By Todd Cohen
A small but growing corps of nonprofits are igniting a new wave of Web-based initiatives that are changing the way they do business.
Beyond simply using Web sites as electronic brochures, for example, or converting paper records to software databases, these pioneering nonprofits are using technology to rethink and retool their operations and services, build resources and better connect and involve donors, partners, volunteers, clients and staff and board members.
“The Web should be a reflection of the daily business you’re in,” says Joanne Giordano, senior vice president of communications for America’s Promise in Alexandria, Va., which is building a national alliance of partners and volunteers to boost support for young people.
“You want to use the technology to empower people in that business to do it quicker, better and have greater access and acceleration,” she says.
Speed, power, efficiency and access are driving turbocharged initiatives ranging from public sites aiming to build online communities to Web-based systems to power internal operations.
When Steve Culbertson joined Youth Service America in Washington, D.C., five years ago as CEO, he launched an effort to use the Web to extend the group’s mission of increasing public service.
The nonprofit’s SERVEnet site, launched in October 1996 and relaunched in January, is designed to be a online toolbox that volunteers and nonprofits can use to find one another and expand volunteerism.
Using the site’s “Get Involved section,” visitors log on, enter their zip code and topics they’re interested in, and get information about local groups, partners and events. Visitors also can sign up as volunteers and make contributions.
The site features news, links to other groups, a database of quotations about service and volunteerism, information about best practices and a national calendar of volunteer activities. And visitors can post news and job opportunities, and email volunteering opportunities to friends.
Other nonprofits can franchise the features for free and, for an annual fee ranging from $150 to $500, can customize them for their own sites.
Visitors to the site of a local nonprofit partner of SERVEnet will see the “Get Involved” feature customized with the local nonprofit’s logo and information.
And the system, designed by PricewaterhouseCoopers, gives priority to the partner’s own volunteer opportunities within SERVEnet’s national database.
Other new features include mini-homepages that any nonprofit can customize and manage, with information integrated into SERVEnet’s main site and database; automated reports that track volunteerism activity for individuals and organizations; a “talent bank” in which volunteers can register their skills and availability; links to a variety of online donation tools; an ability to find volunteers based on whether they’re pre-teens, teens or adults; shared volunteer opportunities and online content from other groups; and an upgraded search engine.
“Technology gives us new tools to provide information and engage a whole new generation of volunteers,” says Culbertson.
America’s Promise last year redesigned what had been little more than an online brochure about the organization, adding new features aimed at educating, enlisting and engaging partners and volunteers.
The site uses as its key feature a “Get Involved” section that aims to give users information and resources to take action or connect themselves to opportunities to support youngsters.
Visitors can log on, enter their zip code, and get information about local groups and events. Visitors also can use the site to sign up as volunteers and make contributions and commitments to help young people.
“The Web is like one-stop shopping, the one place to help people all the way through the process of engagement,” says Giordano, the group’s senior vice president of communications.
A password-protected part of the site allows partners in the national alliance to find resources to help fulfill their commitment to America’s Promise.
Partners also can submit reports about their progress in meeting goals. That data is used to update a progress report that America’s Promise posts on its public Web site.
America’s Promise also is preparing to relaunch the site to better match visitors with local needs.
Based on personal data they can submit, visitors will receive local stories and information geared to their particular talents, resources or role in the community.
America’s Promise also is preparing to launch Promise Stations, a Web-based platform that will let its partners franchise and customize features of its main site and other community-mobilization tools it is building into the new platform to help local volunteers and partners get involved in the alliance.
The site, designed by PricewaterhouseCoopers with $5 million in funding over four years from Ford Motor Co., is being tested in Cleveland, Kansas City, Knoxville, Minneapolis-St. Paul and San Diego, and will be rolled out this year to a total of 60 communities starting this summer.
To help fund international research, the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation Canada in Markham, Ontario, concluded it needed to spice up its Web site to better engage donors.
“What we found ourselves with was pages and pages of scrollable text, which was highly informative but not interesting,” says Nancy Storey, the group’s Web fundraiser. “It didn’t capture the people long enough to stay. There was no stickiness to it.”
The foundation’s new site features video clips of researchers talking about their work and the importance of funding.
Adjacent frames feature animation illustrating how cells work. Visitors can click on the animated frame to get even more information.
“Since it’s on the Internet, it’s no longer a linear kind of product,” said Alison Li, director of Internet projects for HJC New Media in Toronto, which helped design the new site. “It can be a really rich source of information, where the viewer can decide what they want to learn about, and learn more about topics.”
The site also features online registration for fundraising walks, along lets visitors use Web-based email to register for the walks, develop sponsors and join and organize teams.
The Web also can be a powerful tool for helping nonprofits run their internal operations and coordinate the work of far-flung chapters and members.
The Multiple Sclerosis Society of Canada in Toronto has rolled out publishing system that aims to build the group’s brand while letting more than 140 chapters edit and update their own pages on the parent’s Web site.
Individual chapters can choose from a Web-based bank of graphic images to personalize their sites, submit their own photographs and manage content.
Luc Thomas, the society’s Web manager, said the new system lets individual chapters run their own sites while building a consistent brand for the entire organization.
In Boston, the Web has helped City Year revamp its entire headquarters and chapter operations.
Founded in 1988 to boost national service, the group in 1993 began expanding beyond its Boston base. It now fields a staff of 200, plus 1,000 members of its national service corps in 13 cities.
In the face of its growth, the group found itself saddled with outmoded and fragmented resources for the day-to-day job of recruiting corps members, managing operations and raising money for its sprawling organization.
“Our vision for where we were headed in terms of scale, impact and sustainability required us to think differently about and make an even bigger investment in technology,” says Jeff Paquette, City Year’s senior vice president and co-director of operations.
City Year first retooled its computers, servers and network, thanks to consulting, hardware and software donated by Compaq Computer Corp. in Houston and other tech firms.
Then, with consulting and software donated by Cisco Systems in San Jose, Calif., City Year created a set of Web-based tools to help staff and corps members handle tasks ranging from recruiting and fundraising to contact management, training and human resources.
Paquette says looking for ways to use technology to make its operations more productive forced City Year to reassess its basic business processes.
Brian Murrow, leader of the eMarkets practice at PricewaterhouseCoopers in Arlington, Va., says the key to using technology help make a nonprofit’s operations more productive is first to assess the operations.
“To build a high-performing, Web-based application, the actual building of it becomes a fairly small piece of the picture,” he says. “It’s the organizational introspection, as well as looking at the needs of all your stakeholders, and how you can do what you couldn’t do without technology.”