Increasingly, an online presence is not just important for nonprofits, but absolutely vital. It’s been clear for some time that your organization should have a website—and more and more constituents are looking to connect with you on social media. But what about blogs?
The type of longform content found on blogs—where they differ the most from short content-focused social media like Facebook or Twitter—can be a powerful tool for engaging with supporters and attracting new ones. It can offer fresh perspectives on your organization and the work you’re doing toward your mission and provide a way for staff and supporters to tell their own stories, lending a feeling of clarity and personality to your organization that might not come across in your official communications or email blasts. A blog can also help you connect with others who are interested in your mission and help you to build a network of experts.
Blogs aren’t new. They’ve been around since the mid-1990s, and were much buzzed about until the advent of other social media platforms shouldered them aside. As they worked their way into the mainstream, the technology behind them evolved as well, and these days they’re easier than ever to create and maintain—at least from a technical standpoint—thanks to a number of reliable, accessible blogging platforms. But the most difficult part of blogging has not changed. Keeping them updated with a steady stream of engaging and current content takes a level of resources and commitment not all organizations are able or prepared to make. While these new tools don’t change that, they do make it possible for you to spend your time creating original content rather than fighting code.
But is that time worth your while? Can a blog still help your organization enhance its online presence more effectively than—or in tandem with—the many available alternatives?
To find out, we interviewed staff members from a number of nonprofits and foundations about their successful blogging practices to find out what has worked and what hasn’t. We also spoke to several experienced bloggers to find out what makes for a strong and engaging blog. Then we condensed what they told us into several best-practice action items to help you apply it to your own situation
Joining the Conversation
One of the benefits of a blog is that it can give your organization a voice to participate in the online conversation about your mission and other topics of interest to you and your audience. But before you start a blog, consider this: Your goal is to be part of that conversation, not necessarily to start it. Your first step should be to spend some time online to determine whether that conversation is already taking place. You might find a thriving discussion to join, or a lot of disjointed conversations with no real facilitator or platform. Or you might find relatively little interest in your mission at all.
It’s also worth considering the amount of effort needed to create and maintain a blog. Even a modest one updated just once every week or two can require many hours of writing, editing, posting, and moderating each week—and longer for a blog with more-frequent or lengthier posts. Can your organization commit the time and resources?
If not, it’s better to not start a blog than to start one and neglect or abandon it. There are better ways to be a part of the conversation. if your research found other organizations or individuals already blogging about your mission, connecting with them online can make connections with your desired audience and subject matter experts in your field.
If you find a thriving online conversation, there are a number of ways to become a part of it. One example is enlist those bloggers to help with your cause, as with Blog Action Day, which coordinates posts about a pre-chosen topic—2013’s topic was human rights—from bloggers around the world on a specific day. Blog Action Day is an opportunity for bloggers from many different backgrounds and interests to tackle the same idea, said director Karina Brisby.
Tapping into an existing network of bloggers in a similar way can help you to drive the online conversation, even if you lack the resources to do so in-house. But many nonprofits don’t know how to work with bloggers, Karina said, either because they believe blogs are irrelevant or because they don’t trust anyone in their organization with anything more than standard press release statements.Corporations have been reaching out to bloggers for some time, so why shouldn’t nonprofits?
It’s true that getting bloggers to talk about your organization means giving up some control over your messaging—but the benefits can outweigh the risks. A third-party blogger can talk about your organization frankly and honestly in a way you cannot, and you can provide them with the materials they need to make sure they’re informed and accurate. What’s more, while posts to your own blog would be limited to your organization’s audience, blogger outreach can help you connect with a wider audience of people who might not know about your organization, or who don’t come across your normal marketing activity.
“I’m still amazed at how many organizations don’t have a blogger outreach program,” Karina said. “A blog has untapped potential to reach out to supporters.”
The Power of Longform Content
Once you’ve decided to create and host a blog, there are many things to consider as you move forward—not least of which is creating or soliciting a steady stream of content. The kind of original, longer-form content found on blogs stands out from the bite-sized posts that dominate other social media platforms. Longer posts allow for more detail on a topic, giving them a specific advantage—by letting you enter into far more in-depth discussions, blogs provide an opportunity to show your organization’s expertise in your subject matter.
A longer format also provides greater ability to spur in-depth discussion—not only can a detailed post provide many different points to talk about, but a well-moderated comments section can encourage voices from a number of different viewpoints to respond to your posts. As an example of an organization taking advantage of both benefits, Code Switch—a team of NPR journalists covering race, ethnicity, and culture—uses a blog and other social media platforms to reach and engage its audience. The team’s experience with the different tools provides a look at the merits of each.
Though NPR hosts a number of blogs, Code Switch’s topic of choice—race—is difficult to talk about in any context, and even more so on the internet. But the team has found success with a number of channels, including its blog and Twitter feed, “Today in 1963,” in which the reporters tweet events from 1963 as if they were there in real time. In addition to the content posted by the journalists, the blog (www.npr.org/blogs/codeswitch/) is notable for the consistent and lively discussions that take place among readers in its comments section—as well as for the stricter-than-average moderation imposed upon them.
Team Manager Matt Thompson said Code Switch has cultivated a tight community of people who follow the blog and comment on what they read.
“The Code Switch community allows users to meet and discuss with each other, and to stay in touch with all the coverage the team is doing,” he said—in that sense, the Code Switch blog serves as a hub that connects all the disparate social media outlets used by the team into a central location, where the blog’s followers convene and discuss coverage.
“Each community has its own storytelling aesthetics and norms,” Matt said, and the types of posts vary widely between the different platforms. The team works to find its “voice” for each platform, and the blog’s strength is its ability to draw together the larger community from each.
While this might also be possible on other platforms, as well, the Code Switch blog is a proven success. The team hopes its blog posts will encourage discussion from different directions and tell stories from multiple angles—and the voices in the comment section allow readers with differing perspectives to weigh in on stories of interest to them.
Encouraging and Monitoring Comments
Despite Code Switch’s success with them, reader comments are not without their risks. You’ll have to decide whether to allow them. The argument in favor of them is that, as with Code Switch, a healthy comments section allows vibrant conversations to take place right on your blog; the argument against is that an active comments section can be time-consuming to foster and monitor. This is even more true if your mission concerns a topic that could be considered controversial. Comments sections are like a garden—if you leave them alone, the fruitful and productive plants will die and the plot will become choked with weeds. Someone at your organization should be an active participant in any discussions that take place in the comments, particularly if anyone reacts negatively to a post, as well as deleting the significant amounts of spam that can accumulate there. This can take time and vigilance.
Monitoring comments isn’t always clear cut, either. How do you distinguish between comments that are negative but constructive and those that will derail an entire discussion? It’s a judgment call best made on a case-by-case basis, but removing comments that add nothing and serve only to provoke other users is probably wise—as well as comments that contain unneeded profanity, prejudicial opinions, or intentionally insult other commenters. Be clear about your policies from the beginning; if a reader becomes angry that his or her comment has been removed, it helps to be able to point to a clear reason outlined in advance.
As we mentioned, the Code Switch blog has a thriving comments section that the team moderates aggressively. Matt Thompson likens it to a dinner party—if a comment would be out of place at a dinner table discussion, it has no business on the blog. In this way, he said, the team hopes to strike a balance between popular viewpoints and less popular ones that are often shouted down elsewhere on the internet. This approach means discourse on the Code Switch comments section looks different from the one taking place on the larger web, but that’s not a bad thing, Matt said. There are plenty of unmoderated places to discuss race on the web, but limited places for the kind of discussion Code Switch is hoping for.
Such moderation takes time, particularly on an active blog—if you can’t commit to a similar level of attention, consider disabling the comments. This can save time, but it can also create its own set of issues, including giving readers the impression your organization is “closed off.” Some will question why the comments are disabled—is it because the organization doesn’t want to hear dissenting opinions? Because it doesn’t care what readers think?
While disabling comments can prevent a community from forming around your blog, it may be the right choice if you can’t commit the time and resources. It’s better to have no comments at all than unmoderated ones, but a moderated comments section is the preferable option whenever possible.
Telling Stories to—and About—Your Audience
Your blog is your organization’s opportunity to highlight the individual stories of multiple staff members, or other voices from people in your community outside your organization. This multi-voice approach can make your blog more personal and engaging. It can also allow you to share different perspectives of what it’s like to work at, or with, your organization.
Minnesota’s McKnight Foundation, for example, has included a variety of staff to great effect on its blog. In its first six months, the blog featured posts from 16 different members of the foundation’s 44-person staff—despite only three of them being on the communications team. Any staff member is encouraged to submit a post, said David Kennedy-Logan, McKnight’s communications officer. And, in fact, the most frequent poster is not a member of McKnight’s communications staff at all, but the foundation’s president.
Like The McKnight Foundation itself, which has a number of wide-ranging program areas, the blog has featured posts on an array of topics. David said including the entire staff was one of the goals. The foundation was eager to “diversify the voices that speak for the foundation,” and to “actually let the people who work here speak.” Blog posts reflect the work the foundation does, as told in the voices of the staff members actually doing that work. Specific topic areas range from arts to education to the environment.
There’s a lot of diversity in the foundation’s posts, and the number of comments they receive varies widely depending on the topic—David said the foundation is still trying to get a picture of its typical blog reader. Still, the foundation has been tracking the number of “shares” each post receives on social media, and reports a consistently strong readership.
Storytelling does not have to be limited to your team’s voices—it can be quite effective to include others, as well, from external subject matter experts to constituents to your program participants. A good example is the Philadelphia Young Playwrights, a 25-year old organization that partnered with about 50 schools in the Philadelphia area to educate students and help them tap their potential. A blog seemed a natural choice for the student-centric organization—its focus is storytelling, and it engages teens throughout the school year through the writing of one-act plays.
The PYP blog includes content written by its young playwrights describing personal experiences related to the organization, whether they’re attending conferences or performances or participating in programs. These posts appear alongside others by the organization’s staff.
Because teaching youth to express their stories on stage is a big part of the organization’s focus, inviting them to share their stories makes sense. It also gives a personal view of the impact the organization is making from those affected the most by its work.
Executive Producing Director Glen Knapp called storytelling the impetus for the blog. Its creation coincided with the acquisition of Flip video cameras, and the original plan was to allow the young beneficiaries of the programs to post images and video of events as a way to show off the nonprofit’s work. From there, it expanded into a platform to share all sorts of stories. While it still uses images of events taken by participants, it also includes a variety of other posts. For the organization’s twenty-fifth anniversary, the blog featured two and a half decades’ worth of stories, including a number of archived newspaper articles about the organization itself and the achievements of its participants.
Guest Bloggers, and Guest Blogging
Want to use your blog to expand your organization’s reach? Inviting guest bloggers to post is a good way to do that—and it’s a two-way street. Not only can you can solicit posts for your blog—introducing each guest blogger’s audience to your organization—but you can contribute them to others, often in trade, creating an opportunity to get your bloggers’ names and expertise out there. If your content provides good value, their readers may link to it from their own blogs or social media, generating an entirely new body of potential supporters already interested in subjects along the lines of your mission.
A guest blogger can also bring a new perspective to your content or a fresh take on your area of interest, or lend expertise to your mission and your credibility. If your blog primarily concerns the actions your organization is taking, a guest blogger might, for example, discuss the larger need for organizations like yours. This also works in reverse—guest bloggers can provide first-hand perspective concerning some of the things you discuss on your blog. Or, if your blog is primarily informational, they can talk about some of these ideas from a personal perspective as real life case studies.
In either scenario, guest bloggers provide strong benefits. But a word of caution: Running too many guest posts risks compromising your organization’s voice in your own blog. It’s important to strike a balance between in-house and guest posts that tilts in favor of internal voices.
Putting it Into Practice: Should Your Organization Create a Blog?
- Do you have staff who can devote at least several hours a week to creating or soliciting content and moderating comments? Blogs take time and commitment—even more if you’re creating content rather than just curating others’. Maintaining and monitoring the comments section can also be time-consuming. If you can’t spare the staff, a blog might not be your best option.
- Is your mission being discussed online and by other bloggers? If no one else is talking about your mission, then perhaps a blog is not the best platform for you. Remember, the goal is to join an existing conversation rather than starting one—of course, creating a blog does not exclude you from joining similar conversations on other platforms.
- Do you have stories or information to share with your community that will work well in a longer format? Even if you have an initial list of topics you want to talk about, it’s important to continue generating stories or new information to share—particularly if you are thinking of posting frequently. This is where having multiple staff members interested in posting helps.
- Is someone on your staff excited about running a blog? That excitement can go a long way toward making it an interesting read, and will help you make sure the blog is updated consistently.
Blogs remain a viable and interesting option. The technology has changed, and it’s now possible for every organization to find a suitable, affordable platform to blog on. While they may not be for every organization, blogs are a powerful tool for those that can manage them.
If you have the time and resources to commit, the staff to post and monitor content, and the desire to attract and engage an online audience of people interested in your organization and mission, a blog might be a good fit for you to participate in—or even lead—the conversation.
Chris Lane researched and wrote this article during his internship with Idealware. Comments or questions? Leave them below or email them to firstname.lastname@example.org and we’ll pass them along.