Hanna Thomas Uose

Principal Consultant at Align

A shorter version of this article was published by The NonProfit Times, authored by both Hanna Thomas Uose and Michael Silberman.

Our phones are currently full of voicemails asking how to do break-out groups on Zoom, text messages examining the benefits of one mass mailer over another, and emails about whether to post a new social video on IGTV or YouTube.

Many advocacy organisations 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 that we’ve both helped dozens of organisations develop over the past decade are ultimately insufficient if we 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 organisational culture that supports their success.

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

Which leads to the good news — you’ve got this! If you can invest in your digital infrastructure, then do. If you can’t 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 organisations 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 last 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 organisations 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? New opportunities to transform the status quo with creative interventions and solutions that may not have been previously possible — from advancing worker’s rights to reforming criminal justice.
Digital Democracy, an organisation that works in solidarity with marginalised 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-strategising a new habit. We’re fans of 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 

One thing we’ve both learned working with some of the world’s best equipped organisations is that resources do not translate to readiness – especially for shocks like this moment. 

From digital rallies to teach-ins, grassroots and community organisers have deployed nearly 100 creative ways to continue mobilising 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.”

Established organisations 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 may look like a technological marvel to those just getting used to videoconferencing technology, but the only special technology at play is the organisation’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 organisations we’ve supported over the past decade, they’ve also limited our imaginations around what’s possible to a small set of prebuilt tools — resulting in a predictable use of tactics like petitions or pre-populated messages to decision-makers. These tools and tactics have their place, but we 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, organisations 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 centre of our planning not only enables us to scale our work but also ensures campaign messages are relevant rather than off base.

MobLab is working with two philanthropies to facilitate participatory design processes (remotely) that enable community organisations to identify the challenges they face in their local advocacy work during this pandemic and develop creative solutions that help them build necessary skills or capabilities. 

In just a few hours, decision makers will get the information they need to ensure they’re investing resources where frontline changemakers need it most. This people-centred approach also helps us to avoid the trap of further alienating those who might already be alienated from our work. Marginalised communities risk being even more excluded from planning and decision-making in fast-paced, crisis contexts. 

Organisational resilience has traditionally been defined in financial terms. We believe that resilience is and will be determined by the breadth and depth of an organisation’s relationships with individuals, partners, and allies.

In a workshop Michael recently facilitated for an international group focused on inequality, staff were surprised and concerned to see volunteers taking the work into their own hands by initiating online and in-store protests of a corporate retailer. It took the staff some time to realise that this deeper engagement in the campaign was actually a sign of success even though they hadn’t planned or anticipated this level of participation. 

Now’s the perfect time for every organisation 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 we have convinced you that the organisations 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 organisation’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, like volunteer platforms and trainings? Are there inefficiencies in your work flows 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 incentivise more of your staff to step up in responsibility and be creative.
  • Who is closer to the ground and might be able to do this better? Your organisation 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. 

We won’t pretend all of this is simple to do – or that every organisation is going to thrive. But if your organisation 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. 

“Resilience is not just about enduring turbulence and bouncing back. At their best, resilient nonprofits respond to disruptions as tipping points, rather than tragedies, finding new opportunities to learn, grow, evolve, and, ultimately, better serve their communities.” 

–Diana Scearce and June Wang in Resilience at Work

Hanna Thomas Uose

Hanna Thomas Uose is a Principal Consultant at Align, supporting organizations to find alignment through strategy, support, facilitation and coaching.