Lighting up the Internet from main to micro

February 15, 2009       Craig Causer      

The current economic crisis has served as a shameless promoter on par with the hair-raising efforts of boxing impresario Don King. Forget the “Thrilla in Manila,” today’s most recognized battle has been dubbed “Wall St. versus Main St.”

Fortunately for nonprofits, the big guy versus little guy, or main Web site versus microsite, debates are a little less pitched. With the Web 2.0 revolution that is currently taking hold, nonprofits are showcasing new applications, features and visual designs across the Internet, with some being housed in the comforts of the organization’s primary Web site while others have left the nest and taken up residence in unique microsites.

Which philosophy works best is often decided by each individual organization’s mission, goals and budget.

For this edition of Hot Nonprofit Web sites, The NonProfit Times worked with NTEN, the Portland, Ore.-based membership organization of nonprofit technology professionals, to select the hot sites that represent the best of both main sites and microsites. NTEN Executive Director Holly Ross provided her take on each of the sites selected.

With respect to the late film trailer voiceover legend Don LaFontaine, “In a world where main and micro live togetherÉ” Here are your 2009 Hot Nonprofit Web sites:

American Red Cross, Oregon Trail Chapter
URL: http://redcrosspdx.blogspot.com
Main or micro: Microsite, housed at Google-owned blogger.com.
Traffic: Approximately 4,000 page views per month
Dollars raised online: The organization does not track funds raised via the blog.
Distinguishing features: A blog that features video, Twitter updates, Flickr-housed images and detailed posts from a variety of staff members.
Ross reveals: “It really shows that smaller organizations can provide meaningful, good content for their communities, without a lot of fancy stuff.” The Portland-based Oregon Trail Chapter (OTC) of the American Red Cross had operated a Web site for many years but decided that the time was right to move toward the future and Web 2.0. It was interested in creating an effective blog that targeted four key audiences:

  • Web-savvy people of all ages who had little or no experience with the Red Cross;
  • Bloggers who are also leaders and influencers;
  • Current volunteers and donors, and;
  • Current staff.

The organization reviewed Web sites and the Public Relations Society of America’s archives for articles about how businesses have created and optimized their blogs. It studied successful corporate blogs, including GM’s FastLane, Edelman’s 6 AM and Jet Blue’s Flight Log and reviewed the staff’s favorite blogs, including Boing Boing, Apartment Therapy, Wired and Gizmodo.

“We wanted to help transform the image of the Red Cross from an organization seen as conservative, staid and 125 years old, to one recognized as young, edgy and attractive to a new generation of volunteers and donors who can bring fresh energy and ideas to our life-saving work,” explained Lise Harwin, communications director at the OTC.

She said, “Blog goals include: Establish the Oregon Trail Chapter as an expert on disaster response, preparedness and safety, inform and educate readers about how to prepare for and prevent all types of emergencies, proactively communicate about local, national and regional disasters and inform and educate readers about the inner workings of the Red Cross.”

That transformation has taken place by instituting a number of new approaches to the organization’s blogging philosophy. Team blogging provides a variety of voices, engages more staff in the project and reduces individual responsibility for daily posts, Harwin said. Frequent posts — about three to five per day — infuse new material, urge readers to return to the site again and keep things fresh. Interactivity has been boosted by encouraging readers to offer feedback and asking for their opinions.

More photo and video content has also enhanced the site. But it has been the engaging writing, reflecting honesty and humor, which has allowed the readers to feel like they are connecting with real people with real personalities, not a faceless organization, Harwin added. All of the work was done in-house, a decision that has directly resulted in the tone of the site. “You can’t outsource personality or first-hand reporting,” said Robin Parker, OTC’s blog master and communications specialist. “We feel it’s important for real Red Cross voices — including that of our CEO — to be heard. Keeping it in-house also allows the flexibility to add new authors, features and edits at the drop of a hat.”

The site’s success continues to grow and the nonprofit measures that success by consistently growing traffic and subscriptions, winning local and national awards, receiving fan mail from journalists, bloggers and other Red Crossers worldwide and “by seeing readers get engaged by attending our events, forwarding our posts and telling us about how they are getting prepared,” Parker added.

Heartland Alliance for Human Needs & Human Rights
URL: www.heartlandalliance.org
Main or micro: Main Web site
Traffic: More than 12,000 visitors per month since the site’s re-launch in September 2008.
Dollars raised online: Comparative figures for the new site are not yet available.
Distinguishing features: Online program directory and gift catalog.
Ross reveals: “What I love about this site most is how they use the main area of the homepage to tie stories to their mission. Most sites talk about their mission, but this storytelling is fabulous.”

The September 2008 re-launch of the Heartland Alliance’s Web site was geared toward growth. The Chicago-based human rights nonprofit eyed goals of building a larger online constituency via increasing registrations for its email communications. They sought people interested in reducing poverty and advancing human rights, increasing online fundraising and growing its network of online activists for its state and federal legislative priorities on issues such as poverty reduction and immigration reform. The organization’s new site tied testimonials and personal accounts to its mission, which resulted in a more personal site. It also houses two unique features — an online gift catalog and the online program directory.

he gift catalog provides a meaningful gift-giving alternative for people to honor their family, friends, and colleagues on holidays, birthdays and other special occasions. Supporters can browse the online gift catalog site, choose a gift for a loved one, and send a postcard or e-card as notification of the gift, which qualifies as a tax-deductible charitable donation.

Popular items include a pillow and blanket for a refugee child, a wellness check for a homeless newborn and childcare for a single mother. Through this effort, the organization has made its work more tangible to external audiences — especially prospective donors.

“[Our] online program directory organizes our complex organization into a searchable, easy to navigate online database,” explained Bindu Batchu, director of marketing and communications at the Heartland Alliance. “The program directory was custom-built for us with some help from our online vendor and information was gathered from every program in our organization. It is both easy-to-search and easy to update, and allows an organization of our size (serving more than 200,000 people annually) to provide current information about our programs to our peers, staff, and program participants.”

The new site runs on the Convio platform but is maintained in-house with all of the articles and images created by staffers and supporters. By maintaining the site in-house, the organization can be strategic and nimble with its content and updates, campaigns, and analysis of its efforts, Batchu said. Ultimately, the site will be judged according to a few key statistics:

  • The number of new email registrations;
  • The number of advocacy actions complete, and;
  • The number and amount of donations.

With the site just over six months old, the nonprofit is already planning its next moves on the Web. In the next year, more multimedia content, including podcasts and video, will be added. An expansion of the online program directory to include maps and additional content about its programs is also in the works.

Interplast URL: http://interplast.blogs.com/
Main or micro: Both — utilizes the main site as well as Facebook, YouTube and other social networking sites to house information. Traffic: Over 1,700 hits per month and more than 1,500 unique page views to its main Web site.
Dollars raised online: More than $100,000 in 2008.
Distinguishing features: Blog featuring stories and images from the field and Flickr-housed images.
Ross reveals: “This blog is so great because it tells pretty raw stories from the field.”

The primary goal of Interplast’s main Web site is to communicate the tremendous needs of those with clefts, disabling burns and hand injuries, the life-changing difference reconstructive surgery can make for people in developing countries and how Interplast is working to meet those needs. The Mountain View, Calif.-based organization has designed its site to educate and inform its community, which includes volunteers, international partners and current and new potential donors by using its site as a hub for all of its Web 2.0 efforts.

Links to its blog, newsfeed sign-ups and social networks like Flickr, YouTube and Facebook are all utilized with the goal of engaging users at a higher level of interaction to keep them interested in the work conducted by the nonprofit.

“When Interplast launched its blog in January 2005, it was one of the first international humanitarian organizations to have a blog,” said Sara Anderson, chief information officer at Interplast. “It was developed to give a deeper understanding to what we did in the field and to connect readers to our work as it was happening, to see photos and read the stories of medical volunteers, international partner surgeons and especially patients,” she said.

While it primarily still serves that purpose to connect and to inform readers about our specific work in the field, it is also used to provide more timely updates about what is happening at Interplast, from the organization’s gala to recent news stories. “We hope to launch a new section on global health and key humanitarian issues, giving links and stories to provide a greater context and background for Interplast’s work in the field,” she said.

While the blog is well read and well regarded, the organization would like to improve its ability to be interactive, according to Anderson. The current blog rarely receives posted comments and would like to encourage more visitors to do so, she added.

The choice to upload almost all of its photos on flickr.com with a Creative Commons license has greatly increased its visibility in the online world. Interplast receives thousands of hits on its photos and it has been another successful tool for communicating its story.

Interplast’s compelling and emotional stories, photos and videos are updated regularly and maintenance on its site are done in-house — for budget reasons and to have the flexibility to change its site whenever needed. The new design was outsourced but with the goal of being able to make changes easily in-house, Anderson added. Those changes will include adding more pictures and videos to make the site more compelling and reducing the amount of text to further improve navigation. The organization is also considering ways to create more interactive opportunities for people to stay involved online.

The current and planned changes will be evaluated thanks to a grant provided by Google. “Google Analytics has become essential in us tracking the effectiveness of our Web site and our online efforts, which we hope will lead people to our Web site, Anderson explained. “As we launch calls to action on our social network sites, send out mailings or newsletters, have a story in the media, etc., we are able to see the effectiveness of those efforts by monitoring the traffic to our site after a given call to action or shout out. Additionally, we are able to track what outside Web sites direct the most people to our Web site. As we track that information, it helps us decide where to focus our efforts.”

The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees
URL: www.playagainstallodds.com
Main or micro: Microsite.
Traffic: Over 2.9 million hits and 12 minutes 47 seconds is the average visit duration (U.S. statistics).
Dollars raised online: The site is not used as a fundraising tool.
Distinguishing features: An interactive game, available in nine languages, that allows users to explore issues facing refugees.
Ross reveals: “A really fantastic way to explore this issue.”

Imagine having to make decisions that might force you to flee your country to seek protection from persecution, war or a violation of human rights. The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has brought this reality to its microsite, Against All Odds, so that students can better understand the plight of the world’s more than two million refugees. Teachers’ materials with classroom exercises are provided for a more in-depth understanding of the issues. The organization has used the site to raise awareness and serve as a gateway to get young people interested in both the UNHCR and refugee matters.

The Stockholm, Sweden, UNHCR regional office covers several countries and languages and received a donation from the Norwegian oil company Statoil, which made it possible to develop Against All Odds. The site was first designed for the Swedish language, followed by Norwegian, with the aim to promote integration by targeting young people. The organization needed to find a way to reach as many people as possible, in a way that would be as attractive, while taking into account the existing technology in schools, according to Kiki Rodriguez Norman, member of the external relations unit at UNHCR in Stockholm.

Against All Odds was designed to streamline a refugee story so it was not country-specific, nor time-specific, but with a long shelf life. “We had to adapt the development of the game to the financial constraints we had,” explained Rodriguez Norman. “So, we had to choose text boxes instead of voiceover for instance — new language versions would have been far too expensive otherwise and young students with hearing problems could not play it. We had to find a kind of balance/compromise between our two target groups: young students and teachers. We did not have the financial possibilities to produce a game which could compete with ‘normal computer games’ — it would be far too expensive for us, with more advanced technical options.”

Since UNHCR produced several language versions, it felt it was appropriate to create a microsite name for each language version, which also provided the game its own identity. Now users can find a microsite in each language and the branding is stronger than had the different countries been included on one respective Web site, Rodriguez Norman added.

The backbone of the content is human rights and how refugees are forced to flee due to violations of those human rights. The site also includes a historical perspective of asylum and the act of providing protection to fellow humans. In each language version, UNHCR tried to include information of national and regional character regarding refugees. For instance, the Nordic language versions contain information about the refugee flows during World War II in the Nordic region.

At the same time, there are chapters in the game where players can “step out” from being a refugee to learn about the differences between being an immigrant or a refugee, who cannot return to his/her home country for fear of persecution, or to illustrate how we all globally integrate each other’s cultures, traditions, habits, and inventions — how people change, experience and influence each other by crossing cultural borders.

“The facts exceed the fiction when people get to know and understand what people have gone through and what they have been exposed to [and] we believe people get to understand more in-depth what it is like to be a refugee and that it is not about Ôwe and they,'” Rodriguez Norman said. “You can identify more easily with other people when you listen to their stories and experiences. Of course, this can be the case with good fiction as well. But we have the knowledge of so many life stories, so we need to tell them.”

Planet Cancer URL: www.planetcancer.org
Main or micro: Main site.
Traffic: 200,000 unique visitors in 2008 with an average on-site time of more than 11 minutes.
Dollars raised online: Exceeded 2007 totals but exact figures not yet available.
Distinguishing features: Social networking platform, online fundraising and event registration and “Cancertainment” section for inspiration, comfort and humor.
Ross reveals: “It is aimed right at it’s very specific audience, incorporates lots of different types of media, and creates community.”

The philosophy behind Planet Cancer is to create a voice, an identity and a community for young adults with cancer, a group that has until recently been completely overlooked and underserved, according to Heidi Adams, founder and executive director of the Austin, Texas-based organization. The nonprofit aggregates information and resources that are specifically relevant to the young adult with cancer between the ages of 18-40, regardless of diagnosis, gender or geography. It provides a space for young adults to connect, support and encourage each other through what is likely the most difficult experience of their lives.

“The heart of the site is a social networking platform named My Planet, affectionately known as ‘MySpace on prednisone,'” Adams explained. “This is where young adults come together to share their experiences, wisdom, fears, support and insight. The site allows them to do this through various methods, such as blogs, photos, videos, private messaging, forums and groups. The main point is that they get to choose how, when and with whom to make connections, which addresses several critical points of the young adult cancer experience: being able to define their own experience, regaining some sort of control, and having 24/7 access to support.”

A new feature was launched with an application from software solutions company Kimbia, which has developed a flexible, online fundraising and event registration tool that allows the organization to easily customize forms and campaigns in-house for just about anything including selling event tickets, soliciting for its annual fund, recruiting volunteers and processing weekend retreat applications. Members can grab the code and add it as a widget onto their MySpace, FaceBook or My Planet pages, which extends Planet Cancer’s reach for fundraising and advocacy campaigns.

The ongoing maintenance and updates for the site are all conducted in-house through a custom content management system while the more extensive changes and updates are outsourced. The in-house updates have allowed staffers to post information and resources more quickly. A quick turnaround on posting information has always been a goal, one that will ideally lead to more unique visitors and site registrations. The nonprofit is also focused on the average time a user spends on the site. Currently, Planet Cancer averages more than 11 minutes per visit, which says that visitors are very engaged, Adams noted.

“We are actually planning a major site revamp in 2009,” Adams added. “The goals are to better integrate My Planet with the main Planet Cancer site, so that users can benefit from the information and resources as well as the connection and interaction and to look at how best to leverage the three primary categories of web 2.0 technologies — sharing, collaborating and online/offline integration — to support Planet Cancer’s vision of a world where young adult cancer is known, accepted and addressed appropriately.”

The Wilderness Society URL: http://wilderness.org
Main or micro: Main site.
Traffic: Approximately 35,000 visits per month. When including action.wilderness.org and donate.wilderness.org, that number jumps to 160,000 visits per month. Dollars raised online: A six-fold increase compared to the prior year (exact figures unavailable).
Distinguishing features: High-profile visuals, blog and conversational content types.
Ross reveals: “Just for its gorgeousness and simplicity.”

Two years ago, The Wilderness Society (TWS) worked with a consultant to complete an audit of its Web site and strategies. It was an opportunity to take a look from the outside at strengths, missed opportunities, organizational interests, and changes in the online communications world in recent years. The audit helped confirm the nonprofit’s basic premise that the Web site was not doing much to proactively communicate with and engage target constituencies, particularly those that it relies upon for advocacy and fundraising support, according to Ted Fickes, electronic communications manager at the Washington, D.C.-headquartered organization.

In mid-2007, TWS put together a three-year strategic plan for online communications that was used to get staff, leadership and its governing council on the same page and ready to invest time and resources into long-term changes. The three basic goals of the plan included growing the online supporter base, which was mostly measured through email list subscribers, to 500,000, raising $1 million online and developing an engaging Web site in year one, to help support the above goals.

In the first quarter of fiscal year 2009 (Oct.-Dec. 2008) the organization met revenue projections for online/web donations. It saw a 20 percent donations conversion rate — 20 percent of visitors to a donation page made a donation regardless of how they were driven there. It was a six-fold increase from last year and something TWS feels is directly attributable to the new site’s design and content, Fickes said.

The new site was erected to meet the needs of key audiences by providing current, informative and engaging content. The hope was to more deeply engage its email and other online audiences to deepen their relationship with the organization and its causes. The nonprofit felt that by doing so, it would help build a movement through word of mouth while increasing donations and direct action.

The current site has pushed a blog and conversational content types to a prominent position. Admittedly, it has been a challenge from an internal communications and writing standpoint. A conversational rolling update approach to writing about these issues and the organization’s work on them does not come naturally, Fickes explained, but the public response via blog comments, visits and direct conversations has been positive. The goal is to make people care and think and to provoke people into being passionate enough to talk about TWS issues with others.

“One of the biggest complaints or concerns about the past iteration of wilderness.org was that it was very text heavy from front to back,” Fickes said. “We deal with magnificent places across the country and the experiences people have in those lands but we were failing to convey any sense of beauty, grandeur and passion through images. We still have work to do on this front but we made a conscious effort through design and architecture to emphasize photos. We also have someone on staff who is great with design, color and photos. A good chunk of her time is committed to finding and using images. And if you’ve ever really dug into finding good outdoor photos, at reasonable prices, you realize it can be surprisingly difficult and time-consuming.”

The site design and coding were pretty much all done by outside vendors, including EchoDitto and Biro Creative. All content creation was done in-house but TWS is still sorting out what it has the capacity to do in-house versus what it can or should be done via outsourcing, Fickes said.

“We will be focusing on better using what we have and making gradual changes, he added. “We have no plans to do anything this year other than adding content and possible minor changes to layout and architecture as we get and analyze data. The site provides a great platform for interactive applications-maps and various types of user-generative content-but financial resources have slowed down consideration of some ‘big’ ideas and projects.” NPT