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How non-profits can use wikis to build communities at minimal cost

Lori Halley 31 May 2007 3 comments

Wikis have become widely used among non-profits as a useful tool for project management and knowledge sharing. What are wikis? How can they help non-profits? How can you get the most out of them?

What is a wiki?

Wikis are simply a website or software tool that allows users to freely create and edit content using any web browser and internet access. It is especially suited for collaborative writing. The name wiki itself comes from the Hawaiian term wiki, meaning "quick".

Non-profits benefit from wikis as flexible organizational and staff knowledge bases, as a way to share knowledge and policies as well as a place to help manage volunteers or members. Some wikis allow anyone to update and change information, while there are some wikis that can only be edited by their creators or users who have been given access. Wikipedia, the global encyclopedia, is one of the best examples and most successful wiki-based tools.To learn more about the background and use of wikis, check Wikipedia’s wiki page.

What are the advantages?

Wikis offer a powerful and flexible collaborative communication tool for engaging members and building online communities. Because wikis grow as a direct result of people adding material to the site, they can address a variety of needs (community involvement, group activities, events and conference planning,  project management) and audiences (staff members, stakeholders and volunteers). Since wikis are web-based, members and can access and participate from anywhere with an internet access. At its best, wikis provide up-to-date information and promotion for nonprofits at the lowest cost.

What are common challenges when working with wikis?

  • Some of them (quite a few, actually) look ugly (too much information, no effort put into ease of use and interface design), which immediately reduces adoption. Yes, you can tweak the design to make it look nicer, but how many organizations would make the effort?
  • Low usability, in so many ways. For instance, users frequently have to learn special formatting. Access control is usually clumsy. Working with document and picture attachments can be cumbersome.
  • Way too many functions and options. Good design is about knowing what to leave out.
  • No auto-save function. After spending an hour typing up a web page, click the wrong button and you'll lose it all.

Wikis potential

Wikis show great potential as collaborative spaces for creating a knowledge database and long-distance collaboration. But learning to do these things is hard. For most users, it takes too much time and tweaking to get to the point where wikis will produce a return on investment. But now the good news. Not all wikis suck. They are getting better every month. SocialText, MediaWiki, and PBWiki are some of the good examples.

Selecting the right wiki software

What sorts of things should you look for when selecting wiki software to use?  Adam Frey, one of the founders of Wikispaces.com (a popular hosted wiki service) has some great insight:

“First, a wiki should be easy to use. Wikis are powerful when they are simple. When a user looks at a page, it should be obvious how to edit the page and how to navigate around the space. The site should have a clean look rather than being cluttered with confusing features. Second, a wiki should be easy to adopt and share. Since wikis are about communities, a new member should be able to start participating immediately. Sign up, where necessary, should be quick and easy and the learning curve should be shallow. It should be trivially easy to invite a new member to join the wiki."

How do you build or energize a community around your wiki?

Wikis are all about bringing people together and building a community. Whether it's for collaboration, knowledge sharing or even for a cause. Wikis can be used by anyone and in anyway. Techsoup has a good article about how two organizations have developed wikis with active communities of users. Here are some ideas on how to build a community, but for more tips and ideas be sure to read the whole post.

  • Start by getting major stakeholders, board members and key staff members excited about the technology. Set up a meeting and demonstrate how the wiki will be used and help them understated just how simple yet powerful a wiki could be in your organization.
  • Ensure that the wiki has content that’s relevant to everyone. Focus on the audience (volunteers, coordinators, staff, etc.) and try to make sure that there’s something there for them.
  • Get your staff members up-to-speed by posting detailed instructions on the wiki explaining how to perform common tasks such as editing pages, uploading images, and formatting sites.
  • To further encourage newbies to embrace the wiki, use the site’s RSS feeds to monitor when new pages have been created. When a user adds a new entry to the wiki, go to the page to offer advice and encouragement to the poster or simply answer questions.
  • Allow your community to develop its own way of thinking and working incrementally. In other words, give your group as close to a blank slate as you can and let them participate in structuring the space as well as working on the content. You'll find that there's less resistance because people get to decide how best to work together and the space will remain active and the content fresh over time.

Getting the most of wikis

Now that you've learned about wikis and are ready to start using it, here are some tips for getting the most out of it:

  • Start with a hosted wiki (the one you do not have to install on your own server but can go to a website and sign-up for monthly service plan). You can be up and running with your team in 10 minutes.
  • If/when you need more functionality and flexibility, go for commercially developed and supported software, such as Confluence. Professional design and usability make the crucial difference. Proper tech support and a lively user community also help.
  • Select a specific project involving a small team who have urgent need for collaboration.
  • Find someone to lead the effort who has already used wikis. Experience is key.
  • Finally, learn and share! That's not just the key to an effective wiki. Today it's essential for business success.

A few good wiki resources

What is your experience with wikis? What is the best wiki software you have used?

Lori Halley [Engaging Apricot] Lori Halley [Engaging Apricot]

Posted by Lori Halley [Engaging Apricot]

Published Thursday, 31 May 2007 at 5:41 PM


  • Vanessa said:

    Wednesday, 20 June 2007 at 9:59 AM

    I recently helped found a startup that aims to further the evolution of collaborative writing by improving upon the wiki platform.  We are very excited about how this might be used among non-profit organizations and would very much appreciate your input.  

    Along the same lines as the questions asked here, we are hoping you can help us identify some of the areas where wikis can be improved - and tell us about your experience using them.  We are collecting comments in the MixedInk blog, and look forward to hearing your thoughts: http://www.mixedink.com/blog/.

    Thanks in advance - and please feel free to email me directly with any thoughts or questions: vanessa [at] mixedink [dot] com.


  • Bill said:

    Friday, 14 September 2007 at 4:17 PM

    I'm looking for a wiki tool to publish a knowledge base. I noticed that the Wild Apricot knowledge base system is wiki-based. Did you use Wikispaces or a different tool for this?


  • Dmitriy Buterin [Chief Apricot] Dmitriy Buterin [Chief Apricot]

    Dmitriy Buterin [Chief Apricot] said:

    Saturday, 15 September 2007 at 4:52 AM

    We use Confluence by Atlassian software, probably the best commercial wiki software out there.

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