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Why not for profits must grasp digital transformation – and fast

There has probably never been a more important time for the not for profit sector to embrace digitisation in its working practices. After all, a failure to do so has led to the extinction of many well-known commercial brands with much larger balance sheets. Indeed, there is no evidence to suggest that the not-for-profit sector will enjoy any form of immunity from such an Armageddon.

Anyone born before around 1995 will have fond memories of popping out on a Saturday night to their local Blockbuster store to pick up a VHS rental. Not long after it was founded in 1985, the video rental company became an internationally renowned brand. In 2004 it was at the peak of its success, employing 84,300 people worldwide in more than 9,000 stores.

But by the late 2000s I recall going into my local Blockbuster store less and less. And when I did, it felt stuck in a time warp. Not only were you limited to the selection on the shelves but, queuing up to pay for your rental, you would find yourself trying to remember your account password, having not used it for so long!


By 2010 Blockbuster had filed for bankruptcy. Just six years after its peak, this goliath of a brand was slain by the power of the start-up rival Netflix, which had the foresight to bring video-on-demand digital services into the world. Its older rival was unable to keep up and its own digital redevelopment came too late in the day.

How ironic that 10 years earlier Reed Hastings, Netflix’s founder, had approached Blockbuster with an offer to sell his company for $50 million. John Antioco, the Blockbuster CEO, was not interested in the offer because he thought it was a “very small niche business” and it was losing money at the time.

Competitive edge

It needs no preamble to say that we live in an increasingly competitive digital-facing market. People’s time and money have to be hard-fought over. Getting heard over the noise is more challenging. To compound this, none of our organisations have a given right to exist; we have to fight for it. We have to be willing to adapt to what our audience wants. After all, they no longer operate from 9 ’till 5, so why are we?

A failure to fulfil audience needs at the right time will certainly lead to their disappointment, but could ultimately spell the end for you.

I do not believe there is any harm in having a competitive streak in the not for profit sector. After all, having a little fear that you might not come out on top can give you that added strength deep down to get over the finish line. With that in mind, is it not worth considering what it would take for someone else to do what we do – only better, more efficiently, so as to be more in line with the habits of our audience?

How we can transform

If we open ourselves up to digital-focused organisational transformation we can begin to realise the possibilities ahead. Two things are essential here: a strategy and the will to act fast. Run without the former and you will fall at the first hurdle, engage yourself without the latter and you will be walking in the 100m sprint.

A successful strategy must first identify your organisation’s strengths and the clear quantitative and qualitative objectives which will propel you to where you want to be. This will enable us all to understand the clear benefits of taking action. It’s the why we are doing it that matters. Communicating this to all employees and volunteers from the top will ensure no part of the organisation is left behind.

There are further pitfalls to overcome, however. Too often organisations can fall into one of two traps, or worse, both. Either they wallow in strategies and plans, with each party unwilling to make the first move, or the same state of paralysis is reached by teams being unable to break out of their silos, bogged down by existing corporate structures and business-as-usual.

To free your organisation from the rigid nature of doing things a certain way because “that’s how it has always been done”, there must be a willingness to operate with a two-speed architecture. Business-as-usual can remain unaffected and more risk-sensitive elements of the organisation can be protected. At the same time a more agile core team can deliver big projects, quickly, given the right mix of digital talent and the authority to act.

It is only with this heady mix of great strategic alignment and masterful agility that well-established organisations can navigate the increasingly tricky path to success in the digital world we now all inhabit.

Michael Wilkinson is director at Revolution Arts and a digital strategist who has worked on transformation projects with companies including the Daily Telegraph, the Liberal Democrats and currently CLIC Sargent.

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