How to Start and Grow your Nonprofit Blog: An Interview with Michael Sola

Lori Halley 31 October 2007 2 comments

 Michael Sola is the Director of Information Technology of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF), a nonprofit dedicated to restoring and protecting the Chesapeake Bay and its tributary rivers. For the past 6 months, Michael Sola has been blogging as part of the organization's larger communications strategy. We caught up with Michael to talk about how the CBF Tech blog can help a small organization build community and visibility with new web tools.

1. What inspired you to start a blog for CBF?

We were just in the beginning stages of a new early adopter program with Blackbaud when a press release was being planned that highlighted CBF.  I was asked to contribute in the press release process and then was asked to go to Charleston and present to the full contingent of Blackbaud staff in a 30 min presentation about CBF and the tech program.  I had just come from attending sessions from NTEN, CASE and ISTE conferences where there seemed to be an overall need for more non profits to share their problems, successes and challenges when implementing technology.  The “telling the story” aspect from the press release and the invite to speak gave me the idea.  

At the time Charleston trip I suggested the concept of a tech blog with our Director of Marketing in the Communications department knowing that we as an organization were still trying to find a way to prove blogs will help connect members to what we do.  I wanted to tell the story of tech but in a non tech way.  This seemed like a medium that would not only allow me to have a voice but allow others to participate in the process.

2. How do blogs fit into CBF's marketing/community outreach strategies

As our very first “blog” was set up in 2006 on an issue that was very controversial at the time – the idea was to give the public that were engaged with the issue a chance to have a voice.  I’m not sure if it ever really hit it’s stride – it did have over 400 comments in a very short period of time but it was a small following and typically the same voices.  If you look at our 30 day Expedition trips where we asked the student participants to share their experiences of the river and agriculture experiences then it’s a no brainer – while the format wasn’t quite the same as the current blog services, the results were in line with the program goals.  The education program was able to engage the parents, teachers, communities and friends, even the media with a dozen of so students who wrote about their experiences during those 30 days.  The students told their story using their words and their pictures while we came along for the ride.

3. What kinds of conversations in-house/on-staff did the desire to start the CBF blog spark? How much time did it take to incorporate the blog? 

Back in early January I started meeting directly with all the department VP’s and management staff to promote the use of these social networking tools and to start looking for opportunities within the programs to find a means to share their story’s and allow for feed back  There was a lot of resistance as for many - many years, the organization struggled to establish a clear single voice and message and the thought of “others” speaking for CBF was a concept that was and to a certain extent remains a struggle.  I used this one video I found on YouTube called “The Machine is Us/ing Us” which in 4 minutes did a nice job of exposing the non web savvy staff member to the new world of Web 2.0  While I focused on small groups at first the largest impact was a “brown bag” lunch session where I played the video and as a result it inspired a discussion between multiple departments all asking the questions of what and how and most importantly who and when would these tools be available.

It was about this point that our Web team took notice of what I was doing which was the promotion of Web services that traditionally was a big component of their program.  I’m the “IT Guy” not the “Web Guy” but I made it clear that my intent was to get staff to think about what personnel, resources, most importantly - budget would be required if they wanted to promote their programs in this genre as the end result would be a huge impact on the data we collect and then the need to use that data in making program decisions – now we’re back in my sandbox.

At that time the blogs happening within the organization didn’t appear to be a hot item as there was little promotion and the content was tightly controlled, RSS wasn’t even active and still remains a problem as the services are third party and not directly under Convio.  If you looked at the content and lack of feedback during that time frame it seemed like a wasted effort which was another stumbling block as that meant it was harder to get buy-in to commit staff time in the participation of blogs. 

I think after NTEN in April the voice and the tone started to change to a more “personal experience theme” which is the lesson we picked up from hearing how other successful organizations were using the tools.  I personally take about 2 – 3 hours a week just jotting down notes from conversations I have with staff, departmental project reviews and follow up from phone conversations with vendors and partners- all that plays into the process.   I always try to keep it light and somehow pick a theme I can start and finish with.  Much of the writing actually takes place off hours – typically from home when I can focus.   Not always conducive for family time but I have teenage boys – the more I can hide the better!

4. How has the blog helped CBF in its work? 

I think the jury is still out on this as blogs are typically tracked by the number of subscriptions and sources, i.e. where did the lead come from.  Then factor in that most people are “lurkers” and it’s hard to tell who you are reaching.  From my view I have had several personal engagements from folks from as far away as England who do follow the Tech Blog and have reached out to learn more about the CBF Tech program and as a result we do get the attention of our Tech partners - which is interesting as they typically make verbal comments to me that they are working to resolve a problem so please don’t blog about them! 

When I posed this question to our Web team, I think they summarized this up nicely:  “Our other blogs make us think more about ways to reach out to constituents and to engage them. How does an issue resonate with them? What questions are they asking? I think you could say we're still taking baby steps in those directions -- it's definitely been a learning curve and is expanding how we think about communications. It's also required us to become involved with the rest of the blogging community and we're building more relationships there, as well. Our staff's biggest challenge is, of course, finding the time.”

5. What are the primary uses for the CBF Tech blog? 

The goal for me is to share with our members how we are using technology to further our mission, how we make decisions when implementing a technical solution and the obstacles or struggles we sometimes endure when using technology.  Nothing is cookie cutter in this field and no one product will fit every non profits needs. 

Tom Stoner, a CBF trustee and founder of Open Spaces, Sacred Places http://www.tkffdn.org/  was asking “why blog” and when we reviewed the various CBF blogs and then hit upon the Tech Blog he said “You’ve put a human face on something that isn’t human.  hmmmm . . . ” and shook his head.  For me that was awesome to hear and reaffirmed for myself and Maria Shook – our Manager of Web Services who was co-hosting the session, that our strategy and plans for using these tools is on track.  If I can paint a picture of what we do and how we do it from a non-technical view then perhaps that will generate interest and desire to fund and support the tech budgets which we continue to struggle with year in and year out while providing some insight and project expectations to those who may be considering similar endeavors.

6. How is CBF marketing/promoting its blog? 

We have a dedicated member of the Communications Web team who is actively visiting related sites, other organizations blogs and social network services like FaceBook with the hope of driving traffic back – we have some Widgets set up for a few of the feeds but looking at the numbers we are most definitely taking “baby steps”.  We struggle with software limitations from the Convio system to publish the RSS feeds from the externally hosted blog site but there are certain limitations still in place with their program.  In many ways Convio is still in its infancy and is playing catch up to the needs of their clients, including us.  

We have not explored the inclusion of the blog links into more of our email footers although at various times our eNews will include links depending on the relevance of that months news.  I also believe there is still some hesitation to allow more staff to have that proverbial voice.  The misconception is we can control what is happening on the Net – the truth as we all know when it comes to the Net, control is an illusion.

7. What are some of the benefits a blog can provide for a non-profit organization? 

Engaging readers and putting a face to the staff who are in the trenches makes the “voice of the organization” more personal. I think people want to feel connected before they open up their check books and what better way to put that face on what you do then using a blog.

8. What are some of the key points to consider when developing a blogging strategy? 

I’ve been to so many of these workshops and sessions that I couldn’t possibly capture the key points I use,  especially when you consider there are many more seasoned and respected individuals in the field.  There are times I feel like Michael Keaton in Mr. Mom when he drives the wrong way to drop off his kids and he’s told:  “You’re doing it wrong” – he was also called a moron but I’m hoping I don’t fall into that category.  There are times I wonder if I’m doing it wrong, am I too wordy, should I avoid any technical jargon, is anybody really going to read this or rather who out there really cares?  Ask questions – give enough history and because it’s tech, avoid speaking in “techineese” - try that blend and above all make it fun. 

9. What is your advice for someone who might be working with a nonprofit and wants to start a blog? 

When I’ve talked about the approach I am taking with the tech blog I always mention the same thing – make it real.  Never assume the reader knows what you’re going to say next and if you write a run on sentence . . . who cares, I’m not getting graded and I tend to ramble in real life anyways so my number one advice is:  go with what you know.  Here’s a good rule of thumb – never drink and blog – been there, done that.

10. Are there any online resources, tools, downloads or seminars for non-profit bloggers you would like to recommend? 

Since I started writing this blog I am amazed at the resource that are out there – it’s just a Google search away.   You learn so much from just reading other peoples blog - ideas, styles, layout, approach to story telling.  The trick is don’t let what you find intimidate you and don’t loose sight of what you are trying to accomplish or you’ll shut down and stop writing.  Attend workshops related to Non Profit 2.0 ( I’m trying to avoid the Web 2.0 term – I think Wired classified the term as “yesterday” – already it’s “yesterday” – go figure, we’re just getting started! )

Get connected, join and subscribe to multiple blogs – participate, don’t be a lurker.

Get a Special Report on Simplifying Membership Management

Enter your email and receive this special report in your inbox.
Lori Halley [Engaging Apricot] Lori Halley [Engaging Apricot]

Posted by Lori Halley [Engaging Apricot]

Published Wednesday, 31 October 2007 at 9:00 AM

Get a Special Report on Simplifying Membership Management

Enter your email and receive this special report in your inbox.

Comments

  • Wild Apricot Blog said:

    Tuesday, 13 November 2007 at 6:48 AM

    These were the most popular posts in Oct 2007 according to Google Analytics: 8 Ideas To Promote Your

  • Wild Apricot Blog said:

    Tuesday, 13 November 2007 at 6:48 AM

    These were the most popular posts in Oct 2007 according to Google Analytics: 8 Ideas To Promote Your

Sorry, this blog post is closed for further comments.