Causes are late to the game in adopting digital innovation as a way to drive social impact and sustainable growth. Innovation through digital platforms is a new frontier for causes.


Digital platforms versus digital campaigns

We’ve all experienced digital cause campaigns that have a limited lifespan to raise awareness, raise money and even dump icy water on our heads. While these creative-driven campaigns are showered with industry awards and can have good results (for example, The Ice Bucket Challenge), what they are often lacking in is a long term approach that embeds digital experiences into the very DNA of organizations themselves to help drive their missions. At iiD, we call this a “digital cause platform” as it allows a whole organization’s program to operate on top of it. Today, it isn’t a stretch to say that for many if not all causes digital engagement, whether it be in educating the public or gaining their support, holds the key to being central in our philanthropic lives. If they hope to reach the younger generation, I would go so far as to say digital is the only way. But why aren’t campaigns doing the job anymore?

Here are four ways digital campaigns for causes often times fall short:

  • Campaigns are usually short lived and quickly become nothing more than last year’s slogan
  • They excite us with novel creative ideas but are rarely linked to real, ongoing social impact
  • They compete against the other nonprofit and for profit advertising for consumer attention
  • Communications driven campaigns are usually separate from the actual program itself and don’t help enable the mission being touted


Taking a lesson from startups

As many startups have come to realize, mapping the “customer journey” into every aspect of the business from R&D, marketing, sales, communications and customer service requires a fundamental shift in the way they operate. Our digital lives play a huge part in the way we interact with these enterprises and the ones that do the best job with digital customer experiences win. As this HBR article points out: “They create significant value by enabling communication and commerce that might not otherwise occur. They have modest operating costs because they don’t usually manufacture tangible goods or hold inventory. And network effects protect their position once established; users rarely leave a vibrant platform.” What industry leaders have done and are trying to do is architect digital platforms into the way they run their businesses. They’ve partnered user experience designers with technology teams to help them come up with digital innovations that help them listen and communicate better. They’ve moved from just selling things to providing experiences that change our lives. Why can’t causes do the same?


Designing your digital platform with real people

For causes, embracing digital innovation means stepping back from the ways public service, activism, charities and PSAs have worked for decades. Analyzing the ways people have been interacting and want to interact with your cause is key to identify opportunities to develop an overarching digital strategy. We’ve found that design thinking helps a great deal in understanding people’s needs, wants and aspirations. Doing this means more than simply doing surveys and focus groups but co-designing with users the digital experiences that are most relevant to them. By doing this with nonprofit clients, our firm has found that digital strategy and user experience work can transform and drive the mission of the program itself.

This approach was key for helping Futures Without Violence relaunch its digital platform as explained by Futures Without Violence Program Manager Eleanor Davis, “Workshops with youth were key in helping us pinpoint exactly what was and was not effective about our old website, and helping us come up with ideas for new tools and content we could provide as part of our website redesign with That’s Not Cool. Teens got to ask for what they wanted, and actually sketch out with us the kind of digital experience they wanted to see.”

Webby Winner


From curriculum to community

In our current work for Peace First developing their digital platform, The Peace First Challenge, it means taking a curriculum-based program and transforming it into an engaging community for change. What we see with Peace First is not only a brave move away from what they’ve been doing for twenty years (providing lesson plans to teachers for helping youth prevent social injustices) but a fundamental shift to now allow young people themselves learn peacemaking by launching and running their own social movements. A key thing to point out is that in reconfiguring this nonprofit for a digital platform, it is vital to maintain the core vision and learnings of the organization to inspire what comes next.

Raul Caceres, project lead at Peace First explains, “In a time where young people spend a lot of time communicating through digital platforms, we find that it is really important to engage with them in ways that make more sense to them. Inviting them to participate in conversations with other young people and helping them navigate their peacemaking journey and come up with solutions to injustices in an online collaboration platform seems like the perfect way to do this. We are looking forward to going live this fall with the support of iiD as our technology partner.”



Five keys to digital innovation for causes

I’d like to end with what I hope is a useful list of lessons we’ve learned in this work over the years. I’d love to hear your thoughts if you try any of them out:

  1. Real digital innovation starts with a collaboration between the organization, a human-centered design firm and end users themselves.
  2. Spend your digital budget on lasting engagement rather than one off creative campaigns.
  3. Steer away from creative agencies that offer pro bono services but may care more about winning awards than driving impact for their clients.
  4. Engage the leaders (president, founder, etc.) of your organization in the transformation in order to retain the vision of the organization’s mission as well as take them along on the journey.
  5. Take a lean design approach to launching the platform to iteratively learn what platform is the best fit for both the organization and your supporters and advocates.


Become central to people’s lives

Like startups and corporations, nonprofits find themselves at different stages in their evolutions. Beyond the basic communications needs of raising awareness, educating the public, and attracting donors there’s a whole new level of becoming a “channel for good” for people to associate with personally and spend significant amounts of time engaging with. Much like Facebook for social impact, causes need to offer up lifestyle platforms that engage digitally. Competition for people’s time, energy and support is only increasing in this noisy digital age. Due to this causes need to make digital innovation an essential part of their mission for good. Rather than asking how can we attract public attention, we should ask how can we build evergreen digital engagement into our cause programs.