Handy CI Tools for Nonprofits and Small Companies

At the Special Libraries Association conference in Denver, CO, last June, I heard the term “competitive intelligence” uttered more than “Who’s giving away the free cookies?”

CI, as it’s called, is not exactly in James Bond’s arena, but even he would agree it’s helpful to know what the competition is up to. It’s an imprecise practice that consists of Internet research, networking at events and even eavesdropping in elevators to see what you can learn about similar organizations.

It makes sense for small businesses, because they’ve got to move quickly, and when you’re working with a small pool of people, fresh ideas that work in your market are at a premium.

Nonprofits should look to CI too, because as much as many hate to admit it, others are competing for that grant too, and it helps to know how you stand a better chance of winning it. Plus, you might find useful resources for volunteers or new funding resources.

The Web is the small shop’s best friend for CI, and here are a few tools that will help you keep track of what the competition is up to:

Google Alerts
How on earth did I manage before Google Alerts? Plug in any phrase you might research on the Web (say, “micro-philanthropy” or your competitor’s name), and Google will do an automatic search and deliver results directly to you. It’s free, to boot.

Most of the big nonprofits are listed in GuideStar, and trolling through their profiles will give you a good indication of their finances and new initiatives. A special tip is to look at their downloadable tax forms to see who’s on the board of directors and how much they brought in last year.

This is a free tool for evaluating the traffic performance of competitor websites. Its traffic estimates aren’t 100% accurate, but it’s still handy for helping to compare sites. It’s also a good indication of if a site is becoming more or less popular.

Zotero is a Firefox plug-in that lets you create local snapshots of websites on your local computer. Even if a website changes, you can build up a little history of their earlier iterations, so you can track their evolution. It’s also useful for easily collecting reference sources.

3 Antidotes to Human Stupidity

It’s not a question of if it will happen, but when. For me, I lost all my data about two weeks ago when my hard drive melted down. I very nearly lost it all, and had to rebuild quite a bit of data. Thankfully, I have a network of little safety devices that cover up my natural human stupidity. Here are three friendly tools within the grasp of any small business or nonprofit, which will help avert disaster:

  1. Mozy (http://mozy.com/). Fast and easy automatic online backup. There’s a limited free plan for individuals (great for e-mail), a cheap $5 plan for piles of space.
  2. Red Drive (http://www.jscape.com/reddrive/index.html). Directly access your Web files through Red Drive. It lets you bypass confusing FTP programs and let you treat an off-site storage place like any old drive.
  3. Any freemail account (such as Gmail or Yahoo! Mail). Automatically cc your free webmail account on any outgoing message, and you’ll have a low-tech duplicate backup.

Nonprofits Can Be LinkedIn

[This article first appeared in the October issue of the N-TEN newsletter.]

Only 10 years ago, social networks were built quite differently. We might pump a few hands at conferences, place a few phone calls or meet people for lunch. A labor-intensive way of expanding the little black book, to be sure, but that’s the way everybody did it. Networks lived in brainspace and on slips of paper.

But a decade is a long time. Person-to-person meetings are still a great way to make connections, but networks have increasingly less to do with seeing people and more to do with outlets such as LinkedIn.

It’s a critical difference for nonprofits. LinkedIn and its brethren such as Facebook let organizations have access to millions of potential donors, supporters and volunteers – LinkedIn gains one million new members every month, and that rate is increasing.

Fundraising and partnership

Fundraising and partnerships go hand-in-hand with networking. Everyone knows you start by asking the people you know for support, then ask the people they know, then the people they know, and so on. This is what LinkedIn does. It also presents a new way to find like-minded organizations for possible partnerships.

Consider that as of today, I have 30 connections. But of those, six have 100 or more additional connections each. That’s more than 600 people I can know directly by asking six close friends for an introduction.

So start building your network now. Kay Luo, director of corporate communications for LinkedIn, suggests building up a network of at least 20-30 people so you can start gaining more visibility in the system.

Take donations

LinkedIn is a likely place to kick-start a donation drive with your own network and also beyond. It’s demographic is a wealthier one, with executives from of the Fortune 500 as members and more than 1,500 C-level business leaders. Its users have an average annual household income of nearly $140,000.

LinkedIn for Good is an initiative that started in May 2007. It lets people place “digital bumper stickers” of their favorite nonprofits on their profile pages, which are effectively Donate Now buttons.

Start a group

Any college knows the key to support is through its alumni. Start your own alumni association through LinkedIn Groups. Most nonprofits don’t have anything formalized unless they’re gigantic, so a free DIY approach liked LinkedIn can let your past and future supporters keep in touch. It’s also a useful way to start a group fundraising initiative.

Questions and answers

Government and Nonprofit Answers makes it easy to ask for help. This feature lets you posit a question to not only to your own network, but also to the entire 15 million-strong LinkedIn community.

One individual posted a plea for participation in a charity dedicated to helping Ukrainian children with cancer. He was not only looking for money for diagnostic equipment, but also for general involvement. You can also solicit general feedback on questions such as one person who asks “Where should I begin looking for funding?” or the person looking for volunteer opportunities in Peru or the one seeking details on obtaining 501(c)(3) status.

Younger buzz

If your nonprofit depends on involvement from younger age groups, you’re more likely to reach them through a networking site than through traditional media. College students don’t read traditional media now as much as they used to. They don’t flip through the calendar listings for event ideas.

Michelle LeBlanc, education director for Boston’s Old South Meeting House, says her organization will be looking to Facebook and LinkedIn to find participants for their annual Boston Tea Party re-enactment because of its younger demographic.

LinkedIn certainly isn’t the only stop on your route to promoting your nonprofit, but since it’s free and relatively easy to establish a profile, it should be one of your first. And, as LeBlanc says, “It’s another way to create a buzz.”

Monique Cuvelier is CEO of Talance, Inc. a communications and technology company that eases nonprofits into using online courses, project management spaces and content management systems. She has also been writing professionally for 17 years and has contributed to publications such as Wired News, among many others.