Developing a Presence on the ‘Net: An Interview with Michael Stein

Print Share on LinkedIn More

Go is a Japanese game of strategy, traditionally played with black and white pebbles on a matrix etched into a wooden board. Unlike chess or checkers, the stones are played on the intersections of the gridlines. Though the rules allow for the capture of opposing pieces, in Go the winner is the one who has established a dominating presence on the game board through precise placement of their playing stones.

Similarly, on the often-turbulent terrain of public policy, a strong organizational presence is decisive in determining the long-term success or failure of an advocacy campaign, project, or program. In the policy arena, advocacy groups are engaged in an unremitting struggle over the definition of issues and the promotion of appropriate government action—not necessarily telling people what to think, but always what to think about. Under these circumstances, being right—even being righteous—is meaningless if you aren’t being heard.

In Go, an experienced player will continually reassess the moves she or he must make and the moves she or he may forego, the sequence of play, and the “strength” of the shape assumed by a grouping of stones in play. A player who has mastered the subtleties of

Go can dominate the entire game board with relatively few pebbles.

Creating a presence on the ‘Net requires a similar degree of concentration and attention to the production of content, the development of content outlets, and managing content. The Internet can enable an advocacy group to establish a presence and influence for its issues and concerns that far outstrips the size of its staff or budget.

Michael Stein, an authority on strategic technology applications, describes the Internet as a resource—another medium through which an organization can interact with its constituency. He emphasizes the ease and functionality of the Internet as a communications support tool. “It’s an add on, not a replacement for the everyday stuff,” he insists. “And, best of all, it’s accessible 24-hours a day, 7-days a week, 365-days a year.”

Stein rejects the “techie” label, preferring to call himself an “interactive content-manager.” In conversation, he draws an immediate distinction between high-tech hardware and having a presence on the Internet, reassuring groups new to the technology that their biggest challenge will not be choosing a server or installing equipment, but finding and converting materials currently in print form to a digital format. “The central issue is not the technology,” he argues. “It’s the content stupid—content drives the technology.”

Contrary to popular belief, the major content-carrier on the Internet is e-mail. In fact, Reuters, the international news service reports that AOL—with 20-million subscribers—delivers more mail each day than the U.S. Postal Service. “Many people who use the Web infrequently have e-mail at their desks and check it regularly,” Stein notes.

The volume of Internet traffic suggests that once the decision is made to commit the resources to setting up an organizational e-mail account, providing desktop access and training for every staff member, and compiling an e-mail address book, the rest is no more intimidating than licking a postage stamp. Once online, the next step is making the e-mail address visible on letterhead, business cards, newsletters, conference attendance lists, and online mailing lists—wherever the opportunity presents.

From this modest foundation, Stein proposes publication of a regular e-mail bulletin as a medium for “pushing content” to your audience. “Content” is the organization’s online voice and includes newsletters, news releases, research papers, and the ubiquitous “action alert.” Stein proposes this simple rule-of-thumb: “If you do something in the physical world, you have to get it immediately into the virtual world.” E-mail communication is also the most reliable means for directing people to an organization’s website.

For Stein, the notion of establishing an Internet presence demands nothing less than a dramatic reordering of organizational thought and attention to the relationships between mission, program, and technology. Three questions capture the essence of this altered mindset: 1) What’s your content? 2) What’re your venues or outlets? 3) How’re you managing your content?

To illustrate his point, he relates the story of a two-year collaboration on a strategic technology plan with Children Now, an Oakland-based child advocacy group, describing itself as “a national organization with special depth in California.”

Founded in 1988, Children Now makes extensive use of the media to reach parents, lawmakers, business and community leaders, and the broader public and to generate “positive change on behalf of children.” With a clear strategic emphasis on action research and media activism, finding sufficient content was never a problem at Children Now, on the contrary, the dilemma was finding ways to encourage staff to think of their activities in terms of a logical online spin-off.

Stein recalls “literally spending every day walking around the organization, asking people questions, interacting with Children Now’s human-ware.” In this manner, he engaged staff, board, and members of the constituency in “a constantly evolving process of dialogue on how a presence on the Internet would serve the particular needs of the individual programs and campaigns, while also promoting the broader mission of the organization and generating new revenue.”

Although a three-year, $900,000 commitment from the Kellogg Family Foundation was crucial, the key to success was the decision to focus the entire organization’s attention on creating a major presence online. Children Now’s online strategies are now thoroughly integrated into their annual program planning and three-year strategic planning cycles. “People know where they’re going,” Stein observes. “When they do their campaign planning, the Internet is on the table . . . when they do their Internet planning, campaigns are on the table.”

Children Now’s state-of-the-art website (www.childrennow.org) has won numerous awards for design and content and maintains a solid presence in national policy circles. Today, Children Now hosts three affiliated websites, each with its own audience and e-mail subscriber list. The “Talking with Kids About Tough Issues Campaign” launched as a bold attempt to “push the technological envelope,” boasts an e-newsletter reaching 9,200 people each month, nearly twice the traffic of its parent site. Moreover, “Talking With Kids” content is getting a bonus million hits each month via partnership with Blue Cross of California (www.mylifepath.com).

Another exciting online innovation is an interactive opinion-polling site (youthvoices.org) enabling high school students in seven California cities to speak out on public policy issues affecting youth. Similarly, the “100% Campaign,” in collaboration with the Children’s Defense Fund and the Children’s Partnership, is organizing statewide support for health coverage for every child in California. Children Now has, to date, logged 15,000 downloads of the 1999 edition of its annual California Report Card. Finally, Children Now is a regular content-provider at policy.com, and a “content partner” with the venerable handsnet.
Stein reports that Children Now is currently considering new online advocacy and program-support components, such as using the Internet to motivate concerned citizens through nationally-coordinated action alert/mailgram campaigns and exploring new revenue-generating options through content at its website.

Organizations entertaining the notion of building an online presence often underestimate the level of effort, the complexity, and the costs involved in a serious strategic Internet initiative. Stein counsels his clients to proceed intelligently and conservatively, integrating their online strategy into the overall planning processes of the organization. Oddly enough, he also recommends that people risk making errors because “the only way to learn about content is to generate it—even if something flops. If you can learn from it, you wind up winning in the long run.”

Technology is another matter—the very nature of high-tech is that it is always changing and evolving. Nevertheless, he reassures us that today’s nonprofits have unprecedented access to an array of tech-support institutions, professional networks, training centers, websites, and funding sources.

“Don’t feel pressured to move at the pace of the technology,” he advises. “Move at the pace of your organization and your issues.” Consider these words of encouragement, not a warning.

Definition: Companies provide software applications over the Internet which would otherwise reside in the user’s computer. Rather than having a database program operating in your office, for example, it is located offsite and accessed via a connection to the vendor’s servers.

Some common examples of ASP’s currently offered on the web are: calendar/scheduling, conferencing, discussion groups, file storage/exchange, databases, group collaboration suites, and online education suites. (See www.communitytechnology.org/spotlight/no17.html for lists and links).

According to Michael Gilbert of the Gilbert Center and Social Ecology, people need to think of software as a service rather than a product. “Software is a system that is used continuously and requires support, innovation, and change. Seventy to 90 percent of the actual costs are the operating costs like training, support, and maintenance not the hardware and software. The ASP model more closely associates the purchase price and operating costs of software in a useful contractual relationship. Application service providers try to deal with as much of that 70 to 90 percent of the cost as they can. They do the training, backups, data integrity, upgrades and most ASP’s offer security systems for the data.”

Proponents cite two advantages for ASP model: It allows users to access systems from multiple locations such as at home, while traveling, or from multiple offices;  and for small organizations with lower information technology budgets, it allows access to specialized software that might normally be too expensive to install or maintain in their own organization.

“Today many people feel comfortable on other network systems, like the phone system and e-mail, ASP’s need to create that same trust and reliability,” suggests Gilbert. He acknowledges this model is very young and will take time for people to adopt. But he is also excited by the prospect of even the support systems that will regularly backup data. “How many small organizations do you really know that regularly backup their systems or better yet have ability to rebuild the lost data from the backup system?”

Also see a resourceful web page from Techsoup: (www.techsoup.org/articlepage.cfm?SEC=2&Article ID=59&nav=pftopics).

Michael Stein is an internationally renowned Internet strategist with a decade of experience working with advocacy groups, nonprofits and labor unions. Recently featured in The Chronicle of Philanthropy and The Industry Standard, he also is the author of two books about the Internet including the groundbreaking Fundraising on the Internet: Recruiting and Renewing Donors Online. Stein is currently the manager of Internet presence at CompassPoint Nonprofit Services in San Francisco.