SocialEx: Sarah Angel-Johnson on Digital Transformation
In episode 14 of SocialEx, Humentum’s podcast, Director of Communications Caitlin Holland sits down to talk to Sarah Angel-Johnson, Chief Information Officer at Save the Children. They discuss what it takes to implement a digital-first strategy, the importance of a human-centered design, and what led Sarah to a career in digital transformation.
This is an abridged transcript of their conversation; listen to the entire podcast here or watch the video embedded below!
Caitlin: How would you define digital transformation?
Sarah: It’s become one of those buzzwords, and it means different things to different people. And that’s part of the problem. My recommendation is to ask what digital transformation means for your organization. When I joined Save the Children, I asked my CEO. Without understanding that, there will likely be a misunderstanding pervasively across the organization about what you think of digital transformation versus your colleague versus a partner.
Digital transformation is a mindset change. It’s about maximizing opportunity across everything we do better, faster, cheaper to increase impact for our mission.
When I talked to my CEO, she and I aligned that for Save the Children. Here, digital transformation is a mindset change. It’s about maximizing opportunity across everything we do better, faster, cheaper to increase impact for our mission. The second thing is it integrates business and technology, strategy, and execution. And the third thing is it drives a new kind of human-centric culture, thinking, and way of work, which is important in digital transformation.
Caitlin: I heard you speak before about what a digital-first plan would look like within different organizations. What have you noticed is the difference between “digital-first” at corporate and nonprofit organizations?
Sarah: When I left my last for-profit job, IBM, I was leading 25,000 people. I recall saying to myself so often, “I don’t have the resources, I don’t have the money, I don’t have the people. We can’t get it done.” And then jumping over to nonprofit and not having a team and not having a robust budget—“scrappy” is the word that comes to mind in nonprofit.
I learned how to truly “roll up your sleeves,” and everybody does what needs to get done. At Girl Scouts, when I rolled out the iconic Girl Scout Cookie Program online, I was so hard on myself at first because it wasn’t the same kind of quality that I associated with my for-profit job. And it wasn’t until the CEO pulled me aside and said, “You have got to stop that. You have no idea what you did to pull us into the digital age and help us move our iconic Girl Scout Cookie Program in a way that we’ve been trying for over a decade.”
In nonprofit, we’re here for the mission. We all care so deeply, and we all have our views on how to achieve our mission impact.
And then that last piece around culture. I could spend days talking about the difference between for-profit and nonprofit cultures. For me, what it nets out to be, is [that] I tend to find a more rigorous or transparent decision-making culture in for-profit. Everyone knows their role. And you know how decisions are made.
Whereas in nonprofits, and I think it’s because everyone is so passionate about their mission, it gets convoluted. And this is where you hear it’s all consensus-driven, and decision-making is hard. And I think it comes from a good place. We all care so deeply, and we all have our views on how to achieve our mission impact.
Caitlin: How did you digitize the Girl Scouts program? And what were some challenges you found along the way?
Sarah: It is an $860,000,000 program, and it is the lifeblood of Girl Scouts. It is really [about] teaching girls business—how to be entrepreneurs, so it becomes a program. And it’s not just a money-maker, the money goes towards even furthering the girls’ development. One of the things that I did was start first with that. What is the intent of what we’re trying to do?
It was about teaching girls e-commerce, supply chain, marketing, digital marketing, data, and how you use data to then help your business. It was about helping girls understand business from a digital perspective.
I pulled in all stakeholders immediately to start with a shared vision and decision-making, so we didn’t get caught in that later on down the line. And then also, because of the pressure of the deadline, we were able to iterate and experiment fast. Whereas I find in a nonprofit, it’s difficult and challenging to fail fast, and it’s part of the cultural change that we’re trying to change right now around international NGOs. It’s almost like we didn’t have a choice in that in that Girl Scouts scenario. And so, we just moved fast.
Caitlin: What are other common barriers you’ve noticed in nonprofit organizations in terms of embracing a fast-paced, innovative digital strategy?
Sarah: There are three things. It’s really about humans first, not technology first. And it’s not just with nonprofits. It tends to be [the case] with a lot of organizations, “Oh, we want the latest and greatest tech.” That’s really starting with the how first, without truly understanding the who and the what. For nonprofits to be successful, we need to transition into this human-centered design mindset.
So, humans first, understanding their needs locally. That’s so critical in the shifts that are happening in international NGOs—locally understanding personalized individual, unique needs. For Save the Children, that would be children and communities. And then the second thing is around, starting at the end and working your way backward. I often find in NGO-land, we use a phrase like, “building the plane while we’re flying.” We don’t want to be there. We really want to be starting at the end, understanding the outcomes, and then working your way backwards as to how you achieve it.
And then the last piece, which I’ve talked about over and over, is that cultural piece. It’s how you look at integrating business and mission, and technology. So, you don’t have a separate digital strategy, it’s embedded. Everyone is accountable for digital transformation, not just one person. And there are a couple of things to overcoming those barriers. And they’re kind of tough for nonprofits to think about. But the first one is investing in leaders and skills for the change.
Caitlin: The focus on equity, especially in terms of technology across various parts of the world, has been heightened by challenges that have been created by or at least intensified by the pandemic. I’m interested in how the pandemic impacted Save the Children.
Sarah: Bridging the digital divide is just such a big topic because it’s not as simple as, “Oh, hey, let’s provide a community with broadband and digital devices.” I think that’s a very naïve way of looking at it. It’s really about systemic change attached to broader issues such as digital literacy, advocacy, and policies that drive a different behavior from communications and technology companies and governments making relevant digital content, which speaks to DEI [diversity, equity, and inclusion]…
At Save the Children, the ways that I’m seeing it play out is we’re being very intentional about localizing the solutions for what is needed. What channels do they have access to? Maybe it’s not digital. When we were combating misinformation about COVID-19, yes, we were pushing SMS text. Yes, we were pushing chatbots. You know what? We also had people in the back of a pickup truck with microphones and megaphones just talking to people. It’s not always a digital solution. And so, we have to balance that.
Caitlin: You have a lot of really great pieces of advice for others interested in a career in digital transformation. What drove you to this career path?
Sarah: I will cite two different things. The first one is it goes all the way back to my roots and coming from humble beginnings. If it weren’t for programs like Girl Scouts [or] Save the Children, I wouldn’t be where I am today. So first, it’s a personal passion because of that.
I think I can offer something unique in how we can apply and integrate both for-profit and nonprofit principles, how we can look at tech and data differently through human-centered design. And how we can truly scale the things that are working for social impact.
I’ll also go back to this moment in my career when I switched from for-profit to nonprofit… People have asked me, “Will you go back to IBM?” Because I worked with IBM for 17 years, and I never thought I was going to leave. And I was on a very clear path. Again, if I could be so bold as to say, I might have had a shot at being in the pipeline for CEO in my future. And people will ask that continually. And my answer is no. I want to stay here in scaling social impact because I think I can offer something unique in how we can apply and integrate both for-profit and nonprofit principles, how we can look at tech and data differently through human-centered design. And how we can truly scale the things that are working for social impact.