Listservs: Online Communities for Grownups
Today’s hottest buzzword is “Web 2.0.” And despite the youthful demographic that MySpace, Facebook and YouTube attract, nonprofit marketers are jumping on the bandwagon to run fundraising and friendraising campaigns there, often to be disappointed when the ROI falls short of the hype.
But while YouTube, MySpace and Facebook grab the headlines, fundraisers almost have completely overlooked another rapidly growing online community, where members skew older and more civic-minded: the humble, familiar, unglamorous, utilitarian listserv.
According to the Pew Internet and American Life project, the number of Internet users who subscribe to one or more listservs almost has doubled since 2001. The Washington Post reported in May that some neighborhood listservs in the D.C. metro area have more than 5,000 subscribers and that these online channels are displacing traditional printed newsletters and bulletin boards for community announcements.
Interested in the phenomenon, Beaconfire Consulting and the Water Words That Work project (http://waterwordsthatwork.com) took a close look at how environmental activists used listservs, releasing a report called “A Network of Networks” in March. The research team subscribed to more than 60 local environmental lists, monitoring traffic for a three-month period. Then we invited subscribers to complete an online survey about their habits.
We found these listservs to be hotbeds of civic behavior of almost every kind. By a wide margin, the top activity was sharing and discussing news stories and updates on local affairs. And those who completed the straw poll reported extremely high rates of participation in such behavior as attending town and school meetings, serving on the board of local organizations, making speeches, volunteering during elections, etc…
But here’s the big surprise: the civic behavior that we didn’t observe was making and seeking charitable donations. Although we read (OK, skimmed) thousands of e-mails over a three-month period, we observed no calls for general support for this that or the other worthy local cause. We collected no appeals to sponsor anyone’s walk/ride/swim to clean up a river or save some endangered animal. We could count the announcements for benefit concerts, picnics and related events on one hand.
So have fundraisers for local environmental groups and other charities simply overlooked the fact that a successful listserv gathers dozens, hundreds, even thousands of opinion leaders into an online forum — just a click of the “send” button away? Or do we hesitate to breach some unwritten rule of listserv etiquette?
Given the trends in listserv use, we shouldn’t put off answering these questions much longer.
Eric Eckl is a senior consultant at Beaconfire Consulting (www.beaconfire.com). Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.