Yarnold Op-Ed: How Technology Transformed a Legacy Charity

By David Yarnold — Here’s how I’d describe most nonprofits’ use of technology and communications: old, slow, and ineffectual. And here’s how most tech geeks and communications professionals think nonprofits view them: afterthoughts, cost centers, and beggars.

I come by these views first-hand. I worked for 27 years as a journalist at the San Jose Mercury News, the first newspaper to go online. Telling the story of Silicon Valley for nearly three decades, I drank all the tech Kool-Aid. Now in my second decade as a nonprofit leader, I’ve seen how hundreds of charities and foundations work.

Today grant makers want to see the nonprofits they support produce “transformational change” and “measurable outcomes” and “reflect a new America.” This requires reaching people where they are most comfortable — on their phones, tablets, and laptops. But I can count on one hand the number of foundations that are committed to recruiting the talented staff it takes to share great ideas and do tech research and development. Not their job, they say.

With the field of journalism sadly shrinking, nonprofits have a golden opportunity to better spread and control their messages. We can hire the creative storytellers who understand multimedia, and the technicians who are their partners. And we can get out of their way and let them reach new audiences for our organizations.

I’ve seen the results. Six years ago, I was hired to lead the National Audubon Society. The venerable organization faced an existential challenge, and communications and technology were a critical part of the solution.

The search committee was upfront with me about the organization’s situation. At Audubon’s national office, there was no vision and little ambition. Worse, the organization had wandered from its mission of conservation with a focus on birds.

The board and I agreed the answer was to open our doors to massive change — to take on the kind of turnaround that few legacy nonprofits attempt.

In mid-2010, joining an organization with a $73 million budget and an impeccable brand, I was greeted by a marketing and communications staff of three. Our magazine team of eight — which at the time considered itself largely separate from the organization — produced its work on a leisurely bimonthly timetable.

At Audobon, we opened our doors to massive, technology-led change, with thrilling results.

Our technology was in a similarly sad state: We had close to 100 servers in our New York headquarters. The redundancy and complexity was overwhelming.

All of that has changed and is still rapidly evolving. Our communications and digital-technology teams total more than 20 people in our headquarters office alone and include media-relations and marketing professionals. Our journalists produce content daily, for online as well as print, and we use social media and other digital means to reinforce our strategic goals. We overhauled the IT staff, brought in data-visualization software, and put cutting-edge mapping technology in the hands of our 462 chapters, 23 state offices, and 13 international partner organizations across the Americas.

We focused our energy on fulfilling Audubon’s larger conservation vision, moving away from small projects. Case in point: In 2014, when we released the largest study ever done on how climate change will affect North American birds, we brought all our state and chapter leaders to a boot camp to help them understand the findings, jump-start conversations, and propose solutions.

And we did all this while balancing our budget for the first time in 14 years, boosting revenues by more than 12 percent, and bringing down management and general operating costs.

Describing how investing in tech has transformed a legacy brand like Audubon got rapturous receptions at two conferences I attended last year for chief information-technology officers. But the sweetest music to their ears was my message to other nonprofit leaders to include IT leaders in the early and important conversations about their organizations’ work.

Here’s how tech investments have helped Audubon:

· We have 800,000 email addresses for our advocacy work, more than 11 times the number we had in 2011.

· We will raise $2.5 million online next year, compared to $250,000 in 2011, and we expect that number to keep growing.

· Investing in paid Google and Facebook ads, targeting by demographic and interest as well as retargeting email-list subscribers, drove 110 percent more traffic to our site and helped increase online donations 64 percent from 2014 to 2015.

· We gave our donation forms a more mobile-friendly design and incorporated behavioral targeting into email campaigns, especially during advocacy and year-end fundraising efforts, letting users’ opens and clicks guide what communications they receive in email campaigns. The result: Email drove more than 600 percent more traffic to our website and raised about 200 percent more money from 2014 to 2015.

· Focusing on quality of engagement, we reach millions of users each week via social media, a 1,000 percent increase from just two years ago. Constantly examining audience response, we can boil social-media strategy down to a simple maxim: Do more of what works, less of what doesn’t.

· Audubon’s media visibility has skyrocketed. Coverage of our research findings on birds and climate change, released in late 2014, received 2 billion page views on media sites including The New York Times, National Geographic, The Washington Post, Time, Wired, the CBS Evening News, and even The Colbert Report.

· We launched a website that was easier to read and navigate, especially on smartphones. We made our content more exciting and appealing to a younger, wider demographic. Our traffic has tripled.

· In the past we knew our members in only general terms: older, usually white, female. Today, we’re mining data like major political campaigns do. We’re learning what neighborhoods members live in, their views on major issues, if they’ve participated in the annual crowdsourced bird counts that are critical to our science — and in the process we’re drawing them closer to Audubon.

· Like many conservation groups, Audubon has struggled to bring a broader coalition of communities into our grass-roots efforts, but technology is helping us diversify our members, donors, and organizations. We recently launched a Spanish-language website and online field guide to North American birds, tools to help us connect with new audiences at home and abroad.

Nonprofits exist in the same social ecosystem as billion-dollar corporations and media giants. We need to adopt modern technologies and use them to both change the way we do our work and improve the way we communicate. And we need to embed our key messages into everything we do: fundraising, new membership appeals, public policy, social-media engagement, media outreach.

Have we solved all our problems? Not by a long shot. But we understand the power of communications and technology. We know we need to break old molds and embrace change and new ideas. We know we need to talk to people’s hearts as well as their heads. And we know it helps if we also make it fun.

David Yarnold is the president of the National Audubon Society.

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