Published by Angus on 22 Sep 2009 at 05:25 am
Let’s face it, it’s easy for a nonprofit to get seduced by the latest web technology and distracted from their actual mission. This is even more the case with open source tools like Joomla!, Drupal, and Plone that promise free social websites at the touch of a button. What many people don’t realize is the cost of customizing some of these so-called free tools often runs around $40,000 in consultant fees and staff time. On top of that you are saddled with ongoing maintenance and hosting costs. Running your own souped-up website appeals to many because it implies control and ownership. But does this really help you in today’s social web? Here is a checklist to review before you take the plunge:
- What is your goal? Take a step back and articulate what you want to achieve in terms of outcomes. For example, we want “the mayor to adopt a goal of recycling 80% of municipal garbage.” You may be surprised to realize that you don’t need a technology solution at all.
- Where is your audience? If 90% of them have Facebook accounts you probably want to go to their online home. Don’t unrealistically expect a large proportion of them to sign up for your website. Conversely, if 90% of your audience doesn’t go online, look to an offline approach and consider targeting the 10% who are online as influencers and disseminators of your content.
- What is your budget? Nonprofits are tightening their belts as never before. Can you really afford a costly new technology project? Have you got a contingency plan if your project goes over budget? Web-based tools offer a world of possibilities for free or very small fees of around $20/month.
- Is controlling your brand a driver? One argument for managing and hosting your own web presence is that it offers you control. But I would argue that gives a false sense of security. Managing your brand today means listening to conversations on the social web that others are having about you and engaging those people when there are inaccuracies.
- Can you afford not to experiment? Hosting and managing your own web presence is a lot like buying an airliner and getting in the cockpit expecting to fly it from day one. There’s a reason budding pilots start off training on Cesnas – they’re cheaper to buy, easier to fly, and have low maintenance costs. Most online communities fail – better to learn the basics on a free or low-cost platform so you know what works and then upgrade later on. Who knows, you may find you don’t ever need to upgrade.
- What functionality do you really need? Simplicity draws visitors into using a website. The latest technology often just puts people off. ListServs like a Yahoo Group may be all you need – in which case, why do anything else? Don’t let a missing ‘nice-to-have’ feature put you off from using a lower cost option.
- Do you have your focus on community building? Online communities usually fail not because of the technology used, but because no one took the time to think through the community’s purpose and then manage it on a day-to-day basis. If you don’t own the website, you can focus your energy and budget on the people, not the technology.
We are not suggesting that nonprofits give up their simple websites or abandon their domains. Instead, think hard about where to invest your energy and resources going forward. Beth Kanter goes as far as to have a ‘Rule of Thirds’ – spend 1/3 of your effort and money on your web-presence, 1/3 on one-way communications like direct email, and a 1/3 on social media. In other words, don’t over invest in your website. More broadly, think about integrating your website with external services. For example, use your static website for the basics like contact info, staff and board member lists, and simple program descriptions. Then point to an external service(s) for your social community(s). Below is a list of free or low-cost technology that you might want to consider. As always, remember to start with your goal in mind, not with the technology!
- What: Easy to use, and surprisingly high-tech, WiserEarth Groups offer nonprofits a place to store files, conduct discussions, stream feeds, share resources, promote events, and map their members.
- Features: Member profiles, Events listings, Jobs Listings, Resource Listings, Organization Listings, Solutions Listings, Related Groups, Discussion Forums, Wikipages, RSS Feed (in), Group Search, Files, Comments, Ratings, Friend Feed, Recommended Content
- Audience: 30,000 nonprofit professionals and activists as members, and over one million visitors per year, 50% from the US, 30% from Europe and Canada, 20% from the Global South.
- Tip: Consider making multiple groups: for example, one for board members, one for staff on a specific project, and one for members. With a few clicks you can share the same content in all three groups.
- Price: Free for nonprofits, no advertisements
- Examples: Women’s Earth Alliance, Catalytic Communities, Northern California American Rainwater Catchment Systems Association
- What: Your own customizable social network with groups. Still each Ning network functions in a silo so its a little hard to share information between networks although there are sub-groups within each network.
- Social aspects: Member profiles, Events listings, Related Groups, Discussion Forums, Wikipages, RSS Feed (in and out), Group Search, Files, Comments, Ratings
- Audience: Broad cross-section.
- Tip: Not only are there 50 themes to choose from but you can ask a designer to customize the look even further.
- Examples: TransitionsUS, BioDiversity Research Institute
- Price: $24.95/month to go ad-free, $24.95 to remove promotional links, $4.95/month to point your domain name to the homepage, $10/month for premium support, and $9.95/month for an extra 10GB storage and 100GB bandwidth
- What: Simple lifestream for broadcasting information, board for member discussions, streaming feeds supported.
- Features: Member profiles, Events listings, Related Groups, Discussion Forums, Wikipages, RSS Feed (in), Comments, Ratings, Friend Feed
- Demographics: Broad cross-section.
- Tip: Stay away from Facebook Groups which don’t allow you to post into your member’s lifestreams. Secure your username for your fanpage like www.facebook.com/username
- Price: Free, although with advertising
- Examples: Beth’s Blog, WiserEarth
- What: Simple groupware with discussion forums, streaming feeds, and posting jobs.
- Features: Member profiles, Jobs listings, Related Groups, Discussion Forums, RSS Feed (in), Group Search, Files, Comments, Ratings, Friend Feed, Recommended Content
- Demographics: Professionals networking for jobs
- Tip: Don’t forget to cross-post content in larger existing groups with an overlap with your target audience and subject area.
- Price: Free.
- Examples: WiserEarth, Building Green
- What: ListServ allowing web and email reading and posting. Why mess with success? If you want to exchange information using email – which can be accessed on dial-up on any computer – go no further.
- Features: Member profiles (limited), Events listings / Calendaring, Discussion Forums, Polls, Group Search, Files
- Demographics: Anyone with a Yahoo Account
- Tip: Due to the volume of email traffic generated by active groups there is a risk of burn out. You may want to stay moderated and invitation only.
- Price: Free.
- Examples: AfricanBirding, developmentjobs
- What: Discussion forum / ListServ supplemented with simple wiki editable pages.
- Features: Member profiles, Related Groups, Discussion Forums, Wikipages, Files, Comments, Ratings
- Demographics: Anyone with a Google Account
- Tip: Due to the volume of email traffic generated by active groups there is a risk of burn out. You may want to stay moderated and invitation only. A little easier to use than Yahoo Groups and most people already have a Google account. But not as many features.
- Price: Free
- Example: Sask Biodiversity Conservation Planning Group, Audubon Chapters of Florida
- What: Microblogging service for sharing your latest content and listening to your community.
- Features: Member profiles, RSS Feed (in and out), Search, Comments, Friend Feed
- Demographics: Tech savvy crowd but becoming more mainstream
- Tip: Use TweetDeck to filter traffic into specific categories for easier monitoring.
- Price: Free
- Examples: WiserEarth, starfocus
- What: No hassle hosted blogging
- Features: Member profiles, RSS Feed (out), Polls, Search, Comments
- Demographics:Broad cross-section
- Tip: Not to be confused with WordPress.org, the self-hosted version of the same open-source software.
- Price: Free, or pay extra for your own domain and to be advertising free.
- Examples: Greener Loudoun, Philanthropy Potluck
Other resources: The True Costs of Free and Low-Cost Software
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