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How digital engagement is changing nonprofit program delivery

Overhead view of an illustrated laptop. The text next to it reads, "Guest post: Stronger programs through digital engagement and personalization."
Nov 22, 2022
8 minute read
Digital Communications • Program

When the pandemic hit in 2020, many nonprofits had no choice but to engage with program participants digitally. While many organizations were already using digital channels for outreach, COVID-19 was the catalyst for a massive leap forward in engagement strategies. And leap they did; nonprofits met the moment with focus, building innovative solutions and tapping into external resources to develop new ways of reaching their audiences.

In May 2022, Twilio.org published the State of Nonprofit Digital Engagement Report (SONDER) detailing how nonprofits use digital communications in program delivery. 

The report showed that nonprofit organizations have stepped up as digital leaders, completely changing how they deliver programs to reach more people more quickly and in more dignified ways. In fact, roughly 65% of engagement nonprofits have with their program participants today is digital, compared to 55% from B2C companies.

Nonprofits are demonstrating that digital engagement is not just an extra tool but an essential way to scale program impact. These organizations are setting the bar for using digital tools to reach more people than ever and providing them with the information and services they need fast.

But while the pandemic pushed the social sector farther into the digital era, subsequent crises — from global conflicts to a shaky economy to climate change — require organizations to keep innovating to serve more people with greater efficiency and more personalized ways. 

A 75-year-old organization becomes a digital leader

In the humanitarian subsector, digital programming is helping organizations like the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) assist people in record numbers. Established in the wake of World War II, NRC has been protecting and supporting displaced people for more than 75 years. In 2021, they helped 10 million people in 35 different countries.

In the summer of 2022, Diana Smith, Senior Director of Marketing at Twilio.org, spoke with Christopher Hoffman, Global Project Manager-Digital Community Hubs at NRC, to find out how this independent organization is evolving to meet changing needs.

Hoffman revealed that since 2020, NRC has been able to evolve how they engage with and deliver aid to people in need, using digital systems and personalized communication to reach more people than ever before.

Hoffman says it’s not that the old ways of interacting with people in person are wrong. It’s just that digital tools allow organizations to scale faster, which allows them to have more impact. His insights that changes at NRC are valuable in demonstrating how technology — and an organizational culture shift — can enable nonprofits to accomplish even more. 

A dramatic change in program delivery

89% of nonprofits that participated in the Twilio.org SONDER said digital communications are critical to achieving their mission — and this was certainly true for NRC. When COVID-19 made face-to-face interactions impossible, NRC pivoted to digital engagement in order to reach its audience, which numbered in the tens of millions. 

For an organization with a 75-year legacy, it’s reasonable to think a program revamp would be a complex and difficult process.

According to Hoffman, not only was it surprisingly easy to incorporate digital engagement into their programs — the increase in impact was immediate. “Two years ago, we would be driving a land cruiser with five people in the car and go to a village and ask questions about what their needs are. Now, from the office, we can design opportunities to engage with people over their mobile phones and reach 10,000 people within seconds, versus being able to reach ten over a five-hour journey in a car.” 

When it comes to humanitarian aid, the ability to scale so effectively is literally saving lives around the world. Other nonprofit sectors — from education to healthcare to human rights — are following suit by using digital engagement to achieve their goals.

Personalization equals dignity

A dignified response requires that an organization understand the person on the other end and communicate with them as an individual — offering a level of personalization that goes beyond mass communication approaches. The more organizations can listen and learn from program participants, the more they can deliver relevant, effective support. 

The importance of personalization was also echoed in the SONDER findings. Even though nonprofits are outpacing the private sector in digital engagement, there are plenty of opportunities to increase engagement and provide more relevant assistance. In fact, program participants rated personalization as the #1 area they want nonprofits to prioritize. Not only that, 75% of nonprofits say their program participants would like more digital communications options.

With roughly 90% of people on earth having access to mobile devices, there is huge potential for nonprofits to expand and personalize their communications to deliver specific and relevant support at scale. As more organizations switch to digital communications, the number of people who can receive the assistance they need will increase exponentially. 

For NRC, this means designing population-specific programs that get people the items or services they actually need. A family fleeing their home does not need a 90lb bag of grain, nor does a small village need 25 jackets that are all the same size. Using digital tools to learn how to best aid people–not just at the initial point of crisis but throughout the entire period of strife–is proving to be a much smarter way to help and build trust with your participants.

According to Hoffman, “People in need deserve a dignified response. Allowing people to make their own decisions with the aid they require is key to addressing their needs and also key to assisting them on the path to recovery. As an example, we do this by integrating cash programming in our system. Would you rather be given a winter jacket, or would you rather have the ability to buy the jacket you need in the right size?” 

NRC gives people the opportunity to access multi-purpose cash and services over their mobile phones so they can make their own decisions on what they need. In response to the Ukraine crisis, NRC launched a cash assistance program and registered more than 120,000 applications in 10 days. 

As Hoffman shared, a “one-size-fits-all” approach to aid is inefficient and ineffective since the needs of one family fleeing a crisis can be very different from another. Giving people the ability to personalize their experience provides help in a more dignified way.

Partnership offers a faster path to impact

While significant program change can be daunting, Hoffman thinks nonprofit leaders should be fearless when transitioning to digital engagement. NRC didn’t have an in-house development team for the project, so they worked with Twilio to identify a partner who could support development and ultimately teamed up with UK-based Zing

For nonprofits with limited tech staff, leveraging development partners and low-code/no-code solutions are a cost-effective way to scale operations and start using personalization and other tools. It can be a faster path to getting started than building an in-house team and can allow organizations to go from idea to impact in a matter of weeks or months.

NRC worked with Zing to design population-specific programs and iterate on them as each crisis evolved. This approach allows them to stay informed as the needs of program participants change. 

Funders play an important role in the development of digital programming. Nonprofits often need support from donors and institutional funders to fund technical support. The findings from SONDER show that flexible donations and technical development grants rooted in trust-based philanthropy principles will be essential for nonprofits as they work on building digital programming.

Hoffman offered these final words of advice for nonprofit organizations on the journey to deepening digital engagement to scale their programs:

“More people are displaced today than at any time in history. It sounds daunting if we were trying to [address it] in the old way. Now we’ve got a new way to address the needs of many more people really succinctly. Just remember, you can do it. It’s not that hard, and you can change the way that you do programming to assist more people more effectively.”

Toward a future of listening and helping at scale

It’s clear that there is still far more innovation possible in digital engagement and personalization — and nonprofits have the opportunity to continue leading and showing the way. By incorporating personalization, organizations can better support constituents and meet their specific needs faster and more effectively.

Want to learn more about nonprofit digital engagement? Find insights on personalization and other key trends in the State of Nonprofit Digital Engagement Report.

Jacob Talbot

Jacob Talbot

He/Him

Director of Campaigns and Product Marketing, Twilio.org, Twilio.org

Jacob loves working with people to build communications that create positive change. Since 2017, he has helped thousands of social impact organizations harness the power of communications technology to serve people globally, from civic engagement to crisis response. Outside of the office, he’s often found pedaling on the roads and trails in the San Francisco Bay Area

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