Skip to main content

How to write a digital strategy for smaller charities

21 June 2019

In my career I have produced digital strategies for a wide variety of medium to large-scale organisations, and each one is as unique as a snowflake – though delicately sprinkled with far more marketing buzzwords.

What is interesting though is that every strategy I have worked on also lends its own special insight into the world of digital – and how it fits into a rapidly shifting wider organisational landscape. It is also the primary reason why I recently embraced the opportunity to write one for a smaller charity as part of a Media Trust scheme I was approached about which matches individuals in the media and creative industries with third sector groups who could benefit from their specialist knowledge.

I was matched with local London charity, the Islington Centre for Refugees and Migrants and working with them over several months I helped improve their digital presence.

Here are my top tips for smaller charities developing a digital strategy:

1. A digital strategy is a digital strategy

Don’t worry, I’m not about to get all ‘Brexit means Brexit’ on you. However, at the same time it does need to be said that the basic approach is the same whether you’re writing a digital strategy for a colossal mega-organisation, or one that contains a small handful of staff. Stating the purpose, looking at where the organisation is and where it wants to go, setting up goals and next steps: these are all things that should figure into your thinking from the get-go whatever the size of your organisational chart. Indeed, trying to approach a small charity as being entirely unique is only likely to hamper your efforts to make sense of the challenges and opportunities that exist.

2. Write for the intended audience

Any digital strategy you write will of course be read by those who will directly have to implement it – you would hope – but it will also likely be seen by the chairperson, trustees, and others with less knowledge of digital. This means that speaking in understandable language is key – forget any buzzwords. It is about explaining clearly and concisely anything that may be confusing to a layperson. Also, please take care not to talk down to the intended audience. You’re there to lead them by the hand to a better understanding of what needs doing to help get the charity to a stronger place, not to bash them over the head with your own assumed sense of superiority.

3. Begin with a digital audit

This is the practical step that I would most strongly recommend as a result of my own experience. Through assessing a small charity’s existing digital approach, channels, and mechanisms, you can provide immediate and actionable recommendations which the charity is then able to start implementing while you continue work on the strategy itself. At this stage the audit doesn’t necessarily need to be comprehensive, but can be about looking at the basic elements of design, imagery, readability, user journey and basic user experience, and pointing out the basic steps that can be taken to begin resolving these. It’s helpful to then meet so you can go through in finer detail and answer any questions. This means that things don’t have to wait while you wrap your noggin around theoretical strategies and concepts – and also means that you can achieve some quick results to provide as proof to other stakeholders of the benefits of having a strong digital approach.

4. Acknowledge good work

Balancing competing priorities when you are overburdened and under resourced is a tough job, so it’s important to acknowledge the good work that’s already being done, as well as colleagues commitment to continuing to implement change. It’s vital to point out all the things that the charity and its staff have got right, increasing their confidence rather than smashing it to smithereens. Getting this process going is already a sign that they have foresight and are wanting to head in the right direction, so there’s no reason to bring them down.

5. Make suggested improvements achievable

Anybody who has compiled a ‘To-do’ list can attest to how depressing it gets once it spirals out of control. The recommendations have to feel realistic while at the same time stretching what’s possible. A good way to do this is to present a draft version of the strategy to the person/people who will be responsible for implementing it as soon as one is ready, then incorporating their feedback. That helps with getting buy-in and makes it more likely the strategy will be stuck to, rather than chucked into a pile of documents never to be referenced again.

6. Explain in person

Offer to present the strategy to the chairperson, trustees, and whichever stakeholders may need or want to know more. Guiding them through the strategy will make it more accessible, and it will allow them the opportunity to ask any questions that you may not have thought of while producing the document. Ensure that at the start of the sessions you make very clear that no questions are stupid, and go out of your way to receive any queries/thoughts/objections with grace and sincerity – it means that they’re engaging with the strategy, which is far better than them shutting up and wishing the whole thing away.

7. Change takes time

Even if you have years of experience, don’t expect to be greeted with open arms. Any small charity has multiple competing priorities, and some trustees and other stakeholders will be naturally – and understandably – sceptical about where digital elements should sit within this. It helps to incorporate some evidence of the increasing importance of digital to the charity sector, and to put in place some modest goals in the short-term – including Key Performance Indicators – which will help show them how any work on digital is making a difference, whether that’s quantitative (such as more people visiting the website or making donations online) or qualitative (such as positive feedback via email or social channels). Smaller organisations can be more wary of embracing innovation since they fewer resources and need to use them carefully, so it is essential to be realistic in not just your ambitions but also your expectations.

Photo by Randy Fath on Unsplash

Michael MacLennan

founder and chief executive, covid:aid

Michael MacLennan is the Founder and Chief Executive of covid:aid. A Communications Director at international critical issues firm Brunswick, he has also been Global Digital Editorial Manager at Red Bull and worked on innovative digital projects at the BBC, Barclaycard, ITN, STV, and The Herald.