Blogging for nonprofit in real life: ICTKM’s knowledge sharing blog
Once upon a time, wandering through the forest of nonprofit blogs, I stumbled upon a blog, managed by a team based here in Rome. Over the past years, I got to know most of the people involved, as a bunch of great individuals, driven by enthusiasm and passion about their cause: the ICT-KM team at the CGIAR – the Global Partnership for Agricultural Research.
The ICT-KM team recently revamped their blog, and merged it with their website. The outcome was a sparkling new blog. I wanted to know more. Time for a talk with two of the ICT-KM members: Antonella Pastore and Enrica Porcari. An interview which touched on many issues dear to our heart: “What are the benefits of social media to nonprofit organisations?”, “What motivates people to blog?”, “Migrating a blog from one platform to another”, “the difference between blogs and traditional Content Management Systems”, “Blog traffic and the importance of good content”…
Blogtips: CGIAR is not particularly a household name in the nonprofit sector. What is your work all about?
Enrica: Familiar with the Green revolution? With the work of Norman Borlaug? With the research behind vitamin A improved rice that helped prevent blindness of millions of children in developing countries…? Well, then you know about our work, even if you may not be familiar with the acronym. The Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) was established in 1971. It is now a partnership of 64 members: countries, foundations, philanthropic organizations that support 15 international research centers spread across the globe.
Blogtips: Sounds like “Monsanto for the Poor”
Enrica: We work with hundreds of governments and civil society organizations as well as private businesses around the world to carry out scientific research for sustainable agricultural growth so that the poor can have access to more and better food.
Each center has a specific mandate. Many research on crops, such as potatoes, rice, wheat,.. while others work on water, livestock, fishery. We basically cover the whole array of a food basket, and do policy work as well.
Our work is for a nonprofit cause: all of our research, our findings, are put in the public domain, they are free for anybody to access. Our mission is to enhance the lives of poor in developing countries. For example we do research to improve the production or the nutritional value of crops, commodities we refer to as the ‘neglected’ crops. These are areas the giants, such as Monsanto, may not be interested in, as they are of little commercial interest in the countries of the north. However, this forms the basis for the well-being of many families in the developing countries. It is for them we work.
Blogtips: Aha.. Now, your team “ICT-KM” is not doing actual agricultural research, right? How do you guys fit into all of this?
Enrica: Our 15 research centers are autonomous entities, and at the central level, there are a number of so-called “System Units” that work with and for the Centers in specific functional areas.
Ours, the ICT-KM Program, is one of them. We promote and support the use of innovative ICT tools and knowledge management practices to improve the effectiveness of the CGIAR System. If you consider the CGIAR employs almost 8,000 people working in over 200 locations, many very remote, this is not a small feat.
At the moment, we work in three broad areas: support and development of research project information systems, technical support and coaching in the use of online collaboration tools that we identify for the broader CG community, coordination of cost saving agreements on IT and software licensing.
Blogtips: And social media like Twitter, blogs, Flickr are some of these tools?
Antonella: That’s right! This is where our blog comes in.
Blogtips: How did you guys start blogging?
Antonella: The blog started in the summer of 2007. It was an initiative of the two knowledge sharing project coordinators, Simone Staiger-Rivas and Nadia Manning. They initiated it as a way of ‘walking the talk’: We always advocated improved, more effective sharing of information, the involvements of our partners, and transparency. While these are all tenets of the work the research centers carry out, we wanted to apply these principles also to our team’s work.
We used to have a regular email newsletter to keep people informed of our activities, we kicked off our blog mainly as a way to document the meetings, our own initiatives, the pilot projects spread over different locations. Pretty soon, the blog proved to be a much more efficient and timely way to communicate.
Blogtips: And it replaced the newsletter?
Antonella: No, the two still exist today. Over time the blog has become the main place to publish project updates from the project, trainings and meetings we attend. We also used it for tutorials and guides on the tools we support. The newsletter is a short summary of these, pointing to articles we publish on the blog. So the two became complementary.
Blogtips: Two years ago, “Taraaa… a blog..”!
Enrica: As all new blogs with a niche audience, it started slowly, back then in 2007. But from the start, the traffic and content kept growing. A year later was a turning point. I called a team meeting and we decided it was time to “get really serious about blogging”. Every team member was going to blog! More people got involved..
Antonella: …we even got ‘guest bloggers’!
Enrica: Gradually, we all became more confident and familiar with the medium. The content was extended with “live blogging” from events, opinion pieces, tutorials and guides.
Antonella: And this is where we are today: a mix of time-sensitive content and more “stable” pieces.
Blogtips: As the content was extended, did you reach more people?
Antonella: Oh yes! Starting from zero traffic and nil visibility, our blog’s traffic and visibility increased. 2009 was really the breakthrough.
Enrica: You published a piece about that, didn’t you?
Antonella: Yes, I compiled the statistics a few months ago. It clearly showed “Content is King!”: as more of us started blogging, the diversity of subjects and the depth of the topics expanded. That attracted more people: the content became more interesting. Better content, more traffic.
Enrica: We also got better at social promotion of our contents, both purely in linking what we were doing to published stories, interviews. We cross-linked posts linking events covered to tutorials on the blog. We got more experienced at how “to drive” people to discover what we do.
Blogtips: The blog was a tool for your overall Program. How important a tool has it become?
Antonella: I think there are two keywords that explain what the blog has done for us. One is ‘ease’, the other one is ‘credibility’.
It became easy to document and share, to release the occasional announcement, to post pictures and videos, to have non-technical people participate in sharing information.
It has helped us building credibility. As a lot of what we do requires consensus within the CGIAR, so demonstrating benefits and gains is an important leverage. With all the emphasis on collaboration, sharing and communications, the blog has been the right way for the team to do what they were preaching about. Plus, being such a small…
Enrica: but hyperactive!
Antonella: (laughs) Yes,… as we are a small but hyperactive group of people, we always strive to get visibility for the diverse activities we carry out for the Program. The blog taught us a lot about how to communicate and relate to the different communities we belong to.
A blog is based on personal voices and passions, they are just natural ingredients of this medium. As a principle, in our projects we have always tried to give space to individual interests and voices. Simone has her soothing way, Nadia her own scientific approach, Tania is practical and factual, Mary has a great journalistic touch, Meena has this old-style elegance in writing about technology, Enrica is the queen of crystal-clear, Michael is the voice of the geek…
The blog is a reflection of that: it is the place where the diverse areas of work, and individual passions have found a stage. In fact, if you notice, there’s hardly any technology talk on our blog, but a lot of “knowledge sharing”, our favourite flavour of knowledge management.
Blogtips: While the blog was started by two people, your whole team got involved. What was their motivation to start blogging?
Antonella: It was different for each of us. As far as I’m concerned, it’s been really hard for me to get into blogging until everyday’s work got aligned with writing about it. As long as I was working on big corporate system development projects, I felt there was hardly an audience for that. But as the Program got more and more into online collaboration and social media, we started finding out that there were more and more people in our networks that were working on similar things.
At that point, curating the social media tools series, or writing about traffic analysis or social reporting practices at an international congress, just started to make sense. It all got in sync with the things I was doing.
Enrica: That’s right! Also, being the knowledge sharing and public goods fanatics we are, writing about what we do is an effective way to take a distance, make it objective, turn experience into a piece of knowledge that others may find useful and reuse.
Blogtips: That brings us to a few months ago. You decided to revamp the blog. Why?
Antonella: As more of us started blogging, the blog was getting more traffic and comments. Our old blog was running on WordPress.com, which became too limiting for us.
Blogtips: How so?
Antonella: Our blog had become “this long slab of text” which was no longer representing the richness and breadth of the topics we were writing about. People had no space to shine. The template was too hard to tweak with a proper navigation. We couldn’t add widgets from the other media we use, like pictures and videos.
Blogtips: Interesting. This is one of the areas I covered in my series “How to select the right blog platform“. But you did not just move the blog from one platform to the other.
Enrica: No, we also had the ICT-KM website, which was just pure static HTML coded by hand. That site had all the background information, and institutional reports, and the newsletter archive. So we decided to merge it all: the institutional site, the newsletter, and the old blog. The new blog was to become the central part of our Web presence. The choice for WordPress.org was quite a natural decision.
Antonella: The institutional site needed a good cleanup: many of the projects have closed in 2008-2009 so the information needed updating. We were presenting the projects in the context of the Investment Plans, which was at the time the planning tool for the Program activities. That was out-of-date, so instead of fixing static pages with hard-coded links, we thought we’d better put the updated information in a different architecture that would represent the state of the Program more realistically.
Enrica: The main reason for merging the site and the blog was to have ONE site that would cross-link background information, blog posts and publications more effectively, and with some automation in the background. So for example, we put a lot of attention in designing the side bars, and using categories to aggregate related posts in the project pages.
Blogtips: Merging a blog, a traditional website and a newsletter. Moving from one blog platform to another. Migrating your content from a blog hosted by the blog service to selfhosting it. Quite a feat!
Antonella: WordPress.org gave us the liberty to choose a new template as a basis for our approach. We gave priority to a layout that would make the typical blog features prominent, like tags, feeds, comments, authors and widgets. We didn’t want the blog to look like an institutional site. So it was mostly the content that influenced the choice of the layout. New categories have been introduced to represent our current interest areas and blog authors have their profile pages and associated feeds, in case one develops a cult following… you never know. (laughs)… Having the blog at the center of the site sort of smoothed out the usual tough decisions about information architecture, like what content we wanted to prioritise, what to put on the home page, etc.
Still, we needed much more flexibility to do all this than WordPress.com was allowing us, so we decided to go for selfhosting. Going from hosted to selfhosting is like going from renting to buying a house. It’s a choice of responsibility, you have to get a mortgage, and learn the condo rules, but then you can model and live your space fully…
Blogtips: Migrating the traditional website itself onto a blog platform. An interesting challenge by itself!
Antonella: At the beginning, it looked like migrating the institutional content to the new site would be just a matter of reshuffling pages under new categories. In reality this required extensive rewriting since most of it was talking about projects in progress, while they are now closed. So, unless it’s a real archive that needs to be migrated as it is, editorial work is required.
Blogtips: Is a blog platform like WordPress.org starting to replace the traditional website Content Management Systems?
Antonella: WordPress.org is more than enough to manage also the stable content on our Web site. We don’t have a deep hierarchy, and page templates were pretty straightforward to implement. After all, we just needed pages.
The only limit we found was with the library page, where we have groups of links to publications, but no information object structured as a publication record. If you need to create and structure an information object and a catalogue, I reckon that takes quite some custom development. As long as a site revolves around a blog and the people who write on the blog, a shallow hierarchy of categories is all you need to house the content. Then, a blog platform such as WordPress.org is more than OK. If you need more structured content, controlled lists and catalogues, I’d look somewhere else.
Enrica: Going for a blog platform is not only a matter of how you decide to manage a site, of course. It’s first of all a communication choice. Blogging implies a certain editorial style, a clear focus on the topics that the bloggers and the audience are interested in. It’s very content centric, somehow, and by itself places the emphasis on conversations, informality and people.
Blogtips: And then you merged your newsletter into your blog?
Enrica: Yes. Migrating the newsletter archive was straightforward but we discovered that moving from a Windows server to a Linux one required rewriting and standardizing lower/uppercase URLs so that the links across the newsletter archive could still work correctly.
Antonella: We have some horror stories about broken links, which affected mainly the static pages. Migrating the blog database from WordPress.com to WordPress.org as a CMS was a breeze, though.
Blogtips: You make it sound all too easy!
Antonella: It sounds easy now that it’s done, believe me… Apart from the link-weeding, setting up the new blog to contain three types of content was challenging. We hired a designer/developer who was very experienced in WordPress. We just didn’t have the skills in-house, design- and coding-wise. Matteo of Webeing/Essere Web gave us quite a few good ideas on information architecture and how to make the most out of WordPress.
Blogtips: And then, two weeks ago, you flipped the switch. How did that go?
Antonella: For reasons still unexplained, we were hit by a spam storm for a couple of days as soon as we switched the domain. Akismet, the comment spam filter in WordPress, got so strict that it would not let “valid” comments go through. So we had to monitor the situation very closely. We changed a couple of comment spam plugins, until the storm calmed down and all went back to normal. All in all, it was a smooth transition.
Blogtips: A new phase in the life of a blog. What’s in the future?
Antonella: I’m already seeing that we’re going through a learning process, so for a while we will be adapting and learning a few new things about publishing. For example, now we need to put more attention into the category selection and picture preparation. The choice of the plugins will affect the time we devote to managing the site. As we finally can do proper traffic analysis, using Google Analytics.
Enrica: That will teach us so much more about traffic patterns and search engines than what the basic stats in WordPress.com allowed us. We still have some ways to go!
Enrica and Antonella, we wish you the best of success with your new blog, and all of your efforts!