Creating a blog should be an opportunity, not an obligation. If it feels like solely an obligation, you should reconsider starting one — because, in my opinion, the most compelling blogs are born and grow from true curiosity, enthusiasm, and exploration.
For the most part, nonprofit organizations' online communications suffer from an identity crisis: they have no identity. They have no personality. They are the same exact words and sentiments that fill reports and brochures buried in dusty drawers, often transcribed verbatim onto websites — and your readers know it.
A blog is an opportunity not only to change static into dynamic, but also discover and share voices from your organization. It's a chance to convene and nurture a community of storytellers. There are incredible possibilities of finding stories that will make it onto your website, strengthen your brand, power your social media, and give your communications the authenticity they've lacked since, probably, forever.
But what do you need to create, manage, and evolve a nonprofit blog that will both engage your supporters and attract storytellers from within — and possibly outside — your organization? From the successes and challenges of the Mercy Corps Blog, which I managed as the organization's Senior Writer, I believe you need:
- A committed champion
- The vision to know what you want
- A strategy for sustainability
- The flexibility to cede some degree of control
- Time to mentor emerging storytellers
If you're the one pushing for creation of a blog, you're already its champion — and you must stay committed to that role and responsibility. In addition to being the blog's head writer and managing editor, you'll also serve as its coordinator. Your most important work will come after you've pitched the idea and gained approval; each day, you'll need to be the conduit between those who want to contribute their voices to the blog and those who want to use those voices for other organizational content, such as marketing pieces and social media.
It's a lot of work, but needn't be a full-time job: even at the height of emergencies when Mercy Corps had several blog entries coming in each day, I only spent about three or four hours posting the stories, interacting with the storytellers, and adapting content for my colleagues' needs. But you certainly get more from your blog — and your community — the more time you can spend on thoughtful cultivation.
However, even with a strong champion leading by example, every blog still needs a well-defined vision that's also easy to understand — and realistic to achieve. When we set out to create the Mercy Corps Blog, this vision was one of the first things we sought to define and, today, you can see it right at the top of each page: “A daily look into the work, thoughts and ideas of our team around the world.” With that simple statement, we put forward two immediate and long-term goals: to strive for daily content and to include our entire team as potential storytellers. We also elaborated what we wanted the blog to be for Mercy Corps supporters and other external audiences: a rare opportunity to have a look into the minds and activities of a humanitarian organization working in some of the world's toughest (and most fascinating) places.
In my role as writer and content strategist for Pictographers, I'm currently working with the Cooley's Anemia Foundation. Their vision is quite a bit different: they want their blog to reflect the stories, lives, struggles, and triumphs of the entire Thalassemia community. This involves patients, their families, foundation staff, donors, doctors, and researchers. They're just embarking on this process; it will be exciting to see how it brings people together and strengthens the community.
So the vision for your blog not only gives would-be storytellers an idea of what to write (or photograph), it also lets readers know what to expect. It's also a very helpful organizing principle for keeping your blog focused.
That focus is important because, inevitably, there will be meager times in terms of blog content. What will you do if the entries stop coming? That's where sustainability becomes critical. As champion, sometimes you need to step in and provide content to bridge the gaps. You must also have the confidence — and persistence — to reach out to past and potential contributors to ask for the content you need. Don't be afraid to ask for help. And never be shy about expressing bold ideas. When content slows, it sometimes means that it's time for your blog to evolve.
Which brings us to the next point: flexibility. As you bring on more storytellers and more of your colleagues become stakeholders for the content the blog produces, you must often cede a little control and see what happens. Maybe you didn't have any intention to publish content with a certain style or voice but, one day, it arrives and it's really good. For example, one day I woke up and checked my email to find a proposed blog entry from a colleague in South Sudan — he'd written a poem, a very personal reflection about looking at the sunrise and farmers going out to their fields as he headed to work. Did I ever anticipate a poem? Certainly not. But, you know, it was exciting because it told me that Mercy Corps storytellers were ready to take chances and share more of themselves. From that moment on, I believe the blog became more personal and — as a result — stronger, more engaging, and more sustainable.
The final piece of advice I have is for you to put aside ample time to mentor your organization's storytellers. Writers are in short supply at most nonprofit organizations; as a result, you'll likely depend on non-communications staff for most of your blog content. Technical staff members are certainly savvy at preparing proposals and reports, but probably not as adept at personal storytelling. So be encouraging. Be patient. Offer constructive feedback. Think about developing a quick, convenient guide to writing blog entries. Make it as easy as possible for your colleagues not only to write that first blog entry, but to keep contributing more content as often as they're able.
When I left Mercy Corps at the beginning of September, the organization's blog had 1,090 blog entries from 265 bloggers in 42 countries. All of that work came in a little over two years' time. But here's the thing I'm most proud of: only 21 percent of all that content came from professional writers and communications staff. I wrote 127 pieces for the blog. The three most-active professional communicators combined for 107 blog entries. All the rest came from colleagues who were project officers, logisticians, drivers, health workers, and engineers.
It's been truly representative of Mercy Corps in its entirety — and that's not only helped the team craft truly authentic and compelling appeals and social media pieces that have engaged supporters to take action, it's also created a community of storytellers that was just waiting to be discovered, organized, and heard.
As a writer specializing in international relief and development issues, Roger has found that the most powerful stories are those that opt for humanity over high concept; those that draw parallels between people and explore kinship. He envisions Pictographers as an advocate for advancing humanitarian storytelling as a means of social change, as well as a new way to train activists to use such storytelling to make the world a better place.