What’s a Blog, and Why Should Nonprofits Care?

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Editors’ note: The following article describes weblogs (commonly known as blogs) and presents ideas on how they may be useful for the work of nonprofits. As with any new Web tool, tech organizations are first to embrace it, with predictions of transformation and efficiency. However, like other new technologies, blogs will face their own test of time, with the potential benefits being weighed against the financial and human cost of acquiring and maintaining the new system. We’d like to hear from our readers about your experiences with blogs. Are you using blogs? If you are, let us know how they are impacting the work of your organization and whether you would recommend them to other nonprofits.

At a conference in March 2003, Ana Sisnett, a poet, artist and executive director of Austin Free-Net, a community technology nonprofit, found herself in the middle of a lively session on “blogs.” While the discussion roared around her, Sisnett asked herself, “Wait a minute—why don’t I know about this?” An abbreviation of “weblog,” blogs are Web sites that take the form of online journals, frequently updated with running commentary on any number of topics. Blogs are basically another automated way to share information, related to search engines, listservs, message boards and instant messaging. By streamlining and simplifying the Web page creation process, blogs have enabled users to easily transform information into a stream of constantly updated, interlinked “microcontent.” The author of the weblog—the “blogger”—typically offers readers links to interesting information alongside her own commentary about the l ink. Because of their simplicity and ease of use, blogs are proliferating across the Web, and there are now an estimated three million of them.

After being exposed to the concept of blogs at the conference, Sisnett was intrigued and wanted to learn more. She found that one of the claims being made for blogs was their potential ability to diversify—and democratize—the news media. Blogs provide a user-friendly tool that allows people without any special technical expertise to get their message out on the Web. The big deal about blogs, then, is content—your content.

Visually, blogs have stepped away from the flashiness of today’s interactive aesthetic. Photo- and audio-blogs notwithstanding, they are a throwback to the World Wide Web’s text-driven era and are, therefore, simple in graphics and easy to access. Structurally, a blog is usually distinguished by the following features:

  • Content is organized into one or more columns, with new content placed prominently in the largest column.
  • Side columns may include links to other blogs, previous posts or reader comments.
  • Updates are published in reverse chronological order, so regular readers don’t need to scroll down to find the latest content.
  • Links are interspersed throughout the primary content.
  • All content is updated frequently, sometimes several times an hour.
  • Content includes not only text, but also photos and links to audio and video files.

Weblogs have the potential to open new channels for documentation and knowledge-sharing, especially among smaller nonprofits that have been constrained by the time and costs of other technologies.

Sisnett tried her hand at experimenting with blogs. With one blog for her creative and personal writing and another for her work at Austin Free-Net, she soon became an advocate for the medium amongst her nonprofit and nontechie peers. “I was thrilled,” Sisnett explains, “to find that blogs could have a real function in my work and not just in my writing.”

When she encouraged her staff to blog about their work, Sisnett recognized another benefit of nonprofit blogging: She could now easily keep up to speed on her staff’s work and the progress of various, concurrent projects. Soon, between the executive director, the technical staff and volunteers, Austin Free-Net had three staff blogs full of updated and archived information that could easily be incorporated into strategic plan updates, VISTA reports, press releases, newsletters and grants. When a colleague, a sponsor or even a journalist needed information about a project or issue, Sisnett could refer the interested party to a blog.

Free-Net’s experiments with staff blogging fit a trend developing in both the nonprofit and for-profit sectors. According to Teresa Crawford, Technical Director at Advocacy Project and a leader in the movement to provide technology assistance to international nonprofits, blogs with an “internal focus” have made it easier for organizations to capture the knowledge of teams and support their collaboration. “Rather than only a linear discussion list for a team,” she points out, “individual and collaborative blogs make it possible to see ties among team members and issues they are working on.”

More typically, an externally focused blog can transform informal knowledge sharing into a new asset for an organization. Blogs can enliven your group’s Web presence and engage clients, supporters and strangers alike in your work. “We think that there is a good chance blogging is a new way to express the nonprofit voice,” says Jim Fruchterman, CEO of Benetech, a nonprofit organization that puts technology to work for social needs. “We feel we have unique things to say, so we should be saying them.” Since October 2003, Fruchterman has been authoring the Beneblog, a component of Benetech’s Web site where he has highlighted the work of his organization’s staff and partners, commented on legislation affecting his field, documented his speaking engagements and attendance at conferences and described in real-time the impact of world travel on his work as Benetech’s executive. “Blogs provide a more immediate form of communication than my quarterly update,” he says. “They bring new content to our homepage and give us a chance to bring up ideas and links in a less formal context.”

A self-professed “ordinary Joe with a computer,” Wayne Jennings of the International Association for Learning Alternatives (IALA) discovered weblogs while looking to put his organization’s 33-year-old print newsletter online. With a staff made up entirely of volunteers and a board spread out across different states, Jennings knew he needed to streamline the process of publishing his organization’s news. He also needed to cut costs and save time.

Jennings blogs mostly about developments in his field. He also uses the space to comment on new reports and to highlight good quotes. As the main content of its homepage, IALA’s blog has replaced the print newsletter of old and pushed the organization from publishing news three times a year to a few times a month. “And we don’t have to write as much,” says Jennings, “just a small paragraph and a link. This helps people get information fast, which is good for us and good for our readers.”

In spite of his enthusiasm for blogs, Jennings and other nonprofit bloggers have had to grapple with some new challenges. For example, although anyone in IALA could be blogging, Jennings prefers to rein in authorial privileges because “there’s got to be some control over the content you’re putting on your Web site.” Consequently, the onus of blogging can fall on busy shoulders. “On a good week, I blog half an hour a day,” Sisnett says about her fluctuating blogging schedule. “On a middling week, a half hour every two or three days, and on a bad week, when I’m at conferences or catching up on things, a half hour once a week. But that’s not counting the reading I do … and the researching of other blogs and other information that’s useful for our blog.”

Devoting an estimated two to three hours of work before she even writes on her blog, Sisnett prefers to blog on the weekend. Meanwhile, her staff contribute to blogs when encouraged. While blogs entail a requisite amount of timely attention and care, the work you put into them is not “just blogging,” Sisnett adds, thinking about how the research and learning behind her blog have improved Austin Free-Net’s projects and partnerships. “That work affects all of your organization’s work.”

Decide the purpose of your blog. Ask yourself these questions: • What role would updated content play in the scheme of your current Web site?

  • What projects or organizational objectives do you have that may be candidates for blogs?
  • What are the costs and benefits of establishing a blog? Which staff members have the time, desire and knowledge to make a blog effective? What challenges will the organization face in teaching staff to blog well or motivating staff to maintain blogs?
  • Is this blog public or private? In other words, with whom do you want to share information—staff, partners or organizations around the world?

Choose a blog “client,” an application that will allow you to create content and post it online. In choosing your blog client, consider your organization’s technology capacity. If you don’t maintain your own Web site, it may be easier to use a Web-based client. These applications are inexpensive and easy to use, but their features and flexibility are limited. Web-based blog clients include:

  • Blog-City, http://www.blog-city.com
  • Blogger, http://new.blogger.com
  • EasyJournal, http://www.easyjournal.com
  • Easyblog, http://www.easyblog.com
  • Typepad, https://www.typepad.com.

If your organization has more technology capacity, and particularly if you maintain your own Web site, you may prefer to use full-featured software that will allow you to install a blog on your Web server and integrate the blog with your existing Web design. Popular blog software clients include:

  • Grey Matter, http://www.noahgrey.com/greysoft
  • Radio UserLand, http://radio.userland.com
  • Movable Type, http://www.movabletype.org

A third option is to implement a content management system for your Web site that includes blogs among other tools like e-mail, listservs and message boards. Two distinct, nonprofit-friendly variations on this theme include Your- Mission (http://www.yourmission.net) and Plone (http://plone.org).

Get ready to write. An effective blog will require a certain amount of diligence and creative energy from you and your colleagues.

While the purpose of the blog will dictate the focus of your writing, your perusal of blogs, Web sites, lists and other online news outlets will provide you with new, interesting sources to link to and will enhance your blog. Keep in mind that blogging is as much about sharing information as it is creating information. What you write should be useful and understandable to readers.

Step Four

Find your audience, and help your audience to find you. With the proliferation of blogs and other online content, you can’t simply assume that “if you build it, they will come.” Here are some easy ways to get the word out about your blog:

  • Give out your blog’s URL in addition to or instead of your e-mail address.
  • Join weblog indices, directories and aggregator sites, such as Eatonweb Portal (http://portal.eaton web.com), BlogSearchEngine.com and NPO blogs.org.
  • Ask other bloggers to include you in their “blogroll,” the list of blogs that they point to from their site. This typically is an informal, reciprocal relationship— if someone links to you, you also link back to them. And an important way to get a feel for your audience is to employ a “comments” tool on your blog that allows readers to post messages commenting on your posts or on other comments. This can help to create an active community among your readers, which may encourage them to read your blog more frequently.

Take these tips as a warm-up. Talk with others who currently have or are considering starting blogs, and remember that there is no uniform method for implementing a blog at your nonprofit. According to Sisnett, “You have to give yourself time to tinker with a new tool.” About the Author Zafar Shah recently completed a year of service as a VISTA in January 2004 and is currently organizing a summer workshop for South Asian American youth activists. He plans to begin studying law and ICT policy in the fall of 2004. N-TEN’s Partnership with NPQ We gratefully acknowledge the editorial guidance and support of the Nonprofit Technology Enterprise Network (N-TEN) in the development of this article. N-TEN supports the people who provide technology services to the nonprofit sector, including nonprofit staff, consultants, vendors and funders. To learn more about N-TEN’s programs and services or to become an N-TEN member, please visit its Web page.