March 30, 2011

"Social Hackathon" Offers Blueprint for Improving Online Efforts

The cover of "The Goodness Engine"A new online book outlines a creative effort that helped DonorsChoose, a group that supports education, improve its online fund raising—and offers advice to other nonprofits on the best ways to improve their online presence.

The book The Goodness Engine is the product of a "social hackathon" event held in San Francisco.

The event—sponsored by Microsoft's Bing search engine, Windows Live Hotmail, and the marketing company Deep Focus—brought together about 30 experts who met to help the online charity grow its efforts.

The book offers ideas for driving Web traffic, persuading Web-site visitors to give, working with Web developers, building an online community focused on a cause, and even hosting a "social hackathon."

Some key advice:

  • Make people feel like they are part of a big movement, a feeling the group calls "epic meaning." And give people a sense of accomplishment when they help out, which the group calls "epic win."
  • Test your organization's online messages to find what works best. The authors suggest testing your site's layout, text, and images by comparing clicks, page views, conversions, and other Web site statistics on two configurations that are live at the same time.
  • Create an application programming interface, or API, that allows developers to use your data and applications to easily create new, useful tools. If you already have an API, format it to make it easy for the human eye to recognize.

But some of the best advice, said Oliver Hurst-Hiller, the organization's chief technology officer, was about what the organization should stop doing.

After struggling to raise money by offering supporters donation tools they could add to their blogs, DonorsChoose asked members of the group what they could do to improve. While the group made some suggestions for changes, it also said if the tools were not being adopted, the organization's resources could be spent better on other projects.

"Sometimes when you're a small org on a small budget, some of the best advice is someone saying, 'I don't think this is working for you,'" Mr. Hurst-Hiller said.

In addition to posting the book, videos and visual notes from the hackathon's brainstorming sessions are online.

Among the companies that offered ideas for DonorsChoose were representatives from Google, Facebook, and Twitter, as well as other online and nonprofit consultants and a representative from the Cheezburger Network—the company behind the popular Web site LOLCats.