Blogging From The Top

May 15, 2008       Mark Hrywna      

Ask a techie whether your nonprofit should be blogging and the answer might be, "What are you waiting for?" Ask a nonprofit CEO and the answer could be closer to, "Who’s got time?" or "What’s the ROI?"

If return on investment (ROI) is the sole measure of success for an endeavor, then a blog might not be for you. However, some nonprofits are turning to blogs to help craft their messages and encourage more active participation with their organizations.

Soles4Souls, a Nashville, Tenn.-based charity that collects and distributes shoes to people who need them, has had a blog since the organization started three years ago. "It’s really our means of community," said CEO Wayne Elsey.

Though Soles4Souls gets plenty of media attention, a blog is "our way of being on the 6 o’clock news every day," Elsey said, whether it’s reporting about a large donation of shoes received, or a need for donations in response to a disaster. "We get shoes, we give them away. Whether it’s a disaster that just happened, whether in Tennessee or overseas, like in Katrina, we just communicate where the need is and where the distribution networks are." While Soles4Souls could update the blog daily, Elsey said it’s usually updated three or four times a week. "We really make an effort to do it once a week," he said.

Soles4Souls plans to unveil a redesigned Web site this spring, which will include an expanded blog section where supporters can post their own entries, videos and experiences. The blog will have more of a sense of community, he said, with encouragement to get people plugged in, including more video.

"Honestly, I think it’s the way of the future," Elsey said.

Elsey estimates about three or four hours a week is spent either writing for the blog or coming up with ideas for the blog. A blog post could be anything from news about a significant donation, strategic alliance or distribution arrangement. "It’s a good way to give credit to people too," Elsey said, such as a 50,000-shoe donation last year from Red Wing Shoes. He recalled one post that was a thank you letter from a man in New Jersey who was the recipient of a donation and later got a job.

Elsey meets for 30 to 60 minutes a week with his publicist to brainstorm ideas for blog posts. When the organization first started a blog, he described it as a funnel "a mile wide and an inch deep." But now the focus is on three areas that it wants to communicate: donations, alliances and distribution.

"The hardest challenge is to tie me down and extract all the information from me," he said. "It’s not beneath me, it’s an integrate part of our communications mechanism."

Soles4Souls gets about 500,000 hits to its Web site each month, with about 250,000 unique visitors, Elsey said, but did not have statistics immediately available for the blog. Having an updated blog also increases the likelihood of being listed in an Internet search while users also can subscribe directly, by email or RSS feed.

When the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) launched its blog in May 2007, the main consideration was how to use reader comments, said Meghan Goss, the blog’s editor. Some blogs and message boards devolve into shouting matches or entirely different topics. "We wanted to inspire the living room conversation around our issues" so instead of posting comments immediately as some blogs do, she said, HSUS posts samples of the feedback received, both pro and con.

"It’s really helped to advance the dialogue around our issue," Goss said, adding that pro and con comments sometimes create another wave of comments, "so the conversation still continues, just in a different, nontraditional way."

The only ground rules for users are: kept it clean and keep it lively. "We don’t want to bog people down with an essay-long list of rules," Goss said, but just use their good judgment, which they do most of the time.

Abuses at a California dairy cow plant that came to light after an HSUS undercover investigation prompted hundreds and hundreds of comments, Goss said, much the same way the Michael Vick dog fighting case exploded last summer. HSUS posted almost 20 different blog entries throughout the turn of events related to the California case, ranging from breaking the news to posting initial reader reaction and questions. Along the way, the blog also provided the opportunity to respond to counterattacks circulated by critics and opponents of HSUS.

HSUS has a policy of not releasing statistical data related to the blog or its email program. Goss said that readership has been growing steadily, with the number of visitors to the blog tripling in the past six months and the number of subscribers by RSS or email doubling. "That’s been really encouraging," she said, in addition to a high percentage of readers offering comments.

HSUS President and CEO Wayne Pacelle is the face of the blog (www.waynepacelle.org) but it involves many other staff members.

To sustain a daily blog, and since Pacelle’s schedule was already packed from sun-up to sundown, HSUS decided to hire a full-time staff person as blog editor. Goss describes her role as coordinating the posting, schedule and format of the blog, along with monitoring comments and questions, and being the point person for HSUS staff. A core group of staff are involved in the daily review process of the blog and sometimes subject experts on staff are included.

As blog editor, Goss will sometimes reach out to other bloggers when Pacelle writes about a topic impacting a particular audience. For instance, when Pacelle wrote about recalled beef sent to schools. Goss informed parenting bloggers, who linked back to the HSUS blog.

"What we really wanted to do was encourage participation in a two-way conversation because before the blog was launched, there was really minimal opportunity for our supporters to openly share their feedback," said Goss. "We wanted to provide an element of interactivity and connect with our most faithful supporters," providing an outlet for their opinions, questions, and finding out what’s on the mind of members.

Sharing his experience and perspectives on the blog, Pacelle gives the work that HSUS does a more personal feel, said Goss, like "a running diary of our movement and how you can get involved." Using video on the blog, Pacelle has chronicled trips to Gulf Coast animal shelters, as well as testimony before Congress.

Most beneficial to HSUS, Goss said, has been the ability to explain "our organizational policies and priorities, why we work on what we do, and clarify an issue. It’s allowed us to acknowledge our nay sayers almost immediately, and share our side of the story, reacting to news." Pacelle might praise reporters for well-done pieces, but at the same time, there’s the opportunity to clarify something that HSUS believes was misrepresented in the media.

The attraction of blogging, for some, is the ability for self-publication, without the hassles, or cost, of say, printing anything, be it a newspaper or newsletter. In its basic form, it could be just one person typing their thoughts onto a computer — from anywhere, at anytime, about anything. Take Sam Singh for instance. He was president and CEO of the Michigan Nonprofit Association for 10 years and in January embarked on a tour around the world, with plans to reach all seven continents and more than two dozen countries.

Singh won’t be just another tourist or millionaire trying to set some obscure record. He’ll be working with nonprofits and nongovernmental organizations, such as Habitat for Humanity International’s Global Village program, and "compiling trends in the field of international volunteering."

As you read this, he could be in Romania, helping build housing with Habitat for Humanity, or already on his way to the Monaco Grand Prix. You can see for yourself, with his itinerary, located at www.singharoundtheworld.com, or read about his experiences — including the Antarctica half-marathon and photos of him with his Michigan State flag — by subscribing to his blog feed. NPT