TOOLS AND TRAINING
By Peter Panepento
Earth Share of Washington had staked its claim in cyberspace. The only problem, says Dave Manelski, the group's program coordinator, was that its territory drew few visitors.
The Seattle nonprofit group serves as a hub of information for its 65 member organizations in Washington State, promoting environmental education and charitable giving. But, says Mr. Manelski, its Web site was static and stale, failing to keep up with current issues that would engage people interested in the environment.
Earth Share needed to give Web users a steady stream of current information -- information that would draw them to the organization's site, introduce them to the charity's mission, and provide them with access to the most important and current environmental discussions.
The group found what it needed last year, when it created its first-ever Weblog, an interactive online journal commonly called a blog, that allows an individual or organization to routinely post information, commentary, and links to other pages of interest. Since the blog was added as the featured part of an overall site redesign a year ago, the number of hits on Earth Share's site has more than tripled. While the site generated slightly more than 3,000 hits per month before adding the blog, it now gets as many as 12,000 a month.
"The blogs were the pieces that people were visiting," Mr. Manelski says. "That was our idea, to get more people to the Web site. Give them more information and they will become more familiar with Earth Share Washington. It's been critical, because people now associate Earth Share as a source for up-to-date news and information."
Blogs are far from a new idea: Journalists, political organizers, and other writers have been using blogs for several years to express their opinions and draw attention to their work. But those who follow blogging say it has been only recently that advocacy groups have grasped the power offered by this still-evolving medium. And those advocacy groups that have started blogs are on the cutting edge, as most other charities do not maintain online journals.Cheap and Easy Maintenance
Observers attribute the rise of blogs to the example of the former Vermont governor Howard Dean, who used them as a cornerstone of his campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination. Mr. Dean, who started his pursuit of the Oval Office with little money or name recognition, gained both late in 2003, due largely to the success of his campaign Web site, whose blog included a stream of essays from supporters and occasional messages from the candidate.
Many charities have taken lessons from the Dean campaign's use of the online medium, says Philip Cubeta, a Dallas financial adviser whose Weblog, Gift Hub, serves as a forum for discussion of philanthropic giving, refers charities to technology expertise, and encourages nonprofit groups to pool their technological resources to more effectively spread their messages and attract donors. (For more about what the Dean example has taught nonprofit groups about online advocacy and fund raising, see this previous Chronicle article.)
But the overwhelming majority of charities have been slow to make blogs a part of their online presence, says Mr. Cubeta. As a result, he says, they are missing out on an inexpensive tool that can help them reach a broader audience and promote their causes.
"One of the questions is why don't more individuals who are involved in nonprofits or philanthropy have a blog of their own," says Mr. Cubeta. "It surprises me there aren't more."
That surprise is grounded, in part, on the fact that blogs are typically easy to use and inexpensive to maintain. For example, many software platforms for Weblogs, such as the Movable Type program used by Earth Share for its site, offer free versions -- and the most recent version of Movable Type is available for as little as $70.
Once the software is installed, Mr. Cubeta says, blogs are easy to maintain and update. Unlike graphics-heavy Web sites, online journals are text-driven and require little technical skill. Users typically create posts for their blogs in one of two ways -- either by writing their own content or by creating a link to another Web site or article.'A Peer-to-Peer Conversation'
Most blogs allow readers to post their own comments on what they read in a post, creating a continuing discussion or debate about a topic. "There's a commentary section under each blog," says Mr. Cubeta. "Blogging becomes a peer-to-peer conversation."
A recent scroll through Earth Share's blog offers an example of how a nonprofit organization can use online journals to provide timely information tailored to members, volunteers, and potential donors. Earth Share's blog includes a diverse collection of posts: a message from the group's executive director on the state of its fund-raising efforts, a news item about the dedication of a hiking trail, a report on a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study on pesticides' effect on the human body, and a roundup of volunteer opportunities at Earth Share's member organizations.
Mr. Manelski says he can update the site with each item quickly. "That is the power of the Web log," he says. "It allows me to get something out there to that many more people, without it taking a lot of time."
Susan Kakuk posts more infrequently for her organization, Putting Family First, in Wayzata, Minn., a five-year-old organization that encourages families to spend more time together instead of engaging in scheduled activities or spending excessive time watching television or surfing the Web. The charity, which is run solely by volunteers and has an annual budget of $5,000, relies heavily on its Web site to spread its message. Although at first glance using the Internet in this manner may appear to run counter to her group's mission, Ms. Kakuk insists it is not. "We are not preaching to other people to limit Internet or limit TV," she says. "We are living in an overscheduled world. It's about balance. For some, that's less Internet and TV. But it's about making families the first priority."
Ms. Kakuk, a board member with the organization, posted only one new entry in July, and three in June -- all essays about how her family handles the unstructured days of summer, plus a link to a list of "Boredom Busters" for children and a cartoon. But Ms. Kakuk says even those infrequent posts, which typically take about a half-hour each to create, have helped Putting Family First raise its profile.
"The Weblog helps direct them to our site because we're keeping more current and we're finding more opportunities for the search engines to find us," Ms. Kakuk says.
In addition, she says, refreshing the site with new material gives those who have visited Putting Family First online a reason to return, because they won't be greeted by stale items. And the messages, she says, "bring some reality to what we're trying to accomplish."Bloggers Helping Bloggers
Older charities have been particularly slow to embrace blogs, says Mr. Cubeta. A lack of familiarity with blogs, he says, is a prime reason: Bloggers tend to be younger and less established -- and thus unlikely to be in leadership roles at more entrenched organizations.
Many of the most successful blogs also rely on writers who express strong opinions -- and many organizations are simply not willing to let their employees, board members, or volunteers post views that might contradict the organization's view, express it inappropriately, or offer information that the charity deems proprietary.
Because of those concerns, nonprofit groups such as Earth Share monitor the content of their blogs to make sure the posts reflect the group's goals. Mr. Manelski says that he wants Earth Share's blog to challenge readers and help them think about issues. But, he notes, "we're a fund-raising organization and we have a clearly stated mission, so we need to be careful not to be controversial or too political."
When he believes he has found an interesting posting, but suspects the posting might be too controversial for his group's Web site, he runs its content past Earth Share's executive director. In some cases, the organization will include only an excerpt from the posting on its blog. (By contrast, the site's forum allows for outsiders to post content without any prior editing; Mr. Manelski says he periodically reviews the messages to delete any commercial solicitations, or "spam." So far, he says, the site has not had problems with readers posting derogatory material.)
But for many nonprofit organizations, a lack of resources -- not a fear of ruffling feathers -- is the main reason why they have not yet embraced blogs. Many charities are simply too strapped for time to deputize an employee or volunteer to create and maintain a blog. With that in mind, a small number of bloggers, such as Mr. Cubeta, are creating blogs aimed at helping grass-roots charities build their online presence. Gift Hub, which focuses on planned giving, is his attempt to help organizations share technological resources to promote their causes.
The thinking behind Gift Hub is explained in one of Mr. Cubeta's blog postings this past spring:
"Rather than each organization having to build out an infrastructure, including technology, media relations [and] planned giving, the idea is that we should have 'hubs' that consolidate that expertise, and share it," he writes. "The benefits to grass-roots organizations within such an organization are obvious: lower cost, flexibility, and the ability to achieve critical mass with minimal paid staff."
Marty Kearns uses a blog in a similar way to help environmental nonprofit organizations. As executive director of the nonprofit Green Media Toolshed, in Washington, he works to help environmental groups nationally find low-cost ways to convey their messages through the Internet and the news media.
As part of that role, he and his colleagues contribute to a daily blog on its site that spotlights hot environmental topics and offers readers information on how they can better communicate. The blog takes about an hour a day to maintain and gives Mr. Kearns an effective way to provide instant commentary on current issues.
Recent posts include advice for advocacy groups on getting journalists to open their e-mail messages, tips on raising money earmarked for nonprofit groups' communication efforts, and a roundup of environmental news. The blog also includes links to other online journals created by environmental charities.
Green Media Toolshed's blog, in a sense, has become an advertisement for blogging itself, since Mr. Kearns sees online journals as a way for environmental nonprofit organizations to leverage the Internet to promote their viewpoints.
"It's not the tool, it's the strategic shift," he says. "It's important that groups pick up new strategies on how to keep up with advocacy."
Does your charity maintain a blog? If so, how does it use it to further its mission and gain support? Tell us in the Tools and Training online forum.