Why is digital governance important for nonprofits?

on 26th March 2024

“Governance is an enabler. It allows organizations to minimize some of the churn and uncertainty in development by clearly establishing accountability and decision-making authority for all matters digital… Properly designed, a digital governance framework can make your online business machine sing.”

- Managing Chaos: Digital Governance by Design, Lisa Welchman

What is digital governance?

Digital governance may also be thought of as digital management and is a key component in the broader context of your digital strategy. Where digital strategy refers to the high-level plan or roadmap that guides your organisation's digital initiatives, digital governance refers to the decision-making processes and systems established to manage the selection and implementation of digital tools and services. 

Developing a digital governance framework for your organisation involves establishing clear operational rules for your digital tools and services, defining the roles and responsibilities of decision-makers, and putting in place a framework for those rules to be followed.

As Lisa Welchman points out in her book Managing Chaos, “governance” is a term that can make people wince, due to its bureaucratic associations. However, we agree with Welchman that the inverse is often the case – without clear governance, digital systems become fractured and inefficient, failing to meet the needs of stakeholders. 

We frequently encounter some of the following scenarios for our clients, all of which could be attributed to lack of digital governance: small marketing teams overwhelmed with requests from the wider organisation, technology-first solutions (often poorly bundled together), under-performing websites that do not meet user needs, organisational goals or accessibility requirements. 

With a plethora of digital platforms to monitor, staff changes to manage, meetings to attend, emails to send… all the day to day *stuff*... these situations can easily creep up. Digital governance may sound like another layer of bureaucracy to swallow up your time but it is far from it. An effective digital governance framework empowers the right people to make effective and strategic decisions, while also allowing clear routes for ideas sharing and collaboration from the wider organisation. 

Why is digital governance important and what problems can it solve for your organisation?

Digital governance is crucial for any organisation, for several reasons:

Keeping your mission and objectives at the forefront of all decisions: Without good governance, digital platforms and initiatives may be implemented which are overly internally-focused, serve the needs of only a minority of staff, or forget bigger picture goals.

Maintaining stakeholder trust: Digital governance helps ensure transparency in how digital resources are managed and used, fostering trust among donors, volunteers, and beneficiaries.

Compliance and risk management: Your company policies will specify legally what you must and must not do online, particularly concerning data protection and privacy, and this forms part of a good digital governance framework. The framework part ensures people know where to find policies and how to implement them. 

Enhanced collaboration and communication: When working with diverse stakeholders, including staff, volunteers, donors, and partner organisations, clear guidelines on chosen collaboration tools ensures ease of communication and coordination across different teams and departments. Clearly defined roles also allow for delegation of tasks without in-fighting.

Adaptation to technological changes: The digital landscape is constantly evolving, with new technologies and trends emerging rapidly. Adopting new digital tools and strategies can enhance your operations and impact, digital governance helps you to adopt these changes by providing a framework for evaluation.

Measuring and evaluating impact: You need to measure and evaluate the impact of your programs and initiatives. Digital governance helps establish metrics, processes, and tools for tracking and analysing digital performance data, enabling nonprofits to make data-informed decisions for improvement.

Efficient resource allocation: Nonprofits in particular often operate with limited resources. Ultimately, effective digital governance ensures that resources are allocated efficiently and you’re less likely to need an overhaul of your entire website or digital estate.

Common models for digital governance 

How you implement digital governance will depend on the size of your organisation and the time and resources available. It is likely that you may find yourself somewhere in between the following three common models for approaching digital governance:

Centralised Governance Model

In this model, a central governing body or committee is responsible for making decisions and establishing guidelines regarding the organisation's digital initiatives. This governing body could consist of the senior leadership team from within the organisation but it may also take the form of an outsourced steering committee or working group.

The centralised approach ensures consistency across the organisation's digital activities but has the potential for creating top-down policies that are not inclusive or do not integrate the needs of all stakeholders.

Decentralised Governance Model

In contrast to the centralised model, the decentralised governance model understands the diverse needs of different departments and delegates decision-making authority to individual teams. Each department is responsible for developing and implementing its own digital governance policies and procedures, tailored to its specific needs and objectives.

While this model allows for greater autonomy and flexibility, it is also the most likely to result in inconsistency and fragmentation across the organisation's digital efforts, especially if each department does not have the same level of digital expertise.

Hybrid Governance Model

A hybrid governance model combines elements of both centralised and decentralised approaches and typically involves a central governing body that sets overarching digital policies and standards, while ensuring all organisational departments can contribute their ideas and requirements. 

A hybrid model strikes the balance between the consistency that a centralised digital strategy unit can provide and accommodating the unique requirements and subject specialisms of decentralised teams. 

If you’re still unsure which model your organisation follows or perhaps one of them feels unofficially right but there’s no documentation or handbook to back this up, then we’ve put together a basic outline to get you started.

How to start with your Digital Governance Framework? 

Keep it simple. Establish what needs governing, then establish who governs it. The framework can start out as simple as a spreadsheet using a common collaboration tool, like Google Sheets, Trello or Clickup.

In the spreadsheet or project board, add columns for the following information:

  1. A list of all of the current digital platforms used by your organisation for both internal and external digital communications. This includes social media channels, websites, apps, intranet, CRM, analytics platforms, etc. 
  2. Where can the login details be found for each platform?
  3. Who you think is currently responsible for managing each platform and their contact information – this could be internal staff or third-party agencies.
  4. An outline of the purpose of each platform – who is the end user and how does it serve them?
  5. The decision making process for each platform – any hard Do or Don’ts or legal policies to link to? Is the platform content managed day-to-day by a departmental marketing team but with changes to the platform implementation overseen by senior leadership?
  6. The systems in place for measurement, evaluation and feedback – this could be as simple as providing a simple feedback form or survey, setting a regular meeting schedule with the platform managers, and setting clear goals that define successful platform implementation.
  7. Once the above documentation is complete, ensure that it is shared with and easily discoverable by everyone in the organisation. 

You may find this information is easy to complete or it might bring up some surprising gaps. Either way, completing the above exercise should be a collaborative effort for your organisation, ensuring that once the documented framework is complete, everyone is on the same page regarding roles and responsibilities. This should also include any external agencies you work with, as they will be partly responsible for certain platforms and will be able to offer guidance on evaluating digital tools and offer strategic guidance

In conclusion

You can change up your marketing platforms, overhaul your website design or hire new marketing staff many times over but unless a digital governance framework is in place, the same issues are likely to resurface. Once in place, a strong framework can help with the onboarding of new staff, as well as reduce siloed knowledge throughout your organisation, enabling all staff to remain proactive and engaged with digital initiatives. Overall, a good digital governance framework ensures that both people and platforms align with digital strategies and your wider organisational objectives.

Get in touch to find out how we could support your organisation in developing a digital governance framework. 

This article was posted in Nonprofit, Brand development

  • Emily Owen

    Emily Owen

    Senior Account Manager & Business Development Strategist