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Digital Literacy: A Core Capacity for 21st Century Nonprofits

Over the last twenty years nonprofit organizations have gotten steadily better at financial management, communications, and evaluation. For many organizations these are now core capacities. Such changes were driven by several factors, and in turn have informed and helped drive the impact investment movement, social media for good efforts, and collective evaluation and evidence-based decision making efforts. Building capacity in individual organizations ultimately leads to progress for the whole sector.

Digital literacy is the next such central skill. It is about more than just being able to use data to make decisions, although that is certainly part of it. Core data skills – appropriate and ethical data collection methods and analytic skills – are part of the package. But digital literacy goes beyond just data management, statistics, and visualization. When you consider the degree to which our organizations are now dependent on digital data and infrastructure, it becomes incumbent upon nonprofits, foundations and other civil society organizations to attend to these resources with the same integrity to mission that they manage financial and human resources.

The difference is in the resource – digital data are not like money or time. They have several important characteristics (replicability, scalability, sharability, and generativity among them) that require a different set of skills. Digital infrastructure (cables, phones, laptops, printers, network connections, etc.) are even more unusual – for one thing, they are almost universally provided by commercial companies and monitored by governments. It is often the rules that these companies make and the regulations that governments use for telecommunications and national security that are going to set the stage for independent associational life in the digital realm. These are new bedfellows (to say the least) for nonprofits and foundations to consider as part of their core ecosystem.

Digital literacy involves a practical understanding of how data work, how networked infrastructure supports your organization, and how to create, implement, and execute practices and policies to use digital data safely, ethically, and effectively. It is a skill that everyone in the organization needs. Think of it this way – anyone with an email address at your organization is managing digital data.

Given that email attacks are still the primary means of hacking into systems and causing data breaches, it’s a good idea to start with the basics. Lots of us use email, texts, networked printers, cloud services, and cell phones at work all day every day. But few of us really understand – and practice – informed and mission-aligned data practices designed to advance our mission and keep our constituents safe. For all those organizations out there working with vulnerable populations, making sure you don’t make them any more vulnerable should be a good starting point.

The National Neighborhood Indicators Partnership and Microsoft’s Civic Tech team are out with a new (US-focused) guide to digital literacy resources. Find it here. The International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent are working on tools for global, multilingual federations of organizations. Follow Heather Leson to learn more. makes tools for people to use that are easy to understand, and Rahul Bhargava and the Engagement Lab provide incredible resources. DataPop Alliance works on digital literacy issues at global scale, and the Centre for Innovation at Leiden University and HumanityX are also involved. The Tactical Tech Collective, Responsible Data Forum and Engine Room provide hands-on ways to get involved and learn. And Digital Impact provides a community where you can learn more, policies you can adapt to your organization, and a place to ask questions and lead conversations.

Effective organizations and associations need to manage and govern digital data with the same integrity they manage money and time. Today’s nonprofit leaders need these skills to transform their organizations and lead the change. Digital is no longer optional, it’s core.