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3 Approaches to Non-Profit Digital Governance

Governance models for non-profits and associations are always a hot topic. And with good reason. The right governance model can empower staff, Board, and members to use their individual talents for the good of the whole organization. But when you factor in technology, the need for a more specific kind of governance emerges: digital governance.  

For most of us, ‘digital’ means technologies and programs: the web, mobile, marketing automation, CRM (Customer Relationship Management System), social media, and more. Organizations are investing more in technology, especially given the marketing opportunities in the digital space. For all stakeholders, digital informs, engages, and transforms organizations and the user experience.

But digital strategies only work when supported by the proper processes, including internal collaboration, external marketing, and member services. There’s no question that digital has grown up. But – has the governance of digital channels, systems, and platforms kept up?

In this blog, we review the benefits of digital governance, and explore three different digital governance strategies. Which one is best for your organization? Read on to find out!

Central Digital Governance

Think about your organization’s overall governance model. What does it help you do? For one thing, it identifies who is responsible for what, who has decision-making power, and how different departments/roles in the organization can work together to get the job done. Your organization may have by-laws stating the scope and authority of your Board, leadership team, etc. It would be impossible to get the day-to-day work and larger goals accomplished without such a structure in place.

Digital governance works the same way – but applies specifically to the digital space. In other words, digital governance structures include who sets the direction and tactical processes, and who implements them to ensure that your digital goals are achieved. 

The first approach we will explore is called Central Governance. Central Governance recognizes that the fast pace of digital requires a separate governance structure, along with a separate, unencumbered execution arm. Typically, in this model, the organization sets up two groups. Here is an example of how this could look. 

The Digital Steering Committee (DSC) would be responsible for keeping up with trends, organizational strategy, and setting the direction for web, social media, etc.  This group could meet once or a few times a year. The Digital Working Group (DWG) would be responsible for implementing the plan. There are many ways that the DWG could be integrated into your organizational structure. The DWG could be a totally separate department, or be housed within IT, or marketing. It could even be partially or fully outsourced. Significantly, the DWG provides on-the-ground input to the DSC, and reports back on effectiveness of digital efforts.

Decentralized Digital Governance

The second approach is called Decentralized Governance. This model recognizes that digital must be completely integrated into the organization’s existing structures and processes, and therefore so must governance.  

Unlike Central Governance, there are no additional groups created. Instead, each existing group in the organization is responsible for both planning and implementing digital strategies, as appropriate to their departments. For example, an HR department would execute an online recruitment strategy as part of their overall recruitment strategy. A member service department would integrate social media monitoring and response into their overall member service strategy. An education department would roll out multi-platform course marketing as part of their larger education marketing strategy. In this approach, existing marketing and technology groups function in a shared service model, providing functional expertise and delivery capability as needed.

Strategic Digital Governance

These approaches represent the two extremes of approaches to digital governance. An organization may start with one, then move to another as efficacy is assessed. That being said, as the organization matures, so should its governance. This is where a third approach comes into play that combines both previous frameworks: Strategic Governance.

Strategic Governance recognizes that not every group within the organization may be as “plugged in” digitally. Where the marketing department may be up on the latest trends and digital tools, other departments may lag far behind in terms of digital knowledge and skills. This approach also acknowledges that there is merit in a central Digital Steering Committee (DSC) that can channel sharing, education, and digital innovation.  The DSC would also be responsible for ensuring that the digital initiatives are aligned with departmental and organizational strategies. 

Although both the Central Governance model and Strategic Governance models have a DSC, there is one important difference. Unlike Central Governance, here, individual departments take responsibility for driving innovation within their own group. After all, who knows their mandate better? And who would be most aware of best practices (and competitive initiatives) in their areas? Departments could set up their own Digital Working Groups (DWGs), instead of just having one (as in the central model).

The key to this hybrid model, is how the DSC and DWGs work together. For example, best practices for search engine optimization (SEO) could be tracked by the DSC, while the HR DWG identifies how to leverage and implement SEO when placing job postings. 

Which digital governance model is best for your organization? All three models have merit. Ask yourself these two questions: 

  1. Which model makes the most sense based on your organization’s history, strategy, and capabilities? 

  2. Which has the greatest potential to maximize your organization’s impact? 

Whichever model you choose, the important thing is that your organization has actually put digital governance into place.  Governance doesn’t have to be complex or time-consuming – it just needs to be done. 

Where can you start? If you don’t have a model in place yet, take these three approaches to your team to kick-off the digital governance discussion. If you do have a model in place, explore these three approaches with your team to learn how they could be improved. 

Don’t hesitate to reach out if you need support! We would love to chat about which digital governance model is right for your non-profit or association, and how it can support your digital transformation strategy efforts.