Monthly Archives: September 2009

Searching for blogging networks

I’ve struggled with my study this week. After the fortnightly, online #Fo09 meeting I understand why. Blogging networks form spontaneously over time between loosely associated fellow travellers. They’re not necessarily the formal networks I’ve found so easily.

My research took me to formal networks where people are blogging on a single platform. Somebody comes up with a bright idea of attracting bloggers to share their thoughts in one place. Unless the formula is spot-on, there’s a tendency for these types of formal networks to rapidly go stale.

The network I looked at listed over 600 bloggers. Around 15% contributed five or more posts, with a couple of superstars in the hundreds. The vast majority just one. Many of these were old posts. And there was tonnes of competition for your attention, with the same group having a LinkedIn group, Facebook page, etc.

Putting two and two together I suspect there was a conference or promotional push or some sort, people signed up, then…. silence.

If I can I’ll report on a talk with one of the bloggers on a shared platform.

With a new insight gleaned from our meeting I’ve decided to pay more attention to local bloggers talking about the same sorts of topics as me. I’m not sure if I’m joining or forming a blogging network so I guess the best thing to do is get started.

The concept of networking weaving – which Beth Kanter talks about quite often (for starters see “Some Thoughts About Effective Networking Online”), as well as being raised by Sarah (see “Getting our heads around blogging”) – appeals much more than having my very own ‘personal’ network. I see this as much putting in touch, as asking and conversing.   

I have the same sort of worry that Debra Maddock’s raises: “once the connections are started, you just have to keep on the tracks and never get off, otherwise it will be too hard to reconnect”.

No rush…. I guess strong relationships, even virtual ones, take time to form.

More on mapping gardens and kai

The idea I had of listing community gardens around the country wasn’t a novel one (see the nascent plotting community gardens wiki I started). At almost exactly the same time I started out, the folk at Good magazine created a Google map listing all the community gardens they could find. Spooky.

I haven’t found the time to list many gardens as yet. So I was pleased to see the map created by Yu Sin Khoo, a designer at Good magazine’s publishers, has got off to a good start. Already listed are 29 community gardens, and four people have signed up as collaborators. I’ve decided to join as one of them and delete my Google map (once I find out how).

It’s just one of several similar maps I’ve heard of in the last few weeks.

In Christchurch there is a treasure map for the city, displaying information about foraging throughout the city area which are publicly accessible. Started in June 2009 the Otautahi Urban Foraging map has already had over 25,000 views. Anyone can add to it.

Closer to home, is the Edible Wellington – A Gatherer’s Guide map. Wild parsley, plum trees and rosemary are some of the plants listed. Once again the map is open to collaboration by anyone. 42 collective have started at least one other map to help guide people to living sustainably in Wellington.

For Wellingtonian’s eager to talk about foraging and similar practices, the Underground Fruit Economy facebook group might appeal. The level of interaction is extremely modest despite the virtual interest of 198 members – too busy fossicking for kai I suspect.

Debate is definitely happening on Kiwiblog, where the idea of free information about free food seemed to have broad appeal (see “Great initiative”, 25 August 2009). Of course somebody had to raise some spurious analysis about the operation of the market economy along the lines of “if you’re altruistic, you’re not being rationale”.

More maps coming soon I suspect. Hopefully with lots of people joining in to make them. If you know about a community garden, get in touch so you can be listed.

Software up for grabs

Over a year down the track it’s good to news to hear the TechSoup New Zealand programme racking up a substantial number of software donations.

At a function at Te Papa last night jointly hosted by TechSoup New Zealand’s local partner, NZFVWO, Barnardos and Microsoft, there was a fair bit of hoopla about the volume of donations. Some 288 organsations (subject to fact checking) have received donated software since the programme started in July 2008.

The main focus of the cocktail function was on a big donation by Microsoft to Barnardos.

Murray Etheridge, Barnardos CEO, was radiantly postive as he acknowledged the $1.4 million donation. The gift comprises software, along with technical support and I think someone mentioned cash as well. Whether this is a one-off or an example of a new partnering drive by the multinational software giant wasn’t mentioned.

Four other organsations which have substantially benefited from the TechSoup New Zealand programme were highlighted in a short video.

One of these is the Mangere East Family Service Centre. I first met the Centre’s director Peter Sykes when we were both studying social policy at Massey University.

He says the software donation means “for the first time in 15 years all our computers can talk to each other with common operating system”. Peter wants technology to be ubiquitous and essentially invisible to his staff so they can focus on doing the stuff they need to, which means talking with people. In the past, staff have spent be frustrated and distracted by computers getting in the way, rather than supporting their work.

Despite being an ideal time to alert people to an expansion of the range of software products available through TechSoup New Zealand, there was no mention of any forthcoming sources of software donations. I’ve since learned some other suppliers of software will soon be added to the list.

While Prime Minister John Key only talked about the corporate side of things, NZFVWO’s Tina Reid really emphasised the spirit of partnership and community building that sits behind TechSoup New Zealand. In it’s first year it’s off to a great start, with more to come.

BTW: Tech savvy John Key hasn’t yet shared his speech notes (perhaps because he realised after talking he made a slight ommission – he blatantly avoided any references to co-hosts NZFVWO) nor issued a tweet to his 5,982 followers (see JohnKeyPM).

Online community in NTEN-Discuss? Part 2

After talking to both Ian Runeckles and Gavin Clabaugh, members of the NTEN-Discuss online group, I really started thinking about the importance of ‘context’ to an online community.

Rather than concentrate on the current incarnation of the group, both Ian and Gavin talked about where it all started. The current group has it’s origins in meetings between IT advisors working with not-for-profit organisations which started being run in the 1990s. The circuit rider network included face-to-face meetings as well as a mailing list (which continues to this day, even if largely supplanted by NTEN-Discuss).

Face-to-face gatherings have grown in scale, with about 1,400 people attending the last annual NTC meet-up in April 2009. There are also dozens of small local chapters where people meeting in person regularly. Access to a member directory means any of NTEN’s 6,000 plus members can get in touch directly with others. Both the numbers involved and the many years events have been held over means during the life of both NTEN-Discuss and its antecedents many people have actually had contact with one another face-to-face.

Unless there is some form of annual refresh cycle, Gavin says he sees many groups die out over time so he firmly believes meeting face-to-face is necessary to “rekindle the essential human elements”.

As well as the offline meetings, people can interact with each other online in different ways, including attending regular webinars, contributing to multi-author blogs, and by adding material to shared resources in libraries, notepads, etc.

The discussion forum definitely doesn’t stand alone.

The official NTEN-Discuss moderators have light touch within the forum. Ian said he couldn’t see how additional facilitation services would benefit the group. By continually feeding discussion and setting the general atmosphere, the current facilitation approach kept things working.

Gavin was also sceptical about the need for more active facilitation. He says this was tried in the past with mixed success. And he points toward the nature of the group as not requiring more active input.

I am not sure the topics (remember that magic ingredient above — a clear focus and purpose and a shared set of goals and beliefs) would actually lend themselves to more active facilitation. The discussions are usually queries for information or referral. I often characterize NTEN Discuss as a giant random access knowledge management system: I can ask it a question and it coughs and sputters and (sometimes) shoots out an answer. The topics are relatively mundane and wouldn’t lend themselves to facilitation — at least I can’t think how.

A large volume of active contributors can actually undermine a forum. There is a sense that there is a natural equilibrium or balance for people to sustain their attention. Gavin suggested 200 was the maximum number of active and semi-active participants as with any more things go bonkers and people can’t handle a discussion with more than this number. A specific number wasn’t mentioned by Ian, but he sees a ratio of active to inactive participants as constant across all forums regardless of the total number of members.

Understanding the wider world in which NTEN-Discuss inhabits helped me reach the conclusion that more active facilitation is probably unnecessary. I wonder how this insight informs other discussion forums?

Thanks to Ian and Gavin for taking the time to share some history and thoughts.

BTW: This post is the second of a two part assignment exploring whether the NTEN-Discuss forum might benefit from more active facilitation of some sort. See part 1 and more details about the Facilitating Online course.

Hanging on your every word?

An edited version of this article appeared in the August 2009 issue of “FINZ on Fundraising”. Find out more about the Fundraising Institute of New Zealand.

Hanging on your every word?

It sounds like a fundraisers dream. Supporters who hang on your every word.

For charities using Twitter this is exactly what people do. The latest craze in social networking allows anyone to send their every waking thought or carefully crafted message. Each missive is just 140 characters or less. Willing listeners (known as followers in Twitter parlance) talk back too.

“Potentially 100 followers on Twitter is more valuable than 10,000 people on a DM database,” suggests Nathalie Hofsteede, CEO of Give a little donations website. “It’s a voluntary connection, people opt in. So it’s a much more powerful relationship than you can establish through any other communication means you’d normally have as a charity.”

Many charities are starting to use Twitter as well other social networks such as Facebook and LinkedIn. This includes big players like art galleries, university alumni associations and museums and very small grassroots groups.

While few New Zealand organisations are directly raising money yet, the online medium offers new means of interacting with supporters that are unparalleled.

Social networks embraced US not-for-profits

As NZ organisations start exploring the place of social networks within the communications outreach, it’s something not-for-profit organisations are embracing in the USA.

A survey of US not-for-profit organisations released in April 2009 shows an overwhelming majority have a social network of some sort. Of the 929 organisations that replied, 86% are on Facebook, YouTube, MySpace, LinkedIn or another commercial social network (www.nonprofitsocialnetworksurvey.com). Of the commercial networks Facebook is by far the most popular, with 74% of organisations running a group, cause or fan page. In-house networks are run by 31% of organisations.

Despite being online for upward of two years barely any of the groups surveyed are actually raising funds directly from social networks. Those that have raised less than US $10,000 per annum. This survey and other reports conclude that raising significant amounts of money directly through social networks is a rarity. Those organisations raising large sums put in a lot of effort and time.

A stand-out example of social media use comes from the Humane Society of the United Society (HSUS). During its second annual Spay Day Online Pet Photo Contest over $600,000 was raised from over 40,000 entrants. The event, run in February 2009, relied heavily on social media and referrals to new people by existing supporters. The effort was considerable. With members of HSUS’s internet marketing team all directly of involved (with five paid staff, two interns and a number of volunteers).

Time to experiment

Examples of New Zealand not-for-profits directly raising funds through their social media presence are scarce. Some organisations are making experimental forays, with others with lots of questions.

“There is definitely a growing awareness and interest in using social networks. Some of the charities see a benefit, they’re quite keen. But they don’t necessarily know how to get in there,” says Lee Hales, Give a little’s marketing manager.

Oxfam NZ is one organisation that has broadened it’s online presence from a packed website and regular email bulletins. It has Facebook fan page, a YouTube channel, and recently started using Twitter. A gaol of their early sorties within social networks is to build up a supporters base.

“By building up trust in us and knowledge in us, perhaps through people who haven’t hard of Oxfam NZ before, they’ll be willing to help when we ask,” says Oxfam NZ’s web coordinator Andrea Walker.

What comes next has still to be decided. Andrea is wary of jumping straight into asking as she believes this could scare people off.

Twitter is the latest social network used by the University of Canterbury alumni office. The University fires out tweets (as the pithy Twitter updates are known), as well as sharing regular news with a Facebook group comprising over 2,000 members and a restricted entry group on LinkedIn, a website for connecting professionals.

“We’re trying to achieve a sense of alumni being part of a global community”, says Chanel Hughes, University of Canterbury alumni relations manager. “Alumni have become more aware of the benefits of networking, particularly on a global scale. This gives us an opportunity to provide an additional service to our alumni globally at no real extra cost.”

Social media sits alongside existing print and email communications. Compared to the near 50,000 subscribers to the quarterly Canterbury magazine, around 5% belong to one of the social networks.

“Using Facebook and other social networks has enabled us to get in touch with an age group who don’t typically come to alumni events and who may not actually be reading the magazine,” Chanel commented.

For those Internet savvy people who do almost everything online, including make donations, the University is considering how best to tap into social networks.

What’s your message?

There is little to stop an organisations setting up a social networking presence. Aside from staff time the costs of social networks are low. There is broad agreement that using social media is something any marketer or communicator can readily use. But as with any medium, there are unique characteristics to discover.

Social networkers have limited tolerance for repeated organisational key messaging and PR speak. Instead winning friends depends on adopting a personal tone and allowing people across your organisation to speak directly.

“You can interact with supporters on a much more personal level”, says Andrea Walker from Oxfam NZ. “Generally you’ve got to be more serious on your website and we don’t comment back. It feels with social media you can have your own voice a bit more.”

In fact, people are attuned to the tenor of conversation. It needs to be a genuine two way street. A good starting point is to think first about what you’re offering your audience not what you want.

“There’s an element of being honest. People don’t expect everything to be rosy… it’s really good if you can call the state of play as it is – things that are worrying us, problems, or we need your help and why,” suggests Give a little’s Nathalie Hofsteede.

Supporters and occasionally antagonists can easily re-interprete and spread ideas related to your cause without you ever knowing. Organisations have less control than ever before about how the organisation is perceived.

Some see the possibilities presented by social media with its potential for immediacy and personal contact as a dream come true. Whereas others envision a nightmare overloaded with micro messages and other trivia. Whether it is any use for fundraising is too early to definitely say.

Hanging on your every word? article

The rush to set up spaces on social networks to raise funds and engage with people is not necessarily a sure fire bet. Even if supporters do hang on your every word through Twitter bon mots it doesn’t mean they’ll reach into their pockets.

People from not-for-profit organisations I talked to for an article published in the August 2009 issue FINZ on Fundraising said they weren’t in it for the money (see “Hanging on your every word?” article). At least, not straight away.

Instead organisations are setting up Facebook fan pages and Twitter feeds to engage better with their audiences. This includes connecting with people that they wouldn’t be able to easily reach in any other way.

When choosing different online fund- and friend-raising options not-for-profit organisations Eric Rardin from Care2.com advised organisations to take an analytical approach rather than following fashions. In a lecture on “Creating an online strategy to thrive in tough times” run by Network for Good in May 2009, he shares detailed case studies of the costs of donor acquisition versus the returns.

Rardin, who is Care2.com’s nonprofit services manager, says organisations need to match goals with tactics.

  1. Goals include: branding or visibility, engaging people, generating donor leads, website traffic and/ or list growth, and fundraising.

  2. Tactics include: search engine marketing, banner ads, email list growth services (something I’m not aware of in NZ), and social network outreach.

There is no single tactic that will magically meet all goals. The tactics achieve different things.

Talking about social networks, he says they:

… have proven to be valuable opportunities for branding and connecting, and most people that I’ve heard talk about what they think of how things have done on MySpace and Facebook and elsewhere, they end up talking mostly about the community they built, the branding, and a lot less about traffic and donations.

When pressed Rardin says “I think that using email to drive traffic to your site to get donations is almost a self-fulfilling prophecy here, because it’s a loop here. So the question is: how do you grow your email list? That’s often the most critical step.”

So we’re still looking at a three legged stool. Laura S Quinn from Idealware suggests splitting your time and budget three ways:

  • website, with functionally to capture new contacts and accept donations
  • email communication, including e-newsletters
  • online marketing and outreach, including a social network presence.

(See “Prioritizing Websites vs. Email vs. Online Outreach”, 27 August 2008).

The Network for Good learning centre freely share lessons from the fundraising frontline, including presentations and audio lectures like Eric’s one. It’s good place to start if you want to explore these questions in more depth.