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Outreach Via the Internet
for Nonprofit Organizations

(It's a lot more than just getting a World Wide Web site or a FaceBook profile)

Jayne Cravens

Engaging in effective online outreach is way more than just putting up a Web site or creating a profile on FaceBook or other online social networking site

.Effective online marketing involves:

  • thinking about each of the specific communities or audiences you want to reach
  • planning and acting strategically and dynamically
  • using a variety of online tools frequently and regularly
  • involving all staff in online strategies and activities (not just one department, not just the IT staff, not just the marketing staff, etc.)
  • measuring outcomes (not just outputs), and
  • being ready to make changes and continually evolve your approach

For online outreach to be effective, new and current audiences have to be continually cultivated and nurtured, and efforts have to be fully supported by all staff, from top to bottom (or the other way around), just as with all of your offline interactions (direct mail, phone support, onsite presentations, meetings, etc.). You have to revisit your online activities frequently to determine what impact they are having, and be ready to adjust accordingly.

Online outreach and online service delivery should accurately reflect your agency's mission and culture. Whatever impression you want people to have of your organization offline, via face-to-face and traditional forms of outreach, promotions and interactions, is the same impression you should strive for online.

Also, it's not only what you say online, but how you say it: replying to people promptly, providing complete information, responding to criticism  without defensiveness, etc. The Internet is about connecting humans, not machines! Treat it as such.

Online outreach should be the domain of whomever undertakes activities relating to communications, donor relations, volunteers, and clients/customers. Your web master or other technical staff should follow the lead of program staff (including the volunteer manager) and marketing staff  when it comes to online activities, not the other way around.

What does effective online outreach look like? At minimum, it means:

  • the organization has a detailed web site, or the program or project has a dedicated web site or section of the organization's web site, with complete, up-to-date information
  • staff use email to quickly communicate one-to-one and one-to-many (to volunteers, members of the press, attendees to last night's special event, clients, members, partners, etc.)
  • staff use third-party online databases to post notices, such as the volunteer manager posting to VolunteerMatch or IdeaList to recruit volunteers
  • the organization has an update that people can subscribe to receive as an email or subscribe via RSS (or both -- know what your audience wants!).
  • the organization has an official blog (more than one staff member can have a blog) and posts regularly to such
  • staff post event information to the event function on LinkedIn, the event functions on their professional rofiles on online social networking sites like Facebook and MySpace, to Idealist  and to Craigslist .
  • staff members use the status update functions on their professional profiles on online social networking sites like Facebook and MySpace to announce or remind about events, activities or services
  • volunteers, members of the press, clients, members, partners, event attendees, etc. are asked to link to the organization's profile on online social networking sites like Facebook and MySpace, and to recommend the profile and events to their own online social networks
  • volunteers, members of the press, clients, members, partners, etc. are asked to forward announcements about events, activities or services to their own networks via email and their own blogs
  • staff post information about the organization to online communities, web-based bulletin boards, etc., such as those found on YahooGroups, GoogleGroups and LinkedIn  that are not operated by the organization (as opposed to just the online boards and sites the organization is in charge of)
  • staff and volunteers comment as representatives of your organization on blogs by other organizations or individuals

At a more advanced level, it means:

  • the organization engages in online activism, such as staff sending messages to supporters regarding upcoming legislation on the local, state or federal level and how they can contact their representatives
  • staff produce live webcasts or recorded online video
  • staff produce podcasts
  • staff talking with others via live audio or video chat
  • staff use micro-blogging (such as via Twitter) to get short, immediate announcements to subscriber's cell phones/smart phones
  • staff use Second Life or other avatar-based virtual world.

Of course, an organization must be very well-staffed and very well-financed, and have lots of time in order to engage in all of the aforementioned online activities. Ofcourse, not every activity is appropriate for every organization. But even just doing the minimal activities suggested above requires commitment, time, money and expertise -- even if you find a volunteer with the time and expertise to do all of these activities, you need to provide supervision and support for this person.

Before your mission-based organization (nonprofit / NPO, non-governmental organization / NGO, civil society organization or public sector agency) engages in online outreach:

  • Review the information you want to provide. Why is it important? Why should anyone care? Do you have complete information, ready-to-share?
  • Think about your audience and what you want them to do as a result of the message. Is your audience current or potential clients? donors? volunteers? people from a particular demographic? Think strategically about the audience you are trying to reach. Different activities and different messages can be oriented to different audiences.
  • Remember that messages of desperation usually don't work ("Donate or we close our doors!"); messages that imply results or opportunity work better ("We built 20 homes this summer; with more donations, we could build even more!").
  • Determine the commitment your staff will have to make to acquire the needed skills to contribute and maintain accurate, timely information about your organization online, AND determine the support your organization will make to that staff to ensure quality maintenance and development of all online activities. An organization needs trained staff and resources to engage in effective outreach, online or off. Don't be afraid to say so in your funding proposals, to your board, to donors, etc.

Draft a document that outlines what it would take to bring staff skills up-to-speed regarding online responsibilities, to recruit volunteers to support your online activities, and the costs associated with additional training and volunteer involvement. Also detail in this document why this strategy would be important to the mission of your organization (and those it serves). Then make sure potential donors and your board of directors are aware of these costs and needs. Don't just say to donors and your board, "If we had more money, we could do such-and-such"; be able to say exactly what more money would pay for.

  • Overlap is a good thing. Someone might hear or see a message more than once, and that's okay -- so long as the message is worthwhile ("Our annual event is this weekend!") and not mostly noise ("Check out our new annual report!"). Every message cannot be special and, therefore, every message may not warrant being sent out via every online channel available.
  • Make sure all staff have the opportunity, at any time, to comment on online materials, and encourage all staff, from the receptionist to the Executive Director, to be familiar with online activities, so that they can explain its contents to those who ask, and can think about how they might want to use online technologies as part of their own staff roles. More on this can be found in Maintaining a Web Site  and Web Policies and Security.
  • I have web site content suggestions elsewhere on my web site.

Once your organization is engaging in online outreach:

  • It is imperative that your agency maintains a commitment to posting accurate, timely information online, whatever the forum. If people who visit your Web site or online profile or blog  and find that the information never changes or that it is inaccurate (outdated information, broken links, etc.), they will stop accessing it. If you post information to online discussion groups that is incomplete or inaccurate, you can adversely affect public perception of your organization.
  • It is imperative that your organization respond quickly to emails, phone calls or any communications. For instance, if you ask for volunteers and then don't reply to people quickly, you are creating bad PR: people may share their frustrations regarding your organization's lack of response to everyone on their FaceBook network, via their own blogs, etc.
  • Posts to online social networks like Facebook or Twitter may feel casual and informal and impromptu, but those doing the sending must be taking their messages very seriously. They must be thinking carefully before they post a message or comment anywhere online on behalf of your organization. What's online is PUBLIC, and can be forwarded or picked up by the press. It's also FOREVER. Remind staff and volunteers of this frequently.
  • Identify your organization in your emails, as well as posts to other organizations' fora. Your organization's name, main email address and web address should be at the bottom of every message you send or post online. Consider also including your organization's city and state or country of location. Messages get forwarded, and you want to make sure no one gets confused about where an event is happening or a service is offered.
  • Post to the appropriate online discussion groups. Don't post your information in just any online forum you come across. You can find an Internet discussion group for just about any subject or geographic area. For advice on how to find such groups, and how to learn to participate in online groups, see this resource, The dynamics of online culture & community.
  • When you ask a person for his or her phone number, you should be asking for an email address as well. HOWEVER, make it clear that you will not sell, trade or give their email address to any other organization.
    Consider setting up an email distribution list  that users can join, or unjoin, on their own (making it also available via RSS is even better!).
  • Make sure the tone of online messages is informative and mission-based to the organization -- few capital letters, few "!!!!!!."
  • NEVER send unsolicited email attachments. EVER. You send them only by request or with permission. PERIOD. Not everyone has broadband, and no one should have to wait for their emails because they are waiting for your attachment, which they did NOT ask for, to download. Also, attachments can carry viruses.
  • Include information about your online activities in your printed materials. Don't include just the web address: note in your paper newsletter, for instance, new updates to your YouTube channel. Promote your interactive online activities through press releases as well.
  • Make sure that whomever answers your phone knows how to say the Web address, knows when and how to refer callers to it, and is familiar with its content. And make sure anyone who has contact with the public (this includes your Executive Director!) also knows how to say the Web address (NOT -- "We have a Web site, but I've never seen it, and I don't know what the address is." It makes your organization look really unprofessional), as well as what information is on it.
  • Have links on your web site to all your other online activities: your email newsletter, your blogs, your online communities (on YahooGroups, GoogleGroups,etc.), your organization's profiles online social networking sites like Facebook and MySpace, your YouTube channel, etc. Few people will choose to subscribe to every online avenue, because the information will probably be largely the same across all these different channels; your goal is to give people a variety of choices to receive regular updates about your organization or project. Your web site should be the anchor for all your online information.
  • All staff should "Walk the Talk" Re: Your organization's online activities. Staff members need to know about all of your organization's online activities, no matter what their jobs are, and they need to provide leadership in using your organization's online tools (they need to be reading your organization's online discussion group every day, for instance).
  • Direct staff to include a summary of their online activities, and the results of such, in any internal updates they provide. Include an evaluation of these activities during employee performance reviews. This is a key way to integrate online activities into staff's overall responsibilities. It's also a way to document who is doing what, in case of volunteer or paid staff turnover.
  • Track the responses (emails, phone calls, in-person inqueries) that result from your online activities (just as you should track responses to your advertising). It will help you plan more strategically for future posts and online activities. Evaluate online activities  to ensure such is leading to offline action and tangible benefits (donations, more volunteers, volunteers serving longer, new clients, etc.).
  • Track your online profile. For instance, go to Google or any other online directory system and search for your organization's name, the name of your organization's executive director, your web address, or key phrases, such as: 
  • the word "contact" and the name of your organization
  • the word "volunteer" and the name of your organization, or, a phrase relating to your mission
  • the word "donate" and a phrase relating to your mission
    Doing these kind of searches can help you to see how easy it is for someone looking to volunteer with, donate to or contact an organization with a particular focus to be able to find you online. It also will give you an idea of how many web sites are linked to your organization's site, and what the media and other publications may have said about the head of your organization. You may find criticism or praise from a volunteer, donor, or client about your organization that you will want to address. 

For more on the the minimum of what your organization should be doing in terms of online outreach, and in what directions your online activities should be heading, see Stages of Maturity in Nonprofit Orgs Using Online Services .