A Conversation with Vinjay Bhagat
What follows reflects the insights and future-thinking shared in a fall 2005 interview with TSNE by Vinjay Bhagat, founder of Convio, an Internet software and services company providing online Constituent Relationship Management solutions for nonprofits.
Build Powerful Relationships Through the Internet
When U.S. and U.K. scientists created the Internet in the 1960s – then the ARPANET, Packet Radio and Packet Satellite networks – it was quickly embraced by the U.S. government for its ability to deliver information quickly and efficiently for military purposes. With the invention of the World Wide Web over 20 years later, the business sector caught on, and uses the Internet to attract, sell to and have customers pay for products online, and then maintain contact with them over time.
Until the late 1990s, the sheer cost of hiring staff with high-demand web development skills and the prohibitive cost of creating a site limited the non-profit sector’s use of this technology. And when sites were created there was little interaction between a nonprofit’s website and often clunky email listserv programs.
New, more democratic Web technology has simplified content management systems, the technology behind a website’s “face,” and integrated them with constituent relationship management software (email and other ways of staying in touch with stakeholders). These innovations have made it easier for non-profit organizations to use the World Wide Web, and according to expert Vinay Bhagat, president of Convio, we should be focused on how to use the ’Net more strategically to build better relationships with our members, volunteers, advocates, donors and other key constituents.
A Building Block
America – and nonprofits – got a glimpse of the Internet’s potential power during the 2002-2003 Howard Dean presidential bid. The former governor was able to raise $7.5 million in the second quarter of 2003 alone, more than any of the other 9 Democratic presidential candidates, because he and his supporters understood the power of Internet. The technology allowed the Dean campaign to mobilize scores of people across far-flung corners of the nation and raise small sums of money quickly in a cost-effective way.
Following Dean’s example in 2003, a subset of non-profit organizations realized that they could use the Internet more strategically to build a stronger constituency base to support citizen mobilization, fundraising, recruiting and information sharing. This was true not only for large well-known national or international non-profit organizations, but also for regional organizations. Even if your nonprofit is one of these pioneers, you should continue to increase your use of the Internet and related technologies to improve your organization’s communications with constituents. And if you aren’t one of the pioneers, then hitch up the wagon and get moving.
Building Relationships Online
OK, so you’ve seen the potential the Internet holds for non-profit organizations, what’s the next step? In order to use the Internet strategically and build relationships online, your non-profit organization should first have these 3 goals in mind:
- Building and optimizing relationships with target audiences
- Giving people a more integrated interaction with your organization
- Expanding the focus of your interactions beyond the dreaded “solicitation” to information-sharing and providing a service for constituents
Communication through the Internet has long been more cost-effective than other means. Therefore, nonprofits have turned to email as a way to send members and donors more information than their organization could through snail mail. New constituency management systems allow you to move beyond charting the frequency of your communications with stakeholders to increasing the quality of those interactions. Explains Mr. Bhagat, “[Correspondence with members is] not about frequency, it’s about quality.”
And Internet-based relationships are higher quality, because unlike a paper appeal packet they are not a one-way proposition. Through your website, your non-profit organization can optimize relationships by giving information and news to constituents, as well as listening to what they want and need from the organization. This exchange between members and organizations encourages unity, feedback and ideas, which, of course, benefits and strengthens your organization. Some examples of solutions that non-profit organizations have used to promote communication are Open Source solutions or ASPs like Get Active, Antharia, Convio, Meetup.com and others.
Expanding the Conversation
Though non-profit organizations used to focus much of their Internet communications efforts on fundraising, smart nonprofits have realized that the Internet as a medium can do more than just solicit money. To increase the effectiveness of websites, use yours as an information-sharing location. It should help visitors and potential donors to understand your mission.
When you let constituents know how they – at the local level – can further your organization’s mission through advocacy and/or action, they feel a stronger connection to your organization. When donors are updated in emails and e-newsletters about the ways in which their money is being used, this interaction builds and optimizes relationships with those audiences.