Turbo-Charged Web Use

April 1, 2007       Mark Hrywna      

It’s often said that nonprofits run several years behind the technology curve of the for-profit world. Technology often means risk, and risk for a nonprofit manager doesn’t always pan out. With limited dollars, nonprofits have to be extremely careful about money spent on technology. Hence the reason so many nonprofit Web sites are typical brochure sites with nothing more than a mission statement, contact information and zero interactivity.

But in a world of constant interaction – mainly taking place on Web sites and blogs and through podcasts and streaming video – nonprofits have to take their online messages to a new level. Reaching more members and volunteers and raising more dollars now greatly depends on how you position yourself in cyberspace.

Embracing the world’s ever-changing technology can be scary, especially for an organization dependent on charitable dollars. But there are those organizations that have forged ahead.

Here are some examples of nonprofits that have truly championed technology and used it to grow their organizations. Some are national “powerhouse” nonprofits, while others are regional and local organizations doing big things on limited dollars. Their Web sites are places to explore, learn from and use as a benchmark for your own Web site upgrades and overall Web use.

Life Rolls On www.liferollson.org At first, Josh Billauer thought it was just a waste of time. “God, she’s spending an hour a day on MySpace and we’re paying for that,” he thought.

Billauer, board president of the Life Rolls On Foundation in San Diego, had a staff member who was responsible for keeping track of the time she’d spend on projects, so he knew exactly how much time she was spending on the social networking site.

Almost three years later, the foundation is ranked number one in the nonprofit and philanthropic category on MySpace, with almost 15,000 members. (The category includes formal 501(c)3 organizations, such as Life Rolls On, but also other social groups that call themselves nonprofits. Last year, the foundation even had MySpace underwrite one of its events.

While the number of MySpace members might not correlate directly to fundraising dollars for Life Rolls On, it does add up in the exposure department. Using features like the bulletin board and blogs, the foundation can publicize events, such as a recent concert that was finalized just days before the event that drew several hundred people. It can also put out a call for volunteers. The foundation’s MySpace page is linked to its home page, so supporters can engage the nonprofit, donate or volunteers all during the same Web experience.

One of the ways Life Rolls On measures Web traffic is through embedded additional technology within the Web pages to keep track of metrics. Through streaming video embedded into its Web pages, the foundation and its partners can determine how often a video is viewed, where in the world it’s viewed, and how many unique hits the page received, Billauer said.

For a nonprofit trying out the social networking scene, Billauer suggested being able to speak to the demographics of those who use the site. “Any organization can benefit,” he said. “It doesn’t have to be as formalized or professional on MySpace, just to reach out to people. You need to make the effort to build the network; it’s like a snowball effect, more people…proactively trying to join your group.”

American Cancer Society www.cancer.org The American Cancer Society (ACS) has experienced a 100-percent increase in Web traffic during the past year, said Adam Pellegrini, director, strategic online, because of numerous initiatives that are part of rebuilding the society’s Web site, which will take 15 months and include migrating 22,000 pages of help content.

ACS is taking a “methodical approach to new technologies” like social networking, he said, using tons of data and analytics to ensure they’re putting information on the Web that users need.

In March, ACS launched a Relay For Life e-Community, what amounts to a Web-based, year-round version of its Relay For Life events. The site is focused on individuals who go to Relay for Life events, where they can connect with each other online or create their own blogs. “The amount of real, passionate stories on their blogs has been overwhelming to us,” Pellegrini said.

The goal is to create a massive social networking Web on the ACS platform, he said, allowing users to take control of their experiences and create their own social networking experiences, like a MyYahoo! or My MSN, but for social networking.

Users are the ones driving the community, even down to the local chapter announcing events, while others might share stories about surviving cancer. “That’s what we want, definitely just being able to take content and doing whatever they want with it,” Pellegrini said. “It’s becoming a collection of users’ most passionate stories. Community mobilization is one of the goals of the cancer society. Social networking is one extremely powerful way to mobilize communities online.”

New York City Coalition Against Hunger www.nyccah.org The New York City Coalition Against Hunger needed a way to visually educate residents about nutritious food access in the city’s East Harlem neighborhood. With help from the federal government’s Compassion Capital Fund — part of George W. Bush’s faith-based initiative — the Coalition created online Google maps to paint the picture of New York City’s hunger plight.

“Maps are just a great way to tell a story, especially when it comes to the geographic access to food,” said JC Dwyer, director of programs and national service for NYCCAH.

Once visitors find their way to the Coalition’s Web site, they can enter a ZIP code, keyword or borough name into a search box to pull up a Google map displaying charitable food organizations in that area indicated by red flags. Clicking on a red flag pulls up information about that particular soup kitchen or pantry, such as a name, address and phone number. The Google Maps interface also offers zoom and drag features, as well as the option to view the city via satellite image, with or without street names.

The maps are definitely the highlight of the Coalition’s Web site, but they aren’t the only thing bringing visitors back. There’s also the New York City hunger blog that offers up-to-date information on hunger issues facing the city.

“This site is leagues above what we had,” Dwyer said. “Since the launch of the new site, people have begun to take us more seriously. When your Web site lacks that professionalism, it makes it really hard. Now, funders and nonprofits from across the country are calling us to tell them how we did our redesign.”

There were so many calls that Dwyer and others saw a need to create another hunger maps Web site at www.hungermaps.org. The site — unveiled in February at a national conference of anti-hunger organizations in Washington, D.C. — is based on the NYCCAH maps and takes advantage of the nonprofit’s data. Its goal is to help local service providers, politicians, advocates, volunteers, donors and hungry people learn where soup kitchens and food pantries are in their city, while taking action to end hunger.

Heartspring www.heartspring.org Heartspring, a center for children with special needs, headquartered in Wichita, Kan., with almost 300 employees, launched a completely revamped Web site earlier this year. The goal was to find new and interactive ways to engage an online audience.

The new Web site has many interactive possibilities, including: signing up for e-newsletters, applying for a job online, asking “Dr. Wayne,” telling your story (to possibly be told later in an online video format), and accessing important board of directors materials.

The emotional videos that can be accessed throughout the Web site are some of the most popular features. The online video gallery features students, clients, parents, staff and special guests.

“We wanted people to truly experience our successful outcomes,” said Kristina M. Baker, coordinator of outreach programs for Heartspring.

Heartspring.org, which was designed and built in-house by Heartspring’s Web developer Mia Lee, was created in response to the organization’s commitment to use technology in innovative ways to promote global awareness of children with disabilities. Lee and her team spent several months planning the site and researching best practices from Web sites in all different industries.

After four months of building out the site, heartspring.org launched just this past January. The re-launch included the addition of new Web sites for the organization’s two largest fundraising events. These sites allow users to register, pay, donate and communicate online. All the sites link together for a seamless Web journey for the user.

Since the launch of the new site, Heartspring’s daily hits have grown from an average of 1,000 to 9,000.

Arkansas Repertory Theatre www.therep.org Looking for a way to distinguish itself from other theatres in the Little Rock, Ark., market, Arkansas Repertory Theatre launched a new, interactive Web site in November 2005. Capitalizing on the regional theatre’s highly praised show art and photography, the site aimed to engage theatre patrons, donors, artistic collaborators, educators, prospective employees and members of the media.

Aside from being a very aesthetically pleasing Web site, www.therep.org touts numerous interactive features, such as an e-news system featuring an online database of categorized subscribers and four different newsletter templates, ticket purchasing, an FTP site for media, a Web-based survey model and a Web-based “backdoor” administration module to make it all happen seamlessly.

Detailed show pages include artwork, descriptions, photos, bios, sponsor logos and more. Staff members say the pages have been especially useful in attracting highly notable actors to audition for upcoming performances. Actors visit special areas of the Web site to download “sides” (script excerpts often named after characters) for auditions. Referral reports automatically generated by the site reflect a surge of visitors since the Web site’s debut in 2005.

Generations United www.gu.org Generations United, which focuses on intergenerational collaboration, public policies and programs for young and old, used funding from Verizon to revamp its Web site. The site, at www.gu.org, was completely overhauled, combining three of the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit’s largest databases into one Web-based system that allowed users to search and cross-reference intergenerational programs. Interactivity was key to the site in order to keep visitors returning again and again for new and updated information.

“Before the re-launch of the site, we were very text-heavy on the site — not surprising for an advocacy organization,” said Brent Elrod, program director for Generations United. “It just wasn’t easy to find and get materials and remember what had been updated.”

With the new site, updates are done quickly, easily and in real time. The entire staff is responsible for certain areas of the site, making internal accountability more manageable, Elrod said.

The site’s searchable database of intergenerational programs is impressive — not only for the amount of entries (850, which is quadruple the number of programs in the directory since the re-launch) but also its ease of use. Visitors can choose up to three categories, cross-referencing and drilling further down into information. The system generates an automatic email every six months to program contacts to remind them to update their records.

Other interactive features include a blog written by Executive Director Donna M. Butts, which highlights the latest issues affecting intergenerational programs. There is also an active online community consisting of a message forum, online chats (there were 12 in 2006), Webcams and videoconferencing. Generations United has also partnered with the National Endowment for Financial Education on an online intergenerational literacy course that includes video segments, interactive quizzes and downloadable certificates of completion. During 2006, the site had more than 124,000 visits and more than 123,000 downloads of online publications.

March of Dimes www.shareyourstory.org When the March of Dimes in White Plains, N.Y., set out to create an online community for parents of premature babies, it had no idea how fast the idea would take off. The site, www.shareyourstory.org, quickly became a place of sharing, bonding and eventually donating for parents, friends and family touched by the March of Dimes mission. The site, developed with the help of San Francisco-based WebCrossing, is one of the first nonprofit online communities and features many interactive areas, such as instant messaging, message boards, community cafes, personal blogs and even a book club.

Many of the visitors to the Web site are parents looking for other parents who are dealing with the birth of a premature baby or the death of an infant. The site makes it easy to get in touch with others and instantly feel part of a community. “A lot of the site is pretty heavy, so we created the Ă”community center’ that allows parents to talk about anything and everything and to bond outside a medical issue,” said James Soohoo, shareyourstory.org host for March of Dimes.

People from all around the world visit the site. In 2006, there were 181,000 unique visitors and 3.5 million page views. Last year, online membership to the site doubled from 7,800 to 15,500.

Most importantly to March of Dimes staff, many of the site’s frequent visitors have taken their association to the next level, much like Shonda Hershberger, a Share Your Story member from central Iowa. Hershberger and her husband, Mike, lost two of their triplet boys during their first two weeks in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit. Hoping to help others deal with the pain she experienced, Shonda reached out to other parents on the Web site. She is now a volunteer who helps maintain the site (the entire site is maintained and managed by members) and an active participant in WalkAmerica, the March of Dimes annual fundraising walk. In fact, half of all of the Share Your Story members participate in the event, raising $1.5 million for the organization, Soohoo said.

The site’s participants are also huge allies when it comes to lobbying efforts for the March of Dimes. Share Your Story members recently helped pass the federal “Preemie” Bill in December 2006 after basically shutting down the telephone line of Rep. Joe Barton R-Texas with requests to let the House of Representatives vote on the bill before Congress adjourned.

“The site is perfectly simple in its idea,” Soohoo said. “A lot of these parents because of the fragile medical issues they deal with are shut-ins at home. This site gives them a way to connect with someone who knows exactly what they’re going through without having to leave home.” NPT