Founded by renowned conservationist John Muir in 1892, Sierra Club is the nation’s largest and most influential grassroots environmental organization. We recently sat down with Chris Thomas, Chief Innovation Officer of Sierra Club, to get his reactions to the “2016 State of IT” report — a survey of over 2,200 IT leaders and CIOs worldwide, conducted by Salesforce Research. He described how they have mastered digital transformation along with the art of moving their customers to action.

Here are some lessons from Thomas on leading digital innovation for a nonprofit that can apply to any business:

1. Digital Transformation is Necessary for Growth.

Thomas: “There’s this old-fashioned concept of the citadel nonprofit that’s separate from the community until they need to ask for something from the community. That’s a model that younger people are reacting less positively to — they want to be part of the solution, not have the organization act on their behalf. Digital has given us the opportunity to better enable these people to be a part of correcting the issue and to feel they are the fabric of the solution.

…People need to feel their actions are part of something bigger. Technology gives us the ability to take their actions (i.e., signing a petition) and create a personal space for them. We can use their data to follow up with what their action meant, what the news is on the issue a week later, and how they can do more — because now we know who they are and what they’re interested in.”

High-performing IT teams are 4.2x more likely than underperformers to say they are excellent or above average at implementing digital transformation across their company. “2016 State of IT” report.

2. Technology Helps Create a Movement.

Thomas: “Sierra Club is the country’s largest grassroots environmental organization…Over the years we’ve been responsible for protecting Yosemite Valley and the Grand Canyon, working on local issues, protecting local communities, developing clean energy solutions, and ensuring we have an equitable and forward-looking energy sector that’s no longer polluting the world…We see [digital transformation] as a large opportunity for technology to help us build this movement and community for a younger and more diverse future of Sierra Club.

…To be successful, to get the level of change we want or to engage people the way we want, we need to get out in front of people in a context that excites them. For example, if a fuel company dumps oil in the Gulf of Mexico, we now know who is regionally close, who cares about that content, who specifically we want to reach, and how to reach out to them quickly. We can now also get out on social media quickly and build a movement of people who can act very quickly. Timing and context are huge — we have the ability to talk to them in the moment and give them the feeling they are participating in something that’s meaningful to them.”

High-performing IT teams are 3.7x more likely than underperformers to say they are excellent or above average at staying ahead of technology trends.“2016 State of IT” report.

3. Digital Innovation is Really About Relationship Building.

Thomas: “The one thing I believe that digital is transforming for everybody is the value of the relationship. Technology provides companies with the opportunity to develop relationships with people and take the concept of brand affiliation to another level. I think the companies that will do really well in the future are those that actually value the community and have the ability to excite, animate, and engage within the community. I don’t think people are going to love companies that are just trying to get them to buy…This is where I think for-profit and nonprofits are coming together. For-profit businesses are now coming to us and asking how we are doing this — developing a relationship beyond the transaction.”

Ninety-two percent of high-performing IT teams strongly agree or agree they are helping the business better connect with customers.“2016 State of IT” report.

4. Mobile Is the Future.

Thomas: “Most of the internet is being consumed on a smartphone and younger audiences are much more mobile-savvy. We know if we want those people to be part of what we do, we need to develop for mobile. Mobile has the opportunity to improve organizing…If you look at Bernie Sanders or President Obama’s campaigns, they were able to use mobile really well. It’s a way of organizing that young people, especially, are very receptive to. They may not respond to a petition, but they will respond to something that pops up on their screen.”

High performers are 1.4x more likely than underperformers to be increasing spending in mobile apps over the next two years.“2016 State of IT” report.

5. Executive Buy-In Is the First Step to Digital Transformation.

Thomas: “In order to [start digital transformation] you have to have executive level sponsorship. It takes a lot of resilience and time and money — so, getting executives to buy into it goes a long way. You need [digital transformation] to be a part of the executive level strategy.”

High performers are 4.3x more likely than underperformers to strongly agree that leadership places a high value on the tech practice.“2016 State of IT” report.

6. Don’t Do It All Alone — Find Good Partners.

Thomas: “Especially for nonprofits, it’s important to find a good partner rather than trying to do everything internally, especially software development. If you don’t have the capacity to do the necessary level of development internally, it’s very dangerous to try to. Get the budget to do it right and leverage and benefit from other people’s experiences. Salesforce is great for us because Salesforce is constantly developing their software, and there is a big app community out there for us to leverage in place of projects we would take on ourselves — it adds a lot of value.”

Software as a service is ranked in the top ten priorities for IT leaders over the next two years. Sixty-three percent rate it as absolutely critical/very important over the next 5 to 8 years.“2016 State of IT” report.

Many of Thomas’ lessons from implementing digital transformation at Sierra Club can apply to any business. When it comes down to it, adopting new business technologies is about building better relationships. If a company or organization can reach their customers/audience at the right moment, with a message that is relevant to them, they will begin to feel a deep connection to your brand. The only way for your business to be able to relate with your customers quickly and at scale is by adopting a connected digital strategy across the entire company. For more strategies on how top IT teams are innovating, download the full “2016 State of IT” report.