This talk was presented at Confab for Nonprofits in June 2014, and Tag-IT (Tromsø) in March 2015.

Full Transcript

(This is an unholy mashup of my speaker notes and a transcript, so forgive the crazy formatting and profoundly weird sentence structures.)

Hi! I’m Eileen, the Director of Strategy & Livestock at webmeadow. We’re a consultancy that helps progressive organizations develop content and technology strategies to make the world a better place.

The “& Livestock” in my title is not facetious - we live on a small solar-powered farm, complete with ducks, chickens, and lambs. You will totally hear them in the background of my conference calls. Super professional.

I’m going to talk today about some of the content issues you’re facing in your organization, and how they’re really special - because you’re a nonprofit. I also want to talk about how some of those issues aren’t special at all. And lastly I’m going to talk about going back to work - about how to approach implementation with an eye towards sustainability.

I’m going to tell you a story, and you guys just nod when it starts to sound familiar.

You’re starting a project. Maybe it’s a new program, or an updated initiative, or a new section of the website. And you’re going along, and you see something wrong with the content. Just a little something - like some copy that uses an outdated acronym - a program has been renamed, and some of the copy uses the old program name. So you think, Well! As part of this project, I’ll go through and I’ll find all the old names and replace with the new names.

… Have you ever had a little snag, on a sweater? And you tug on it just a little? And then this happens?

You start looking for incorrect program names, and then you realize that half the pages use the 3rd person and half of them use the 1st. Sometimes state names are spelled out, sometimes they’re not. This page uses really formal language, and this one over here is too casual. There’s no style guide, or voice & tone documentation - or if there is, no one is using it.

Then you start asking around, and it turns out no one owns these pages. That person left, or changed positions, or they wrote the copy but they don’t maintain it. You try to update some page and then legal gets all pissy because you didn’t check with them first. So the next time you check with them, and they look at you like “why are you wasting my time with this?”. You try to reorganize a section so it’s easier for users, and you get a bizarre amount of pushback, which ultimately boils down to some manager saying “don’t touch my stuff”.

There’s a ton of content, and it’s all manner of: out of date, duplicative, and contradictory. AND! No one has any idea how much there is. Leftover files get carted along with each new redesign - they’re the digital equivalent of those boxes of college textbooks you keep in your garage. “Just in case.”

And then let’s talk about the CMS - if you even have one. It can’t do what you want. I don’t care what it is you want it to do: it can’t do it. Or, maybe it technically could, but you don’t have the development budget to make it happen. Eventually, there are so many issues around content that every project is stalled and butting up against them.

Hi. Are we depressed yet. Nothing is ever going to change, and everything, everywhere is the worst.

Friends. Real talk: you are not alone with these problems. You can take a little bit of perverse pleasure in knowing that everyone is dealing with this crap. Your local circuit court, the entire justice department. Food banks, and the whole of the USDA. Hyatt, Pizza Hut, Microsoft! Everyone’s content is really kind of terrible. It’s frankly a wonder we get anything done.

And here’s the really good part: those Fortune 500 companies who’re dealing with this stuff: they have been working to solve their problems by throwing money at them. And so you, who have members to serve and lives to change and better things to do with your budgets, you do not have to start from scratch. You can piggyback on what has worked for them, on how the industry has learned and grown in the past few years. You do not have to reinvent the wheel.

But there’s a trick! Borrow from business, but don’t be beholden to business. This is where your nonprofitness comes in. The easy option here would be to just do a straight translation of business’ best practices, where “Buy Now” would turn into “Donate”, and you’d craft a content strategy that looked just like a business. Just not, you know, profitable.

There is another way. You don’t have to play by those rules. Let me tell you about one of my clients, PEERS. PEERS is a consumer-run behavioral health agency. If you’re not familiar with the term, ‘consumer’ is used in the behavioral health world to refer to “person with a mental illness”. PEERS is an organization that provides mental health services, and it is entirely staffed by people with mental illnesses.

Now, I spend most of my work week righteously excited, which is to say both ‘very excited’ and also feeling ‘happily righteous’, because the groups we work with are doing such amazing things. But I find sometimes this funny low self-esteem at non-profits, that organizationally they feel sort of 2nd class? Like that they’re not successful because they’re not making money. (Which makes sense - we live in a capitalist culture; success is basically defined as ‘making money’.)

I see groups trying to counter this by trying to look more official adopting jargon, get some bizness all up ins, Stock photos with happy groups of people with good teeth. But it doesn’t work for them any more than it does for anyone else.

The existing PEERS website had a very traditional layout for a public service agency: they had

  • About
  • Services
  • Articles
  • Blog

They actually run their own radio and TV programs, so there was also a section for

  • Podcasts, and another for
  • Video

We started talking about a redesign, using the same navigation structure, and - It was so boring. It was boring to talk about. It was boring to plan. There was no enthusiasm from anyone involved. Which! Let me tell you - is a very solid way to start a new project.

After making some particularly boring list, I had a bit of an office freakout, and declared: No! Enough! This is pathetic! WE are passionate people! Working for an organization we believe in. If we are bored, something is very wrong.

So we decided to STOP and take a step back to fundamentals. Not to website fundamentals, but further back, to PEERS fundamentals:

  • WHY are we doing this work?
  • WHO are we trying to reach?
  • WHAT is it that we want for them?

We realized we needed to rearrange the site so that it was organized not around what PEERS does (as an agency), but around what they want for all people, everywhere.

NEW PLAN! No more arranging sections of the site by internal departments. No one cares what the programs are called, No one cares how the desks are arranged.

And no more grouping content by its format: Articles separate from blog posts separate from video. Why did we decide that file format should be the primary factor for organization? Who thought that was a good idea? (The answer there, of course, is that I thought was a good idea, like 5 years ago, when I built the site the first time. But I was wrong. It’s a terrible idea! It makes no sense.)

Instead, The New Plan for the PEERS site is to organize the content with topical, curated pages. Any given topic page will have a mix of content types:

  • Video
  • Audio
  • Success Stories
  • Conference dispatches
  • Upcoming Events
  • etc

And this is an idea borrowed from business best practices, right, to have a core page, almost like a microsite, for each of the services and trainings and campaigns that PEERS runs. But they took that idea and made it their own, because their taxonomy and IA also supports topic pages for each of their core values - social inclusion, self-determination, collaboration, and so on. Each piece of content on the site is tied to its relevant program or service, and it’s also tied to the explicit mission values that it support. So you can look at the page for Social Inclusion and see all of the various kinds of work that PEERS has been doing to promote that value.

Another issue people talk about a lot is the Call to Action. For most businesses, the call to action is sort of - the reason for the season. It’s the whole point of the site. And for many nonprofits, the simple translation there is a call to Donate.

PEERS does take donations, but they are less like individual donors, and more like corporate partners, and large-scale sponsors.The two main audiences for the site are almost opposites:

On the one hand, people using the site (consumers, and people who work with consumers like therapists, employers, landlords). On the other hand, we’ve got people funding the site.

Since we’re dealing with mental health, and there’s a lot of stigma there, it’s really important that the site feel comfortable and safe. It is profoundly _un_comfortable to offer free services in the main column and then to use the sidebar to ask for money. If we do that, we’re sending a very clear message: that people using these services - even using this site - are taking charity.

We don’t want anyone to not take steps towards their own recovery because they feel -weird- about taking charity. We talked around this for a while, about what the site is for, about what donors want from the site.

We ended up with: Theory of Donor Audiences which states: When our primary audience is the people we work with (and not everyone’s is, some sites like Kiva or CharityWater, are only for the donors: the people they serve aren’t using it at all) our secondary audience (of donors) is best-served by seeing that we’re doing our work well. People want to see that their money is being well-spent. No one wants to be sold to.

Rather than trying to make the pages do double-duty, and work for both audiences, we have a few pages that are really aimed at donors, but the majority of pages focus solely on the main audience.

Again, this is a place where sort of a generic “best practices” would have you put a big ol’ call to action prominently on each page, but that’s not right for PEERS. These pages are informational, not sales-oriented.

This site, and its underlying organization and intention, wouldn’t work for a business. It’s just not pointed enough. But nonprofits can use approaches that a corporate cultures can’t create or support.

Over the rest of today, you’re going to learn a ton. Alyssa is going to talk about how to tell your own stories, Reggie & Stephanie will tell you about how to make the most out of your taxonomy, and Ron - Ron’s going to talk about one of my favorite topics: working as a tiny team, or a team-of-one. And I want to talk a bit about that, too, especially about taking what you learn today back to work.

So, you know you have problems - there are parts of your content, or your processes, that feel broken. And you want to fix them! You even managed to get budget to come to this conference! So you’re totally on track.

I have terrible news. There is a very high likelihood that you will go back tomorrow, or the next day, and you’re gonna be super jazzed, and you’re gonna be all fired up about changing things, and fixing stuff, and other people… well, they are just going to poop on your picnic.

You are going to encounter resistance from every direction. There’s no momentum or budget for a sweeping revamp, even modest targeted plans don’t have the resources to back them up. You - you’re gonna get the stinky. Because you’re not just trying to “change content”, you’re trying to “change the way we work with content” which means that you’re messing with the way that people do their jobs. And in the nonprofit world, even more acutely than anywhere else, a lot of a person’s sense of identity is really tied up in the job they do.

You’re not just asking them to change the way they write some copy, you are asking them to change who they are. It’s not content change. It’s really organizational change. This is hard work, and you’re going to be faced with the very real temptation to just give up, to just stop trying, to diminish and go into the west.

But. BUT! There is a path around this, and it looks like this: start small. Really small. Whatever project you’ve got in your head as “Oh! Here’s where I’m going to start!”: make it smaller. See if you can break it down into some very digestible little tidbits. Initially, this will seem less satisfying, but starting small does a few things for you:

1) In a very low-stake environment, you’ll start to identify your allies, and your major resistors, and each person’s pet issues and triggers. When you move into a larger project, you’re going to be ahead of the game, in terms of understanding what needs to happen to make it a success.

2) Small change is more likely to be successful. You’re not asking people to scrap everything, you’re just asking them to do this one thing a little differently. This is about organizational sustainability - making a change that sticks. People start to see the benefit, you’re building trust and credibility.

Quaker United Nations Office. They have been a presence at the United Nations since the League of Nations representing Quaker concerns for global justice and peace to the international community.

Quakers value modesty as a cultural trait; never claim credit for these, but here are the kinds of things that QUNO has done in the last century:

  • created the concept of rights for migrant workers
  • forced the recognition of the existence of child soldiers as an international crisis
  • created and brokered the Ottawa Treaty, which ended the use of landmines in modern warfare
  • they conduct all kinds of open, informal negotiations
  • between countries and groups who do not get along.

And when they’re conducting these meetings, with diplomats and presidents and prime ministers, they make everyone - as is the Quaker way - sit quietly and meditate before they open discussions.

SERIOUSLY YOU GUYS?? Righteously excited.

QUNO is interesting because, while QUNO itself isn’t going anywhere, their programs (which they call Areas of Work) are designed to address very specific problems. And when the problem has been addressed, the area of work closes down. (It may be a long period of time - some areas of work are still ongoing at 60 years - but still.

That’s a pretty special situation. I don’t know of any companies that are working towards putting themselves out of business. But there’s an entire wing of non-profits that are trying to do exactly that. They want to solve a problem to the level that they will shut down and no longer have a job to do.

What happens to the content when an organization shuts down? Or, in QUNO’s case, when -one segment- of the organization shuts down?

One option is that the website shuts down too, just delete the pages off your site. Done! Problem solved! That was not a path QUNO was interested in taking.

Another option, and this is basically the default plan for the whole internet, is to just leave everything where it is, and stop paying attention to it.

That’s what QUNO had been doing, just leaving old content on the site, taking up space, being anachronistic and weird. But it’s terrible for the user - it really feels like the content has been abandoned, and there’s no way to tell , from a user’s POV, if it was on purpose, or that section fell through the cracks, or what.

We came to a third option, which was to treat the content for a closed Area of Work as a historical resource and it met two site goals for them:

  1. to establish credibility, to show that they’ve been around for a long time, and that they have this track record of success
  2. to acknowledge the inherent subtlety and slowness of their work.

QUNO doesn’t do a lot that’s flashy. Most of their day-to-day work is modest, and crafty, and unassuming.They wanted a way to tell a fuller story of all the small nudges that led to larger changes.

An early idea was to write up narratives: the program would be marked closed, and someone [you know - that mythical ‘someone’] would write up a full account of the program.

We had two major problems with this plan:

  1. Ain’t nobody got time to write a narrative. These people already have jobs.
  2. They’re not writers. They’re UN policy writers, but not storytellers. And if the work you’re talking about is “Establishing the Rights of the Child Soldier” ? That needs a real author. It can’t just be dashed off in an afternoon.

Narratives were not an organizationally sustainable option, even though we all really liked the idea.

We had included in the site plan, just sort of generically, a “Latest News” area, for current events and program developments and whatever. As we talked through this whole Historical Resource approach, we ended up circling back to this Latest News area.

We thought: what if we exploded this backwards in time, moving away from the idea of latest news towards more of a timeline mentality that covers all news, over time.

That was where we went, with the Areas of Work. There’s a timeline of events attached to each one; it covers everything from the founding of each program, why it was started, what it grew out of, to successes and setbacks along the way, to current events.

When a ‘latest news’ kind of event happens, and they enter it on the site, they’re already doing the work necessary for it to be used in a historical context later on. Today’s current events will age seamlessly, and become a timeline of last year and the year before.

The timeline setup allows them to enter events after the fact. And I don’t mean, like “this happened last week” after-the-fact. There are parts of their work that they have to keep secret for decades. They do work that they can’t talk about until regimes change. When we started our work with them, they had this understandable frustration that they were sitting on these incredible success stories but they had no framework in place for sharing that information.

The timeline gives them a place to reconstruct the events (once they’re allowed to talk about them) and include the stories in their Past Work even though when the work was happening
they had to stay completely quiet about it.

Now, they were already writing “Latest News”. This was not a huge shift for them, we didn’t create a whole new class of work that needed to be done. We took something that they were already doing, and just tweaked it - we added some extra fields and did some clever organizing of the archives - so that they got more use out of the work that goes into that content, and users get a more complete picture of what QUNO does.

3) The third benefit to starting with small projects is protecting yourself. A small project is less likely to suck away all your free time and overwhelm you. These content projects, it’s very common for them to need a shepherd or a steward through their whole lifecycle. But a steward who has been skipping their morning walk, or yoga, or holding meetings through lunch, is no one’s ally. You have to take care of yourself. This is about personal sustainability - staying happy and healthy, so you don’t dread the idea of taking on another project like this.

You’re going to learn a bunch of stuff today, and it’s going to be awesome, so keep these three things in mind:

  • Don’t freak out. You are not unique or alone in having problems with your content.
  • Make it your own. You are unique in your solutions. What works for you and your organization does not have to pass anyone else’s test.
  • Respect your limits. Smart small, and aim for both organizational and personal sustainability in all your projects.

There’s a quote that I love, from the author David James Duncan and he says that “Great things tend to be” - or at least feel like - “undoable things. Whereas small things, lovingly done, are always within our reach.”