09 Dec TechShop students help nonprofits boost social-networking profiles, interactivity
College students have a reputation for spending countless hours updating their Facebook status, tweeting with friends on Twitter and watching online videos.
But University of Wisconsin-Madison students who work as consultants through TechShop, a student-based technology assistance program for Madison-area nonprofits, are finding a way to put all those hours at the keyboard to use.
Graduate student Sylvia Fredericks has worked with the Urban League of Greater Madison to manage its social-networking profiles by linking its Twitter, Facebook and MySpace accounts to the group’s Web site to allow for simultaneous updates and recommending a program for coordinating its digital photos to spotlight volunteer contributions.
“I’ve spent a lot of time playing around with social networking sites, but not to any end,” says Fredericks, who is working on a master’s degree in education policy from the La Follette School of Public Affairs. Until now, “I’ve been gaining all this experience and didn’t ever get to use it for anything.”
TechShop focuses on offering help with social networking, blogging, online videos and audio, podcasting and other interactive elements to bring nonprofits closer to their clients, volunteers and donors.
Focusing on newer, interactive technologies rather than having students build Web sites doesn’t require participants to have extensive knowledge of programming and Web coding, even though many nonprofits need help with those technology challenges, too, says Katherine Loving, civic engagement coordinator for University Health Services and one of the TechShop coordinators.
Graduate and undergraduate students involved with TechShop can earn one credit for about 20 hours of work for a nonprofit and 20 hours of training and supervision by TechShop staff.
Derek Johnson, volunteer coordinator for the Urban League of Greater Madison, says he and his colleagues had been trying to figure out how to make their group’s social-networking updates automatically come up on the front page of its Web site.
“Now it’s so easy for us to update them, and that made everything so much easier for us,” Johnson says of Fredericks’ changes. “The things she’s showed us are pretty simple to use and stuff we can train others on, and it’s nothing too difficult.”
The hallmark of social networking and newer Web design is interactivity, says Eric Howland, TechShop coordinator and executive director of DANENet, which offers technical support and training to nonprofits.
“Nonprofits tend to be people-oriented and interactive, so it’s a pretty good fit,” he says.
Randy Stoecker, a professor in the community and environmental sociology department who helps coordinate TechShop with Loving, says students are better able to meet nonprofits’ needs when they’re working on social networking and interactive functions.
“It’s a bit of a generational skill set,” Stoecker says. “They just figure this stuff out.”
Nonprofits such as Community Shares of Wisconsin have found that adding social networking and other interactive components to their Web sites has opened new avenues for funding and community relationships.
“We’ve been using more traditional means for acquiring new donors and raising donations and this is helping us…raise new money that we perhaps might not have raised,” says Cheri Buckner, associate director of Community Shares of Wisconsin, which works with more than 50 nonprofit partners to address social, economic and environmental problems. “Things are changing, and we have to get on the bandwagon and be part of it otherwise we’re going to get left behind.”
Many of the nonprofits who consult TechShop students already have the framework or ideas for how they want to change their presence on the Web but don’t have the time or the resources to find the best way to do it.
Community Shares had Facebook and Twitter accounts set up but needed some help organizing and linking them together, Buckner says.
“With social media you get as much out of it as you put into it, and we had to find a way to set it up so we could update things more regularly and get more out of it,” she says.
Success for TechShop and its clients depends not only on finding and setting up new technologies, but helping nonprofits sustain their use after a student’s semester of work is done.
At Independent Living, the TechShop student is no longer there, but his instructions are. When Eric Christensen is embedding video on the Web site for the provider of affordable housing and services for seniors, he consults instructions from the TechShop student who worked there last year.
“One of the things we did in the last couple sessions was (have the student) come out, and we went through each step in the process of creating one putting one up and I’ve got notes that remind me how to do it,” says Christensen, systems integration director for the group.
TechShop is funded by Learn and Serve America, which is administered by Princeton University’s National Community-Based Research Networking Initiative, as well as the Morgridge Center for Public Service, University Health Services and UW-Madison’s Division of Information Technology.
TechShop is now recruiting students and community organizations to participate in the 2010 spring semester — the project’s final period for funding.