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How a leader’s digital literacy affects hiring decisions

publication date: Feb 18, 2016
author/source: Clare McDowall
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Clare McDowallThis article is the third in a series of four about the digital literacy blind spot. Read the first post here and the second post here. 

As a leader you need to provide guidance and support to your organization to make sure you’re achieving your organization’s mission using every opportunity available to you. In 2016, that includes digital efforts to build awareness and increase revenue.

Being a digitally literate leader means making good hiring decisions, being able to provide strategic advice to staff and contractors, and knowing what to ask for in terms of reporting so that you can accurately measure success. 

Digital literacy can make or break your hiring decisions

Your ability to discuss and ask informed questions about digital activities impacts your nonprofit staffing in two big ways: job descriptions and hiring the right person.

The first post in this series talks about setting reasonable expectations for staff that deal with technology, including your online, digital, and social media activities.  I mentioned some crazy job descriptions that might sound reasonable to someone who has a digital literacy blind spot, after all, they simply don’t know what they don’t know.  But in reality, those crazy job descriptions only serve to scare away great talent, and to highlight your organization’s lack of digital understanding to the wider marketplace.

Hiring woes

Since Charity eNEWS published the first article in this series, I have been amazed how many leaders have emailed me to confess that they have posted a job description with a bunch of ‘digital stuff’ on it because they had no idea what it was, and how it all related to each other, and to marketing, and to IT.  “I wasn’t sure if we needed it, so I thought I should add it just in case.” said one Executive Director. You likely won’t be surprised to hear that they had to revise the job description after having no luck at all in hiring someone who could match this ‘wish list’. Not to mention the discomfort during the interview process when smart candidates asked why they would need to have database skills, and the ED couldn’t explain why it was listed as an essential skill in the job description.

Generalists versus specialists

Digital marketing and communications is different from website design and development. Both are different from database management, and neither have a thing to do with IT infrastructure (fixing your wifi when it goes down, or setting new staff up with email addresses). Though these roles might sometimes overlap in a smaller organization, you’re going to be hard pressed to find someone who is an expert at email marketing, social media marketing, writing great articles for your website, creating or sourcing graphics and images, managing your online analytics, designing and/or maintaining your website, customizing and managing your database, managing integrations between email, fundraising platforms, your database and your website, managing your SEO and SEM strategy, optimizing your online advertising campaigns on places like Google and Facebook, and running your online fundraising initiatives successfully.  We call that person a unicorn, and yet, many job adverts, especially in smaller organizations, read just like this.

The reasons are twofold

Firstly, the person who wrote the job description has no understanding of what they are asking for. They probably copied someone else’s job description, likely written by someone with the same amount of digital literacy as them, thus perpetuating the cycle of expectation and disappointment.

Secondly, the organization may have legitimately identified that they need all of these skills, however they don’t understand enough to know that it is impossible to hire someone who can do all of these things. Many skills listed as just an acronym on a job description, are actually unique skills that, to do well, require a depth of knowledge and experience that a generalist couldn’t possibly deliver.  Search Engine Optimization is a great example of that.  The people that really know what they are doing have studied directly with Google and gained certification, they have skills in understanding how your site is built affects if and how Google can find it, and they can tell you page by page how to best present your (highly useful) content so that Google shows it to more people, and much more.

Let’s look at it this way 

Hiring a generalist fundraiser is one way to cover your fundraising bases and many organizations do this. However, what they also usually do is supplement that generalist’s skills, perhaps with a Major Gifts consultant, or a Direct Mail agency who will write and deploy the DM under the advisement of the generalist fundraiser.  There is an understanding that a generalist fundraiser can only realistically know the solid basics of most aspects of fundraising, and that when needed, the experts are called upon.  During the hiring process, the people making the decisions understand that no candidate will really meet all of their requirements.  A strong events fundraiser may have weaknesses when it comes to writing, and very little experience with online fundraising, for example.  You prioritize, and you pick the best mix for your organization, knowing that you will use other resources to shore up the gaps.

It is the same with digital marketing and communications.  Yes, you can hire someone who will have responsibility for delivering ultimate outcomes across the board, but you must also be prepared to compliment their knowledge externally when necessary. Your job, as the leader or decision maker, is to know enough, to be digitally literate enough, to understand when the depth of knowledge is needed.  How can you assess the work of your generalist marketing and communications person properly if you yourself do not understand the need for a high value and strategic e-mail program, or how poor SEO might be losing you donations.  And what about your online donation experience?  Is it optimized? Has it been A/B tested to within an inch of it’s life?  What colour button gets more people to donate? If you don’t know to ask your staff person, than how can you understand their strengths and weaknesses properly, and know where and how to allocate additional resources to shore up their gaps?

Essentially, in 2016, it is time to start treating digital marketing and communications capacity with the same knowledge and care you do your fundraising team.  Why?  Well, for one reason, BlackBaud reported recently that conversion rates for online donations are 34% higher on responsive websites than non responsive websites, yet 59% of nonprofit sites they tested were not responsive (that is adjusted their layout according to the device they were being viewed on). 

To get a downloadable list of essential skills for this type of work, including those that turn a job description into a search for a unicorn, click here

Clare McDowall (that’s me!) is the owner of Socially Good, a digital communications and marketing firm based in Toronto, with a track record in working with nonprofits to improve their digital strategies.  When Clare is not working on communications and marketing strategies, you’ll find her on the dance floor competing as a West Coast Swing dancer around North America. You can connect with Clare on Twitter at @Socially_Good.



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