May/June 2009

The Secret of Online Success: Why Structure Matters

by Brian Hauf, VP Client Success Services, Convioand Quinn Donovan, Analytics Manager, Convio

According to a recent survey conducted by Convio, most nonprofit managers feel their organization is continually strapped for resources. The amount of resources any given nonprofit might have — whether financial, human or otherwise — never seems to be enough. And as the Internet has become a critical tool for nonprofits, even more questions have surfaced regarding resource alignment for optimal online results including:

How big should my online marketing staff be?
What is the mix of interactive marketing skills my staff should have?
How should my online marketing staff fit into my organizational structure?

The survey aimed at discovering the most efficient and effective way nonprofits can staff for online success, and the findings are published in the Convio report, The Secret of Online Success: Why Structure Matters. The report includes anonymous responses from 60 nonprofits, ranging from annual budgets of less than $1 million and an email file size of less than 10,000 constituents, to those with annual budgets of more than $100 million and an email file size of more than 100,000 constituents.

Why Organizational Structure Matters
Most survey respondents said the number one barrier to their online success was constrained resources. Ninety percent cited insufficient staff resources as the primary barrier, though budget constraints and a lack of online marketing expertise weren't far behind. Given current economic conditions, these barriers to success may not be resolved. Therefore, getting the most out of your existing staff, including how they are structured, becomes increasingly important. After all, organizational structure influences so many elements of online success, including:

  • Which internal department is responsible for making decisions about the nonprofit’s online strategy, website content and online objectives
  • Whether the organization has an online plan and how often that plan is revisited
  • How well the organization sets goals for online initiatives and whether staff is held accountable for reaching those goals
  • How a nonprofit hires, trains, develops, shares knowledge and provides the best career paths for the organization's online team

The bottom line is that organizational structure truly impacts employee behavior, and that behavior, in turn, affects performance. So when considering online success, nonprofit managers should be more aware of and thoughtful about:

  • Organizing their resources carefully
  • Planning the priorities for these resources
  • Assigning ownership and accountability
  • Acquiring or developing the interactive skills required for online success

How Organizational Structure Helps Define Online Success
Nonprofits organize their online programs into one of three structural models:

  • Centralized: All employees working on online programs are consolidated into a single department and usually sit in one office location
  • Decentralized: All employees working on online programs are spread across different departments (marketing, IT, development, program services, advocacy) and likely sit in different office locations
  • Hybrid: Employees working on online programs are mostly consolidated into a single department, though some employees don’t work within that department (some may even be contract employees)

About 20 percent of survey respondents organize their online teams in the Centralized model, while 39 percent are Decentralized and 41 percent are Hybrids. How respondents felt about their online success was somewhat dependent upon their organizational structure. For instance, those with a centralized model said they are fairly effective at planning, internal communication, decision-making and accountability, while those with a hybrid and decentralized models said they feel less effective in all areas. Similarly, most centralized organizations felt they are very effective at setting goals, holding staff accountable, initiatives such as increasing online giving penetration and sticking to a proactive marketing plan, while hybrid organizations said they are somewhat effective, and decentralized groups said they are less effective at managing these online-related tasks.

Does this mean every nonprofit should change to a Centralized structure for its online program? Not necessarily. Decentralized and Hybrid organizations have their advantages too; such as having broader representation when it comes to creating the online strategy and goals that reflects the entire organization. Regardless of a nonprofit’s structure, knowing the strengths and weaknesses of each structural model will allow you to get the most our of your employees and reach your goals. Several steps that can be taken now to ensure a more successful online program include:

  • Identify which of the three organizational structures you currently fall into (centralized, decentralized or hybrid)
  • Know the blind spots in your existing structure and work to overcompensate them
  • Assign clear ownership and responsibility to online employees which leads to positive change, as does focusing on planning and defining goals
  • Be mindful of the skills required to maintain a successful online presence and seek out these skills in employees and potential hires, and even consider outsourcing when sensible

As interactive marketers, it’s often more natural and stimulating to spend time thinking about new interactive tactics, a new technology or a new creative concept versus thinking about staffing and structure. However, this research clearly indicates that if you do not spend time thinking about your staff size, skill mix and organizational structure, your results can be adversely impacted.

As a sector, we need to be more thoughtful about how to organize our precious resources and continue to share what’s working and what’s not.

The Secret of Online Success: Why Structure Matters | Convio