One of the students in my weblogs class at Seybold last month was the web administrator of the Community Technology Foundation of California (zerodivide.org). They use a sophisticated CMS to maintain the site but are experimenting with weblogs and wanted to see whether they might be more easily customizable, because – we agreed – different communities and groups may have different user interface expectations and preferences. We talked at length till the break was over and since then we’ve had further discussions and I’ll likely be doing some pro bono consulting with them sometime soon.
This got me started thinking about how nonprofits and other nongovernmental, noncorporate organizations should be making use of weblogs, syndication, and the evolving dynamics of the blogosphere, as tracked by such invaluable second-generation services as Technorati.
Wanted: weblog strategy
By coincidence, I was surfing the Craigslist ads for writers and web developers recently (a great way of keeping tabs with job market trends) and saw a very interesting one from a nonprofit seeking a weblogs consultant to help them develop a program and execute it, addressing the question “How can weblogs promote social change?”
The interesting thing about the ad is that they demonstrated mastery of basic weblog concepts, saying
We already know that nonprofits can update their websites regularly using Movable Type. We already know that Blogger can be used to share information internally. We already know about K-Logs. We are interested in going further.
The nonprofit is CompuMentor. What they are looking for is what you might call a second-generation weblog strategy. They want to harness the power of the blogosphere.
My first though was, I need to discuss this with Phil Wolff. Fortunately, he lives nearby and we met for lunch near Lake Merritt one fine Oakland fall afternoon. He was full of suggestions. Assuming that CompuMentor helps people find work with their new computer skills, he said, “Why not give each trainee a blog. They can use it to track their training, their job search, their skill acquisition, and their accomplishments. When they find a job, they can use it to keep track of their achievements.” Phil reminded me how hard it can be to remember what you were doing six months ago without a log to remind you.
We started talking about resume blogging and related things, and I talked about how I thought CompuMentor was looking at the big picture. How about setting up a Technorati for nonprofits and other socially progressive organizations? How about doing some social ringleadering, pied-pipering, or whatever you call it? Definitely, yes, blog each organization externally and blog as many internally as can handle it.
For example, around this same time I was also talking to a friend who works for an environmental nonprofit here in the Bay Area that is dedicated to protecting the bay (OK, estuary). I asked her if their communications strategy had any room for weblogs, and started talking about some of the things you could do in-house or in collaboration with other entities. She averred that it sounded like something for a larger nonprofit, something on the scale of the Sierra Club, even though the 20 plus employees at her nonprofit make it a relatively large one compared to most.
I realized that unless someone kickstarts this and demonstrates the power of a nonhierarchical cellular communications network for publishing, syndication, sharing, commenting, there’s no way to demonstrate the network effects.
Empower as many people affiliated in whatever way with nonprofits to start blogs if they want to. Syndicate and reprint news, analysis, announcements, and alerts.
I did some searching on Google using simple terms such as “nonprofit weblog” and “nonprofit blog.” I didn’t find anyone directly working on the intersection of these two concepts. I did find a number of blogs mentioning nonprofits and possibly a few published by nonprofits. I also found lots of pages from techie nonprofits that mentioned weblogs in passing or published articles about them.
It occurred to me that any subculture or microcosm or market or realm of ideas needs its own pioneers with this medium. I think I’m going to try to convince CompuMentor to launch a pilot program that will plant that stake in the sand so that other nonprofits and ngo’s and progressive organizations can weave their own connections around it.
Dean campaign: A model for organizers
It also became clear to me that the Howard Dean campaign was demonstrating a very savvy understanding of weblogs, syndication, and social software. There are lessons for nonprofits from the Dean campaign and there is an opportunity to network with and through any active progressive campaigns.
Volunteers for Dean have developed an open-source community-weblog tool called DeanSpace (by adding some modifications to an underlying open-source weblog tool called Drupal). DeanSpace offers most of the usual weblog features and the ability for registered site users to sign up for their own blogs. It also has the built-in ability to post entries that come in from outside RSS feeds, which on the fundamental level enables DeanSpace sites to all republish (syndicate) each other’s content, either automatically or selectively. More broadly, it enables a DeanSpace site to include content from anywhere in the universe of RSS feeds, including – of course – RSS feeds from nonprofits.
There’s no reason why the nonprofit community could use a similar model and the most technologically savvy nonprofits most committed to networking and trying to build community online will probably adopt this method of sharing information and keeping a lively conversation of ideas bubbling from site to site.
The RSS-based syndication network has recently become the primary way for people to publish microcontent and communicate on the Web.
So, what steps can a nonprofit take to start engaging in this conversation?
The Foundation: Weblogs
Using a weblog with a nonprofit’s public facing site:
- human interest
- personal voice
Weblogs used internally as k-logs or project logs:
- Trickier for smaller nonprofits unless it clearly saves work elsewhere (such as in email)
- wiki alternative
Hosting blogs of associated people:
- exec director (CEO)
- board members
The Glue: Syndication
- Even if blogs aren’t adopted for the public-facing site, add an RSS feed and promote it.
- Include site updates, alerts, and any other news in that feed.
all blogs emit RSS (later, maybe, Atom)
- All email-based alerts duplicated as RSS feeds
- RSS feeds registered centrally (?) or at local community switching stations, a la k-collector, etc.
- Encourage other nonprofits to run your headlines on their websites
- Enliven own website with headlines from other RSS feeds
- Have at least one employee, intern, or volunteer start using an aggregrator in-house to track many related feeds, both news-filtered, and from weblogs and nonprofit sources)
- Use trackback, commenting on other blogs, and reposting of each other’s keys stories as a way to strengthen your network and motivate larger groups when issues require attention.
- Repost content from incoming RSS feeds when it amplifies your own message or provides needed context.
OK, so that’s all good but still generic. Each nonprofit is different. For example, I’m on the board of directors of a literary nonprofit called Watchword Press. As I was getting very excited about the possibilities in this area, I was talking to the publisher of Watchword and as I started regaling her with these ideas, I could hear her eyes glaze over (we were on the phone). It was that blog thing I’m always going on about… So these ideas won’t be relevant for everyone, at least not right away, but the general steps outlined above are worth investigating for any organization.
Promoting Social Change with Weblogs and Syndication
Here’s what I think CompuMentor should do. The interesting thing about the Bay Area is that there are quite a few nonprofits that try to make the benefits of technology available and accessible to ever-wider groups of people. This seems like the natural subcommunity of nonprofits in which to start evangelizing a more aggressive (“second generation”) use of weblogs.
CompuMentor straddles several of these key areas, in that its focus is on “behind-the-scenes technology assistance” that “benefits low-income and underserved populations” but it als offers the TechSoup website for nonprofits, which could serve as a bully pulpit from which to breach the gospel of blogging and syndication.
We’d like to think beyond the utility of a blog for sharing information. We’d like to understand how information can be aggregated and shared using a combination of organizational weblogs and other aggregation tools such as TrackBack, Blogdex, or the daily crawl. How can Mark Pilgrim’s “Who are the people in your neighborhood?” be used by nonprofits? By activists? What’s the most logical and effective way for these tools to be combined?
The steps required to do so include the following:
- Publish weblogs with RSS feeds at CompuMentor.org and TechSoup.org
- Provide personal blogs to employees and other affiliated people at the nonprofit, make sure RSS is enabled or at least optional.
- Run an internal k-log on CompuMentor’s intranet.
- Give weblogs to trainees and teach them to self-document.
- Establish new NonProfitCentral website:
- With its own weblog and syndicated feed
- Hosting weblogs for nonprofits and their associates
- Republishing syndicated feeds for nonprofits by category
- Hosting a Trackback or XMLRPC updates sites for nonprofit weblogs
- Inviting any community to launch satellite weblog/host/syndication sites
- Promoting the idea of online networking
I’ve also been meaning to talk to David Pollard about these ideas, because it seems like enabling progressive social organizations to network using weblogs, syndication, and other social software tools could be a key ingredient in saving the world.
(UPDATED October 8, 2003.)