Braving the New World

All of us, it seems, whether young, old or in between, have our issues with social media.  For some, the whole concept is utterly mystifying. Others, while entirely clear on the concept, are anxious about its implications.  Love it or hate it, the reality is that if nonprofits want to accomplish their missions, they probably need to embrace social media, and do so with gusto.

I know that in my role as a Volunteer Maryland Peer Leader, it is crucial to have the best information and resources to share with Volunteer Maryland Coordinators.  Because most organizations do not have a full-time communications director, many VMCs are responsible for creating and maintaining their volunteer program’s social media presence.

A couple of weeks ago I had the pleasure of participating in Heather Mansfield’s dense, substantive, and fascinating webinar based on her book, Social Media for Social Good: A How-To Guide for Nonprofits.

True to its name, this was a how-to webinar, with lots of nuts and bolts, but with plenty of insightful context, too.  Perhaps most helpful was Mansfield’s description of the three generations of nonprofit social media use:  Web 1.0, Web 2.0 and Web 3.0.

Web 1.0, also described as The Broadcast Web, consists primarily of web sites, donate buttons and e-newsletters. Web 1.0 is very informative but not particularly interactive.  That said, state of the art homepages and e-newsletters are just as important now as they ever were.

Web 2.0, or the Social Web, was born in the early 2000s, with the advent of Linkedin and the proliferation of blogs. Thanks to the personal, informal nature of blogging and the many social media sites that followed in Linkedin’s footsteps, nonprofits were no longer simply broadcasting information, but exchanging it.  Though this has opened up incredible opportunities not just for outreach, but also for peer-to-peer fundraising, many organizations, to this day, fear and eschew the social web because they do not want to lose control of their message.  Though such fear is understandable, it is, at this point, self-sabotaging.  Not to worry, though, there are great examples out there of how to get beyond this resistance.

Web 3.0 is the Mobile Web, which includes mobile websites, group messaging, and smart phone apps. We are entering an era when online donation, with its long forms asking for credit card numbers and billing addresses is being replaced by a smart phone app that allows individuals to donate to a cause with the tap of a touch screen.  Such new technology makes it all the more essential for every nonprofit to have a mobile version of its website.  If creating a mobile website sounds daunting, do not despair.  For as little as $8 a month, services such as mofuse.com will build one for you.

If there was any one take away point, it was this:  Newer social media does not render older social media obsolete.  Nonprofits need to use all three generations of the web, in conjunction with one another, to reach their intended audience of potential volunteers, members and donors.

The great news? Successful use of social media is a science, but it’s not rocket science. All one has to do is look at what the best in the business, such as The Nature Conservancy, is doing, and pretty much copy them.  From the location and color of the “Donate” button to the beautiful slideshow and uncluttered design, this website has almost everything you would want to emulate on your own nonprofit’s website.

Almost?  To perfect your up to the millisecond website, you need one more ingredient:  information about where to find your organization throughout the social media sphere. Perhaps the best example of this is Mansfield’s blog.   Visitors to her blog have the option of finding Mansfield on no fewer than 12 social media sites.

While a flashy website with the perfect blend of an old school e-newsletter and links to hip social media such as Pinterest and Instagram might be surprisingly easy to set up, Mansfield warns that it can be a bear to maintain.  To make those links to your blog, Instagram, Flickr, and Youtube worthwhile, you must always be updating them by adding compelling content.  If that sounds like a full time job, Mansfield assures us that it is.  And for most nonprofits, adding such a position is a pipe dream.  But the day may be coming when social media managers as central to nonprofits as program managers.  Until then, it’s up to each of our organizations to decide just how much online awesomeness we can handle.

A Little Something New

Nearly a year ago, we started this blog. It had been a long time coming and it was an exciting launch. Since then, we’ve featured posts on many different subjects relevant to the nonprofit sector and, in particular, to those in volunteer management and the AmeriCorps world. When we launched, I hoped that you’d get some inspiration from hearing the stories of our writers; what I found is how inspired I was to read them, as well as how much new information I received – and hope you have, too. Now I’m excited to tell you about a new development in our blog, the introduction of guest bloggers.

One of the purposes of our blog is to show the experience of AmeriCorps members serving with VM. You already hear from Megan and Corrine (as well as all of our bloggers from our previous service year), and now we’re going deeper into the field and getting the first-person perspective. Because, while I’d love to tell their stories, I’m no Andy Goodman.

As Corrine and Megan continue to share their insights as Regional Coordinators, I hope you enjoy the additions of our guest bloggers. Stay tuned – they will debut before the month is up!

Have You Got a Story To Tell? Part 2

This is part two of a three-part series of posts adapted from my session notes from the National Conference on Service and Volunteering.  You can read part one here.

Setting up a blog is fairly easy to do, but there’s a lot of work that you should do both before and after you’ve started the blog.  Perhaps the most important thing is that you don’t start with a blank piece of paper, or a brand new Word document.  That’s a horrible place to start. 

They might be a great place to start writing, but if you’re going to start blogging, or working with any kind of social media, then you need to have an organization-wide social media strategy.  It doesn’t have to be a multi-page document like the EPA’s white paper on Web 2.0.  It can be a few lines about how no one in the organizations will act in a way that paints the organization in a negative or questionable light.  Don’t forget about it once you’ve written it, either.  It should evolve as you experiment more with social media.  Something that ought to be considered when you’re writing a social media policy is what the goals for using social media are, especially things that you’ll be spending a lot of time on, so you can tell whether you’re meeting your goals.

Once there’s a policy set, then you need to start thinking about how often you want your blog to be updated.  Something that’s worked really well for Volunteer Maryland is to have five different authors for our blog, each one posting new content once a week.  Five different authors posting once a week create new content every day.  The best part of having a group of authors is that everyone is going to have a different voice, and a different way of seeing their jobs, so the content is always fresh.  We shoot for blog entries that are 500-700 words long.  It’s a nice length; long enough to develop a story but short enough so there isn’t a huge time investment in reading the entry.

 If that doesn’t work for your organization, that’s fine; it’s ok to try something else.  Find out what works best and go with that.  This doesn’t mean that you can’t add or change authors, either.  If your original plan doesn’t work for what your organization is trying to do, keep changing things until you find what works.

What do you do if you find out that your blog is no longer meeting your organization’s goals and you don’t have the resources to devote to maintaining it?  You’re going to pull the plug on the blog, but you don’t want to just leave it hanging on the internet.  The last thing you want is for someone to find a blog that hasn’t been updated in three years.  Even if you have a post about how the blog doesn’t fit into your organization’s strategic vision anymore, make sure there’s some sort of closure to the blog.

There’s one more thing that I’m going to talk about, and that’s how to deal with negativity in your blog.  If you’re really eager to get started, go for it!  If you have any questions, feel free to get in touch with me on Twitter or by email.

Have You Got A Story To Tell?

Two weeks ago I mentioned a talk that I gave at the National Converence on Volunteering and Service on using a blog as an outreach tool for nonprofits.  The HandsOn Blog posted a section of my session notes, and in case you’ve missed it there, I decided to post the first section of notes here.  We talk about storytelling a lot over the course of the service year, and we do it in a lot of different ways.  We talk about our own story, the stories that we tell when people ask what we do, and we tell stories about our clients and our volunteers.  Blogging is just another way to tell a story. 

What’s the most important thing that you and your organization need to know about blogging?  It’s not where to host the blog, or how to bring readers to your blog, or even how often you’re going to update.  These are important things to consider, but the most important thing to know about blogging is this:

 Content is king, and platform doesn’t matter.

If you don’t have a message, if you don’t have something that you’re passionate about, if you don’t have something that you really want to tell other people about, and you don’t want to do it with some kind of regularity, then blogging might not be the best use of your resources.

 If you’ve got something that you think is pretty awesome and you want to talk about it, chances are pretty good that someone will want to listen.  If you share why you think the things you do are awesome, you’ll get people to start thinking that they’re awesome too.  Don’t believe me?

On July 19, 2010 a Google search for ‘worm composting blogs’ returned three hundred and seventy THOUSAND hits.  That’s a lot of people thinking that worm composting is pretty awesome.  This just in, the internet is not a fad.

It doesn’t matter where your blog is hosted.  Does your organization have buckets of money to throw at hosting and design?  We all do, right?  For those of us who aren’t heating their offices with rolls of twenties, there are plenty of websites that will host your blog for free.  The great thing about a lot of the free blog hosts is that you can make a fairly attractive and functional blog without knowing any programming languages, and without any expensive software.  There are plenty of blog hosts out there that will work just fine for what your organization wants to do, that is, if your organization knows what it wants to do.  So, just what can you do with your blog?

You can tell a story.  You have a story, right?  Is it funny?  Great.  Embarrassing?  Awesome.  Horrifying?  Even better.

This is what we do.  Every day we’re telling stories.  We talk about the cute thing that our cat did.  We talk about the person we met in line at the grocery story yesterday.  We tell stories when we talk to people about what we do, and we do it when we’re applying for grants to help fund our organizations.

It’s a great thing to do with your blog, too.  Tell me a story.  Tell me about what your organization does, and why you do it.  Give me a chance to better understand your organization and build a connection with it.  Tell me about the people who volunteer with your organization.  Tell me about how they’re just like me.  They’re making an impact on your organization, maybe I can too.  Tell me about one of your clients.  Tell me about their successes and challenges they’ve had, is there something that I can do to help them?  Tell me about something awesome that your organization is doing, and then tell me how I can get involved.

Does your organization do something really well?  I hope so.  Can you teach other people to do it well?  Why not give out advice to organizations that work in areas similar to where you work? 

You might say, “But we don’t want to give away our secrets!”  You don’t have to, but chances are pretty good that they’re not as secret-y as you think they are.  Tell me how to do something, but tell me why you’re the best at it.  Bob Vila and Norm Abram don’t care if you steal their ideas, they’ve got a show and a website dedicated to you stealing their ideas.  Not just stealing the ideas, though, learning from what they already know how to do really well.

Your blog can also serve as a great place to bring all of your social media together.  Show me what your organization does, don’t just tell me.  Does your organization have a camera?  How about a video camera?  You don’t even need a video camera to make videos about your organization, just a bunch of pictures and an Animoto account.  Animoto for a Cause is supporting nonprofits by giving them access to their Pro accounts for a year for free!   

There’s a lot more to do than just make sure all of your pictures are in your blog, and that you’re able to make videos out of your pictures.  You’ve got to make everything accessible.  Your blog is a great place to link together all of your social media efforts, either with blog updates linking directly to new content, or by setting up your blog to display content that exists outside of your blog.  Tying everything together in one place allows someone to visit the blog to hear stories, click on a YouTube link to watch a video of your last big event, and then head over to your Flickr page to see pictures of your volunteers, all while staying at a site that talks about your organization.

One other thing that doesn’t hurt is having some awesome writers.  One of the things that makes this blog work best is that there are four other awesome writers contributing content.  I am firm in my belief that, if we all decided to write on the same topic one week, it would still be interesting and entertaining because everyone’s voice is so different.  As the service year winds down, I know that one of the things I’m going to miss is reading everyone else’s stories every day.  

What are you going to do when the young ears open to you?  Speak up, speak up my friends.