Enabling Program Staff to Become Digital Editors

Submitted on Fri, 10/14/2011 - 4:12pm
The ability to write e-newsletters, post to the website, manage social media, or speak on behalf of the organization in so many different digital ways will soon be everyone’s job. The faster we equip all of our staff to tell our stories, the better off we will be.

Working for a large nonprofit focused on programs and services that have impact on peoples’ lives, we often find ourselves with great stories of inspiration to tell. The challenge is identifying ways for the staff, who are responsible for implementing programs of impact every day, to tell the organization’s stories.

This challenge is further complicated by the fact that while we want to empower our staff to share client stories, we also want to make sure that our external communications are shared in a single voice that represents the organization’s brand. In this article, we will explore how to manage these challenges from a technology standpoint, including publishing metrics, establishing structure, removing barriers and offering training.

First, let’s start with where we are today, and where we’re headed. The web has become social. This has radically changed the need for more stories and content. Think back 10-15 years. Only a few of our staff were really comfortable with computers. We had to rely on those staff for their technical knowledge. Today, it is a job requirement to have computer and software experience for a vast majority of our jobs. Content creation, storytelling specifically, is headed in the same direction.

The ability to write e-newsletters, post to the website, manage social media, or speak on behalf of the organization in so many different digital ways will soon be everyone’s job. The faster we equip all of our staff to tell our stories, the better off we will be. Content and stories can be so many different things like videos created by participants, photo blogs from maintenance staff, schedule updates from instructors, sharing lesson plans, etc.

We have been working through this cultural shift at the YMCA of Metro Chicago over the last few years. The Y serves children, families and communities through a network of 25 member centers, five resident camps and hundreds of extension sites in Chicago and its collar counties – with more than 4,000 full- and part-time employees. We want each of our employees to feel empowered to tell the stories of the work they do every day to change lives for the better.

We have tried numerous methods with varying results, but learn from it each time. As a result, we have seen a noticeable difference in the quality and quantity of content along with rising confidence in program staff. We have seen growth in metrics, attendance at trainings, increase in requests for access to tools, suggestions for improvement and a general shift in culture.

Gradual Culture Shift

Storytelling and content creation needs to involve a culture shift, not a project launch with a rapid start and defined stop. Below are the key elements to creating a culture shift to enable staff to become digital editors. This is not a complete list; you will need to adapt to your culture and organizational structure.

Elements to enable digital editors:

  • Publish metrics (recognition, competition, feedback)
  • Establish structure and accountability
  • Remove barriers
  • Regular training and resources
  • Enable individuals while managing the brand

It’s important to note that the type of content an organization wants to publish should be identified by its communications department, and the process for gathering that content (which is what I write about below) should be developed in collaboration between the communications and technology departments.

Publish Metrics

There are numerous articles out there with great information about creating metrics for your digital efforts. For starters, I would recommend "How to measure your nonprofit’s social media success" from Socialbrite and "What's Your Nonprofit's Social Media Measurement Strategy?" from Beth’s blog. But in my opinion, picking and creating the metrics doesn’t mean as much until you share them across your organization. How can you expect staff to see the importance of your digital efforts without seeing the impact and statistics?

But publishing numbers isn’t enough. You need to make a connection between the social media numbers and everyone’s job. Demonstrate how the digital efforts impact the organization, the goals and the mission. From there, have some fun with your metrics. By publishing the metrics publicly and breaking them up by program areas, departments, locations, or some sort of groups, you can create peer pressure. By providing some interpretation of the metrics, putting them into context, you can help people learn from them.

The metrics we use at the YMCA of Metro Chicago compare each of our locations against each other and compare to last month. We also set a goal for each metric (email open rate, web visits, Facebook likes, etc.) based on industry standards and other YMCA stats. The goals for these centers are adjusted based on the membership size. These are published openly to Executive staff, membership staff and all digital authors. As we publish our metrics we pull out an example of what one center did well to highlight the importance of engagement, not just a focus on numbers.

Establish structure and accountability

Define roles and guidelines and create a sense of accountability to establish clear expectations. This structure is key, but it needs to be realistic and designed to empower and encourage. Creating an author agreement, documenting escalation process, content templates, and content calendars can all help with this structure. At the YMCA of Metro Chicago we created a set of these resources that you can use as an example.

Accountability can also be managed in a more fun way by grouping authors in teams and using metrics to help them push each other.

Remove Barriers

Often, the technology used to create technology seems difficult or appears too technical for program staff to use. We surround our websites, social media, and other digital media with policies, levels of authority, procedures, expertise, and all sorts of mystery. Couple all of this complexity with numerous tools that are all foreign to program staff and you have a long list of barriers to success. Each organization needs to do an honest investigation into what staff see as barriers, and review the current process and tools.

At the YMCA of Metro Chicago our initial largest barrier was our website content management software, Adobe Contribute. The software was limited to being installed on one computer and was simple in functionality but not easy to understand. We migrated our website to Expression Engine and streamlined the content creation.

Our ongoing struggle is the number of places our staff manage content. We create flyers, class schedules, program guides, e-newsletters, emails and press releases, not to mention posting to our website and Facebook. As we have moved to new tools we look to allow reusing content, eliminating redundancy and spreading out the responsibility to the content originator.

Regular Trainings and Resources

Enabling authors will require regular training and access to resources, offered in digestible bites. This could include:

  • Monthly webinar on different topics
  • 1 page cheat sheets
  • Video recordings from trainings on a single topic
  • Peer sharing sessions
  • Integrate content training into all meetings
  • Send champions to conferences

Tip: don’t have time to create video trainings? Just record your webinars.

It is easy to overwhelm program staff with too much information. All of these trainings and resources should focus on single topics and build off of each other. Keep it clear and use examples.

If you don’t have the resources to create these, then be sure to leverage organizations like NTEN, TechSoup and Idealware, plus look to volunteers and your vendors for help.

This is a journey! Yeah, that is an overused phrase but sometimes you have to stick with what works. If you read this and thought, wow, my organization just doesn’t have the time or resources to do this, my response would be that you will spend the time either way. You can spend it building this capacity or you can spend it managing the communication crisis, funneling content to that one author and continue missing opportunities.

Steve Heye is the Digital Content Services Manager at the YMCA of Metropolitan Chicago. He is responsible for managing all aspects of the YMCA's online presence including the web sites, intranet and social networking.  Previously he was with the Technology Resource Group at YMCA of the USA for about ten years where he provided resources, conferences, and training that allows YMCAs nationwide to better leverage business systems and technology.  He has a Bachelors degree in Finance from North Central College. You can keep up with Steve's thoughts and tips regarding nonprofit technology issues on his blog.