How non-profit executives can build their digital leadership skills

Non-profit leaders are increasingly called on to act as their organizations’ chief technology officers. Contributor Katie Gibson, co-founder of the soon-to-launch Canadian Centre for Nonprofit Digital Resilience, offers some advice on building digital capacity.

Non-profit leaders are increasingly called on to act as their organizations’ chief technology officers. Contributor Katie Gibson, co-founder of the soon-to-launch Canadian Centre for Nonprofit Digital Resilience, offers some advice on building digital capacity.

Non-profit leaders already wear many hats. Now add to that a new, or newly prominent, role: chief technology officer. This is unfamiliar terrain to many. To their credit, many non-profit executives are pushing beyond their comfort zones and asking how they can build their digital leadership capacity. Here’s some advice from non-profit leaders and tech experts in Canada and around the world.

Number one: Relax

First, take comfort – you already have what it takes to lead a digital organization.

The work of digital leadership requires no technical development expertise. “Making strategic decisions about tech, budgeting for tech, including tech in your strategic plans, ensuring every staff person has training for the tech skills relevant to them are all some of the biggest influencers for how successful an organization may be with technology … and none of those things requires technical development knowledge or certifications,” says Amy Sample Ward, CEO of NTEN, a US-based non-profit that helps organizations use technology to further their missions.

And be confident that you’ve already mastered the essential requirement for digital leadership since you’ve built a career in a sector founded in empathy. “Digital leadership is about empathy more than anything,” says Aisling Nolan, a consultant at Grantbook, a Toronto technology advisory firm for grantmaking organizations.

Take the lead

Executives must take ownership of tech. No matter the size of the organization, leaders must hold themselves accountable for building a digital organization. “Executive mindset is the most critical element of digital transformation,” explains Tim Lockie, CEO of Now IT Matters, a social impact tech consultancy.

For one, technology touches all the organization’s functional areas and requires coordination. “So many organizations silo ‘digital’ under the comms or marketing team and don’t recognize the cross-departmental impacts (comms, fundraising, IT, and even programs) that most digital initiatives can have,” says Patti DeBow, president at Parsons TKO, a tech consulting firm for non-profits.

Executive mindset is the most critical element of digital transformation.

Tim Lockie, Now IT Matters

Delegating responsibility for technology can also limit learning opportunities to “the tech person.” “On our BRIDGE program, we actively encourage multiple participants from each organization to take part – so the learning isn’t just held by those with ‘digital’ in their job description,” says Alex Farrington, head of partnerships at Lightful, a UK-based technology company that provides digital skills programs for non-profits. “We often get trustees and CEOs coming along to master classes alongside a volunteer or junior staff member – which can result in some amazing ideas!”

But embracing technology can require leaders to face their own fears. Admitting a weakness or lack of experience can be difficult for those who are experts in so much of their organizations’ work. “Understanding that tech is unparalleled in supporting your mission and in empowering your community is essential; fear or reluctance is a barrier,” explains Karen Borchgrevink, executive director of non-profit LA Tech4Good.

In a recent article, Canadian technology consultant Aine McGlynn observes that learning about technology can trigger shame. “The issue of shame surrounding digital literacy is further complicated – and, perhaps, partially explained – by the fact that women constitute the majority of non-profit staff at every level. For women in particular, their earliest experiences with technology or data concepts may not have been positive.”

There is no silver bullet

This isn’t about technology. It’s about people. Simply acquiring technology isn’t the answer, and jumping into a relationship with the wrong vendor can be counterproductive.

“I’ve found that digital transformations are only as successful as the organization’s leadership’s ability to recognize that it’s far more than a vendor relationship,” says McGlynn. For example, a leader may think they need a new tool to manage customer relationships when, in fact, they require better policy and governance to improve the adoption of their existing tool. “Without documenting processes, supporting folks on HOW to work, and holding them accountable to those processes, digital transformation will never be achieved at the org culture level – which is where it is most needed. The technology comes so far down the road,” says McGlynn.

“Just like switching gyms won’t help if you aren’t going to the gym, switching technology platforms won’t help if digital competency isn’t adequate – and may actually make it worse,” echoes Lockie of Now IT Matters.

Commit to building a digital culture throughout the organization

Instead, leaders must commit to building digital skills and capacity across the entire organization. This requires equal measures of vision and grit. “Organizations don’t instantly become digitally adept with the implementation of technology, but rather it must be approached as a commitment to increase digital maturity across the organization over time. After all, technology doesn’t disrupt – people do!” says Isabelle Perreault, CEO of Differly, a digital transformation consultancy based in Ottawa.

What are some practical lessons? Start small, build on success, and repeat.

A part of digital leadership involves a level of humility. Not knowing everything is okay.

Christina Wu, Grantbook

“A part of digital leadership involves a level of humility. Not knowing everything is okay. Creating a digital culture is incremental,” says Christina Wu, a consultant at Grantbook. “It might start small. When people understand how tech tools can bring benefits to daily processes, you start to see that change take shape and really stick.”

Keep it practical. “People learn by doing. At home, I blend the spinach into the spaghetti sauce to make it more palatable. Similarly, I find it much easier to tackle the ‘why’ and ‘how’ of change when it is directly integrated with a specific ‘what,’” says Perreault.

Then repeat, repeat, repeat. “Like physical transformation through personal training, behaviour will only change through repeated actions with accountability through meeting goals. Teams need transformation services that create a tactical plan for 30/90/180 days,” says Lockie.

Think data

Digitally optimized organizations treat data as a key asset. Data must lie at the heart of any digital transformation.

“The executive North Star for technology/digital is data-informed decisions. Just like leaders will know the budget is on track when there’s money left over, they will know that digital transformation is happening when their digital systems produce better information than their instincts … Data that you trust becomes information that you use, which becomes insight in making decisions,” says Lockie.

I’m a passionate advocate for a director of data governance in the non-profit sector.

Mina Demian, Technology Helps

Responsible collection, use, and sharing of data is critical. Use of data must be ethical, equitable, secure, and privacy-preserving. It must respect and promote Indigenous data sovereignty.

The board of directors must play a key role in data governance. “Data governance is more important now than ever before,” says Mina Demian, director of business development and partnerships at Technology Helps, a Calgary-based social enterprise that serves the non-profit sector in building technological capacity. “I’m a firm believer that change starts from the top. I’m a passionate advocate for a director of data governance in the non-profit sector. This position is vital but virtually non-existent in the non-profit sector. The data governance role at the board level needs to outline the qualifications needed for an ED, including their data literacy.”

Incorporate tech into strategy and governance

Digital leaders must bake technology into every aspect of their work – including strategic planning, financial management, and board governance.

The organization’s strategic planning process is a key lever for digital transformation. Sometimes, better use of technology is a distinct strategic priority. “Become a digital-first organization” is a pillar of MedicAlert Foundation Canada’s strategy. “Baking it into your vision for the future as a charity or not-for-profit means you avoid the typical challenge most charities face, which is significant technical debt,” explains Leslie McGill, president and CEO. “If, as a CEO or executive director, you can work with your board to understand the importance of technology to the future of your operations, then when setting your annual budget the conversation becomes much easier about the kind of investment you require to ensure you don’t fall behind.”

Helping people adjust to new roles and responsibilities is what stewards a digital culture.

Aisling Nolan, Grantbook

At the very least, strategic plans should identify the technology required to deliver each priority successfully. “Building digital leadership is really about understanding the connection between strategy (What do we want to know?), process (How are we going to know it? And who needs to do what?) and tech (What tools do we need to manage this?),” says Nolan at Grantbook. “Bringing people along into this mindset and helping people adjust to new roles and responsibilities is what stewards a digital culture.”

Executives can also play a critical role in building their board’s digital leadership capacity. “If there is no board responsibility, then there is no accountability,” says Demian at Technology Helps. This could mean identifying training resources to upskill current board members. It could also mean recruiting new directors with digital transformation expertise. A board’s recruitment matrix typically includes legal and accounting skills; digital skills should be added.

Build your own tech and data literacy

While executives don’t need to be tech experts, they should strive for a basic level of tech and data literacy, much as they require basic financial literacy. Expectations will continue to grow, so now is the time to start. (See “Where to start” below for a list of resources.)

Tech literacy is important because it helps leaders understand the art of the possible – to recognize the potential while appreciating that technology is not a panacea.

For organizations without a technology lead, the CEO or executive director is accountable for understanding the technology landscape. This requires a commitment to ongoing learning, which can be prioritized in conversation with the board.

It’s about being able to build digital capabilities at the organizational level.

Joanne Dong, Si Toronto Hub

What level of literacy is required? “You don’t need to know Google Analytics, but you do need to be able to discuss what the numbers are saying,” says Borchgrevink of LA Tech4Good. “Tackle one chunk at a time. So, get a general grasp of those Google Analytics under your belt, then tackle another chunk, and so on.”

In larger organizations, the CEO needs enough subject-matter knowledge to engage their technology lead. This is analogous to how they might engage with their finance lead: they don’t need to produce financial statements, but they should know how to interpret them. “Executives are (or should be) visionaries. It’s not our job to replicate the knowledge of our CTOs. Our job is to ask questions about possibility. It’s the CTO’s job to answer truthfully if they know the answer, or go find out what is possible if they don’t know. That trust bond between the two roles is vital for success. And if you have a CEO who is tech savvy – even better! It makes those conversations way shorter!” says McGill at MedicAlert Foundation.

Find partners

What if constraints on an organization’s resources prevent them from developing robust, permanent digital leadership capacity? In this case, some experts recommend teaming up with others.

Digital leadership is about being able “to build digital capabilities at the organizational level,” says Joanne Dong, systems designer and representative of the Si (Systems Innovation) Toronto Hub, a community of systems innovators. “For non-profit leaders who may not have adequate in-house resources to do so, the question might be how to leverage the power of networks and collaborate with other organizations and communities that have the capabilities to fill the gap.”

This can extend to shared tools and infrastructure. “Organizations working in the same geographic location or focused on the same issue areas can find ways to work together and share digital skills, including shared infrastructure, analytic and reporting capacities, et cetera,” says David Goodman, vice-president of learning and impact at Ajah, a global consultancy focused on data and technology in the public and social sectors.

He gives the example of Goodwill Industries International. It completed a pilot that “aligned metrics, streamlined data collection (all using different systems), and established a shared infrastructure to facilitate outcome integration, combined analyses, and reporting across the participating orgs. They are now scaling this to more individual Goodwills.”

Goodman cautions that “there is a lot of ‘trust’ that needs to be present to pull this off and ensure that other organizations are going to do their part.”

The missing ingredient: Funding partners

Non-profit executives are charting a path to success in our digital era. They require funding partners to support them on their journey.

“I would love to see smaller organizations embracing this and not saying that only larger organizations can do this or afford it,” says Rickesh Lakhani, executive director of Future Possibilities for Kids, a child- and youth-serving non-profit in Toronto. He notes that digital/technology is now about 5% of his organization’s budget, most of which they have been able to secure funding for.

Funders have a key role to play, Lakhani explains: “It’s really critical for leaders to embrace this and bring it up with funders, but also for those funding social-good groups to be proactively supporting this too. ‘Program evaluation’ has become more commonplace in funding, and that was as a result of organizations and groups speaking to the core importance of this as part of the work. It would be great to see something similar for digital/tech emerge.”

These conversations are beginning. “Foundation leaders are going through these same transformations and asking these same questions,” says Nolan of Grantbook. “As this curiosity grows, we need to build more space for big, open conversations for non-profit leaders and foundation leaders to grow and learn together.”

Where to start


NTEN (US) has online assessments, courses, and certificate programs, including a Nonprofit Technology Professional Certificate.

Catalyst (UK) has articles, guides, and toolkits on topics including digital change, digital services, working digitally, and funding digital.

Digital Transformation Hub (Australia) provides guides on a wide range of topics, including tech foundations and information systems.

Tech Impact’s Nonprofit Technology Learning Centre (US) has research, insights, and assessment tools.

Open Data Institute (UK) offers a range of courses to build data literacy.

Our Community Innovation Lab (Australia) has guidebooks and online courses to help non-profits increase their data literacy.

First Nations Information Governance Centre offers a course on The Fundamentals of OCAP®.

LA Tech4Good offers programming on equity and ethics in data.

Who to follow

In addition to following the organizations listed above on your favourite platform, here are some relevant hashtags:

  • #NPTech
  • #DigitalInclusion
  • #DigitalEquity
  • #DataForGood


For a longer read, check out the just-released book by Beth Kanter and Allison Fine called The Smart Non-Profit: Staying Human-Centered in an Automated World.

Canadian tech superstars Jason Shim, Anne Connelly, and Brock Warner have written books specifically on digital fundraising: Jason Shim and Anne Connelly, Bitcoin and the Future of Fundraising: A Beginner’s Guide to Cryptocurrency Donations and Brock Warner, From the Ground Up: Digital Fundraising for Nonprofits.


If you prefer podcasts, here are some good ones:
Community IT Innovators Nonprofit Technology Topics

Inside Social Innovation

The Smart Communications Podcast

Nonprofit Radio

Why IT Matters: A Truthful Tech Talk


Many Canadians flock to NTEN’s annual Nonprofit Technology Conference.

Also check out Good Tech Fest.

Digital leadership stories

Surranna Sandy, CEO, Skills for Change

The fast rate at which change has happened during the COVID-19 pandemic (both internally and externally) has forced me to build a deeper understanding of the impact of rapid digital disruptions on my organization’s process, people, and client service delivery. My priority at the start of the pandemic was to integrate digital dexterity as a key competency for all leaders (including myself) by ensuring colleagues had the viewpoints, attitudes, and behaviours to help Skills for Change speed up our digital business transformation. Next, to thrive within a digital disruptive environment, we conducted an audit to define the solutions required and forecasted cost impact and timeline to implement, to integrate within the business – not only as a short-term solution but as part of our long-term change-management strategy. The key to our success was automating processes across myriad business functions to reduce labour costs and improve service delivery and operational efficiencies. Thus, by improving the workflow process and introducing policies and procedures that facilitated the smooth deployment of digital tools, we drove improved digital tools adoption by staff. Critical to that success was the provision of training to address our staff’s digital literacy to improve our workforce capabilities. Finally, we simultaneously addressed the digital equity gaps of low-income clients by creating free solutions and developing programs to address these gaps. I needed to expand both my personal and business leadership competencies to better understand the impact of new digital technologies and business models on Skills for Change’s business operations, partnerships and programs development, and programs and services delivery to the diverse communities as critical to successfully navigating the internally and externally driven change over the past two years.

Stacey Dakin, managing director, Mentor Canada

I always thought of myself as tech savvy but didn’t realize how much I didn’t understand about the way tech infrastructures are built, connected, updated, maintained, et cetera, until we hired someone way smarter than me! I have to admit, half the time I had no idea what our resident expert was talking about, but I was open and honest about that from day one and decided I would ask a lot of questions in order to better understand. I also made time to do my own research; there are tons of articles to read and conferences to attend that help to demystify the digital world. Increasing one’s digital literacy may be a mountain to climb, but it is part of the future of work, and so we must make it a priority.

Dan Kershaw, executive director, Furniture Bank

I would find it difficult to find an area of any non-profit where there’s not potential for technology to improve the performance and impact for the organization. We need non-profit leaders to embrace the marathon of self-education to become digital leaders.

Some critical takeaways from my experiences at Furniture Bank:

  • The executive director is the head of digital! You set the direction.
  • Digitizing your organization isn’t a waste of money; it’s often the necessary cost for change and growth. 
  • Webinars and conferences are good – but the network you build is the best.
  • Be brave and open to this change. 
  • Embrace the idea of progress over perfection. 
  • Keep your horizons short. Focus on small, iterative projects that give you learning opportunities to build confidence. 
  • Network and learn from your peers – what’s worked, what’s been a waste of resources?
  • Give your staff the safety to pilot and experiment with digital approaches to improving their programs. 
  • Unless people feel that they own the digitization process, then it can’t be successful.
  • Find one problem and put enough effort into fixing that. Then move on to the next.


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