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Nonprofits and Weblogs

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By Michael C. Gilbert, August 2005

This article was first published in the August issue of the Nonprofit Online News Journal.
 

I get the impression nonprofits are getting interested in weblogs. But since I started blogging before the term was invented, it's been a little hard to tell when this idea started catching on. The fact that Beth Kanter recently interviewed me on the subject of blogging clued me in. This article is derived from that interview.
 

Introduction

I have been blogging longer than anyone else online except for Dave Winer, an inspirational curmudgeon and software developer, who started his Scripting News weblog on the same weekend in April of 1997 as I started Nonprofit Online News. Dave has been in the center of the blogging revolution, while I am over here in the nonprofit sector, so the histories of blogging never mention me or my blog. But I do take some pride in the fact that Nonprofit Online News is tied as the oldest weblog still being published, period.

The origin of Nonprofit Online News is one of those sweet Internet accidents, that always reminds me that networks are infrastructures of natural abundance. Let me explain by telling the story of how it got started.

During 1995 and 1996 I found myself in the position of being the person best informed about the Internet in my professional nonprofit circles. The growth of the web and mailing lists was explosive and I was very interested in remaining well informed about what was happening in all those conversations. So I developed some information consumption tools and habits that would scale well with the rapidly increasing volume of new material coming my way everyday. And on the side, I was sharing interesting links, articles, and conversations via personal email with people who I thought might be interested.

Then someone (I don't remember who) suggested that I go ahead and publish those interesting bits on the web. I was already very interested in automation at this point and built a small content management system for the purpose of publishing those bits. As a result, in April 1997, I became a blogger.

The reason I think this is a classic Internet story is that 90% of the ongoing cost of publishing this blog is my own cost of staying informed and reflecting on what I learn. That was a cost I was already paying and would always be willing to pay. As I see it, staying informed and thoughtful reflection are part of my job. The incremental cost of sharing the results with anyone with a browser is very small. If I had had to publish through paper and postage, it would never have happened.
 

Nonprofit Blogging

I continue to be baffled by how long it's taken nonprofits to catch on to blogging. In 1998, I was teaching web strategy workshops in which I described a number of strategies for failure on the web. The main advice that I offered was for nonprofits to adopt a news page format, with reverse chronological entries linking to deeper content on site and elsewhere online. It's such a simple concept, but very few nonprofits adopted it.

In my communication workshops, I still find that nearly every nonprofit organization is rather afraid of the idea of blogging. It's threatening to them to have their staff blogging, it's too much work to have their leaders blogging, and it seems irrelevant to have their stakeholders blogging. Obviously, I support all three of these blogging strategies and I think that together they represent a resurgence of a community based form of organizing, whether in support of social service or social change. But I think the vast majority of the sector isn't there yet.

The people who are paying attention are the nonprofit techies, which represents an important change. A few years ago at conferences I started asking my colleagues in the nonprofit technology field if they had a weblog. I guess I thought it was time, but people looked at me strangely, so I stopped asking. Sometime in the year or two after that, they started blogging. This is really rewarding for me personally, because among this wave of bloggers are some very thoughtful people who take a systems perspective to nonprofit technology. The online conversations that are starting around those issues are exciting.

There are a great many different possible models for nonprofit blogging. Right now, I think the highest payback for individual nonprofits is to use the blog model as either the main or the most important organizing paradigm for their web sites. But for some time now, I have been advocating that nonprofits work to release authentic voices in their organizations by supporting individual blogging, starting with the leadership. Authentic voices of that nature will open all sorts of possibilities for organizations who want to mobilize and engage people, whether donors or activists or volunteers. But the long term implications are a more network centric nonprofit sector, rather than the organization centric system we have now. It's pretty threatening on a lot of levels.

Here is what I hope will happen in the coming years and how blogging fits in: I believe that the nonprofit sector is too professionalized, too specialized, and too atomized. This stifles both innovation and movement building. The contemporary organization is the wrong model for civil society, the corporate structure in particular is dysfunctional, and human beings fit more naturally and are more empowered in communities, movements, and networks.

Therefore, I see blogging as both metaphor for a different kind of sector and one of the means of achieving it. Other pieces of that transformation include the work by grantmakers to reduce the role of programmatic silos of funding and the growing emphasis on collaboration, both between grantmakers and between grantees. Blogging can help to break down some of the barriers that are preventing projects from scaling and individuals from being as successful as they might be if the full power of connectivity were pursued.
 

Motivation to Blog

Blogging is work. It can be joyful work, but it's still work. When I recommend that people blog, they worry about whether they will stay motivated.

I'm coming up on 6000 posts to Nonprofit Online News, but there have been times when I've slowed down. In fact, there are entire months with less than half a dozen entries. The biggest reason for those slow spells was a sense of disconnection. I'll elaborate on that.

My blogging is deeply connected to every other aspect of my work. Most importantly, it remains a tool for staying informed and for reflection. It hones my thinking. It feeds into a variety of publications that I offer, some for free and some for sale. It builds connections with clients and collaborators. It serves as a public test bed for new ideas, at least among those people who listen to me.

When these connections have been weakest, that's when my blogging has flagged. Sometimes it's happened because of poor planning on my part, such as when I have embarked on new ventures that don't leverage Nonprofit Online News. There were periods during my Social Ecology years like that. And I'm sure it will happen again, since my reach constantly exceeds my grasp.

Sometimes I have felt disconnected when I have not found the support that I had expected for new ideas. I go through cycles with that, where I am disheartened and a little alienated. I think we all deal with that from time to time.

So obviously, it's the sense of connection that keeps me motivated. I experience that connection most when I see that my work has been of value to others, when I see them applying it in their own work, and when people let me know that I have been relevant.
 

Information Overload and Management

The origin and the ongoing success of Nonprofit Online News is related to the rather large number of sources I scan for news and my patterns of information consumption. My methods are fairly sophisticated and will probably end up in a future article or two. The short version is this:

I have designed and built an integrated network for intelligently scanning about 50,000 messages a week. A "message" can derive from any of the following: an updated web site, a newsletter, a mailing list, an RSS item, a recommendation form, a personal email, a news-group message, and posts to web based discussion groups. At any given time there are several thousand distinct sources or channels that contribute to this flow. The messages then work their way through a series of filters.

These filters are shaped by my habits, such as what I read, what I post or forward, what I bookmark, along with some collective recommendation systems and some neat genetic algorithms of mine. In the end, I find that I personally skim only about 400 to 2000 carefully selected messages a week.

I would love to find a way to share this tool-set with other knowledge brokers. I have talked to a few colleagues about the idea, but I haven't followed through. I think perhaps the Social Ecology experience has made me cautious about tool promotion. I mean, two years after going out of business, RMS is still the most sophisticated nonprofit relationship management platform out there, but that didn't make the company successful. And I know I would have to raise money for such a project and honestly, I'm weary of trying to convince funders of anything visionary.

In the meantime, I would give this advice: Find every way you can to integrate and relate your blogging to your other work and to other people with whom you are or want to be connected. Derive blog entries from other things you are reading, writing, or thinking about. Derive other work from your blog entries. Write for other people's blogs and have them write for yours. Collaborate. Find other ways to connect with your readers. Make your blog relevant to the people who are relevant to you.

I'm looking at the advice I just offered and realized that this theme of integration and connection permeates my work. But it's perpetually relevant. I think we actually put a lot of effort into isolating activities from each other, thinking that we make something more important by doing so, by setting it apart. While this is sometimes true, most often isolated activities (and this includes nonprofit programs and organizations) are not sustainable. As E.M. Forster said: "Only connect.... Live in fragments no longer."

 


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Nonprofit Online News is a program of The Gilbert Center. All opinions and observations are by Michael Gilbert unless otherwise noted. | Contact Us | Submit News Tips: Form or Email: news@gilbert.org | If you have any trouble with this site write to: webmaster@gilbert.org



 
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