Back in 2008, many Americans got their first taste of social networking for good through the Web site mybarack obama.com (or "MyBO" as it came to be known). The site engaged Barack Obama supporters online with a goal of inspiring action offline — attending events, canvassing, phone banking and, of course, donating.
For smaller organizations, particularly those with limited staff and budgets for communications (that means you, I'm guessing), developing and maintaining a rich community site seems like a daunting proposition — and the fundraising value perhaps questionable.
Enter Ning. Ning is an online platform through which you can create your own social-networking site — or community site. Believe in mythical creatures and want to find others who do? There's a Ning site for that. Want to connect with other working moms? There's a Ning site for that, too. There's even a "Ning for Dummies" Ning site — a network for new Ning network creators.
Ning allows you to build a basic site for free or customize it (turning off advertising and other features) for a nominal monthly fee.
Manny Hernandez and Ning
In 2007, an enterprising guy named Manny Hernandez launched TuDiabetes.org on the Ning platform to provide a way for diabetics to connect with peers. (Hernandez was diagnosed with diabetes in 2002.) In 2008, he founded and currently leads the Diabetes Hands Foundation — the nonprofit behind the community. Today, TuDiabetes.org (aka TuDiabetes.com) has more than 10,000 members connecting on a multi- tude of topics.
Hernandez spent significant time customizing Ning to meet his community's needs — turning on and off features, adapting the design, and more. The result is a site that doesn't feel generic. In fact, Hernandez learned so much he even authored the book "Ning for Dummies" (John Wiley and Sons, 2009).
So how does a small, grassroots organization raise money with this networking thing again? The site's homepage has at least three "above the fold" ways to donate and occasionally features the classic fundraising thermometer highlighting specific initiatives. Many of these donating options are built in to the site's masthead so they follow you wherever you go in the site. They follow most of the best practices for online fundraising — running campaigns, using banners, contrasting colors for donate buttons and more.
For 2009's campaign, Hernandez invited members to share their stories to emphasize the benefits of donating to the Diabetes Hands Foundation. He created five separate videos, each featuring a member of the TuDiabetes community, and blasted them out over a five-week period to his entire list. All mailers were automatically directed to a donate page on the Web site, where they were able to contribute different amounts to his foundation. This online campaign raised nearly $6,000 and helped build and strengthen the TuDiabetes online community.
Making a connection
If you haven't spent much time on nonprofit community sites, the chief difference between them and the typical Web site is how content is developed. On a typical site, your organization determines what goes where, who writes it, who posts it and who updates it. In an online network, the content is mostly developed by members of the community. Members have their own profiles, create groups or forums around topics they want to discuss (like "insulin pumps" or "diabetes and women"), share photos and videos, blog, and comment on the posts of others.
All this sharing creates a sense of connection not just to other members of the community, but also to the organization behind it, of course. In a way, you could say that active community members are self-cultivating — building their own relationships with the organization — so perhaps they are more primed to give.
Don't get me wrong: There's plenty of work for the organization behind the community to do. You've got to help moderate conversations, for example, to make sure people don't go off the rails (like posting pornography or misleading medical information, let's say), offer useful resources and tools, and help the befuddled learn the ropes. How much time this takes is variable, but most organizations are finding it's anywhere between 20 minutes and a few hours of one staff person's time every day.
Of course, there are many ways to build community sites, and Ning is just one solution of many. Before you dive in, check with your IT gods to be sure you're developing something that works within your larger objectives. Go! Share! Give! Get!
[Editor's Note: Brandraising is a new iteration of the popular FS department WebWatch, where Sarah Durham explores nonprofit branding efforts in a big-picture way, including — but beyond — the Web site.]