Nonprofit Digital Transformation: Why Learning Science & Community Building Matter

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You’re a nonprofit leader ready to grow your organization’s impact. The potential to extend your reach is great. With scaling as an imperative, your digital transformation initiative begins. But how do you ensure your program and your organization are ready? You may not see evidence-based digital learning design as a core component of the answer to that question. But we do. 

Education is likely at the heart of your mission. The resources, instruction, and coaching you share with constituents improves people’s lives. The learning outcomes that you help constituents achieve directly reflect your program. 

Consider these three other questions: 

  • In order to scale impact, does your digital program have to deliver engagement at scale? 
  • Is the application of learning science and community building critical in order to successfully transform your program? 
  • Does measuring and understanding program engagement and outcomes build a foundation for growth? 

We believe the answer to all three of those questions is yes. When it comes to nonprofit digital transformation, learning science and community building matter. In this blog and accompanying resources, our goal is to explain why. 

In turn, you might be asking: What do you mean by “learning science” and “community building?”

Defining learning science and community building

By learning science, we mean the practice of how your program participants acquire knowledge and skills based on who they are, what their context is, and how they interact with others. 

To consider how we apply learning science, let’s frame the experiences of your program participants as learning experiences. When you think of your program participants as learners, your program experts become teachers and your program outcomes become learning outcomes. 


You don’t have to be an academic institution or for-profit education company to deliver learning. Nonprofit organizations can deliver learning-centered programs in various ways:

  • Training-the-trainer: A training-the-trainer program educates its constituents on how to teach something to someone. Example: An organization that trains teachers on how to incorporate entrepreneurship into their classrooms. 
  • Mentoring: A program that provides mentoring grows a relationship between its experts, delivering resources and education and its constituents. Example: An organization that supports community activism and encourages its constituents to support each other.
  • Consulting: A program offering consulting, supporting constituents through some group or decision-making process. Example: An organization that provides project-based consulting services to small businesses.

As part of the digital learning experiences your program delivers, community building may also be a critical objective.

Community building means creating a community of practice where program participants share and learn from each other regularly across digital spaces. 

A community of practice convenes to solve challenges and exchange best practices to help constituents achieve better outcomes. Novice program participants have the opportunity to learn from more-experienced participants and benefit from communal interactions with your experts. 

Scaling program engagement with learning science and community building

In our recent white paper for nonprofit organizations, Digitally Transform Your Program to Scale Engagement, we explore how the programs at OneGoal and Advancing Pretrial Policy and Research (APPR) leverage learning science, community building, capacity building, and measuring results in order to scale engagement. 

OneGoal is a college-access and -success organization working to dramatically increase the number of students from low-income communities who achieve postsecondary success. OneGoal provides students from low-income communities with guidance and the tools and resources to succeed in their postsecondary aspirations. Digital transformation allows OneGoal to continue reaching out and supporting their constituents despite school closures and to accelerate their transition toward providing effective services at scale through digital technologies.

APPR supports justice system professionals through comprehensive research, support, and training to achieve fair, just, and effective pretrial practices in the American justice system. APPR is scaling their reach through the digital transformation of their program. The in-person model for helping jurisdictions implement this program is too high-touch to scale effectively. 

Here’s a snapshot of how these organizations tackle scaling program engagement with learning science and community building. 

When we partnered with APPR at the start of their digital transformation journey, it became clear that learners justice system practitioners across the United States  didn’t have an engaging digital space in which to gather. Creating that communal space was a critical part of their larger digital transformation initiative. 

Defining what community means to your organization, devising ways to engage its members, and designing a platform experience that supports their unique needs are all part of delivering program engagement at scale. The work to craft and develop that unique experience is deeply rooted in learning science principles and includes: 

  • Knowing your learner persona (including what motivates them)  
  • Knowing the learning outcomes for which they need your support to achieve 
  • Leveraging that detailed and thoughtful understanding to guide the learning interactions your platform and content delivers

Simply “putting a program online” without learning science driving evidence-based design is unlikely to deliver program engagement at scale. 

Watch and learn how community building is shaping APPR’s digital transformation.

Despite very different sets of learners, both APPR and OneGoal serve individuals focused on definitive positive outcomes in their lives. Rather than creating assignments or conducting tests based on assumptions of traditional learning, activities and assessments connect meaningfully to what the learner values and help them reach desired outcomes. 

Getting students to enroll and succeed in a postsecondary program is at the heart of OneGoal’s mission. That’s why all activities and assessments are aligned with that goal. For example, students complete a professional statement in their digital workbook to improve their writing skills, which is a pathway to submitting an effective personal statement to their best-fit postsecondary institutions. 

OneGoal also makes learning visible with digital workbooks and reflection opportunities demonstrating student progress. This approach allows instructors to better support students by monitoring their progress and how they feel, while doing so at scale. The ability to see the learning, list milestones, capture momentum, and share accomplishments keeps everyone motivated.

For APPR, program deliverables have to be professional tools that benefit the participants’ work as legal practitioners. To that end, APPR brings together multiple stakeholders to create a digital system map of every step of an arrestee’s journey through the justice system. This approach speaks to the unique learning outcomes for adult learners: APPR’s program participants need experiential learning that works toward improvements in their jurisdictions (rather than exercises just to reinforce concepts). 

Our interactive webpage, 3 Learning Design Principles That Support Scaling Program Engagement, dives deeper into how learning science supports delivering program engagement at scale and provides more details on the experiential learning outcomes that are part of the APPR Learning experience.

You can't sustain transformation without building capacity

With the vision of lower operational costs from a digital program in front of you, it might be tempting to view this initiative as something that can happen while you maintain your current “way of doing business.” But to transform your program through digital experiences that deliver engagement at scale, you cannot neglect the overall transformation of your organization. The organizational work is what supports the growth of a program that has truly transformed, not one that just “went online.”

At Extension Engine, we support our partners like OneGoal and APPR to deliver program engagement at scale, build their capacity to sustain digital transformation, and grow. 

For digital learning to truly support engagement at scale, technology has to meet how your constituents learn and give them a means to thrive in your program. Learning science and community building allow us to translate engagement drivers into digital learning experiences so that technology adapts to your learners — not the other way around.

Keep learning

Digitally Transform Your Program to Scale Engagement

Read the white paper to learn more about how nonprofits just like yours are digitally transforming their programs to better serve constituents.


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