Digital Transformation in The Not-For-Profit Sector: An Interview With Dave Thomas

6 min read
Amba Wilkes

Businesses are adapting to major digital advancements in exactly the same way users are. From new marketing platforms to advanced technology and global competition, digital transformation brings with it a multitude of challenges.  

“Organisations need to understand that it’s quite normal to have major digital challenges. Everyone is having problems keeping up. But the crucial step is deciding to act; creating a plan to overcome it and getting as many people on board as possible.” 

We spoke to Dave Thomas - a CIO Adviser whose background covers not-for-profit visitor attractions, learned societies, research and commercial organisations - to discuss the challenges traditional organisations face. He shared valuable advice on how organisations can create a business case for digital transformation, how to start tackling it and why it shouldn’t be called a transformation in the first place… 

Do you think the need for a website has been exacerbated in the current climate?  

Many organisations that I work with are heavily place-based. They’ve often tacked layers of digital on top of their physical offering over many years but never flipped it to realise that, in the future, digital is likely to dominate. Due to COVID there has been a massive displacement of their offline activity. I also work alongside museums and galleries who rely on tourism to exist, but they’ve been temporarily shut, and this has completely changed their business model. Donation and membership are even more important and they really need to think about their online journeys. They’re beginning to think about online as a totally separate destination. 

Before COVID, I would ask these organisations, “look forward five years, how are you going to be more than just a great day out?”. But too often I saw that the traditions of physical events, education and exhibitions dominated their thoughts, and thus their day-to-day influence of online audiences is severely compromised. They’ve got to shift their mindset entirely to consider - why do people visit us other than for a day out? Is it for education? For entertainment? How does that translate to the digital world?  

So, has the need for a website changed? Remember that things are always changing. So, it’s the need for delivering genuine value that has been accelerated, and don’t forget the importance of social and third-party platforms for driving traffic.  

What do you think the key challenges are for not-for-profit organisations when tackling digital transformation?  

Well to start, businesses need to stop seeing digital transformation as a transformation because that implies to me that it has an endpoint. There has never been a point where businesses say, “We’re not changing much. We’re nice and comfortable, it’s just like it was last year”. It’s never happened, and it never will because things are always changing.

For me, digital is really about connectivity – both social connectivity and technical connectivity. Connected people, connected machines, connected communities, that kind of thing. And transformation is an enduring process which never stops and that’s why businesses need to get into this continuous improvement mindset.  

In terms of challenges, a lot of not-for-profits are established businesses. It’s very difficult for them to simply switch to digital. Some creative destruction is needed where long-standing practices are bulldozered to create space to do new things. It’s very difficult for these established organisations to actively destroy what they’ve created over many years.  

Instead, they often try and paper on top of what they already have. For example, they may set up a digital transformation team which ticks boxes but doesn’t take everyone on the journey. The organisation then falls into the trap of thinking they are now digital, when actually, they’re not. Digital needs to be everywhere in an organisation – it’s not owned by anyone. It needs a fair but assertive approach to be done well, and not-for-profit organisations don’t always feel comfortable – they’re nice organisations that can’t afford to take risks. I’d say it’s this concept of creative destruction and having to be assertive when it comes to digital transformation that’s a big challenge.  

Also, there’s the factor that not-for-profits aren’t ever wealthy, so often carry a greater burden of ‘technical debt’ from legacy and out of date platforms and processes. Rarely are they able to invest the sums needed so I always encourage peer collaboration to help solve their challenges. When digital is sub-optimal, they do at least have motivated audiences that care and want to interact to help them survive.  

What advice would you give to someone trying to build a digital transformation business case?  

Typically, an organisation won’t have a hard business case. I know people try but I’ve rarely seen one. They’ll know they want a bit more of something and a bit less of something else. I don’t think digital transformation is something you can put an ROI either. It’s this thing that just needs to be done and you have to persuade people across the organisation to do it. Is digital really going to go away?  

In terms of advice, I think it depends on the size of an organisation and the politics of that organisation. You need to understand why people are talking about digital. Is it the marketing team? Maybe they want to get more leads, or the commercial team needing online sales. Or it could be the IT and operational teams who are often faced with broken backend processes. Typically, a balanced programme that serves everyone is what’s needed and the strategic confidence to do this over time. 

If you can find out who’s driving it or if you're the one driving it, you need to try and persuade as many people as possible to get involved. If you go about digital transformation with any one organisational constituency dominating the process, you're going to end up with a variation that has some pretty significant deficiencies.  

I’d love to say digital transformation talk comes from the bottom and bubbles up, but in larger organisations, the energy usually seems to start from middle management or a senior level. They’re listening to the customers and members of their teams and one day they realise it just isn’t good enough anymore and material investment is needed. Sometimes this needs a new Chief Executive or Digital Director to come on board to crystalise these thoughts, but other times management teams can self-organise. Whatever creates the momentum, the delivery is a team game. 

Once you’ve built a business case, how would you advise an organisation to start their digital transformation?  

Ask yourself the question - will we need to have done this in five to 10 years’ time? The answer is yes, you will. So, if you’re not doing it now, when are you going to address the issue? Quite often when an organisation considers this, it can create a mind shift. It makes them think like their audience. Really, the first question you should ask yourself is, ‘Why should my audience and customers care?’. This can help when you start to consider their user journey and it encourages a really clear-cut prioritisation process.  

When I was working on a web project with a large museum, we identified 250 user journeys at a high level. We had a choice to either map out each of these and develop a compromised online experience or prioritise the main ones. It was a hard thing to do, but this prioritisation was really important. Don’t be scared of getting into the mindset of changing your user’s behaviour and simplifying offers either. This is what Amazon did and it’s what all these successful start-ups are doing. They don’t offer 15 different ways of charging for a service. They offer three versions such as free, basic and premium. It helps to sweep away all the lengthy deliberation that can occur in established organisations. Digital can make things slick, but it isn’t necessarily the easiest thing to change, so it’s important to consider simplification factors from the very start. 

There are various reasons why it can be hard to get started or why it’s not being done very well. A big reason is the disjoint between the organisation’s outward focus versus the back-end processes. For example, there’s no point having a great website if you can’t bill your clients properly. Your website and public persona have to be consistent with your brand across the board. But unless you have a very large internal resource, it can be difficult to do.  

What advice would you give to a not-for-profit organisation who needs to source an external digital partner?   

I like the word partner, but a lot of agencies don’t see it that way. They might call themselves a partner, but are they really? Many use a more transactional, ‘supplier and client’ relationship instead.  

When selecting a digital partner, you should be looking for an external team that can support your internal team long term. The aim is to find that sweet spot with a partner where you understand and trust each other. Yes, it’s about cost and specifications but it’s also about values, people-fit, understanding, futures – all the things you would consider when you’re choosing a friend because it is a relationship after all.  

Organisations also need to recognise that there is an enduring investment after any shorter-term ‘projects’. Transformation and technology need skilled people to nurture and continuously improve. Projects become less necessary when you have good foundational platforms. 

Also, I advise my clients to be careful with hype and buzzwords. You have to be confident that you’re doing the right thing for your organisation, not just because somebody else has done it or you read an article. Organisations need to understand that it’s quite normal to have major digital challenges. Everyone is having problems keeping up. But the crucial step is deciding to act; creating a plan to overcome it and getting as many people onboard as possible. This way, you will see the whole organisation line up behind digital transformation.  


A web development agency with over 20 years of experience, we know a thing or two about tackling digital transformation in traditional industries. Taking a flexible approach, we adapt how we work based on your unique challenges using our love of problem-solving to convert these challenges into a website that supports your business.  

Priding ourselves on our iterative approach, we can help you get the most from your website and gain buy-in from your wider business. If you want to learn more about the way we can support you on your ongoing digital transformation journey, get in touch with us directly or take a look at some of our client’s success stories.  

Thoughts. Opinions. Views. Advice.

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