I spent 5 years working with 4 nonprofits on a collaborative technology project. I share the lessons we learned, the challenges and the benefits of having nonprofits collaborating on a technology project.
This was the project the developed the SafeChat Silicon Valley crisis counseling service. It involved four domestic violence service providers near San Jose, California. First came a feasibility study (VERY IMPORTANT!), done by myself and Organizational Development consultant Beth Schecter to determine if the organizations could work together and which project best suited the group. The organizations decided on creating the first collaborative online & mobile chat crisis counseling service in the United States. SafeChat has since successfully launched and is being used to support survivors of domestic and intimate partner violence. See my posting about the project: Digital Crisis Counseling – Technology Meets the Hotline
Lessons we learned from this multi-year technology effort:
Rising Tide – In this case, the “rising tide that lifts all boats” was engaging with technology. To participate in te project and use the technology tools it required, all of the agencies would need to improve their technology hardware, software and most importantly their technology skills. Not only was each organization able to prioritize improvements, merely by being engaged with the project and hearing what others were learning and doing, each agency reported increase confidence and use of technology as the project progressed.
Timing – Naturally, meetings take at least twice as long as there are many more factors to consider with working collaboratively. Each organization has its unique cultural norms, history, assets, weaknesses, programs, people, politics, leadership and networks. For our project this meant meeting for several hours every two weeks. We used half of the meetings for full group discussions and half of it for small group work, to allow people a dedicated time and space for working on the project that they might not otherwise have in their often hectic jobs.
Learning – Because people are reporting on what is working or not working for them, they each everyone about that experience. This has not only to do with technology but with others types of collaboration and relationship. People shared strategies for overcoming resistance from leadership or other staff. They share why a particular strategy or tactic did or did not work well for them. They learned how to deal with vendors and with website developers. They learned may new terms and phrases they didn’t know before. Being in community helped them share and gain knowledge in ways usually not possible in a cross-organizational way.
Capability Building – Having people do things they have never done before builds confidence and capabilities in the individual that also transfer into their organization. Skills and knowledge gained through being stretched in their project roles built stronger leaders, more confident project managers and better trainers. We included the whole group in discussions on software selection, hardware requirements, website development, online privacy, marketing and many other topics that allowed people to participate at their level and learn from discussions at the same time.
Resources – Having the assets of four organizations to draw on provides a larger pool of resources. This includes many types of resources from talents to skills to contacts to even physical assets. One was able to usually provide the meeting space, one was able to have their website design person give us some hours, one was able to have all of the printing done for marketing materials. Through contacts, they were featured on major market television news.
Impact – The organizations are able to do together what they cannot do alone. No single one of these agencies could have accomplished alone what was done to the degree that they accomplished this task together. When working collaboratively, nonprofits can set their technology sights even higher than they can alone and have more of an impact on their sector.
Nonprofit technology collaborations can be successful if they are properly vetted, thoughtfully planned, funded appropriately and given the time required to create great things!Read More
I created this handout on Facilitation Methods to highlight some of the most popular techniques, along with a brief explanation of each method. A key to using these successfully is matching the method to your goal for that part of your training – are you looking to get folks to share their knowledge on a topic or brainstorm ideas or come to an agreement? Different methods serve different goals, so give some thought to which method best serves your goals. Practice and experiment with the methods to increase your proficiency and learn about what works.
Also included below is the slide deck from the Nonprofit Technology Conference session Supercharge Your Technology Training, where the handout was used.
I crafted and presented a workshop for the grantees of the Rose Foundation for Communities and the Environment recently on Storytelling, Engagement and Measuring Success. Attendees were from mostly grassroots organizations, many working in rural areas and most with very limited resources. I chose to cover these topics together because in over 25 years of helping nonprofits communicate well and use technology intelligently, I’ve seen the power of coordinating these three elements.
While preparing for the workshop, I looked over the websites and social media presence of many of the attendees. I could see the great work they were doing but I wasn’t finding many personal stories. People relate to people more than organizations. Fundraising campaigns that use stories raise more than campaigns that use facts – stories even raise more than when the facts are mixed with stories. I shared these findings and the many opportunities I saw for personal storytelling – by people who are docents, stewards, board members, staff, volunteers, donors and advocates. So many great stories are within even the smallest nonprofits just waiting to be told. But stories in isolation are not enough.
Stories matched with specific engagement objectives and strategies are far more effective than stories alone. Spelling out specific objectives aligned with an organization’s strategic goals, then using stories and engagement strategies, is the most powerful approach. Knowing your fundraising goals, advocacy goals, membership or any other goals, keeps your efforts focused on outcomes. When you know what your goals are, you are crafting stories with a purpose and with a goal in mind.
Measuring success is looking at your progress towards those goals. Are people actually engaging with our content? Are the taking the actions we’d like to see them take? Which strategies are working and which can we stop doing if they don’t produce results. Keeping an eye on our progress towards our communication goals helps refine not only our engagement strategies but our storytellling. It is a cycle of Try-Measure-Reflect-Learn-Improve.
Creating this learning loop is the practice that ensures continual improvement. It is the key to improving the communication strategies, tactics and results used by your nonprofit.Read More
Here are six examples of the types of projects I work on as a Nonprofit Technology Educator and Strategist.
I work with all types and sizes of nonprofits, primarily in the areas of technology and communications, providing consulting support as well as training services.
Santa Clara Domestic Violence Technology Collaborative – Digital Crisis Counseling
I’ve guided this collaborative of 4 domestic violence service providers through the planning and execution of a technology project to provide crisis counseling services via online and mobile chat. Work included the feasibility study, education on excellent nonprofit technology practices, business process mapping, tactical project planning & budgeting, tool selection & integration, website creation, online marketing strategy and measuring impact using data. See the results – www.safechat.org
ACLU of Southern California – Digital Strategy
In collaboration with Oakwood Digital’s Michael Stein, worked with the Communications Director to create a digital strategy plan to guide communications through the newly revised website and other digital channels. Included measurable objectives based on our research of the current digital goals, engagement, staff interviews and digital analytics.
Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur – Online Presence Planning & Execution
I’m advising the Development & Communication’s department to create and execute on their strategic communications plan. This includes advice about multimedia content, email, social media, website, online fundraising and using data across all of their digital platforms to improve outcomes. www.snddenca.org
Y&H Soda Foundation – Grantee Communication Planning
Working with the foundation’s program officers, I created an educational curriculum and consulting support plan to help these small community organizing organizations create strategic plans for technology and communications. These plans help focus their limited resources and the process builds knowledge and skills in those areas at the same time. I educated 10 community organizing foundation grantees on excellent communications & technology practices, counseled them on creating strategic communication & technology plans, then provided consulting support on plan execution and using data to measure success. I also supported the foundation with their own website revision including vetting vendors and providing project management for them. www.yhsodafoundation.org
NetSuite – Social Impact Grantee Assessment
NetSuite donates their powerful financial and other software tools to qualified nonprofits and social impact organizations. Working with the Social Impact team, I provided expertise about how technology is used in nonprofits to help assess which organizations were able to be successful with the donated tools. I reviewed data from grantees and provided sector best practices to create a framework for assessing applicants. I created an assessment tool to measure the impact of the donation on the organizations’ ability to make social impact. www.netsuite.org
Parent Center Network – Technology Planning
Every state has a center, funded in part by the U.S. Department of Education, to support the families of children with disabilities. I have worked with this national network of parent centers to create and execute a technology planning process for centers to follow. Working with a team lead by the PEAK Parent Center in Colorado, I created educational materials, work plans, road maps and resources to ensure successful completion of the planning process and support execution of the plans. All project goals were met and the plans continue to be in use well after the project’s completion. Peak Parent Center, funded in part by U.S. Dept of Education, OSEPRead More
A dedicated website page for your nonprofit’s fundraising or advocacy campaign adds the magic needed to help make that campaign successful online. The magic comes from you making it as easy as possible for people to learn more, take action and share your campaign online. When you don’t create a page specific to your campaign, you create barriers to action, making people search through your website to find out more details or making it hard for them to share it through social media. Those barriers stop people from taking action. This is about removing barriers in order to make it simple for people to learn more, take the requested action, and spread the word about your online campaign.
Here’s an example from a medium-sized nonprofit, The Sonoma Humane Society, who helped their campaign through a dedicated website page.
The Sonoma Humane Society sent out an email, asking for help in spreading the word about special needs animals that need adoption. The email was well crafted and linked to their website page, which listed all animals for adoption. The email linked to the page that listed ALL of the animals available for adoption, with no way to sort the list to find the animals with special needs. That required folks interested in the special needs animals to sort through a long list of animals and click on each listing to see if that one had special needs. It also meant that when the website page was shared via social media, there was no specific content about the special needs campaign.
I contacted their Communications person and suggested they create a website page specific to the campaign. They were able to create a special page that listed the animals with special needs, making finding those animals much easier. People could then share about the campaign via social media and include a link to a relevant page instead of a generic adoption page. This removed the barriers to finding out more about the campaign and to sharing it via social media, helping them to get the animals adopted.
I have seen this countless times, an email or a social media post about a campaign that then leads back to a generic Support Us website page or, worse yet, to the website home page where there is no mention of the campaign. When people see your nonprofit coordinating communications poorly, their faith in how well you operate and how you will handle their donation is diminished.
How can you get the most “magic” from a website page for your campaign? Here are four tips:
Plan for a website page when planning the campaign.
It doesn’t have to be fancy or complicated, just text and images about that specific campaign. This makes it much easier for people to find the information about the campaign, rather than searching around your website or simply loosing interest. It also makes it easier for people to share that page via social media, which helps you spread the word.If it is not easy for you to add a page to your website, it may be time to change how your website is managed. Now that many website management tools are as easy as word processing programs, nobody should have to call someone to add a page to their website.
Give staff authority to add a website page.
If adding a simple, campaign-specific website page requires several committees, multiple reviews or a long process, your organization may not be nimble enough to enjoy the benefits the online world can provide. While a second set of eyes is always a good idea for any public communication, long review processes hinder effectiveness. Empower staff with guidelines and specifics about when it is – and is not – appropriate to add a website page. Ensure that more than 1 person on staff is trained in the proper way to craft a page, make the page active and test it.
Remove all barriers to related details and taking action.
As in the example above, it is important to not only present the specifics of a campaign on the website page, but to make it easy for people to find more detailed information. Ask yourself “What questions might someone have who wants more details after reading this?” and “If I knew nothing about this, what questions would I ask – and does my website provide those answers?”. You don’t need all of the answers on the page you create. You can provide needed details by adding links to existing pages on your website. If it is a fundraising campaign, add links to your financial information, a description of your impact and to personal stories. If it is about taking an action like pet adoption, try to link to the detailed information about the specific animals – try to avoid a scenario where people have to take one piece of information, like the pet name, and re-enter it someplace else on the website. Remove as many barriers to the information as you can.
People take action more often and give more money based on good storytelling than on reading facts. When possible, tell a short personal story on your page to help people understand the impact of your work and how it relates to the campaign.
Bonus tip – Take down the page at the end of the campaign. If your campaign is time-limited, set a reminder for yourself or set it up in your website software to take the post down when appropriate to avoid leaving a stale, outdated page on your website.
Following these tips will help you remove barriers to action you might unintentionally be putting up. With this little bit of website magic, you’ll provide easy-to-find details related to your campaign and help people spread the word to their online networks, improving your results and helping you meet your mission.
Nonprofits provide digital crisis counseling services using online chat or text via a computer or mobile device. These services augment the traditional telephone counseling hotline services provided by organizations that support survivors of domestic or intimate partner violence, sexual assault, human trafficking and many other issues. While phone hotlines have been in use for decades, it is only in the last five years that digital counseling has become more widely available through text and chat.
In September of 2011, loveisrespect premiered the nations first dating abuse text service. In October of 2013, the National Domestic Violence Hotline premiered live chat services. More recently, services like CrisisTextLine, RAINN and others have begun providing services via text and chat. Over the past three years I have worked with a collaborative of domestic violence agencies in San Jose, CA to launch SafeChat Silicon Valley (safechatsv.com) a resource that provides digital crisis counseling services with trained advocates via online and mobile chat to people in Santa Clara county.
Some interesting challenges come with providing counseling via text and chat. An initial concern was losing what can be communicated by a person through their tone of voice on the telephone. Learning the language of chat is also been a challenge for the advocates who staff the chat service, as the many acronyms used via texting are used in counseling conversations (LOL, ROFL, etc). There are also concerns about privacy and security when using a computer or mobile device. These concerns were addressed through research, thoughtful planning and the ongoing training of the advocates who staff the chat line. Thankfully groups like the National Network to End Domestic Violence (NNEDV.org) have excellent resources about using technology thoughtfully to provide the safest experience possible.
Providing digital crisis counseling has also come with some surprises – many people are more honest when using text or chat than they are when talking on the phone. The services also allow people to get help in more discreet ways – imagine you are in the back of a car driven by your abuser, you could discreetly text for help when you couldn’t call. Chat and text are also more comfortable channels for young adults, many of whom use those modes of communication more frequently than others.
The successful launching of this service in Silicon Valley required four agencies, all with different staffing, technology comfort levels and resources to work together in a sustained way over several years. My role has been to help guide them through the process, beginning with an initial feasibility study to ascertain if the service would be useful to their communities and if it could be accomplished successfully. This was followed by research into similar services, assessing the technology readiness of the partners, providing guidance around the technology tool options available and helping to steer the implementation process.
Launching a service like this requires time and resources. Thanks to funding from Blue Shield and the county of Santa Clara, the resources were available for planning and implementation. Careful planning was undertaken to ensure the service was implemented well and would provide the same quality of service as the existing hotlines. The planning provided the roadmap for building capacity as well as capabilities within the organizations and resulted in a successful launch of the service in August of 2016.
While national resources of this type are important, having local agencies providing digital crisis counseling services is vital. It is vital for the same reason that it is important to have local service providers staff traditional hotlines. It is the local agencies that are familiar with local services, local support providers, local shelters, local law enforcement and many other relevant resources including local, county and state laws.
It has been very rewarding to watch these agencies come together and sustain their commitment to this project despite the challenges. It proves that with determination, resources and guidance, any nonprofit or group of nonprofits can be successful in this type of technology initiative. I hope to use the experience I have gained through this process to help more agencies provide this vital service to our communities.Read More
A website is the most important part of your nonprofit’s presence online, followed by email and social media. It is the online transactional hub where people can learn about your work in a deep way, make donations, sign up for your email list, review volunteer opportunities and much more. Without an interactive, up-to-date website, you don’t exist to millions of potential supporters.
I’ve been helping nonprofits create and improve websites for over 20 years. I’ve seen a lot of exciting changes in what is possible as well as a lot of cautionary examples of websites withering from neglect. Here are five elements, features and functions that are essential keep your website alive, kicking and contributing to your success.
A Place for Stories
While facts and figures are part of the work of many nonprofits, it is stories that stick with people, engage them and motivate them to volunteer, donate or help in other ways. Fresh content is what keeps a website alive. Ensure that your organization can generate stories and has a place to put them on the website. Think about the people you help – not just direct clients but others in the community that are affected by your work. Tell stories of your donors, your volunteers, your board members your staff. Bring your organization to life by telling stories of the many kinds of people your work touches so that visitors see other people they can relate to who are supporting your efforts. Encourage everyone connected to your nonprofit to help by sharing their story – It can be as simple as the answers to two questions – why they love your organization, why they spend their valuable time or money to support your work. Three or four paragraphs that tell the story succinctly and that includes at least one image (preferably more) is great content that helps keep your website alive.
Calls to Action
The way your website is set up and the stories you tell should be aligned with your desired calls to action. Make it easy for a visitor to take actions on your website. People come to websites to learn and then to act. Each story should connect to an action. After I read a story about how great it is to volunteer with you or the important impact you make with my donation, encourage me to volunteer or donate and make it easy for me to take those steps. Stay away from calls to action like “email us” or “call us”. Let me make a donation easily and immediately. Send me to a page that lists your current volunteer opportunities, where I can fill out a form to say how I’d like to help and what experience I have in that area. Ensure that content and calls to action are easy to find – have your donate now, email signup and search functions in the same place on every pay elf your website.
Having a website without clear objectives wastes time and effort. Just having something, anything online is not better than nothing. Every nonprofit has a mission and almost all have a strategic plan for how they will move towards meeting that mission. Based on your strategic goals, have communication goals and objectives that support your organizational goals. This helps you make much better use of the time you spend not only on the website, but on email and social media as well. Create measurable objectives for each part of your online presence. Examples:
When we post a new story on our website and share a link to it via email and social media, 50 people visit the website page within 48 hours.
When we run a fundraising campaign and share a link to the campaign website page via email and social media, 200 people visit the page within a week. 40% make a donation during their visit.
When we send out an e-newsletter that includes separate links to 3 new stories on our website, at least one of the links gets 75 clicks within 72 hours.
Sometimes the objectives will be guesses, but even those will help you measure progress.
The internet is a visual medium and people process an image that tells a story faster than reading the proverbial 1000 words. Collect images everywhere you can – in the field, at gatherings, at special events, with donors, clients, volunteers or friends of the organization. If you are in the habit of collecting images you then create an image library which you can pull from when you need images for the website, email, social media or print communication. There are many excellent online resources to help your nonprofit with creating graphics, infographics, videos, photo essays and other types of digital storytelling. Search on the internet with “nonprofit” in front of any of those terms to find helpful hints.
Keeping your online presence alive requires time and effort. There are people in your community who are online regularly and can help with writing stories, taking photographs, making images, even doing updates or helping in other ways with website, email and social media tasks. Ask them. Talk to them about your goals and objectives for the website and other online activities. See who has talents or expertise in those areas who can commit to doing 1 or 2 activities a month. With everything else you she on your plate, trying to add additional tasks means that things get dropped, delayed or don’t happen at all. There are too many nonprofit websites in the “digital graveyard” with outdated content, old images and no-longer-relevant information. By making some simple asks, you can increase your organizations capacity to maintain your online presence, ensuring that you make the most of what the internet can bring to you.
What is one thing you can do to increase your capacity to tell stories? Gather and manage images? Create calls to action, then set and measure objectives? Take a step today and you’ll be on the road to a happy, healthy website that will serve your nonprofit well and help you meet your mission.
(Images: flickr: prawnpie, GustavodaCunhaPimenta,Tim Bueneman; saysc.org; ccisco.org)Read More
Most articles about online productivity are framed as helping you to do more – automate this, multi-task that, consume more faster, etc. Most professionals I know – especially those in the nonprofit world – are already consuming too much information, most of it online. I’m encouraged by seeing folks reframe how they think of online personal productivity. I'm an advocate for finding ways to be more focused, consume less information and make the time spent on line more fruitful.
Consuming tons of information online can lead to the illusion of doing a lot, but in fact it is usually mediocre, low-quality time spent. This is akin to the McDonalds or Ikea mentality – as long as it’s fast, consistent and cheap, it’s okay if it’s low quality. When I take the time and focus on spending my time well, I am much more satisfied professionally vs. the lack of satisfaction when I know a lot of the time spent was not high quality.
I have come to realize that spending time in such mediocre ways is a disservice to myself, the organizations I work with and our communities. Unfortunately we often buy into the false social construct that those that do more are somehow more valuable than those who do high quality work. While many artists are prolific, we rarely judge them by the volume of work they create but by the quality of that work.
Constantly skimming and scanning and glancing is detrimental to my ability to concentrate. I highly recommend reading The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains by Nicholas Carr (theshallowsbook.com) to understand the detrimental effects chronic information overload is having. I am better off when I do things that satisfy me professionally and personally. For me that means being more focused with my information consumption.
It has been a big help to actively reframe what online personal productivity means to me. I realized that focusing on doing a few things well leaves me more satisfied, produces better impacts and keeps me energized. Spending my time in mediocre ways leaves me dissatisfied, disappointed and feeling burned out. I get much more satisfaction from writing one or two good quality blog posts a week than cranking out low quality posts with typos and other errors every day.
Each of us has to decide what leads to our own satisfaction. For some, they might find satisfaction in producing work that meets minimum requirements. Others like me may realize that we are left wanting when we buy into the more-is-better myth.
Having clear objectives for my time online is a great first step. Defining those objectives first allows me to have a heading instead of only wandering organically through the information ocean. Both objective-focused and organic time online are valuable, so defining your best balance will be helpful.
Some actions to consider:
- Reflect on what kinds of online work really leaves you satisfied and energized. How might you reduce the skimming and scanning you do? Be laser focused on what you are looking for online and do a lot less “browsing”. Social media channels want you to stay and browse for as long as possible – so they can serve you up more ads and make more money. Do what’s best for you, not best for Facebook, Twitter etc.
- Realize that time spent “taking a break” looking through social media channels can actually be adding to stress, burnout and information overload, not regenerating. Explore alternate ways to recharge and take a break – walk around the block, sit outside and be present in nature, do something creative offline, work on learning something new, or – gasp – actually do nothing for five minutes and let your brain recharge.
- Forget about the worry of “missing something”. For each of the past few years I have taken breaks for several weeks from being online and guess what? I missed nothing important either professionally or to my happiness and well being. Reject the notion that you need to be constantly plugged in, finger on the pulse, hyper-aware and constantly vigilant online. What is truly important will find you at the right time if you are true to what satisfies you.
Be purposeful with your time online and to catch yourself if you are wandering aimlessly too often. Beth Kanter’s blog has some great related articles on being mindful online for further reading:
How to Train Your Attention and Be Effective When Working Online
Stop the Glorification of Busy & Thrive
Image: ImagisticRead More
Conventional wisdom tells us that whenever a nonprofit has a website page, there should be a conspicuous “Donate Now” button. If at any time someone is motivated to donate while browsing your website, you want that button prominently displayed for easy access. But there are times when what you are trying to accomplish online is better served by NOT having that donate button.
We know we are most effective when we are strategic about how we communicate, engage and fundraise. Sometimes that means separating those objectives, rather than trying to accomplish all three at once. Sometimes your goal is strictly a communications play – trying to raise awareness. Sometimes it is an engagement play, trying to get signatures on a petition or getting folks to sign up for an event. In both of these instances, bringing in a fundraising ask can muddy the waters and dilute the focus on the action that you want folks to take.
I recently spoke with fundraising expert Barbara Pierce of Transformative Giving (transformativegiving.com), who works helping nonprofits engage with high net worth philanthropists. She knows well the importance on an effective online presence‚ telling me “I have heard from major donors that if a website is clearly not up to date, it raises a red flag.” Barbara noted that while annual and ongoing fundraising efforts benefit from the prominent online donation button, the “donate now” button can sometimes be counter-productive in garnering large gifts.
Barbara shared an example of when a Donate Now button is not appropriate, which made a lot of sense. Sometimes organizations are running an informational campaign, primarily focused on major donors. This might be for a capital campaign or other major initiative where the organization is communicating about the need and the plans to address the need. This online communication is meant to be followed by asking for a donation in person. Barbara said “Sometimes you are not aiming for many smaller donations but are looking for targeted gifts from a targeted group of people. The online pieces help folks share with their online networks about what you are doing and provides a place to point the press, so you want to keep those pages targeted to serving those purposes.”
In this case, the online parts of that campaign – emails and a web page – serve the purpose of providing initial information, and help fundraisers begin an in-person conversation with a major donor. The aim of those emails and that web page is not to get someone to “Donate Now,” especially when the aim is to secure the type of major gift that comes through a personal, targeted ask. This is a case where the campaign page is not well served by having a donation button. You may end up losing a larger gift by passively “asking” for a gift through the “donate now” button. The donor may see the button, click on it, see your suggestion to give $2,000 and do just that. That could hurt your chances when it comes to asking for $25,000. On top of that, if you do get a major gift through the online portal, typically three to four percent of their substantial donation is taken by the payment processor.
So when you are crafting and executing a fundraising campaign, be clear about which pieces are about information or engagement vs. donations. Sometimes it is smarter to keep the related emails and web pages free of extraneous elements and focused on the strategic communication goals that help support your successful online – and offline – fundraising efforts.
There are many other pieces of the online fundraising puzzle that can support success. To learn more about them, join me for the Foundation Center’s three-part webinar series “Excellent Practices in Online Fundraising and Engagement” November 5, 12 & 19. Click here to learn more and register
Learn more about the work of Barbara Pierce on her website: transformativegiving.comRead More