For the past 5 months, Rosenheck has been blogging as part of the organization's larger communications strategy. She has found the medium to be a very effective use of her time and the Urban Sprouts blog is a great example of how a small organization can build community and visibility with new web tools.
The Urban Sprouts blog was inspired after Abby saw how Britt Bravo (a non profit consultant and Net Squared team member) used her blog to express herself in writing and form connections online. As a small organization, Urban Sprouts needed more ways to help supporters feel a part of a the group's community, to know what was happening with the group and what both Abby and the students were thinking about their work.
The organization has had a web site and email newsletter for some time, but the traditional site was not easy enough to use for content to be put on it as frequently as was needed. The site remains online and now holds long-term information about the organization, as well as larger documents and resources.
Abby initially tried writing her blog based on the group's newsletter, but realized that the field notes she already took on her work would make good content as well. She has since added the voices of her students by including what they have to say and including pictures in what she writes on the blog. News relevant to the Urban Sprouts community is also posted.
After getting past an initial learning curve, she's been enjoying the blog and getting a lot of positive feedback. "As an organic way to help people feel they are a part of what I am doing it's been great." Set up and getting started was easy to do, but knowing someone (Britt Bravo) to act as a mentor helped save time learning advanced features of the medium and provided motivation. Basic blogging was easier for her to use than the group's website, but it has taken more time to learn to do things like add tags to her posts. With some one to ask questions of and practice she can now use the blog with much less time required.
Connections and Community
Initial outreach was done by sending out reminders for supporters to visit the blog. Abby still includes that reminder with each monthly newsletter sent out.
You have to remind people a few times before they start checking out something new. A big part of donor fundraising is getting people into new habits; even if it's something that's not hard and the benefits are huge. Similar to fundraising, once potential blog readers are reminded a few times, people catch on.
The blog has helped donors, volunteers and others who have indicated interest in the project find a focus to stay interested and feel involved. It also helps her to feel supported. As the organization's only staff person, it means a lot to her to be able to communicate with other people about her work. "In a lot of non profit work, you're on the cutting edge - so people often don't understand what you're doing and why," she says. "The blog gives me a way to describe it so much deeper in so many ways, deeper than a brochure or grant proposal."
"The blog has been a real boost of interactiveness," she says. "More people are able to find the group and me all of the sudden. People are also communicating more with me, mostly by email."
Abby uses the popular service Statcounter.com to see who visits the blog and what search terms brought them there. Though her first readers were all local, the blog is now being read by people around the country. It wasn't overnight, but with time the blog has come to feel much more connected to a variety of people. Her audience is not very familiar with technology and the blog has proven to be very easy for her supporters to read and explore. "The next step," she says, "is finding people in places with fewer school gardens." She believes that the blog and research resources on the Urban Sprouts site are poised to be excellent resources for people elsewhere trying to start similar projects.
Advice to Potential NPO Bloggers
I also asked Abby what she thought could help other non profit groups adopt this technology.
Non profits see themselves as not having the funds to adopt technologies so they don't adopt them as soon as other people - but that doesn't have to be the case. Letting small non profits know that there are inexpensive things you can do that really work is important. More people could do this if they had access to a community of people who knew what they were doing. Feeling like there are other people starting out who are also learning and knowing where to go to ask your questions is very helpful.
Abby also reports that it has been very helpful to get the support and expose that has come from publicity on other sites, like this one.
When asked what sorts of things she would find useful at the Net Squared Conference, Abby had this to say:
As a small non profit, making connections with companies is hard. I like the idea of socially responsible business, not just giving money away but really supporting community work. Small group's often can't take advantage of big grants from big companies, so connecting with individual employees for a variety of types of assistance might be a more organic way to work together. Face to face is key for small groups like us, a chance to brainstorm and network with other non profits and companies.
Urban Sprouts is a great example of what a small organization can do with a blog. If you are interested in strengthening your community of supporters and volunteers, increasing your visibility online and doing it all with less technical expertise than is required to make substantial use of a traditional web site - then a blog might be just what you are looking for.