How Digital Skills Training is Transforming the Non-Profit Sector

By BrainStation September 18, 2018

For many non-profits, old-school fundraising methods have gone the way of the horse and buggy.

Increasingly, charities and advocacy groups are turning to digital initiatives to connect with supporters and raise cash for a cause — because that’s where the eyeballs are.

Take GoFundMe, for example: The social fundraising platform has raised a staggering $5 billion for different causes since 2010, thanks to a growing community of more than 50 million online donors who can share causes close to their heart on social media.

Then there’s child sponsorship charity World Vision, which engages sponsors around the world through the social media hashtag #whyisponsor, and the Make-a-Wish Foundation, which tugs on the heartstrings of donors around the world through impactful online videos like this.

So how can organizations start tapping into the digital sphere?

According to Colin Smith, a digital writer and content strategist in the non-profit sector, it’s all about staying current with your skill set and brushing up on the latest tech trends.

Smith is doing so by taking several courses — Design Thinking Training and Part-time User Experience Design — through BrainStation.

His goal? “Making it as easy as possible for people to donate online,” he says.

Alongside a growing digital team that recently brought web development in-house, Smith is hoping to learn more about how user research and design can improve someone’s experience online — and in turn boost donations.

His organization uses a number of digital marketing channels — including e-mail, search engine optimization, content marketing, and conversion rate optimization — to meet their fundraising goals.

And because there’s now an in-house development team, Smith works closely with UX researchers, designers, and developers while he’s developing content and website copy.

non-profit sector

Colin Smith is a digital writer and content strategist in the non-profit sector.

“I also play a hand in designing site architecture, mapping user journeys and conducting site audits,” Smith says. “Overall, our team is especially skilled at deploying tests in a variety of channels to test our hypotheses and ensure we’re finding ways to improve our online success.”

In-house web teams are increasingly common in the non-profit sector, he adds, which makes it more important for colleagues to speak the same language and have a solid understanding of the connection between content, design, and user experience.

“When you have an in-house team, you get a closer connection to the charity itself,” Smith says. “A lot of non-profits and charities are recognizing the need to have great content online, social media engagement, and long-form content.”

But there are challenges that come with this digital transition. As a 2017 Forbes article notes, many non-profits have small staff sizes and smaller budgets than the private sector.

On top of that, “the most senior-level employees and decision makers have little to no knowledge of digital marketing and fundraising” because many of them were raised in the direct-mail world and “don’t understand the technologies and intricacies involved in pulling off a digital program,” the article continues.

The non-profit sector isn’t known for being particularly innovative or open to change, echoes Suzanne Laporte, president of Compass, a nonprofit that provides other nonprofits with pro bono strategic consulting services, in an interview with Yale Insights.

“Organizations are focused on their mission—feeding people or educating people or helping the disabled,” she says. “They’re not spending time thinking about how to increase their margins or bringing in more business the way that a startup or any for-profit company would.”

Still, more non-profits are making digital strides by taking cues from media outlets, according to Smith. Infographics, video content, social media — they’re all avenues to engage with the public, improve a charity’s authority on certain topics, and boost search rankings.

“We’re looking to find ways where we can be authentic,” Smith says. “And being authentic online, in a digital space, means being really great at telling stories.”

For Smith, storytelling that resonates in a digital sphere now means improving the user experience as a whole, and he believes expanding his skill set through BrainStation will help him get there.

“I have a background in journalism, editing, writing, marketing and copywriting,” he says. “But now that we have a group of specialists on our team, I feel like I need to learn the language a little bit better.”


If you’re looking to transform your non-profit organization, BrainStation offers scholarships to non-profit employees for our digital skills programs, courses, and training options.