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Program Spotlight

Board Members Help Little Program Create Big Web Presence

Marianne Clauw
Board President
Washtenaw County CASA
Ann Arbor, MI

Do you ever wonder about the people who learn about your organization through your website? More importantly, do you wonder about the unknown website visitors—potential CASA volunteers, community supporters or donors—who quietly tiptoe away? In our “wired” world, your organization is open 24/7, and your website is the electronic tour guide.

A Google manager attended a CASA event in Washtenaw County in October 2007. He quietly said to the board president at the time, “Google has some tools that could help you.” Kindly, he didn’t say, “You people are technological morons, and your website is pitiful.” But by gently alerting us to the world of Google products, he helped us transform our CASA program.

Washtenaw County CASA is a partnership of the Washtenaw County Trial Court and the Friends of Washtenaw County CASA, our nonprofit organization. The court employs coordinators to recruit, train and manage CASA volunteers. The nonprofit does community education and fundraising. We knew our website was inadequate; but we weren’t sure how to enhance it and were intimidated by technology. Once we investigated Google products, we quickly realized that advanced technological expertise was no longer a requirement for building a credible interface to the world. Commitment, creativity, time and diligence were the only necessary ingredients.

By January 2008, three months after the fateful conversation with the Google manager, Washtenaw County CASA had a sparkling website packed with current information, pictures, videos, online donation capability, calendar-driven event postings and an online advertising campaign. Subsequently, we added the blog “All Things CASA”; Google Analytics to track website activity; and an internal website for document collaboration and storage as well as other “back office” functions. Most of the Google products are free. Google staff helped us with the initial registration of the website—and with the application for a Google grant, which supplied free online advertising. But the work was done by volunteer board members, including the very important Ferlie.

Ferlie Yruma is a CASA board member with no previous website or formal communications experience. She did have a desire to learn as well as a willingness to jump in and figure it out. She created much of the content on the early website. She remembered to take pictures at events and gently encouraged others to write brief articles and profiles. Our advice for other nonprofits is to “find a Ferlie.” The good news is that the world is filled with bright people who would love to enhance their own skill sets with technology experience.

The impact of our new environment was that 5,438 visitors came to our website in 2009. In contrast, our old website received fewer than 20 visitors per month. Functionally, we successfully transitioned from relying on a National CASA expansion grant to having a successful, diversified funding model. During our volunteer recruitment period in mid-2009, we sent out more than 40 applications to people who expressed interest. Before we had our new communications environment, we would typically send out 8–10 applications. Finally, our community awareness and support are much higher.

Is Google the only toolset out there? No, there are other excellent applications, although we did not do a comprehensive search. The key for organizations still in the “pitiful” stage is to get moving. Make a commitment that in three months you will have a current, engaging website. Find your Ferlie and support her or him with content and pictures. Use the wonderful resources provided by the National CASA Association, including links to videos. Visit our website, CASAwashtenaw.org, and replicate whatever you find engaging. We sincerely believe that “imitation is the sincerest flattery” (Charles Caleb Colton, 1780–1832).

To learn more about Google products, do an online search of “Google for Non-Profits.” Google Apps and Google Grants are great places to start. Watch some of their videos—they are informative and geared to a non-technical audience. The company provides additional information through online forums and FAQs. Google believes in the self-help approach and provides ample information to support your discovery of tools and features.

You can do it too—just start!

Editor’s Note: If you do not have a Ferlie or the time to dedicate to such a project, consider a third-party solution such as CASAwebsites.com. The author and her CASA program are featured in a promotional video at google.com/nonprofits. No compensation was received for their participation.

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