Nonprofit Web Windfall at Work

A look at how a small nonprofit might have taken more advantage of social media to promote and extend a recent event.


Relevant to my main post today, I noticed on The Bamboo Project that Marketing Pilgrim has posted Buzz Monitoring: 26 Free Tools You Must Have.

Also relevant to my post today, I learned at Associated Knowledge that Read/Write Web is running a series called Is the Web Still a Windfall for Nonprofits?. The title references a 2004 Wired article titled For Nonprofits, Web Is a Windfall.


If you are Mothers Against Drunk Driving or the American Red Cross (both referenced in the Wired article), you are the equivalent in the nonprofit world of a top 40 album or a New York Times best seller—products that get all the attention in the traditional bricks and mortar retail world. Attracting attention and support is, relatively speaking, no problem. If, on the other hand, you are a small nonprofit with a limited staff, you are probably trying to make things work out in the outer reaches of what Wired editor Chris Anderson has immortalized as the long tail. Organizations like these are arguably ones that benefit most from what Wired characterizes as a “windfall” (in spite of that story’s focus on name-brand nonprofits). What follows is brief look at an organization out on the long tail.


This past weekend I attended Spinning the Web: Politics in the Internet Age, a day-long educational program held by the North Carolina Institute of Political Leadership (IOPL), of which I am a fellow. For a small, non-partisan organization dedicated to improving “the overall quality of political and governmental leadership in North Carolina” this was a significant, and relatively cutting edge event.

Like many so many smaller nonprofit organizations, IOPL exists to a large extent because of the hard work and dedication of a single individual, Walt DeVries—a name to which the adjective “legendary” is routinely attached in certain circles. Walt stepped down as executive director a few years back, and the organization has gone through some soul searching and even a brief hiatus from offering its program in the time since. This weekend’s event represented a re-birth of sorts.

And a noteworthy event it was. There were three panels—The New Online Campaign, Web Tools for Political Reporting, and Blogs and the Political Conversation—and these were populated not only by notable locals, but also by nationally-recognized figures like Zephyr Teachout (of Howard Dean campaign fame) and Mary Katherine Ham of Townhall.com. All and all, I walked away feeling a good bit more knowledgeable and quite impressed.

As I searched the Web this week for follow-up, it was good to see that this event, which offered quite a lot of educational value, was generating at least a bit of buzz to help extend that value, attract a bit of attention to the organization, and perhaps help boost future sponsorship of IOPL’s programs. Here is some of what I found:

The New Online Campaign
Web Tools for Political Reporting
Blogs and the Political Conversation

This is all great, but it left me with few thoughts on the possibilities and perils of the Web for a small nonprofit hosting an event like this.

  • First, while the blog coverage the event received is welcome, there could have been significantly more. At least six of the presenters at the event have blogs, but only two of them reference the event. A mention on Zephyr Teachout’s blog or Townhall.com would be a nice boost for IOPL, but at the very least, more could have been done to engage North Carolina bloggers before during and after the event. A list of bloggers to potentially notify of the event could easily have been generated with some searching on Technorati.
  • IOPL could do more with its own Web site to promote the event and shape it as an ongoing resource. I know from experience that simple Web site management has traditionally been an issue for the typical small nonprofit, but given the numerous, inexpensive Software as a Service (SaaS) Web site packages now available, this is an issue that really should be behind us. Leaving aside more sophisticated approaches, simply making sure that the final agenda and speaker information for the event was posted before hand and that links to things like the videos were posted afterwards would be some very good simple moves to make.
  • With respect to the perils of the “Web windfall” for an event like this, IOPL is perhaps in a trickier position than most nonprofits. The organization proclaims and, really, depends upon a non-partisan standing when soliciting donors. The underwriting of this particular event by one of North Carolina’s most conservative think tanks clearly poses the danger of compromising IOPL’s non-partisan positioning—as reflected in the heated comments at BlueNC, for those who take the time to read them. Again, engaging the bloggers before during and after—which, to be clear, does not mean attempting to influence or coerce them or, in general “spin” the message, as the unfortunate title of the event would suggest—could help significantly on this point, as could more focused and thorough attention to the event on the IOPL Web site.

Given this mild dose of what I hope is constructive criticism, I should stress that I am thrilled to see that IOPL seems to be emerging into a second life of sorts. I hope that some of the points above will prove useful to smaller nonprofits hoping to generate additional value via the Web for their educational events. Even more could be done than is suggested here—blogging, for instance, is far from the only social media tool that could be applied—but I know that for IOPL and many other organizations, consistently executing on simpler steps is a more realistic starting point.

I welcome comments from users with other suggestions for IOPL or who can offer examples of other organizations that are using (or could be using) the Web to leverage their educational events. Also, my call for Purple Cows on nonprofit online learning continues. I know they are out there. Please read the Purple Cow posting and submit any examples you have.


1 thought on “Nonprofit Web Windfall at Work”

  1. This is a really great case study in looking at how smaller nonprofits can use social media. I think your point about needing to tie social networking into other marketing strategies is really well taken. Part of what makes these tools so effective is the network effect of different tools feeding and building off of each other, but you have to play those linkages out to their full extent, I think. Great analysis!

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