Mercy Corps – A Study in Nonprofit Blogging

At NTEN’s Nonprofit Tech Conference, I had the great pleasure to hear Roger Burks, Senior Writer at Mercy Corps talk about his social media and blog work. While Mercy Corps is a large, international, humanitarian organization, Rogers’ approach to engaging staff and others to blog is universal. I posed some questions to Roger and he generously shared his experience. Read the Mercy Corps blog, follow them on Twitter and Facebook. Roger has generously shared his presentations on storytelling on his Slide Share account. I would also recommend you follow him (personally) on Twitter.

BET: How and when did Mercy Corps decide to engage in social media and blogging? 

RB: In early 2009, we’d been trying to engage supporters on social media – specifically, Facebook and Twitter – for quite a long time with little success and minimal growth. At the same time, we’d been very successful with combining top-notch writing and photography into website features and marketing materials that raised both funds and awareness for Mercy Corps. However, that editorial content was only coming from a few people, and we wanted to find a way to lower the bar, engage more Mercy Corps staff and discover new voices. That’s how the Mercy Corps Blog came about in Spring 2009 – as “A daily look into the work, thoughts and ideas of our team around the world.” Almost immediately, the Blog got people within the agency interested, talking and wanting to write. There was a sense of buzz, dialogue and involvement that we hadn’t experienced with our previous content approach. It just made sense to try and export some of that spirit on our social media, so we began syndicating blog content to Facebook and Twitter. It’s especially made a difference during emergencies, particularly the aftermath of the Haiti earthquake. Today – just 14 months after it launched – the blog has nearly 570 entries from more than 160 authors in 31 countries. And that content has helped drive our number of Facebook fans to more than 16,500 and our Twitter followers to 5,350.

BET: How did you sell and engage Mercy Corps leadership in social media and blogging from “new voices”?

RB: Mercy Corps leadership has always been extremely supportive of the way we do editorial content on the website. The agency looks at the website as a venture capital engine to power the kind of socially-innovative projects that we’re known for, and our team has been consistently good at raising those resources – that helps! But I think another way we’ve approached our content and social media strategy is to not only get buy-in from leadership, but to get them involved. We’ve had our CEO, President, Founder and board members writing for the Blog – and actually writing their own pieces, not just having others ghost-write for them. They’ve written thoughtful pieces from our field offices and given us insight into what they do every day. That’s very inspiring. I think that, when your leadership supports something that strongly, others will follow. But I also think that the way we’ve done the blog just lends itself to people wanting to get involved. It’s a chance to have a byline on a well-trafficked website. You get your own personal profile page that aggregates the pieces you write. It gets out into our social media. And, editorially, we’ve set the bar low, so people feel no pressure to write a certain word count by a certain deadline. It’s come as you are, write what you want. We’re looking for authenticity, not polish, and I think that’s made all the difference.

BET: What was the initial strategy for your blog?

RB: The initial strategy for the blog was to get as many voices as possible, from as many countries as we could, speaking about as many topics as they wanted to – again, with whatever word count or style they wanted to use. We wanted the Blog to be highly personal and reflect what people were thinking and feeling. We wanted it to read like a conversation you’d hear at a country office, or a story you’d hear a colleague telling another colleague. We really wanted the Blog to be a way for Mercy Corps supporters to get a view into the hearts and minds of our staff. And that’s still our strategy today.

BET: Are Mercy Corps Blogs and social media integrated into an overall communications and marketing plan?

RB: We’re definitely using blog entries extensively in our social media. In terms of our marketing, we’ve adapted quite a few into email appeals or used them to bolster fundraising campaigns. Blog entries are really the most immediate, intimate content that we have – especially during emergencies – and so it only makes sense to use them to communicate powerful messages and fundraising appeals.

BET: Is fundraising a part of your blogging strategy?

RB: I’d say not by design, but it definitely informs our blogging strategy. For example, at the height of the Haiti response, we were certainly making a more concerted effort to get blog entries from staff, when at other times we’d be more content to let those pieces come to us in due time. But during an emergency response, readers and supporters want to see more updates. We become kind of an alternative news source. People come to your website more. And, when they do, there’s a chance that they’ll make a donation. So a timely, powerful blog entry is absolutely a way to raise money.BET: Do you have a social media/blogging a budget?

RB: We have two full-time writers on the Internet Marketing team and another colleague who spends a substantial part of her day on social media coordination. But, in terms of the Blog, it’s basically just moderated and lightly edited for clarity. We have more than 160 authors on the Blog and only two full-time writers – so that means that at least 158 people come from other staff functions within Mercy Corps. They’re program officers, executives, accountants and various other positions – very diverse. It’s really a volunteer effort, with minimal pressure and expectation, and I think that’s absolutely critical to success.

BET: Please share tips, tales and truths other nonprofits can learn from your experience.

RB: If you start a blog, strive from the get-go to be authentic. Don’t force anything. Don’t ghost-write, have it be personal and coming from real staff voices. Be as provocative as you can. Make it sound like people talk – and acknowledge that different people within your organization sound different! Don’t be afraid to lose some measure of control. And, above all, remember that a blog differs greatly from any other kind of writing. It’s not perfect, but it’s damn compelling. When you put all those voices together, it’ll sound more like your organization than anything you’ve ever put together before.

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2 thoughts on “Mercy Corps – A Study in Nonprofit Blogging

  1. Thanks for this, Barbara. Blogging, I find, is the most creative, flexible and intimate form of communication out there. I think sometimes, though, that’s what overwhelms folks. It’s like, “what do I do now?” They want a rule book.

    But you are so on the mark about just asking others! People are so willing to share. I also say: Try it out. You can always change it.

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