Building in-house digital capacity is Mission Critical

Building digital capacity simply means increasing your organization’s ability to work, communicate, connect, engage, teach, share and publish using digital tools.

Building digital capacity means:

  • Increasing your ability to do digital things
  • Increasing your ability to understand the digital context, and
  • Responding powerfully to how technology is changing how we work

There is no “secret sauce” to this. It takes work, leadership, commitment and perseverance. It’s an evolutionary thing, and we must check our biases at the door. We can’t expect to produce studio-perfect material from the get-go. We can’t ignore how digital tech is changing how we are in the world. And we can’t pretend that the old way of working still serves us.

Okay, maybe there’s a small dish of secret sauce: Practice makes better. Meet people where they are. And – live the change.

Nonprofits of all kinds have an incredible opportunity to build positive and inclusive learning cultures around digital, and to see our digital output improve, quantitatively and qualitatively. We have an unprecedented opportunity to tell our own stories – involving our staff, our members, our volunteers or constituents – in ways that build skills, deepen ownership and loyalty, and strengthen our organizations at the same time.

“People own what they create,” says organizational development expert Margaret Wheatley. When your people co-create the telling of your story, they feel a sense of ownership that cements bonds and builds healthy, vibrant organizational culture – especially when organizations live their stories from the inside-out.

As “normal” as all this tech might seem to some of us, we are in the very early days of digital. The present reality of digital competition for eyeballs, thumbs, hearts and minds will only increase. It’s not too late (not by a long shot) to begin the process of building digital capacity, let alone “going digital.”

Still, it’s important to acknowledge that every passing day writes the future of your organization’s ability to connect with people.

This is why digital publishing, communication and engagement should not be seen as products to outsource. They are internal capacities to foster, develop and deepen.

No organization should surrender its ability to talk and listen in the digital age to outside marketing agencies because they don’t know what else to do. Groups that do that are in for a rude shock down the road – depleted budgets and no skills to tell their own stories.

I’m not “anti-agency”. I’m pro-autonomy. If digital agencies help build the capacity of their nonprofit clients as they deliver consulting, products or training, then I’m a fan.

I have strong feelings about this one. It’s because I see developing digital capacity as Mission Critical for nonprofits.


We’ll never have the resources – digital or financial – of big companies, obviously. But that’s okay. We are wealthy in people power, in ways big corporations will never be. But there is one thing that big brands are doing that nonprofit folks should pay particular attention to – and that is the building of in-house digital capacity.

Leading brands know which way the wind is blowing. They are increasing their digital capacity all the time. We should take notes – not because we must emulate them in all ways (far from it). But because we recognize that building in-house capacity makes us more powerful and capable at telling our own stories. On that level, we need to compete.

The Association of National Advertisers in the US surveys in-house digital marketing capacity every few years. In 2008, it found that 42% of its members (mostly large, familiar brands) had brought major marketing functions in-house. By 2013, that number had risen to 58%. Advertising Age reported several good reasons for this shift:

The greatest advantages cited by marketers for having an in-house shop were cost-efficiencies (88%), institutional knowledge (79%), having a dedicated team (74%) and brand expertise (71%).

Of course, organizations of all kinds – both for-profit and nonprofit – are always looking to be efficient with resources. But clearly nonprofits face more pressure to be extremely careful with limited budgets, making in-house capacity building an attractive option.

But it’s the benefit of stronger organizational capacity – in other words, the ability to tell your own story – that should clinch the deal. The same ANA study found that slightly over half of companies were bringing social and mobile marketing in-house, which is also significant for nonprofits looking to expand their digital production into mobile.

None of us are Apple, with its massive in-house digital marketing department. But when they double the size of their in-house marketing department, from a mere 300 staffers to 600, it would be wise to take notes.

Where to begin? Start where you are. With your people.


When it comes to building in-house digital capacity, your people are your greatest strength. Groups that foster an organizational culture of openness and inclusion towards their people’s skills and interests will find “growing digital” smoother sailing than groups where the culture is closed and compartmentalized.

It’s about generosity, and spirit. Are we generous towards our staff and members? With what spirit are we approaching our digital growth? Is it safe for our people to show and share their skills? Is there space for risk, experimentation, innovation?

Let’s go with yes, there is the space. Let’s assume that nonprofits – from unions to community organizations – don’t want to leave all the innovation to the private sector. Let’s assume that nonprofits can roll with the digital times.

These are assumptions I’m willing to make.

We can’t afford to surrender all the innovative space to for-profit voices. After all, we’re rich in people. Heck, we’re fabulously wealthy in people – people with tremendous skills and gifts. Let’s celebrate this abundance and put it to work for tech change, organizational change and social change.   


Key #1 – Assess your group with a communications review

Some assessment questions are simple enough. Ask yourself questions like:

  • What skills do we have already in-house?
  • What do we need?
  • How do we support learning, growth and training?
  • How can we do that better?

And some assessment questions are rather more complex – and political:

  • How do we currently share the telling of our story?
  • How well are we sharing digital?
  • Who controls our organization’s channels of expression?
  • What is our “communications culture”?
  • Who gets to talk, and who listens?

Key #2 – Discover your people’s skills and gifts. I mean, really grok them, man

How well do you know your people?

Find out where their skills and interests lie. Foster the openness to support them and develop ways for them to use digital tools in doing their work and delivering on their roles and functions. Work with your people and find out what they can do. Inspire them and recruit them in the telling of your story. Democratize that telling.

These days, talent is all around us. Find out:

  • Who likes to write?
  • Who is into photography?
  • Who is into web design? Web development?
  • Any graphic designers in the house?
  • Who makes video – and wants to make better ones?
  • Who wants to make a game about your programs?
  • Any online facilitators in the house?
  • Who likes using social media? Which platforms? Can we match skills with organizational needs?
  • Who knows how to use mobile devices in new and creative ways?
  • And, not least, who is good at teaching about digital tools and strategies, and likes to teach about them?

Discovering all this exciting stuff about your people is one of the benefits you can look forward to as you open the conversation about digital in your organization.

Key #3 – Contract-in. Bit by insidious bit

For some organizations, folks are so quick to contract out digital work it’s become almost a reflex, or the default position. This won’t serve us in the long-term.

The authentic voice of your organization comes from the people who form it. If they’re not allowed to speak, your culture will diminish in short order.

Start small. Start low-stakes. A video here, a podcast there. As quality and sophistication rise, so do skills and confidence.

Key #4 – Find allies to train, teach and support your digital growth

Work in partnership with freelancers, consultants and agencies that are willing to bundle teaching and training with their services.

There is an abundance of digital talent all around us, and skilled digital freelancers in particular are always looking for good work. Organizations can get together and pool resources to bring in consultants and trainers to raise their digital levels. A small retainer for a freelancer can go a long way. There is no shortage of possibilities.

Larger agencies are often open to doing good for reduced rates. They’re often in a position to deliver a wider range of digital services and products and can be flexible when it comes to pricing and retainers. Just make sure to be clear about your organizations’ internal training and learning needs. It’s vital, for the success of the initiative, to connect relevant staff or members with the work of the agency.

The litmus test? Determine whether your group’s capacity is enhanced, weakened or unaffected after the project is completed.

Give a person an explainer video, and they’ll explain things for a few days. Teach them how to make an explainer video, and they’ll explain things unto the very end of time.


Building capacity, for reasons which escape me, isn’t seen as the sexiest thing to do, at the best of times. But there is tremendous joy and opportunity in the effort, if we roll up our sleeves and are ready to get a little messy.

Heck, growth is messy. Life is messy. You can’t grow from ugly duckling to beautiful swan without shedding feathers all over the place. Likewise, you can’t grow from amateur video maker to visual storyteller without space to experiment, take risks and fail.

So, you’re a little awkward as you emerge from digital adolescence. So what?

The trust you place in your people will pay off down the years as you future-proof your ability to connect, engage and reach your organizational goals.

Because who better to tell our own stories? Our stories, ourselves.