Hearts And Eyeballs

Humans can’t help it. They have to include a little bit of themselves into every exchange. Staff meetings have little asides about weekend adventures. Client meetings might start with questions about each person’s family.

People want to communicate as people, and, no matter where and how, they’ll self-select into little groups or communities of interest to share insight and ideas and to support each other’s ideas.

For the 21st Century nonprofit, that means evaluating both constituent needs and channels of communications and creating the right mix of medium and message to form the kind of community that stakeholders expect. Traditional channels for outreach and fundraising such as publications, direct mail, and telephone continue to be the biggest revenue stream for most agencies, but online channels are gaining ground and offering a way to engage a younger audience as both donors and advocates of the mission.

Often referred to as building online communities, the sector is moving to integrate offline and online communications to create a consistent voice in online communications while unifying information about individuals as they interact with the organization, and each other, through online and offline channels.

Of all of the online tools available, three are emerging as the focus of effective communication, education, and solicitation:

  • Databases with more comprehensive information about individual interests, preferences, and habits are central to coordinated communications;
  • Web pages that utilize data about user preferences keep stakeholders engaged as they reach out for information; and,
  • Targeted email that is in step with print communications makes outbound messaging efficient and more productive.

Two vendors have dominated the marketplace for online community tools. Kintera in San Diego, as part of its Kintera Sphere software as a service platform, and Convio in Austin, Texas, have been developing tools to apply modern technologies to the traditional task of building better relationships with constituents and eliciting more consistent responses in terms of gifts, peer recruitment, and advocacy. Other providers, such as GetActive in Berkeley, Calif., and San Francisco-based Groundspring, have put considerable effort into building integrated online communities.

Recently, one of the biggest players in fundraising software, Blackbaud, in Charleston, S.C., has moved into the field, offering Web and email tools to increase constituent engagement while centralizing data in its flagship Raiser’s Edge database.

High profile successes of some nonprofits make moving more fundraising and advocacy online seem like a no-brainer. However, many nonprofit executives are concerned that investments in elaborate online systems aren’t going to deliver a good return on investment. They are anxious that, like many other for-profit and nonprofit companies that invested in the dot-com bubble, they will be left with a nice looking Web page with no one looking.

Investing in online community building tools is a daunting undertaking, and marshalling the right human, organizational, and financial resources for success is a convoluted and often contradictory process. Choosing the right platform depends on what you want to do, and what you can do depends on the platform. All of it is limited by the money you can spend and how much you can make back through new or increased donations.

However, knowing a little bit about the tools, how they work in context, as well as some of the broad options can help with the planning and evaluation process.

Technology creates opportunities

When research centers and universities were first connected to what would become the Internet, they shared academic and work-related information as part of the regular business day.

But, just like today, these pioneer computer users would stay late at work, and as long as they were online, they’d reach out and create non-work conversations. Even pre-Internet corporate email systems had wide user acceptance and were heavily used for personal, as well as business, communications.

The simplest way to start an online community today is with an email mailing list, sometimes called a listserv. The name comes from one of the dominate mailing list software packages, Listserv, in the same way that early photocopies were referred to as Xeroxes. Participants share ideas through email messages. When someone has a question or comment they send a message to the address of the list, which in turn distributes it back out to all of the other subscribers, usually in a matter of minutes. Some mailing lists also have an archive component where subscribers can log onto a Web page and review the message history.

Minneapolis consultant Sheldon Mains was one of the founders of the eDemocracy movement in the Twin Cities during the 1990s. “Mailing lists are wonderful. Anyone with an email account can use them, and they’re not very expensive to set up. But they also represent very fragile social ecosystems that one or two strong personalities can destroy very quickly,” he observed. Scorching messages belittling or attacking other members of the list are called flames and protracted exchanges are known as flame wars. Open, or non-moderated, email lists are at risk for flame wars.

“People behave differently online. It’s not a real conversation, and things that they might not say to someone face-to-face get included in an email,” Mains said. The Minneapolis eDemocracy movement put some rules in place to forestall conflict and foster exchange. “Everyone had to use their real name. People are more responsible if they can be held accountable for their comments by name. Second, we limited the number of messages a user could add in a day. Conversations get a little more civil if you have a reasonable waiting period between exchanges. Another rule is that you can attack a person’s ideas, but you can’t attack the person.”

Email remains one of the most effective tools for online communication for nonprofits. “Everyone online has email. It’s an obvious statement, but it’s worth noting that not everyone is going to use chats or instant messages or even use the Web, but everyone checks at least one work or email account every time they turn on a computer” said Mains. “Like a ringing telephone, most Americans can’t resist the need to read and respond to their email.”

Email lists are very easy to set up. Depending on the vendor and list configuration, lists can be un-moderated, which allows every message to go through, or moderated, which requires a person to approve each message before it is sent to the list. One popular, and free, service is Yahoo Groups, available at groups.yahoo.com. As in the rest of the world, free is not without a cost. While anyone can set up a Yahoo Group on just about any topic, each message has an advertisement added to the end. Numerous low-cost email list options are available, some for as little as $60 per year.

Many organizations forgo the email list as a forum for exchange of ideas and opt for an electronic version of the traditional print newsletter. The technologies supporting broadcast email are even simpler, and can range from a distribution list in a Microsoft Outlook address book to more sophisticated commercial applications.

However, while inexpensive, both kinds of stand-alone lists create a challenge for organizations wishing to reach out to constituents in an integrated and organized manner. Increasingly, nonprofits are looking at the overlap between their online and on-paper constituents.

Aging and engagement

One area driving nonprofits to look more closely at online donors is the aging of traditional constituent bases. Easter Seals, which ranked 16 th in the 2004 NPT 100, saw that demographic shift. “Several years ago we noticed that our average direct mail donor was 72 years old and the average gift was $12. While we do have over a million donors under 55, we wanted to be proactive and recognize that the Web is the medium of choice for many people,” explained Shirley Sexton, assistant vice president of Internet Marketing of Easter Seals’ Chicago headquarters.

Easter Seals is a national service and advocacy organization for people with disabilities. It interacts with constituents through national efforts and its 91 affiliates. In putting together an Internet strategy, managers opted for an integrated online Constituency Relationship Management or eCRM system. CRM, sometimes referred to as Customer Relationship Management, has developed wide acceptance in the for-profit marketing world as a way to consolidate information about consumers in order to accurately predict future purchases and other behavior based on previous habits.

With a tradition of high quality information in its print pieces and very focused goals for constituent response, Easter Seals chose to lead with an email newsletter. “The one thing we haven’t done yet online is to get constituents to talk to each other. What we have done is to institute CRM to get members and affiliates more engaged in the mission. We want people to understand how Easter Seals helps people with disabilities and to engage in advocacy,” Sexton said.

Easter Seals uses its electronic newsletters and other email communications to educate constituents about issues facing people with disabilities. Sexton continued: “Last year we did a campaign called ‘Full Participation for All’ to highlight where people with disabilities don’t have access to transportation, jobs, housing, education and all the benefits of citizenship. We encouraged people to sign a petition. That collected 14,000 names, which was presented to Congress in January of 2005. That volume of participation was unprecedented.”

The economics of direct mail have forced a focus on solicitations. Electronic CRM allows the focus to expand to relationship building. Every email doesn’t have to pay for itself, so every touch point doesn’t have to be an ask, managers at the online vendors explained.

One of the biggest arguments for increasing online communications is cost. Because distribution costs are so low for email, communication can be more frequent and targeted toward information and advocacy. However, even informational communications can create new gifts as subscribers return to the Web site for more information and end up clicking through to the donation page.

Keeping subscribers informed is a key aspect of Easter Seals’ mission, and converting subscribers to donors is central to sustainability. “We advertised the [Full Participation for All] campaign on Mother Jones and other sites concerned with progressive issues and got people to sign on to the petition and subscribe to our advocacy newsletter. The next step was to keep them engaged with ongoing advocacy about disability rights,” said Sexton.

The big benefit from Easter Seals integration of online and offline constituent information is in its namesake fundraising campaign. The adhesive stamp-like seals is the cornerstone of the direct mail program. The spring direct mail package contains Easter Seals, which brings in the organization’s greatest amount of funds. Its online newsletter supports the mailing by having the lead story remind people to look in their mailbox for the package.

Similarly, print materials tell people to look to the Web. Integrating the donor lists makes it possible to measure reply rate and to know the effect of the online message on increasing response to the mail piece. “We want to give our constituents the choice about where they want to communicate with us, and that no matter what medium, they’ll hear a consistent voice,” said Sexton.

Responding to disaster

Sometimes outside forces drive the public to a Web site. SurfAid International is a four-year-old nonprofit providing health services on the Mentawai Islands near Sumatra in Indonesia. Founded by surfer and physician Dr. Dave Jenkins after visiting the islands during a surfing vacation, SurfAid claims its mission is to “significantly improve the health of the Indonesian people and to encourage and coordinate the support of the global surfing community.” With offices in the United States and New Zealand the organization took a very strong approach to online fundraising from the very start.

The early efforts used different stand alone applications for email and donation processing, and in 2004 the organization’s management decided to integrate operations into a single platform, choosing Kintera as the vendor with implementation planned for later in 2005. After the December 26, 2004 Tsunami, SurfAid needed to respond to inquiries for information as well as demand for giving.

SurfAid officials decided to allocate more resources to implementing the Kintera solution “because we wanted to capture names more efficiently and leverage that community” said International Communication Officer Amy Selbach. “During the Tsunami, we were capturing names, posting our regular situation reports from the field, and we were able to disseminate updates by email all that same day. It’s been a useful tool for us because of its capability — from fundraisers to donor databases to the dissemination of information. Information is going to be different to the media than to the NGO community.”

Smaller segments mean better results

Segmentation is at the center of online community building. “I do think that consultant and industry experts will tell you that having an integrated strategy is a key — be it direct mail or event or other solicitation and online — the important thing is to have that comprehensive view so that each interaction is as relevant and personalized as possible. You can’t view offline and online as separate buckets,” said Blackbaud Vice President, Products and Services, Charlie Cumbaa. The Raiser’s Edge is Blackbaud’s flagship product.

Blackbaud recently released a new product called “Blackbaud NetCommunity ™” designed to integrate online functions into what has traditionally been a back office database. Cumbaa added: “Starting with the functionality of The Raiser’s Edge at the core, Blackbaud NetCommunity extends that rich constituent history and experience out to the Internet, in effect delivering more personalized communication.”

Regardless of the database strategy — Blackbaud’s approach of adding online functionality to its existing back office CRM, Convio’s solution of integrating online and offline datasets, or Kintera’s to move all data online, all stress the importance of integration and constituent choice. According to Greg Kostello, Kintera’s senior vice president of product management: “A general [for-profit] CRM system is too limiting for nonprofits. For example, if you want mass adoption of a new product, you typically set a price point and market that product at that price. In the nonprofit world, you have a much wider giving scale, often from $50 to $500 and more, and so knowing more about a constituent’s interests and profile yields better results.”

“The real issue in communicating your message is that you want to be more targeted both in what you say, and how you say it,” Kostello continued. “While older customers may be more comfortable with print, younger are more comfortable with email. Either way, you still have to have that great marketing department.”

Blackbaud’s Cumbaa continued: “Keep it a good experience. There’s a lot of learning that has to take place to get good at it — developing the right subject line, the right number of asks. Only over time will they learn what works best for their organization. The challenge is not just selecting the best technology. The challenge is about reaching agreement across all the means they have to connect with constituents — direct mail, events, and major gifts. Donors give on many levels, and whether an organization receives a gift online or offline is irrelevant. They are all donors, regardless of the method in which they give.”

Content is king

The most important factor in creating online community is having content. According to Easter Seal’s Sexton, “technical skills are overrated — the Web is a communication medium, and communication skills are the key thing. If you can’t write a sentence, you won’t be able to communicate on the Web. I’ve seen too many Web sites fail because they don’t have good writing or layout. The one key skill that we should be all taking courses on is writing.”

Creating content can be challenging — sometimes there aren’t enough new things happening, or enough staff to produce stories. Kintera’s response to this has been to create The Giving Communities site at www.Kintera.org. Kostello explained: “Our vision is to create a bigger picture and drive traffic through a centralized community. By empowering impassioned individuals to create content around causes and organizations, it takes some of the pressure off nonprofits to generate fresh content. An organization that only has a new story to tell every few months can benefit by keeping the channel active. Even a great company doesn’t have a story every day. But, if as a consumer, I can go to that site and get something new, and get connected directly to a related nonprofit …then that nonprofit is going to win.”

Kostello added that most participating organizations see The Giving Communities Web site as a real opportunity.

Overall, nonprofits that encourage peer solicitation “have to trust that the constituency can carry the message to others. They’re creating a virtual sales force” He also notes that when actions are requested, 10 percent of people taking that action weren’t on the original list. Commenting on Kintera’s “Friends Asking Friends” product, Kostello says: “The best advocate for a cause is an enthusiastic individual, and when that person asks a friend or family member to give, it makes the ask that much more powerful.”

Getting personal

The best content is targeted to the ne eds and interests of the individual. Asking what people are interested in and confirming that by observing behavior are the keys to personalization. For Kintera’s Kostello, the strategy is to send an email and “watch behavior online — where users click on and where they go, as well as what they give.”

Convio founder and chief strategy officer Vinay Bhagat cautioned about alienating donors with “too much communication in their inbox and to realize that it’s about adding value.”

Adjusting your organization’s web site to meet the interests and preferences of individual users is another way to increase personalization. The trend is to show the user pages and content based on preferences stored in the database. In addition, once constituent are logged in, there are options to create a self-service environment where they can update name and address information, renew memberships, register for events, and accept gifts.

Developing a strategy

Integrating online and offline data can produce economies of scale and deepen the relationship between constituents and a nonprofit. Unfortunately, moving to an integrated environment doesn’t guarantee success — or a positive return on investment. Organizations with strong independent online and offline programs are the best candidates for integration.

The resources required include a financial commitment, often starting at $1,000 per month and going up based on additional features. The most important resource is the commitment to content and integration of communications channels.

Vendor options abound: commercial providers such as Convio, GetActive, Kintera, and others have developed sophisticated tools that can manage constituent data online and integrate with offline data.

Blackbaud has taken a slightly different tack by creating an online component to its existing Raiser’s Edge product. There are even nonprofit organizations such as Groundspring.org that are providing tools to help the sector use online fundraising and advocacy tools more effectively.

Developing a strategy hinges on your organizations ability to benefit from more comprehensive information about constituent’s interests and to utilize that information to get the right message to them in the right channel and when they’re most likely to respond.


Tim Mills-Groninger is associate director of the IT Resource Center in Chicago.