Behind Closed Web Sites: A Look at Three Nonprofit Intranets
Secure, staff-only websites, called intranets, are widespread in the business world and increasingly common among nonprofits. What are NPOs doing within these private Web sites? What are the benefits, and the costs? We profile three different administrative intranets.
In addition to their public-facing external Web sites, many organizations also have secure Web sites that only their staff members can access. These internal sites, called intranets, are widespread in the business world and increasingly common among nonprofits. What are NPOs doing within these private Web sites? Should you be doing it too? We spoke to a number of organizations to investigate.
A Variety of Purposes
Not surprisingly, nonprofits are using intranets for a variety of purposes, from documenting operating procedures to promoting communications and sharing knowledge internally. For this article, we explored the most common type of intranet: administrative sites used to share the tools, procedures, and announcements staff need to accomplish their everyday work.
This type of intranet typically features information such as:
- Staff directories and organizational charts
- Event calendars
- Organizational announcements
- How-to information on a wide variety of day-to-day tasks
- Manuals and training materials
- Forms and procedures for making requests
- Human resources information, such as benefits, pension, holiday days, and more
Depending on the organization and the goals, these Web sites can be small and targeted, or can contain hundreds of thousands of pages that cover many different areas within a large organization.
While the subject matter may not be thrilling, organizations are finding these types of intranets to be very useful. What are the benefits, and the costs? Below, we profile three different administrative intranets.
A Simple, Scrappy Intranet, Edited By All
About a year and a half ago, ONE/Northwest found itself at a crossroads. As the organization quickly grew from eight to 15 employees and spread across four different offices, the staff needed a way to better document the internal processes they used to do their work. They wanted to create something that would provide an easy-to-update quick reference that could help current employees “do things right” and allow new staff to get up to speed easily.
As a nonprofit consulting firm that focuses on online engagement strategies, ONE/Northwest’s thoughts turned to the ways that technology could help. They wanted a solution that would allow their process documentation to be a living document, cooperatively written and easily updated. Since ONE/Northwest’s culture is very collaborative, the organization needed an easy way to allow all staff members to both view and edit all the information.
ONE/Northwest decided to use “wiki” software to power their intranet. A wiki is essentially a collaboratively built, content-rich Web site in which any participant can easily view or edit content. Without any major planning process, ONE/Northwest quickly installed MediaWiki, the software behind Wikipedia, on one of their internal servers. In a couple of hours, they set it up, started a basic content structure, and released it to see what would happen.
It worked well. Over time, staff members created internal how-to's on dozens of different topics: how to use the time tracking system, how to buy supplies, how to set one of their clients up with their preferred Web host, how to account for money spent from a restricted fund, and many more. The wiki made it easy to make tiny changes whenever needed. It’s quicker than a more elaborate content management system would be, and staff members find that even the few minutes the wiki saves when editing makes a big difference in encouraging staff to actually make necessary changes.
The homepage of ONE/ Northwest’s wiki intranet
ONE/Northwest purposely limited their intranet’s scope. It’s not for project management tasks, for posting announcements, or for anything that needs to be stored and aggregated through a database. Instead, it’s essentially a giant, electronic operations manual or employee handbook — a substitute for dozens of Word documents. The information on the intranet isn’t particularly pretty or formatted for public consumption — it’s just information, pure and simple, focused on the needs of ONE/Northwest’s staff.
They’ve found this intranet model tremendously useful. However, they’re quick to point out several reasons that this wiki model might work better for ONE/Northwest than other organizations. First, their staff is relatively tech-savvy, which is a big help when asking them to learn the somewhat geeky formatting syntax required by MediaWiki. (Other, newer, wiki software packages do offer user-friendly graphical editors, however.) ONE/Northwest’s comfort with technology was a huge help in getting the system up and running as well — for them, it was a simple matter to install the software on one of their servers, while it might take other organizations more time. In fact, they comment that MediaWiki is likely more complicated to set up and use than is really necessary for their needs, and another, simpler wiki tool might make more sense for another organization. ONE/Northwest is very open and collaborative, so a system where anyone could change any piece of documentation seemed like an obvious answer rather than something that would threaten the status quo.
Keeping the intranet up and running has required very little time or cost, other than the creation of the content itself. Two staff members unofficially own the system, and take an hour or two every few weeks to organize information and prune out things that are no longer relevant. They’re also in the midst of thinking through a backup process, to ensure that they wouldn’t lose the hundreds of pages of content they’ve created if there were a problem with their environment or software.
One of the key reasons ONE/Northwest’s intranet has succeeded, in their eyes, is because it’s simple and focused. They advise other organizations to clearly define their goals for their intranet, and also to evaluate what an intranet means to them. As an intranet will rarely be the most critical task that anyone’s working on, they advise taking it on in small, straightforward increments. Don’t expect your staff to make a big investment in learning how to use the site — it should be easy and friendly for them as they try to get the information they need.
A Midsized Intranet with a Focus on Forms
When PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) first started using their U.S. staff intranet in2005, they found that it made a big difference in operations. With 250 staff members through the United States, and well over 60 affiliate staff members internationally, U.S. employees were finding hard to know who to contact or how to go about more administrative processes.
Rather than adopt a wiki or other ready-made intranet platform, PETA’s Web team built their intranet in-house from scratch. PETA estimates that the entire site took about three "person months" to design and build. The intranet is built using both static HTML pages and a set of functionalities that can be updated through a custom database, like their “Whom to Call for What” list and staff contact information.
A section of the homepage of the PETA intranet
This intranet now provides a one-stop-shop for both organizational information and internal requests. For instance, PETA has historically used forms for many different internal processes. These forms have all been moved onto the intranet, which now highlights more than 80 different Web-based forms to allow people to make requests online. Staff can reserve audio or visual equipment, get picked up from the airport, ask for help with a press release, request that an ad be placed in a periodical, or file for vacation time, all online. Staff members know to use the intranet for these kinds of requests; many use it daily.
The intranet has in fact increased their use of forms. When it was first launched, it only contained about 25 forms. A few years later, the site offers almost 90. While some on staff love the forms and others hate them (and some have a complex love/hate relationship with them), PETA has found that this request process keeps them organized and has a big effect on operational efficiency.
The intranet also highlights internal information. The staff directory, with photos and information about responsibilities, is a popular feature, as is the schedule for the vegan lunches that the organization sponsors. All of the typical management information — such as standard operating procedures, policy manuals, holiday schedules, and benefits information — is on the site as well. A section about living in Hampton Roads, Virginia highlights places to go, restaurants, and the like in the community surrounding PETA’s national headquarters.
While the forms and the static HTML pages need to be created and updated centrally by PETA's Web team, a larger group of managers and staffers from other departments can update the database-driven content. The Web team spends a few hours a week keeping forms current, adding new forms, and taking down outdated resources.
PETA also hopes to expand the intranet’s capabilities. For example, they would like to have an easier way for staffers to refer back to and use the information that is currently sent out via email — for instance, standard operating procedures, tips, and ideas. Other big events, like the monthly staff meeting, new employee orientation, and department retreats, could also be announced via the intranet. As the organization grows, PETA hopes to continue to stay connected through their intranet pages..
An Enterprise Intranet for Streamlining Communications
The American Lung Association intranet — called LungNet — is designed to facilitate communications between the national organization and local offices, as well as among the offices themselves. The ALA has made a major investment in LungNet: they,spent more than $50,000 in 2003 to create a robust site based on a custom-built content-management system, and have dedidated the equivalent of about two full-time staffers to maintaining and expanding the site on an ongoing basis. They’ve seen substantial benefits from their efforts, however, with better nationwide communication, sharing of resources, and ultimately an improved capacity to serve the public. The simple ability to easily find the most up-to-date, vetted, and approved version of any given document is a big time saver.
LungNet focuses on providing the kind of operational and administrative information that will help staff — more than 1,000 employees in more than 150 offices nationwide — work more efficiently. It also supports the needs of board members, volunteers, consultants, and other stakeholders, all of whom have a level of access appropriate to their needs.
Toolkits for campaigns are a particularly popular feature. These toolkits help affiliate offices implement national initiatives locally, walking them through the actions needed, and providing all the templates, media lists, banners, widgets, background information and other materials they’ll need.
A section of the LungNet homepage
In addition, the intranet gives easy access to heavily used references, such as the staff directory and a calendar of learning opportunities, as well information on benefits, board minutes, memos, and more. A section of reports allows staff to check in on the organization’s performance in many areas — from the success of email campaigns, uptake on a particular publicly released report, to the use of LungNet itself.
In addition to providing national information to the local offices, LungNet is a resource for local staff to connect to one other, and to organize at a regional level. Each staff member sees a “My Office” section that helps them find documents and resources that pertain to their local area.
The job of posting and updating content wasn’t always distributed throughout the organization. Prior to the implementation of ALA's new custom content management system driven site in 2003, all posts had to flow through the central group. The organization has found that moving to a model where many different staff members add information to the intranet in addition to viewing it was a sizable cultural shift for the organization. While there has been consistent growth in usage since the redesign, it’s only within the last couple of months (almost four years later) that ALA feels that they’ve reached a “tipping point” where it’s now simply an expected part of the job to consult and contribute to information on LungNet.
The intranet team worked hard to make that happen. The Online Services team, including a full time Director who focuses specifically on internal electronic communications, spent a lot of time selling the intranet, and convincing staff members that it would save them time and money. By enlisting the aid of other staff members who understood the benefits, they spread the word via internal networks.
Nurturing the potential of the intranet has been a challenging, time-consuming process. However, the benefits have made the effort well worth it. The intranet gives staff the ability to answer most straightforward questions via the intranet, allowing them to devote their time instead to asking more important, strategic questions.
As we spoke to a number of different organizations, some common themes and tips emerged that may help your nonprofit plan for its own intranet.
- First, define what the goals are for your own intranet, and stay focused on that. Different organizations use intranets for different purposes, so make sure you have a vision that makes sense for you.
- Once you’ve defined the goals, start small and build slowly. It’s unlikely that building an intranet will be a top organizational priority, so try not to take on more than you can complete, even when you're distracted by more important tasks.
- Make sure that your intranet offers compelling reasons for people to use it on a regular basis. If it has nothing but benefits forms, many will forget it’s there and just pick up the phone. Don’t underestimate the allure of simple things, however. The lowly staff phone directory is often one of the most popular features on an intranet. Calendars, useful organizational announcements, ways to allow staff to share personal news, and practical tools for doing frequent or desirable tasks can be draws as well. Include features that make it seem fun, rather than only a home for boring administrative stuff.
- Staff will be more likely to use an intranet where everything is well-organized and easy to find. Create a site that’s easy to use for all the staff. While it’s tempting to divide up intranets by internal departments, categorizing it by topics or areas instead is often a better choice.
- Don’t expect staff to immediately see the value and jump to use the site. It may take time to convince people of the value of viewing information online or posting their internal documents for others to see. Ensure that your intranet has one or many people, including at least one in a leadership position, who are responsible for championing the site. As with any other Web site, plan a marketing strategy, think through training, and enlist the help of those who seem to be using the site effectively to spread the word to others.
- Last, but certainly not least, remember that staff time will be required keep everything running smoothly. It may be desirable to involve a wide swath of the organization in adding their own information to the site, but that will also require easy-to-use tools and a central resource for support and, potentially, quality control.
An administrative intranet may not contain your organization’s most fascinating information, but there are substantial benefits for organizations as they grow beyond a handful of staff members. A central source for information can help make sure everyone’s on the same page, increase efficiency, and allow staff to turn their attention away from administrative trivia and focus on strategic question and mission-focused tasks instead.
Many thanks to the nonprofit technology professionals who helped with this article: Jon Stahl of ONE/Northwest, Tracy Reiman and Reannon Peterson of PETA, Tony Javed and Rusty Burwell of the American Lung Association, Steve Heye of the YMCA, Patrick Shaw of NPower Seattle, Grace Barry of the Developmental Disabilities Institute, and Kristin Niemi Gillig of Beaconfire