Is Your Culture Silently Killing Your Digital Efforts?

Imagine you’re planning a beautiful, lush garden where you can peacefully relax.

This garden is your way to escape the whirlwind for a moment. Every day you’ll be able to sit back, take a deep breath, and absorb your surroundings. The day-to-day worries will float away and you’ll be able to take a moment to yourself.

You carefully choose each flower, tree, and shrub to create the experience you want. You find the perfect bench and sketch out the exact location for it. You budget and plan for every expenditure and make sure you buy materials from a reputable local merchant. Everything arrives and you can’t wait to get started.

Then, you grab a handful of seeds, cram them into dry, packed dirt and never water them.

Your dream garden is actually more like a barren wasteland of dust and rocks. You get frustrated and cynical and decide that gardening is not really what it’s cracked up to be.

Why am I telling you this ridiculous story?

Because the seeds of your digital efforts—website, social media, email and more—exist inside an environment: your organization’s culture. And despite your best efforts and compelling vision, that culture has the power to either cultivate exponential results or strangle the life out of your digital efforts.

And what’s more?

Most nonprofits are unaware their culture is even influencing the day-to-day success of their digital presence. It’s like an invisible, guiding force that determines your online destiny.

The condition of your organization’s beating heart—the attitudes of your people, and especially your leadership—is the biggest barrier to your organization’s digital success. But don’t take my word for it. A recent McKinsey study found that culture is the most significant self-reported barrier to digital effectiveness.

Scary, right?

As a leader of a digital agency in the nonprofit sector, I’m forced to confront this reality on a daily basis. It doesn’t take long to learn that it’s simply not enough to deliver what a nonprofit asks for on time and on budget. The success of a digital project—while crucially dependent on how well we deliver it—is inextricably linked to the organization’s culture.

Now, don’t get me wrong here. I’m not trying to sit around and complain. What I am trying to do is highlight a fundamental truth about the relationship between culture and digital effectiveness—one which goes unnoticed most of the time.

Below I’ve outlined 4 types of cultures (hint: the last one is the good one) that are common to nonprofits, and how each impacts the success of digital efforts. And if you recognize your organization in one of the examples, don’t despair: I’ve also provided some practical tips for how to move forward.

The Unaware Culture

What it looks like:
The unaware culture does not recognize the importance of digital channels. Leadership has access to good information, consultation, and digital best practices, but it’s difficult for them to understand why a website, email marketing or social media is that important. It often appears in organizations with little or no technology experience that view digital as a problem instead of an opportunity.

Why it hurts digital efforts:
The unaware culture hurts digital efforts by failing to recognize and take advantage of the opportunity the internet represents. Their inaction can be driven by technology aversions, failure to keep up with trends, or viewing their digital presence as a “necessary evil” instead of a competitive advantage.

Tips to move forward:
Transforming an unaware culture starts with the leadership. As a leader, if you think your organization might be showing symptoms of an unaware culture, ask yourself these questions:

  • Is it possible that my personal aversions or insecurities around using technology have caused me to miss the potential opportunities it provides my organization?
  • How would a compelling and results-focused website, email, and social media presence impact our most important outcomes?
  • How can I provide leadership that drives a competitive digital presence without needing to understand all the details?

The Tentative Culture

What it looks like:
The tentative culture gets excited about new ideas and opportunities, but has trouble pulling the trigger or taking the required steps to see the idea through to completion. They may dabble in a new digital strategy or tactic, only to quickly jettison the idea when it doesn’t immediately work. The tentative culture thrives on skepticism, risk aversion, and quick wins—to a fault.

This culture can thrive when there are not clear, time-bound goals for evaluating the success or failure of a certain activity. Leadership may be justifiably cautious in adopting new strategies or tactics (especially when budget is on the line) but lacks a clear system for evaluating whether or not something is working—and when it’s time to pull the plug.

Why it hurts digital efforts:
The tentative culture can be self-sabotaging by abandoning ideas too quickly. Many digital efforts take time, patience, and practice to reap results. But when those results don’t come as quickly as hoped, it can cause anxiety and premature abandonment of an otherwise great idea. You unknowingly stop when you’re 90% there.

If you are in a tentative culture, chances are it’s not by accident. You may have been burned by bad advice or a bad experience in the past. But that bad experience may have caused you to adopt defensive behaviors that are preventing you from moving forward right now.

Tips to move forward:

  • Before trying a new strategy or idea, set parameters around how you’ll evaluate it. Treat it like an experiment. How long will you test the idea? What results will you need to see to keep investing?
  • Keep a list of what you’ve tried—and what you actually did when you tried that idea. You might be surprised to find that many of the ideas in the “didn’t work” column were only tested for a week or two before they were abandoned, and not given proper time or practice to reap results.

The Fire-Drill Culture

What it looks like:
The fire-drill culture was originally introduced to me by Beth Kanter in her excellent blog post: Does Your Nonprofit Suffer from Fire Drill Culture?

The fire-drill culture operates in crisis mode, changing priorities on a daily basis. Staff members are constantly checking their email for updates because what they’re working on right now could become obsolete in 20 minutes. Often described as “fast-paced” or “dynamic,” these environments suffer from a lack of planning and prioritization, especially in quick-growing nonprofits that are trying to handle more responsibilities with fewer resources.

Why it hurts digital efforts:
The fire-drill culture often has a compelling vision for its digital presence, but a lack of systematized planning and execution to get them there. Because of this, ideas get hastily implemented at the last minute or delayed longer than necessary because of other emergencies that crop up. The lack of planning and shared strategic goals means that short-term decisions frequently get made that ultimately lead to additional problems and emergencies down the road.

Tips to move forward:
Changing a fire-drill culture starts with leadership, but extends to all levels of the organization. Here are some questions to ask yourself:

  • Does your organization have a documented digital strategy—even a basic one?
  • Is your digital strategy shared with the people who handle digital efforts in your organization?
  • Do you have a regular cadence of planning and prioritizing changes and improvements to your online presence?
  • Have you invested in the boring-but-necessary task of creating and documenting systems around how your digital presence is managed to prevent fires?

The Receptive Culture

What it looks like:
The receptive culture multiplies the results of its digital efforts. It recognizes its strengths and weakness, and seeks out people and knowledge to help them. They understand when they don’t have the expertise to make a decision, and seek the input of others. They experiment with new strategies, tactics, and ideas, and are patient with themselves when things sometimes don’t work. And they develop the systems, discipline, and relationships necessary to consistently take action on the key activities they’ve identified as critical to their success.

Why it helps digital efforts:
The technology landscape is always changing. A receptive culture will position itself to adapt to these changes by learning and applying new concepts to their online presence, while other cultures are either unaware, hesitant, or too overwhelmed to take advantage of these opportunities.

When a receptive culture tries something new, they take on only what they can handle, and do it consistently. For them, slow is smooth, and smooth is fast (as one of our project managers likes to say). This enables them to stay ahead of the pack and reap the results of their work.

Tips for creating a receptive culture:

  • Seek to identify your weaknesses and surround yourself with people to support you—whether that’s a colleague, new hire, or outside consultant/vendor.
  • Trust the recommendations of the people you surround yourself with, and provide them with all the information necessary for them to make informed suggestions.
  • Promote an environment of creative experimentation and learning where failure is not viewed negatively.
  • Provide your staff a clear, shared digital strategy that aligns with your strategic plan and enables them to act without your input.

Culture change is never easy, and a few bullet points are not going to fix things overnight. However, I hope you walk away from this article with a newfound clarity about how your nonprofit’s culture is shaping the results of your digital efforts—for better or worse.

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