19 min Read
April 9, 2015

How small organizations can punch above their weight in a digital world

Julien Burns

This piece was originally published on Greenpeace’s Moblisation Lab on March 31, 2015.

“I am not saying ignore what’s working for large organizations,” writes ActionSprout CEO Drew Bernard, “they often provide great inspiration. But don’t mistake what they are doing as a path to success.”

His email came in response to a call for help I sent out to a brain trust of progressive digital advocacy wonks. After watching countless small nonprofits struggle to establish digital presences, I was losing faith that organizations with at most a handful of communications staff working across all media could compete.

Nonprofits that have been pioneers in this space like MoveOn and Avaaz have brought new sophistication to progressive digital organizing, leveraging big data, integrating engagement across platforms, and tailoring communications and content to specific audiences. But how does a nonprofit with a couple thousand Facebook likes and an Excel spreadsheet of donors make use of this?

Well, as Bernard contends, they don’t. At the end of the day, if small nonprofits are going to use digital tools successfully, they need their own model that builds on strategies that already make them successful and leverages strengths that aren’t available to larger groups.

The Problem

“I hear the same advice at practically every digital strategy conference and event I attend – test everything. In principle I agree with this advice, but anyone at a small organization like mine also has to be practical about what you can realistically accomplish on the testing front, given the many other varied demands on you time.”

The 2015 Digital Outlook Report on nonprofits trends and strategy by Care2hjc and NTEN found that most of the organizations they surveyed did not have any staff devoted to digital. That leaves an organization’s online presence in the hands of a many-hatted staffer who is also juggling communication, development and other responsibilities. Time and resource constraints are obvious concerns when a staff member must cover half a dozen major social media networks, email, web, and all the CRMs, CMS’s, email marketing and project management tools that have become best practice. But there’s more to it than that.

For one, many strategies require scale to have an impact. “Split testing emails, landing pages and closely monitoring and adapting ads all pay off,” writes Eugene Flynn of 54 degrees, “but mostly when you’re dealing with large numbers. A 1% increase in click-through conversions can mean a lot for an organisation like Greenpeace, but if you’re dealing with a small list of supporters those increases may mean very little.”

Email marketing optimization

At the same time, the rapid pace of technological change can create a near constant need to catch up with current trends. I recently received an email from the social media listening service offering advice on how to “Create the Perfect Facebook Ad from Realtime Social Listening.” Inside, the email read:

Download the Guide before Facebook changes their algorithm!

I recognize the company’s interest in creating a sense of urgency, but the underlying message—that the shelf life of tactics in the social media space is extremely short—is another barrier to adoption.

And it’s not just vendors creating this pressure. Boards, senior leadership staff and other stakeholders contribute to the race for current-ness. Sarah Alexander of Food and Water Watch, who terms this “The Shiny Object Pitfall” admits that it is a challenge even in her digitally-savvy organization.

“Our Pinterest board is an example. A few years ago a lot of staff, including me, were personally excited about it as a tool to get people involved in making social change. But Pinterest is mostly about people posting recipes and home décor ideas, so it’s not really where our supporters are likely to engage with us. We’re still using it, but we’ve changed our expectations and are focusing more on other channels.”

Nevertheless, plenty of donors and board members do post recipes and home décor ideas to Pinterest. Alexander points out that, living in a digital age, it’s easy to believe that we intuitively know what works.

However, all of our instincts are influenced by our unique backgrounds and biases. “Even when you have savvy NGOs, ” writes digital strategy consultant Jed Miller, “you can have a donor who says ‘We don’t care about that, we just want to see more views on a slick, but inert, advocacy video that will play better at Davos than anywhere else in the world.’ Donors are often looking for something that fits their own culture of reporting, annual metrics, and what can easily be plugged into an Excel spreadsheet.”

Put these pressures together, and it creates a very bad recipe. Communications staff are constantly playing catch-up with a rapidly changing digital landscape while a variety of internal and external stakeholders encourage them to reach for the latest, shiniest tactic or technology, and many of the organizations they can look to for guidance are working at scale that makes their models inapplicable.

Add to that the scarcity mentality of very limited resources and staff time and what do they do? Far too often, says Miller, they simply plow ahead.

“NGOs and community based organisations are often founded by activists—and activists already have an ‘enough talk, let’s get out there, let’s get to the press and get stuff up on the web’ attitude. That’s the way they think, but they don’t need to.”

The results of this sort of plowing ahead are not pretty. Even as email volume has skyrocketed and powerful email marketing, fundraising and constituent relationship management tools have proliferated, a 2014 studyby Dunham+Company and Next After found that 88% of nonprofits still had not developed a welcome series of emails for new subscribers. The effort is there and the tools are there, but they are not producing the results they could.

It may be, however, that that precise insight—that activists continue to think like activists when they go online—could help organizations use digital tools more effectively.

The Solution

Sarah Alexander’s background was in field organizing, and she remembers the trepidation she felt taking over the fledgling digital program at Food & Water Watch:

“At the time I was like, ‘I don’t know anything about this, what am I gonna do?’ A good friend from MoveOn said, ‘Sarah, you know how to organize, it’s all just organizing.’ From there I built out a set of best practices.”

It's all just organizing

For Alexander, everything stems from the ultimate goal of moving constituents up the ladder of engagement and getting them to take action, often in-person, on behalf of the organization’s campaigns. This may all seem common sense, but the critical insight is that successful small organizations, regardless of their performance in the digital sphere, excel in the provision of their core offering. If digital organizing is just an extension of in-person organizing, then small organizations should be able to leverage the same strengths that make them successful in both worlds.

“I think the key to this is figuring out and acknowledging the strengths a smaller organisation has over a bigger one and turning your size into an advantage rather than a perceived disadvantage,” says Eugene Flynn. Given this challenge, I set out to ask some of the sharpest people I know what that might look like.

Leveraging the Strengths of Small Organizations

“I often have to stop myself when I realize I’m just assuming that a cutting-edge digital strategy is the right move. If you have 1,000 people on the list, deploying A/B testing perhaps isn’t as useful as, say, calling every single one of them and having an actual conversation. So the conversation could shift from ‘let’s scale this back’ to ‘what is already working, what are we great at, what is our strength – and how do we double-down on that.'”

1. Nimble-ness

The first thing that arose as a strength of successful small nonprofits is not something typically ascribed to the sector: nimbleness. “The greatest asset smaller organizations have,” says Drew Bernard, “is their ability to move quickly, try things, double down when things are working well and move on quickly when they don’t.”

For organizations used to operating with a scarcity mentality, the idea of trial and error can be a scary one, but the importance of experimentation and risking failure has almost become a truism in the field. “Failure is not a final step,” says Jed Miller. “Failure is feedback.” And if organizations like Greenpeace are the Apples of the nonprofit world, then small organizations have the opportunity to look more like startups.

This can be a huge asset, says Michael Silberman of the Mobilisation Lab at Greenpeace. “Organizations with tighter budgets and smaller staffs have an even greater incentive and ability to adopt a startup mentality and practice integrating Lean principles into their work,“ he says, referring to the popular startup business methodology—“even more so than well funded organizations who need to get many more people on the same page.”

The Lean model, like others that emphasize failing fast, doesn’t propound risk-taking as an end unto itself, but as a way to shorten the feedback loop between organizational strategy and measurable results. For organizations without large financial cushions, it is imperative to course-correct before losing a year of fundraising or enduring the impact of a flawed strategy.

There is another kind of risk, of course, in adopting the practices of another sector wholesale. This article, after all, is premised on how large-organization digital models fit small organizations poorly. It is clear, however, that the organizations of any size that get out early in the news cycle, react quickly to the online zeitgeist, and keep their message in tune with the conversations their constituents are involved in are the ones who are winning. That requires organizational agility.

2. Connected-ness

Facebook advocacy tool developer ActionSprout recently released a set of “social scorecards” for environmental nonprofits to try to measure how well different organizations were able to get their Facebook fans to engage with their content.

One critique of the ranking from a member of the progressive community was that the results might be skewed by small organizations interacting directly with their constituents and thereby boosting engagement rates. The critique was a valid because direct interaction can boost engagement rates and it’s easier to interact with 200 fans than 200,000. But in terms of the end result, it highlights a significant strength of small organizations.

How did an organization with only 237 fans make it into the top five? Their staff may know every one of their fans on a first-name basis; they could have just spoken to each one of them on the phone; or their digital staff could be Facebook friends with each one and be engaging in a truly bi-directional manner. Having a small number of supporters may not be an asset but smaller organizations do have the opportunity to interact personally with their constituents and deepen their engagement.

This engagement has significance beyond accumulating likes and shares. Eugene Flynn recently had a small client who needed to produce a video but did not have the resources for actors or a scriptwriter. By reaching out to their community, they attracted not only donations for the video but also offers from constituents to produce and act in the video pro bono. This sort of collaborative relationship can mobilize action in a way that would be impossible with a Twitter following of a million.

3. Networked-ness

Size can be an asset, of course. Lobbying Congress or reaching the pages of a national news source as a small organization can be challenging. However, just as technology has made collaboration with constituents easier, it is making collaboration between nonprofits more meaningful.

Marty Kearns of Netcentric Campaigns has been working for years to develop nonprofit networks that build power for small groups, including, and These networks create visibility for issues and help achieve efficiencies normally reserved for larger organizations. “Our aim,” says Kearns “is to build power to solve a problem through creating working capacity among the leaders establishing stronger network ties among them AND building capacity to help their work alone.” has pooled resources from dozens of organizations working on different issues to win same-sex marriage and the repeal of the death penalty in Maryland, among other issues. Many large organizations also participate in coalitions, but nonprofits that do not have the capacity to develop custom tools and have a smaller voice, they are a particularly powerful asset.

Additionally, coalitions and networks can serve as laboratories for their members. “It can be helpful to look at, ‘Where else are your supporters looking to take action?’, says Farra Trompeter, Vice President of nonprofit strategy firm Big Duck. “Who else do they support? Should you join before you create your own campaign?”

Organizations that are willing to seek out the most effective efforts of their partners and jump on the bandwagon will be able to skip many failed, or less-successful experiments. And when coalition members do initiate their own efforts, they can inform their work with lessons learned by other organizations.

Small nonprofit strengths

That’s All Great, but How Does an Organization Shift to This Model?

Ultimately I think that the question isn’t whether bigger groups have more opportunity to experiment with digital innovation, it’s whether organizational staff and culture supports the key elements that allow for new approaches (digital or other).

Being nimble, networked, and closely connected to constituents is easier said than done. Many organizations wish to be some or all of these things, but are unable. For some of these organizations, the idea of being a cutting edge digital player may seem completely unattainable with the other priorities they have to balance. But every strategist and digital director I spoke to cited organizational culture and structure as the primary obstacles.

“Change related to digital strategy is more similar than it is different from other sorts of organizational change,” says Jed Miller. “We have to get past the 21st century version of dad getting fed up before you’ve shown him how the remote control works.”

The first critical element to allowing organizations to evolve and experiment is empowering digital staff. “The Devil’s in the details,” says Michael Silberman. “Figuring out how a small organization can set itself up for a low-bureaucracy environment and enable a single digital mobilisation staff person to help the organization get out first and fast on an issue it’s working on, for example, could be much more valuable than running extensive email tests.” The end goal of both efforts is sending out content that resonates, but using sophisticated tools to optimise subject lines and email content has limited value if it delays communications until they’re stale.

Unfortunately, the Shiny Object Pitfall can make running extensive email tests and adopting other cutting-edge strategies difficult to pass up. “The digital barrier to entry for small organizations is so much easier than it was even just five years ago,” says Leda Dederich. “You really can have a website up in 30 minutes, by a non-techy user for almost no fee. You’ve got so many free or almost free resources at your fingertips. But, this variety of communication channels and choices seems to be growing exponentially. And this presents a very different problem. Lots of opportunities, yes, but where to focus?”

That’s why clearly defining strategy is so critical. “It doesn’t have to be a huge production,” says Farra Trompeter. “The important part is doing something instead of doing nothing. If all you can do is squeeze in a two-hour brainstorming session, just get the people in the room who need to agree.” Without this agreement, “empowering digital staff” is more like an unsupervised game of pin the tail on the donkey.

Limiting approval chains and taking time out for strategic planning can be a difficult sell at some organizations, but the impact they have can make the case for why these reforms are necessary.

“There are some pretty simple metrics to measure impact,” says Sarah Alexander. “Once you have a plan in place and can show what impact you’re having, it’s a lot easier when somebody comes and wants do some new things to say ok, well yes, but here’s what it’s going to displace. That’s ok if that’s what we all decided, just so we’re all aware of the consequences.” Organizational leaders have to be willing to follow the evidence, but members taking action and donations coming in are pretty compelling arguments for supporting digital staff to do what’s needed.

Effective Digital Models in Action

“They sent a follow-up email with the next action the next day,” says Alexander. “I can’t remember the last time I saw that.”
She’s talking about a recent interaction with Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement (Iowa CCI), a Des Moines-based community-organizing group with a staff of fifteen. “I’ve been getting texts weekly,” Alexander continues, “I’m really impressed with their Twitter reference guide with all key handles for folks they were lobbying. Their membership is much older—65 or 70. At the event, one of the audience members asked about doing Twitter today. Maybe the question was a plant, but it gave them the opportunity to walk through it for everybody. It’s one of the better multichannel digital integrations that I’ve seen at a state or local level event.”

On the outside, Iowa CCI doesn’t stick out as a digital innovator. Their website is not flashy, and their social media presence, while active, is not chock-full of slickly-produced content. But the organization’s strategy is not about glitz. “They’re using it for organizing,” says Alexander, “There wasn’t anything fancy about what they did, but from a user experience it made me feel very positive and great and like they cared that I was there.”

Part of the secret, says Iowa CCI Digital Organizer Emily Harmon, is their lightweight approval process. “We have really clear steps for getting stuff out there. We have a small chain. No red tape, no bureaucratic mess.” And the size of the organization is a key enabler for this lean structure. “We have a small staff and open workspace. Clear communication and always staying in contact has been critical.”

The digital experiments that this has made possible—like the program to train older members on how to use Twitter—are focused on organizing impact. Harmon reports that the consistent, hands-on engagement has increased Twitter followers and social media engagement generally, but more importantly it has led to constituents taking action (often in real life) to support their campaigns.

For Iowa CCI, a small organization with a dedicated supporter base, this investment is worthwhile. “We’re all about members,” she says. “We know them well and can just pick up the phone and call someone. We do one-on-one’s with members. That’s a whole part of empowering folks to use their voices.”

This very personal model might not seem like it would scale well to larger stages, but Iowa CCI works on national issues like immigration and bank regulation. One way they’re able to do this is through their membership in National People’s Action, a network of grassroots groups that provides capacity and partners across the country. This affiliation, says Harmon, builds power. In recent years, NPA campaigns have won new regulations for payday loans, a leadership change at the Federal Housing Finance Administration, and changes to the tax code. These efforts have been driven by dozens of organizations across the country.

Iowa CCI still operates under typical resource and capacity constraints—the kind that make most small nonprofits shy away from anything ambitious in the digital realm, but Harmon is pragmatic. “You have to analyze the potential risk,” she says, discussing a recent campaign to engage new users through a Facebook-based photo contest. “The biggest risk was we’d put it out there and no one would do it. We think of the biggest failure, and how to prevent that.”

Another group that was cited in my interviews as punching above its weight is Parents Project Muscular Dystrophy(PPMD), a twenty-person organization fighting to cure Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy. Like Iowa CCI, the name doesn’t scream innovation, but being nimble is in the organization’s DNA. “Our founder created PPMD out of frustration at existing organizations 20-some years ago that were stagnant and slow moving,” says PPMD Senior Vice President of Communications & Administration Will Nolan. “This is a fatal disease and a disease that affects children. We don’t have time to waste, so we don’t do anything slowly. “

The beauty of this statement, is that these are clearly the words of an activist. Somewhere between the black box of the Facebook algorithm and the seeming randomness of varying response rates to email subject line tweaks, digital strategy can come to seem like a dark art—or at least a science along the lines of particle accelerator design. But for PPMD, the calculus is simple.

“They have a very small, but passionate community of parents of children who have this fatal disorder,” says Farra Trompeter, who has worked with the group for years. “They have a small team but have built up over time and they have committed to doing things that their community really cares about. They don’t use stock photos, they use their community. They just know their community so well.”

When annual appeal season approached this year, PPMD turned to their very immediate community, filming a video of two of their funders’ sons with a iPhone. “It was hugely successful and had no production value,” says Nolan. “It was done in two takes. You can spend a lot of money on materials, but if it doesn’t speak to the personality of your organization, it’s not going to be as successful as something that comes from an emotional place and place of heart that reflects your organization’s personality. It’s the organic stuff, it just requires you to be nimble.”

In discussing the organization’s success, Nolan cited the trust that allows for a short approval process and getting out in front of the news cycle. He cited the organization’s ability to draw on content, expert commentary and other contributions from the PPMD community. He also cited the organization’s coalition work and willingness to raise up the work of other organizations and individual parents who have been touched by Duchenne. But at the end of the day, it’s all just organizing.

“For me the limitations of money and resources should just be a challenge to be even more creative and come up with something because then you have bigger victories,” says Nolan. “I’m always inspired by peer groups who are taking these things that are seemingly negative and making something great out of them.”


Guest author for MobLab Julien Burns is a digital strategy consultant and designer living in New Orleans, Louisiana. A former HIV prevention advocate and trainer, he now specializes in helping nonprofits and social enterprises leverage creative content and new media to achieve impact. For more information, visit