Stephen C. Nill and Michael L. Wyland: Online Community the CharityChannel Way

September 5, 2001
Stephen C. Nill and Michael L. Wyland: Online Community the CharityChannel Way

While the implosion of the dot-com sector and the deflation of the NASDAQ bubble has soured many on the prospects and potential of the Information Economy, nonprofit organizations continue to view information technology as a critical ally in their struggle to do more with less.

Against this backdrop, Philanthropy News Digest had a "virtual" sit-down with Stephen C. Nill, founder and chief executive officer, CharityChannel, and Michael L. Wyland, CharityChannel's chief operating officer, in August to talk about online communities, e-philanthropy, and nonprofits and information technology.

Stephen C. Nill, J.D., has more than twenty years' experience advising nonprofit organizations and has created and administered programs that have produced nearly $1 billion in charitable contributions. Mr. Nill, an attorney with expertise in the law of tax-exempt organizations, charitable planned giving, and taxation, has served as vice president of development in a West Coast nonprofit hospital chain, as chief executive officer and general counsel of one of the fastest-growing health care foundations in the U.S., and as chief development officer of a major West Coast university. In 1992, he founded CharityChannel, the oldest and largest online community of nonprofit professionals in the world.

Michael L. Wyland oversees the operations of CharityChannel's online community of nonprofit professionals. Mr. Wyland has extensive experience in nonprofit consulting, business, technology, and government affairs. As a consultant, writer, and managing partner for more than ten years in the consulting firm of Sumption & Wyland, he has generated more than $50 million in successful grant and development projects and has provided strategic planning, training, and special projects assistance to more than 125 nonprofit-sector clients. He is also an active nonprofit volunteer, having served on several local, state, and national nonprofit boards of directors, and currently serves as a trustee of the Sertoma Foundation, the fund development arm of the 25,000-member Sertoma International civic service organization.

Philanthropy News Digest: What is CharityChannel? How did it get started and how has it evolved?

Stephen Nill: CharityChannel was founded in 1992 as a simple idea: Harness the Internet to bring nonprofit-sector professionals together to form a warm, friendly, and supportive online community.

The first forum, CHARITYTALK, showed that nonprofit-sector colleagues would enthusiastically go online to help each other by giving and receiving advice, ideas, and wisdom.

Gradually, over time, new forums were added. Today, there are more than fifty public forums, each focusing on a topic of interest to nonprofit-sector professionals. About a million and a half messages are sent through CharityChannel every month, and that number is increasing. As of today, CharityChannel serves more than fifty thousand nonprofit professionals — most of whom learned of this vibrant, buzzing community from an enthusiastic colleague. We're consistently growing at more than one thousand new subscriptions a month, which is quite strong considering that CharityChannel has grown entirely by word of mouth.

CharityChannel will celebrate its tenth anniversary early next year — making it the oldest and largest online community of nonprofit professionals in the world.

PND: Michael, how did you get involved with the project?

Michael Wyland: Since 1990, I've been a partner in a consulting firm serving nonprofits. I found CharityChannel on the Internet and began participating on the GRANTS forum. Steve recruited volunteers to assist in leading discussions on the forums, and I raised my hand.

That started the process that led to my current position with CharityChannel.

SN: Michael's submissions to the forum were impressive. He displayed a depth of knowledge and ability to write that quickly earned him the respect of his colleagues and an invitation to join as a volunteer and then, a little later, as its COO. He is one of many examples of how CharityChannel has grown organically over the years. In fact, he is the best example.

PND: CharityChannel currently hosts more than fifty "forums," as your e-mail based discussion lists are called. Which of those forums is the most popular and what are some of the topics of discussion on that forum?

MW: The GRANTS forum is probably the "most popular," though there are several close to it in subscribership and frequency of communication. Frequent topics on GRANTS include where to find support for a particular type of project, subscribers' experiences with applying for funds to a particular foundation or government agency, and the thorny issue of compensation for people who prepare grant applications. Contingency and percentage-based compensation is probably the most controversial issue on GRANTS, as well as our CONSULTANTS forum.

SN: One reason we call them "forums" and not discussion "lists" is because lots of professionals participate from our Web site. Our forums can be accessed from either a Web browser or by e-mail.

PND: What does the popularity of GRANTS say about the state of the nonprofit sector?

MW: Nonprofit professionals are seeking practical information and quick answers from knowledgeable colleagues. They're also very willing to share their insights with their colleagues in a professional way given the opportunity. Nonprofit sector organizations and professionals have many different missions and perspectives, but they share a desire to fulfill charitable missions. That charity extends to each other through CharityChannel, where they share and learn from each other.

"...Imagine a room with six hundred people, and no one willing to actually say anything...."

PND: Have you launched forums that failed to find an audience?

SN: Sure. One of our experimental forums was called WOMENSPHIL, covering all aspects of women and philanthropy. We launched it because we had seen the subject pop up on other forums. When we announced it, it grew to over six hundred subscribers in just a couple of days, a great start. But then, to our amazement, there were almost no discussions! Imagine a room with six hundred people, and no one willing to actually say anything. We tried everything, including recruiting moderators who were well-respected authorities on the topic. Nothing worked.

PND: What do you do in a situation like that?

SN: Eventually, we folded the forum into CULTURPHIL, which discusses the cultural aspects of philanthropy. That proved to be the right move.

PND: How would you define a successful online community?

MW: A successful online community is one that attracts and supports a group of people willing to communicate with each other meaningfully on the issues related to the community's purpose.

SN: I would only add that, in the CharityChannel universe, a successful online community will be warm and supportive — people come to CharityChannel to learn and to give back. You won't find flame wars, spam, or anything else that's negative. We work hard to keep things positive and interesting for everyone.

PND: What are the critical elements needed to build a successful online community?

MW: The first element is a well-defined purpose for the community that fulfills a need. Next, one needs to attract a critical mass of subscribers — both passive readers and active participants — to sustain dialogue. Either too much or too little activity in an online community can depress participation and, ultimately, subscribership.

For an online community of professionals like CharityChannel, it's important to assure that messages are on-topic and that there's a minimum of distraction from the information and opinion exchange. An online community serving professional needs must be especially respectful of the subscriber's time and attention.

SN: One of the reasons CharityChannel has succeeded is because its roots are firmly planted in the nonprofit world. The staff and advisory board have years of experience in various aspects of the nonprofit sector, and we draw on that experience in building our various online communities. I don't think someone coming from outside the sector would have the right instincts for this. At least, they'd have quite a learning curve before they got it right.

PND: Is success, in respect to online communities, defined differently in the nonprofit sector than it is in the for-profit sector?

SN: Sure. We define success by the degree to which we provide the kind of warm and supportive environment for professionals to help each other. Look, it's been nearly ten long years of hard work, but hardly a day goes by where we don't receive some kind of success story that was made possible because someone on CharityChannel helped someone else on CharityChannel. That energizes us, keeps us going. We feel privileged to be part of it. We really do.

PND: What's the most surprising thing you've learned about online communities?

MW: The strength of the many relationships formed within them. There's an amazing bond that develops among community members. At professional conferences, CharityChannel subscribers seek each other out to meet people in person with whom they have been communicating for months and years. CharityChannel exhibited at AFP [the Association of Fundraising Professionals] in San Diego last March — our first convention exhibit. When CharityChannel forum subscribers introduced themselves to us, it was like a college reunion.

"...This isn't a one-way medium — if you sit there without posting, you shouldn't be surprised that the discussion didn't address your particular interests...."

PND: What's the most disappointing thing you've learned?

MW: Miscommunication in e-mail can lead to misunderstanding and even hostility from around the world in a matter of minutes. E-mail is immediate and informal. Sometimes the "send" key is far too easy to press before proofreading or pausing for second thoughts. And that impulse can snowball at the speed of the Internet. Tolerance is sometimes in short supply.

SN: It's actually hard to think of a disappointment, though of course they exist. I'd say the one that gets to me is when we get a rare note from someone who has exited a forum and, in the exit interview we send them, they cite a disappointment that "the forum didn't talk about what I was interested in." This really gets to me, because all that person had to do was post a question on whatever was of interest, and presto, that topic would be discussed! This isn't a one-way medium — if you just sit there without posting, you shouldn't be surprised that the discussion didn't address your particular interests.

PND: Seamless integration of technology is an important element of CharityChannel's success. How well do you think nonprofit organizations have done in integrating and adapting to new technologies?

MW: About as well as comparable for-profit businesses. That may come as a surprise to some people, but there is often an unfair comparison made between a local nonprofit and a Fortune 500 corporation, or between a high-tech startup and a human service agency. The reality is that most businesses, whether for-profit or nonprofit, are small and have limited capacity to adopt and maintain succesive waves of technology.

There's at least one factor that complicates technology investment for nonprofits. The nexus between technology expense and fulfilling mission is harder to document and more difficult to defend for a nonprofit than for a for-profit. And a nonprofit is more likely to have to defend such a decision publicly — to its board, stakeholders, and anyone looking at the organization's Form 990.

SN: One of the things we do to help the nonprofit sector in this regard is host three forums related to nonprofits and technology: TECHNOLOGY, CYBERGIFTS, and CHARITYSOFT. We obviously believe that technology is terribly important because, properly harnessed, it makes nonprofits more efficient both in terms of their operation and in terms of their development.

PND: How about foundations?

MW: Foundations have a tougher job every year. Foundations are facing more and more applications as grantseekers become more adept at researching funding opportunities and technology makes it easier to submit more and more applications.

Grantseekers, regulators, and citizens are asking for more and better information about foundations' activities. "Accountability" is a trend that will only continue to place demands on staff and technology at foundations.

I would like to see more foundations publish more useful information on their Web sites and permit more dialogue with grantseekers by e-mail. Some foundation Web sites are little more — and sometimes less — than electronic versions of their printed annual reports.

A Web site is a great opportunity to present information to an interested public. Foundations who organize their Web sites to make it easy to find information and get questions answered do a real service to the online nonprofit community.

PND: Where, or how, can the sector do better?

SN: Each of us who works in the sector has gained hard-won knowledge and wisdom — the longer we're at it, the more we've learned and the more valuable we become to the nonprofit organizations we serve. I have always believed quite strongly that each of us has a duty to our colleagues to share our knowledge and wisdom with each other. That has usually meant working with colleagues in our organizations, or perhaps speaking at conferences, even writing books. CharityChannel was created to provide a daily means to communicate with thousands of our colleagues — where time and distance are no longer barriers.

MW: One of Peter Drucker's five questions for strategic planning is, "What does your customer perceive as value?" That's a far different question than, "What do I/we think is important?" Whether off-line or online, we have to be prepared to meet the people we serve more than halfway by anticipating their needs and presenting the solutions they need — not the ones we think they should have.

PND: The falling cost of many communications technologies has made it possible for individuals and organizations of every stripe to become publishers and/or information providers, irrespective of geography and, in many cases, experience. Is that a cause for concern in your view?

MW: Like most aspects of democracy and liberty, there is a danger associated with unfettered access. Internet users have a responsibility to carefully weigh the merit of the information they find online. Many colleges and schools have recognized this issue and are focusing on developing critical thinking skills in students and teachers alike.

Voltaire said, "The more things change, the more they stay the same." When I was a child, we jokingly said, "It must be true — I read it somewhere." The explosion of information — on TV with cable and satellite, in print with the thousands of new periodicals, and on the Internet — requires all of us to be vigilant in evaluating what we see, hear, and read. That's the price of the freedom we enjoy and the responsibility that comes with the opportunities of the Information Age.

PND: Will there be a shakeout in the information-provision space, or will the numbers of nonprofit information providers continue to increase?

MW: The nonprofit sector, in terms of employment as well as share of national and world GDP, is expanding. In the U.S., several trends are converging to indicate a continuing expansion of the nonprofit sector over the next three decades at least. In my opinion, the desire for information, for contact, for community among nonprofit sector professionals will continue to increase as the sector as a whole expands.

SN: The shakeout is in the sustainability of information providers, to use your term. It is no different than in any market. I don't have a crystal ball here but I believe that the sheer size of the voluntary sector worldwide will provide a strongly supportive environment for sustainable providers.

"...Venture capital added more risk, induced more panic, and led to rash, shortsighted decisions...."

PND: In the last year or so, we've seen a number of high-profile for-profit vendors fail in the nonprofit space. What happened? And is there a future for for-profit vendors with services to sell to the nonprofit sector?

MW: There have been many metaphors and similes used to describe what happened, but I prefer to use the term "land rush," even though it was "land" in cyberspace. Some were convinced that they had to plant their flag and stake a claim — fast — or be left in the dust. Problem was, much of the land wasn't very fertile, and many of those rushing to be "first to market" weren't farmers. In other words, even if they were able to stake a claim, they didn't always know what to do with their claim. There was no time to think, to plan, to learn, or to build — the land rush stampede swept everyone along.

Venture capital, by its easy availability, heavy cost, and insistent demands for instant success added more risk, induced more panic, and led to more rash, shortsighted decisions by company executives and venture capitalists alike.

There has always been, and continues to be, a role for for-profits that serve the nonprofit sector. If for-profits know the nonprofit sector, understand the issues, and are based on solid business models, there is great opportunity for success.

SN: To amplify on Michael's last point, one mistake that some of the failed vendors made is that they did not understand the nonprofit sector and didn't take the time to understand its culture, its nuances, and its prejudices. They came into the sector like some kind of savior, with a message that "you're inefficient and stodgy in your ways, but never fear, we're here to show how to do it right." Those of us with long experience in the sector could predict which vendors would make it and which would fail after only a few minutes of thought. And largely, we were right.

PND: Do you see anything on the horizon, in terms of technology or business models, that will have the same kind of impact on the sector that e-mail and the Web browser have?

MW: The virtual office is becoming a reality for many organizations, including CharityChannel. Further refinement of streaming media, the increasing reliability and speed of the Internet, and rapidly decreasing costs will allow the even the smallest organizations to operate wherever they choose, in as many locations as they choose. Access to talent and opportunity will be almost limitless as technology continues to make physical location less important to organizational success.

PND: Finally, what lies ahead for CharityChannel?

MW: Some of the hardest, most enjoyable work of our careers.

SN: What lies ahead? We're going to push the technological envelope — we're going to improve our community-building features and begin to better harness some of the leading-edge technologies such as video and sound. It's a wonderful adventure, and the most amazing thing is, we're in it together with tens of thousands of our colleagues.

PND: Well, thank you both very much.

MW: You're welcome.

SN: Our pleasure.

Mitch Nauffts, PND's editorial director, spoke with Nill and Wyland via e-mail in August. For more information on the Newsmakers series, contact Mitch at mfn@foundationcenter.org.