Everyday Technology: Innovative Ways To Do More With Less | Beth's Blog

Everyday Technology: Innovative Ways To Do More With Less

Guest Post

Flickr Photo by Nielio


Note from Beth: Innovation was the buzzword at the Nonprofit Technology Conference!   I ran into the good folks at Idealware who offered to do a guest post on the topic – looking at small ways to be innovative.

Everyday Technology: Innovative Ways To Do More With Less, Guest Post by  Laura Quinn and Chris Bernard

When you think about innovation, you probably think about the huge leaps we’ve made—the lightbulb, the airplane, the computer—or the leaps we hope to make, like jetpacks and space travel. But at its core, innovation is really about finding creative solutions to existing problems and needs—challenges faced by nonprofits every day.

Through a recent research project, we learned that nonprofits are innovating in subtle but remarkable ways, and we believe their success is replicable for other organizations. In the free report, Unleashing Innovation: Using Everyday Technology to Improve Nonprofit Services, we share nine examples of what real world organizations are doing—and a framework for innovation you can use to emulate their results at your own nonprofit.

Idealware partnered with the Minnesota-based MAP for Nonprofits on this project into how, and how effectively, human services organizations are using technology to innovate their service delivery. For the most part, we found they had not implemented expensive, high-end projects as a result of strategic planning processes, but low-cost solutions that were the result of someone identifying and addressing a need.

We believe all organizations have the potential to replicate their success using straightforward, inexpensive technology to do more with less, not just those in human services. And through our survey of 180 Minnesota human service nonprofits, and detailed follow-up interviews with staff members from 13 of those organizations, we identified the core elements common to their successes to create a framework for innovation.

You can read more about the framework in the free report, but we wanted to share with you a case study about an organization that began using social media for volunteer recruitment—a solution that cost nothing, but had immediate community-wide returns.

We appreciate all that your nonprofit does. We want to continue finding ways to help you do it more effectively.


Laura Quinn, Executive Director of Idealware

Case Study: Community Thread, Stillwater, MN
Four Full-Time, Seven Part-Time Staff

As one of Minnesota’s eight volunteer centers, Community Thread connects people with volunteer opportunities, provides volunteer support to other nonprofits and sponsors large scale opportunities to volunteer. Executive Director Valerie Jones said the organization wanted to find a way to reach a new and larger audience, and the organization’s strategic planning process had identified marketing as a priority.

A staff member began experimenting with using Facebook to reach out about events and opportunities. “We hired a young person,” Jones said, “and one day, she said, ‘Can I try this?’ I told her to go for it. Once we got a response, we started getting more conscientious about what we were posting.”

Jones quickly realized she’d found a means not just to promote the organization and its events, but to recruit and engage volunteers, and bought into the social media effort. The organization’s social media presence became like a snowball gathering mass.

“Let’s see, now we do Facebook, Twitter and a YouTube channel, and we guest blog for the local Patch (community news website),” she said. “It became clear to us that we could use messaging there to engage people for volunteering.”

Last year, when the nearby St. Croix River flooded, Community Thread served as the volunteer manager for relief efforts and used its Facebook page to spread the word, recruiting roughly 1,500 volunteers for flood relief efforts.

“That emergency created a lot of public awareness,” Jones said. “Facebook was an immediate channel to keep people up-to-date.”

She estimated that the organization’s other programs recruited about 200 volunteers using social media last year, as well. In addition to posting links and invitations to events and to volunteer, staff began taking photos at events and posting them with quotes from participants.

“We use a lot of photos—we’re kind of obnoxious with our camera,” she said. “We’ve had great luck using photos and pictures to tell our story.” That led to an attempt to create videos, beginning with one celebrating the organization’s annual “Spring Into Service” event.

The only cost for social media is staff time, Jones said— from two to four hours a week spread out over five days. “Let’s see, now we do Facebook, Twitter and a YouTube channel, and we guest blog for the local Patch (community news website). It became clear to us that we could use messaging there to engage people for volunteering.”

So far, she has not yet begun using any analytical tools to measure results and is tracking only the number of volunteers, though she said there are other signs that point to the success of the effort.

“We get people who call and say, Hey, I saw this on Facebook, how do I sign up?” she said. We also get some walk-in traffic from people who say they saw this on their friend’s Facebook page, and they want to participate. And it’s increased a number of backdoor things— local businesses will say, ‘We heard about you, are you new?’ Well, no, we’ve been here for 43 years. The only thing we’ve changed is the social media.”

Community Thread’s marketing committee supported the social media effort, as did several board members “who were not tech savvy but had heard from their grandkids or kids that social media is big,” Jones said. But not everyone was comfortable with the idea.

Karla Bataglia, Community Thread’s senior center program director, said she had some skepticism about embracing the new approach.

“I’m an old school person,” she said. “My kids had to literally grab my telephone—you know the old kind, about two inches thick, with a long antenna?—out of my hands and make me get a small phone. It was a huge phone, like a CB radio. I’m a little intimidated by it all. The language of computers, and Twitter, and what I assume is in Facebook, is also not common to me, and the lingo seems to change so quickly. I’m afraid by the time I get in there, things are going to change so quickly I won’t be able to keep up.”

But as other programs within the organization began to experiment, and succeed, using social media, Bataglia said she realized she risked being left behind.

“I could see where I was missing the ball,” she said. “I can see the potential in helping with my program planning, and I can see it would be a great way to connect with people.” She envisions social media as a means of engaging people interested in volunteering, to recruit instructors, and to quickly communicate with people comfortable with social media.

Jones said that, as a whole, the organization has approached social media with enthusiasm as a cost-effective way to get the word out about its story. “It’s free advertising,” she said, “and it’s generated more business in terms of people looking for volunteer referrals.”

Chris Bernard is the  Editorial and Communications Director for Idealware.  Chris is a longtime freelance writer who has worked in journalism, advertising, and corporate marketing and communications, and as a technical writer for several high-tech startups. He brings 17 years of experience telling stories and crafting messages to his work with nonprofits.


6 Responses

  1. James Howe says:

    Thanks for sharing this post. I just finished writing a post about how nonprofits make a mistake if they rely on pro bono communications. But I’m a huge believer in identifying how to get the biggest bang for your buck. Technology as identified in the case study offers great opportunity to get the best bang for your buck AND do more with less. It shows that you can value communications without paying big bucks or hoping that communications firms will work for free. In my opinion, this shift in thinking is innovative for many social profit organizations.

  2. […] background-position: 50% 0px ; background-color:#222222; background-repeat : no-repeat; } http://www.bethkanter.org – Today, 12:10 […]

  3. Cary Walski says:

    I love this case study! Community Thread’s example represents the kind of down-to-earth, steady gains that any nonprofit can experience if they’re willing to explore and invest in social media.

    I’ll be sharing this case study tomorrow at a talk I’m giving with social media expert Jamie Millard, @jjmillard. We were really glad to have this example, as too many people get distracted by success stories like KONY2012 or Charity Water, and think the point of social media is going viral.

    It’s about sustainable gains that are realized over time as we develop *relationships* online. So glad MAP for Nonprofits and Idealware were able to partner to create this report.

    Thanks for posting, Beth!

  4. […] The event was held at Lifetrack Resources, where we heard the story of Lifetrack using closed-captioned webinars to reach a broad new base of people in need of their programs but unable to travel to their events. That and other examples are available  in the full report, available on MAP for Nonprofits’ website. Also be sure to read the recent posts about the report on the Stanford Social Innovation Review and on Beth Kanter’s blog. […]

  5. Innovation is definitely key for non-profits to prosper, especially in these difficult economic times. Awesome article and case study on Community Threads on how they employed social media to get get the word out about their organization. I also appreciate the fact that it is important for non-profits to embrace the ideas of young people, as a young person involved in non-profit innovation, I definitely understand the skepticism we sometimes face about our abilities.

    Great post!

    Paula HuYoung
    Innovative Non-Profit Magazine

  6. Cary Walski says:

    Thanks, Paula! Are you involved with the Young Nonprofits Professionals group? I’m on the board of our Twin Cities, Minnesota chapter.

    I have a feeling you would really like the community there — great group of forward-thinking young (and young at heart) people. You can find out more here:


    Or send me at tweet @cwalski.