Blogging for nonprofit: IRC’s WASH Blogs
If you use WASH as a noun, rather than a verb, you gotta be working in the humanitarian field. WASH stands for “WAter, Sanitation and Hygiene”, one of the key sectors in the field of aid and development.
As with any nonprofit area, advocacy, information dissemination and project discussions are key to the WASH sector, so it was to no surprise I recently came across a whole bunch of WASH-related blogs (see bottom).
Now, it’s not the first time I stumble upon a series of interconnected blogs around a common theme. Often these blog projects start with a lot of enthusiasm, migrating into a general frustration about the amount of time it takes to update all of them.
They often end up in the waste bin labelled “Abandoned Blogs”.
Not so with the WASH blogs-“family”, which have been updated regularly since the past three years.
That stirred my interest, and I took the opportunity to have a chat with the man behind the WASH blog initiative: Cor Dietvorst, the editor of Source Weekly at the IRC (International Water and Sanitation Centre).
Blogtips: Cor, a social media professional, it seems?
Cor: (laughs) Well, I am an information specialist at IRC in Holland, where I have worked for over 25 years. I originally studied chemical engineering but my interest soon shifted via information management to providing news services.
At IRC I am also a member of the South Asia regional team and the Transparency and Accountability thematic group, with a special interest in the “right to information”.
Recently I also facilitated a workshop on social media and web writing in Nepal.
Blogtips: “IRC” – Not the International Refugee Committee, as I know it, but International Water and Sanitation Centre… What is the IRC?
Cor: We are an independent knowledge centre dedicated to the field of water supply, sanitation, hygiene and integrated water resources management. We focus on improving livelihoods for the poorest since 1968.
IRC has three main programmes: a core programme funded by Dutch development aid focusing on innovation and information services, and two large multi-country research/learning programmes funded by the Gates Foundation – WASHCost on life-cycle costs and Triples-S on sustainable water services.
We have over 60 staff mostly based in The Hague, and probably about the same number contracted in-country for programmes and projects. Our focus countries are Ghana, Burkina Faso, Uganda, Mozambique, Ethiopia, and Honduras
Blogtips: Where does social media fit within the work you do?
Cor: We work with a wide network of partners, so blogs are an easy way to keep everyone involved, and to dispatch information.
The more so as one of the key purposes of our organisation is to ensure water hygiene and sanitation services are not only delivered, but also maintained with the necessary skills. Thus training and capacity building is a key element for our long-term sustainability strategy. And once again, blogs are an easy way to assemble this information, stimulate discussions, and disseminate the information we collect. Better than a dusty library in The Hague! (laughs).
Blogtips: It is always interesting to find out how social media came into an organisation. In the IRC, was that a conscious policy decision?
Cor: Well, staff from the Information and Communication Section started using blogs for workshops and meetings in 2007. That caught on immediately, so we started the WASH News blogs –the once you discovered- soon after that.
Last year IRC also collaborated with other partners to set up the “Water Cube” channel on Blip.tv for the Stockholm Water Week.
We have other tools like a Twitter hashtag #wash4dev and Zotero for reference sharing we use on experimental basis.
Blogtips: It seems most started as an experiment, no?
Cor: Yep, as many nonprofit organisations, IRC has no system-wide social media strategy as such. We started it, it clearly served a purpose, and we continue to expand it.
Blogtips: When I first came across the series of WASH blogs, I thought: “Gosh, some blogger got really enthusiastic here”.
Cor: The WASH News blogs were set up in 2007 as part of the Source Water and Sanitation News Service. For my key job as editor of the English Source Weekly newsletter and web site, I already collect a lot of news. Only 10-20% of that information, I can process into the Source newsletter. The rest remained well, … on my computer. I thought “what a pity… All of this information remaining unused, unpublished”… Many people are interested in this data (smiles). So,… blogs were a natural way to share the information I had collected anyways.
Sanitation Updates has already been set up by Dan Campbell in 2007 in Blogger in support of the 2008 International Year of Sanitation. I asked if I could join and transferred it to WordPress. The WASH Vacancies blog I have opened to other sector agencies, so that it can more or less run by itself.
But indeed, after a while the blogs took up too much time for me to handle on my own, so a few other colleagues help me out.
Blogtips: That’s how it started: you used blogs to publish previously collected information. Why blogs? You had a corporate website also, no?
Cor: The main benefit from the blogs is that we can now provide a more up-to-date news service for sector professionals in the WASH sector. It is easier to publish information on blogs than on a corporate website.
Blogtips: Was there any integration between the blogs and your corporate website?
Cor: We have a natural integration as we publish different regional and thematic news feeds from the blogs on the corporate site. Even though, to be honest, we haven’t really examined if this leads to more page views on our website.
Blogtips: Blogs make it easier to publish information, good, but any other advantages for the blogs?
Cor: Oh yeah..! The blogs attract many more comments than the news on our corporate website. This rarily leads to a real discussion, but it is a good way to build some kind community. The interactivity of blogs is definitively a plus.
But there is more: blogs have also increased our visibility. We are reaching a larger and broader public.
Blogtips: How much traffic do you get on the blogs, then?
Cor: The blogs got nearly 300,000 page views in 2009. That is 30% more than our English newsletter on the corporate site. We recently got a request from a large NGO to start a Spanish language version of Sanitation Updates.
Blogtips: All of the WASH blogs are on WordPress.com using a simple theme. Was that a conscientious choice?
Cor: We started with Blogger in 2007, but colleagues in and outside IRC convinced us that WordPress.com offered more functionality. At that time (2008), I found the plain Cutline theme, the most appropriate. It had all the functionality we wanted. It was not too flashy neither but the custom-header option provided a nice way of giving every blog its own “face”.
The choice for different regional and thematic blogs was chosen to mirror the different headings of our newsletter.
Blogtips: You must have a lot of content to generate, with 20-odd blogs. Do you cross-post, or does each have entirely different content?
Cor: Of course, I do cross-post. But not so much out of “lack of material”: as the subjects of the different blogs overlap, so does the content. The most active blog feeds some contents to the regional to thematic blogs.
Blogtips: Which is the most active blog, then?
Cor: “Sanitation Updates”, which I co-manage with my colleague Dan Campbell, Web Manager at Environmental Health at USAID.
Blogtips: The blogs are 2 to 3 years old now, would you have done anything different, given what platforms were available back then?
Cor: Maybe I would have concentrated on a limited number of regions and themes, or from the start made a bigger effort to involve more contributors.
Blogtips: If today, you had 1 month, and 10,000$, what would you do differently.
Cor: Well, as they say, the “future is now”. I am happy to say we actually have a designer and a programmer working with us now, looking how the blogs can be better integrated into a new Source news page on our corporate website.
What I would like to do in the future is to set up a network of local blog-correspondents: “WASH sector staff armed with smart-phones sending in field reports”, that is my dream!
Blogtips: Wishing you the best for the future, Cor. Your blogs are an excellent example of how to use blogs for nonprofit. Thanks for sharing this with us.
Here is the full list of Cor’s WASH blogs: