closer to the ground and might be able to do this better? Your organization is part of an ecosystem, and some groups may be better placed to do the work you’re planning to pivot to. Do your research, speak to partners, and help funnel resources to them if you can. 

All of this is not simple to do and not every organization is going to thrive. But if your organization can use this time to move towards a culture that’s willing and able to regularly reassess strategy and be adaptive, you’ll have laid the foundations to be more effective in the years to come.


Michael Silberman is executive director of the Mobilisation Lab and built one of the first successful digital grassroots organizing programs in U.S. politics for Howard Dean’s 2004 presidential campaign. Reach him via Twitter: @silbatron

Hanna Thomas Uose is a principal consultant at Align, an advocacy agency in London. Contact her via Twitter: @hannathomas