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.
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.
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