Reach Out

Daphne Dixon wanted to get the word out that Conscious Decisions, an environmental nonprofit in Farfield, Conn., was hosting its Green Faire. Instead of calling and hassling all the local newspapers, Dixon used a feature on AmericanTowns.com to forward the press release to media outlets – and saw results.

“Their press release tool is amazing because it is a free service that distributes press releases to all local media quickly. And most importantly, the information is picked up and printed in all local papers,” said Dixon, who mentioned the turnout quickly had sponsors asking about next year’s event.

Conscious Decisions is working on its new Web site, so the organization constantly updates information on its AmericanTowns.com page. And having a second Web presence only helps search engine optimization (SEO). “It’s critical in this day and age when someone is searching on Google that it comes on that first page or you are virtually invisible to the world,” said Dixon.

Most people will not turn to the bulky phone book anymore to find out information about organizations when all they need to do is press a button. Organizations that don’t have a minimal Web presence are going to fall behind the pack. And social networking is taking hold as a method of gaining awareness, even though fundraising via social networks is still in its infancy.

“The longer you wait to adopt technological change, you always do leave yourself at a certain disadvantage,” said Steve MacLaughlin, director of Internet solutions at technology provider Blackbaud in Charleston, S.C. All organizations have to start somewhere — the important point is to actually start.

“Once something comes out, everyone tells you that you have to do it. Everyone is probably saying you have to be on Facebook right now. But it’s not about being there. You have to figure out what exactly you want to accomplish by being there and then make sure what you are doing is accomplishing that measure,” said Amin Tehrani, national director of new media and e-commerce at the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation (JDRF) in New York City. “Otherwise, you are just spinning your wheels and spending a lot of time doing stuff and not seeing any benefit from it.”

Tehrani explained that starting in small online communities might get your organization off the ground. JDRF began checking that the correct information was online about juvenile diabetes by editing sites like Wikipedia. Your organization can also gain attention by offering information on your specific topic on community sites or blogs. “You don’t want to be passive when attracting new donors and constituents. It’s great to have your own Web site and your own presence online, but you want to make sure you go out to where these people actually are,” said Tehrani.

For JDRF that meant going to Facebook, where the JDRF cause has more than 47,000 members. JDRF plans to launch its own social networking site.

Organizations can easily start their own online communities by offering constituents a site area to talk about events, volunteering or why they are dedicated to the mission. “We’ve been doing primitive relationship or community building since our early email program,” said Jo Sullivan, senior vice president of development and communications at ASPCA, based in New York City. Sullivan said that members would mail pictures of their pets — and now that has moved to the ASPCA online community. “People are so proud of their pets. They want an opportunity to share and we recognize that,” said Sullivan. The site has grown to more than 14,000 members who post pictures or discuss pet issues in the online forum.

JDRF tries to assess where online efforts would have the most impact for the organization. Tehrani recommended looking at programs you already have and how that can be translated online. JDRF had a mail-based pen pal program and now has a Kids Online section where children can learn more about living with juvenile diabetes and meet other kids with the disease. JDRF also has a section about its Children’s Congress, an event held every two years that gives 51 chosen delegates ages 4 to 17 the chance to discuss Type 1 diabetes with government officials. Now kids who weren’t selected to participate can read blog posts and read up on the delegates.

Sullivan said it’s important to foster online discussions, but organizations shouldn’t give free reign to members while on the organization’s site. Political discussions are great if it pertains to the mission, but if not, change the conversation before partisan battles flare up on your site. “It’s great that it’s becoming something more than an animal welfare charity. The danger becomes how much more can it be before we as an organization get a reputation as being off mission,” said Sullivan, who has forum moderators that draw people back to animal issues when discussions veer off to unrelated threads.

Nonprofits are buzzing about free social networking sites like MySpace and Facebook, which your organization can leverage peer-to-peer relationships for acquisition. But those two aren’t the only players in the social networking game – and more unconventional sites might work better for your audience. “I think it’s important to look at the big [sites] and have a presence there, but you may in fact find more success on a smaller site that more niche-oriented,” said MacLaughlin. He recommended organizations look for communities that are related to mission or sites that cater to nonprofit-minded people, like Care2.

“Ultimately it is about making that initial contact and then prompting some sort of action that would drive them back to your Web site or to take action on something,” said MacLaughlin. “I think people just get so hung up on the technology and the wires that they forget this is just traditional fundraising. The only difference is the online so I can reach more people than I would ever be able to reach going door-to-door or phoning people or direct mail,” he said.

“This is so early for a lot of nonprofits that I think there is an advantage to trying and experimenting with some of this stuff because it is a bit open territory,” said MacLaughlin. “It’s okay with some of this stuff to fail at it.” NPT