Helping people with computers... one answer at a time.

Getting a group, any group, to interact effectively online can be a challenge. Sometimes it's a technology issue, but more often than not ... it's not.

How can groups communicate more efficiently than sending group emails?

Example: Our Alumni Association recently held a fund raiser with 15 people on the committee. Over the two months of planning, emails were sent to the whole group each time small details needed to be ironed out. Then, emails were sent out to only the key people, which left others out of the loop and in turn created MORE emails to answer questions about decisions that were made because some people weren't informed along the way. Another problem was that due to the enormous amount of emails being sent to the group, many group members didn't read them and then put up road blocks to action steps because they were uniformed.

My bottom line Leo is this: What's the best way for non-profits to hold meetings, conduct business and communicate with its members for efficient fund raising events or other activities?

Well, I do have to say that I don't think there's a single "best" way. And in fact, in my experience the options available to non-profits are often more limited than those available to businesses - and not at all for the reasons you might think.

So instead of proposing The Answer, instead I'll throw out a few ideas.

But I'll start by explaining what I've seen as the bigger problem that might apply to your non profit.

Unless your nonprofit is technology based, you're likely to attract a wide variety of not only technical competence, but technical interest as well. Or, rather, lack of interest.

People may be drawn to your cause, but for many learning how to use whatever technology you might select is not part of how they want to spend their precious volunteer time. In addition, any nonprofit staff involved may also have exceptionally limited resources available to spend learning new tech. That often means that even if they want to, they may not have the time, or see the value in spending time coming up to speed on tech that they don't understand, versus spending that time directly on the organization's mission that they do understand.

"Whatever tools you use must be used by everyone or the value is lost."

So the first, and perhaps strongest piece of advice is to understand what's even going to be possible given the people involved and the organizational culture. I totally understand that it can be exceptionally frustrating to be in a position to see how all these tools could be of immense value, and have it all fall by the wayside as folks fail to give it a try or having tried fail to stick with it. Whatever tools you use must be used by everyone or the value is lost.

With that big caveat out of the way, let's look at some of the options.

Email - for all its big ugly warts, email still seems to be the backbone of most operations: emails sent to arbitrary lists of individuals, and manually assembled for each message. It's where everyone starts, and it's where many organizations stay. You've experienced some of those warts: sometimes not everyone gets everything they should, and it can be of high volume.

Mailing Lists - One of the most valuable first steps an organization can take is to move to a managed mailing list model. That way instead of remembering to send to Bob, Frank, Mary and a number of other people each time, someone sets up and maintains a mailing list that has all the members on it. Send to "listname" and you're guaranteed to hit everyone every time. (As long as the list is kept up to date). In many organizations that can be as simple as setting up an "alias", "group" or "mailing list" in some kind of global address book.

Yahoo Groups - This perhaps is by far the most popular model for grass roots, and ad hoc collections of folks who want to remain email based, and is particularly helpful for groups that don't have, or don't want to utilize, the IT resources provided by the organization they're supporting. There are several advantages over plain email, but the two largest are simply:

  • Online archive - all messages are kept for online viewing. Visibility can be restricted to only group members.

  • Online access - members can choose not to receive messages via email, can choose to receive periodic "digest" of information, or can choose to view all messages when they want by visiting the online archive.

Yahoo groups also provide file and photo sharing within the group.

The nice thing about Yahoo groups is that it's a model most people are already familiar with, and builds nicely on email-based communications.

Oh, and it's free.

Discussion Centers - that's my made-up term for websites that allow you to set up group discussions. This can be anything from traditional bulletin board software, to private discussion applications within social media sites like FaceBook or LinkedIn or others. I'll use the term "bulletin board" hereon out since I think it most closely describes what I mean.

The real appeal of bulletin boards is that you can have multiple threaded discussions on a wide variety of topics all organized by topic. That means people only need to pay attention to what they want to pay attention to. And since searchable discussion archives are typically also part of the bargain, a bulletin board can serve as a somewhat organized repository of information.

The downside is that it's "pull" versus "push" communication. By that I mean that your participants have to be motivated to remember to visit the site in order to participate. Contrast that with email, where the discussion shows up in their inbox without any additional work on their part. Most bulletin board systems have some form of email notification, but in practice it's never quite enough, and taken to the extreme you're getting a message on every post, which negates a lot of the value of the board.

Real Time Tools - if you truly want to hold meetings online there are several services and technologies that may be helpful. Services like Skype, GoToMeeting, Live Meeting from Microsoft, and others are all technologies that allow you to have group discussions in real time, using text, voice and even video. My recommendation is mild here, simple because this sets the technology bar relatively high for those wishing to participate. But if the group and the need come together, it can be a very powerful approach.

So as I said, there are lots of options - probably many more than I've taken the time to cover here.

But there are no "answers".

As I mentioned at the beginning, the people and organizational issues are by far the more critical here than the technology. I'll even go so far as to paraphrase my statements elsewhere on backups: the "best" one is whichever one people will actually use.

I love my nonprofits, I really, really, do. But as a tech guy I see the potential for technology to have a significant positive impact on the organizations I work with - heck, making that kind of difference is what draws me to many of them. But I'll admit that I'm regularly frustrated with the opportunities that are frequently left by the wayside - either due to lack of resources, lack of interest, or lack of understanding. It does occasionally feel like I'm trying to move an iceberg.

I'd absolutely love to hear from others who are working with nonprofits and are having success with introducing technologies that have helped move their organizations forward, and the challenges you've had. Please leave a comment.

Article C3679 - March 19, 2009 « »

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Leo Leo A. Notenboom has been playing with computers since he was required to take a programming class in 1976. An 18 year career as a programmer at Microsoft soon followed. After "retiring" in 2001, Leo started Ask Leo! in 2003 as a place for answers to common computer and technical questions. More about Leo.

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10 Comments
Rose Ledbetter
March 19, 2009 1:27 PM

I work for a 501c3 and the frustration you describe is a daily thing for me. Suggessting anything from on line auctions to a page on facebook to software upgrades to "cloud" storage will meet with shock, horror, and immediate resistance. As an example, I tried to introduce e-faxing to my association (14 small offices or home offices in the state) and could have saved each office as much as $50 a month to use a fax service that operates on an email system they already know how to use! Nope, didn't trust it, don't understand it, too complicated. Ooops, I have to go bang my head against the wall, it's what I do whenever I'm tempted to think.

Mat
March 20, 2009 4:58 AM

I work for a profit-making organisation, and all the same problems occur! I've tried out many technology-based solutions, but implemented far, far fewer. That's probably a good thing - not all business problems can be solved by technology. But it's also indicative of the fact that people prefer what they know to what they don't. Simple as that. Alright, it might take more time, be more difficult, more stressful, less effective. But they KNOW how to do it, they don't have to learn something new and, maybe, they secretly like the fact that they can spend twice as long doing it. Makes 5pm come that bit quicker without adding to their workload... "Why didn't you meet this deadline?" "I was working on that email you wanted sent to 175 people, which took me two hours!" "Oh, right. Erm, Monday then..."

Rahul
March 20, 2009 9:01 AM

Looks like this is a people problem. I too have seen this in for-profit commercial organizations too. And in occasion, the tech improvement was rejected just to not give the person proposing it any credit. after that person left, the idea was implemented and the boss toook credit for it. A definite people problem and technology can't solve it.

Esther
March 24, 2009 8:20 AM

Thanks, I just emailed this link to folks at my church, who really need to think about our email list. One person is forwarding email to over 100 people from her personal account. Not only do we have no email when our designate is on vacation, her provider caps the number of emails she can send at one time, and permits only one "mass mailing" per hour.

We probably don't need to get any more sophisticated than another email mechanism. My IT-savvy spouse is willing to set up a non-profit Google Mail account for us. Wonder if anyone's looked into that?

Jennifer
March 24, 2009 8:59 AM

This topic is an every-day problem for me as well. Seems we all suffer from user-related issues. I use email to communicate with my volunteers. Some check it more often than others, but I stress at the start they need to have and use email in order to participate in our organization. I also set up a private Yahoo group and spent many hours uploading tons of resources that will assist them in their volunteer experience. There's no way to track which functions or documents are being accessed, but it's fairly apparent to me that most of it's not being utilized, which is not only disappointing but frustrating when they ask me questions that are answered there. They do use the message board more frequently but even that is under-used. Also, I made the Yahoo group an optional thing, since it requires a Yahoo ID to access all the features, so not all the volunteers belong to it. A good resource for nonprofits is techsoup.org. They have many discussion boards and one is dedicated to volunteers and technology. To Esther, Gmail is a good solution, but I use our domain email with Thunderbird. Tbird allows multiple address books which helps keep things organized.

Wes Lingerfelt
March 24, 2009 9:21 AM

Leo, I'm the webmaster for a local non-profit and I find that setting up a website for use by the organization has been very beneficial. All of your ideas and suggestions are right on but they should be organized in association with a website taylored to the organizational mission.

ron
March 24, 2009 11:37 AM

Hi Leo,

I'm the CEO of Akiva, and we've had a lot of success working with Tech Soup. Our product is the "bulletin board" type (WebBoard) you describe above. BTW, we've found most professionals prefer the digest model unless they are actively working on a project. Anyway, Tech Soup is a great channel since they offer near free enterprise software to non-profits that actually want to implement new technology. Akiva gets to help the community, Tech Soup continues to grow, and the non-profits get to work a lot a smarter. I think everyone wins in that scenario.

Ron
www.akiva.com
info@akiva.com

metta
March 25, 2009 2:55 PM

I want to set up a website or...a safe place for cancer patients to share their experience and feelings and to support each other. I won't be soliciting money: I do want to let people post their birthdays, so other members can send them greetings. It would be nice if they could also safely post mailing addresses (optional) in case one member needs something another can provide. I am a cancer patient who has had all the uneducated advice I need. Eventually, I also want to provide links to good cancer resource sites. Last, I would like to have a separate section for each kind of cancer. I want any info they submit to be private. Safe site and privacy is key. How do I do it? I am a beginner. I read the above article and saw that there may be more than one way to do this, but beyond that, I don't know what to choose or how to get started and how to use whatever method I choose. Is it even possible?

Nancy Weitz
March 29, 2009 9:20 AM

I'm an e-learning consultant working primarily with public sector organisations, helping to create online communities for discussion, knowledge-sharing, learning and socialising. While this depends on choosing the right tool for the job (the technology), this is only the first step in a process of changing the culture of work for most people involved. The "if you build it they will come" mentality of most well-meaning implementers is a false hope. It takes: buy-in from the leaders; sustained enthusiasm; training and support; keeping things fresh; making sure the tool MUST be used in order to meet the goal (no easy alternatives); and a friendly, trusting and secure environment. The good news is that all this effort usually pays off. Most people get used to using it, and they usually begin to depend on it and wonder how they got along without it. As far as technology goes, free options include the straightforward threaded discussions in PHP-BB (and similar) that come with many web-hosting packages to full-on courseware like Moodle. As long as you require invitation-only access with logins and passwords, these are private. There are also externally hosted options, such as Ning which is designed for private groups.
N. Weitz
Architela

Dick
March 29, 2009 7:03 PM

I work with several non-profits that struggle with this too. Additional suggestions:

1. Coach everyone to avoid the "amen" comments, no one wants an email saying "I agree", etc. We call that a waste of good electrons.

2. Pick a subject or format for the subject and always us it. If your group is xxx, the subject line should always start with "xxx - ...". That makes it much easier to searach for all the emails from your group.

3. Don't assume everyone got your email. Sometimes spam filters eat the emails. If you are sending email to someone at their business address, you may find emails are going through great then one day corp IT puts on a new spam filter and they don't get your emails. Of course they don't know they aren't getting your emails...

4. Not everyone checks their email everyday (or even every week). Just because they have an email address doesn't mean they use it.

5. Offer alternatives - One group I work with has 12 of us on the board and the exec dir wants to send out board meeting reminders, agenda, etc. We offered a free email address from our web hosting site. If a board member doesn't want to check their email regularly, we tell them to bring 12 stamped self-addressed envelopes to the office and we will mail their email to them. Some do that, some start checking their email.

Dick

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