Sharing your knowledge base: Meet the user’s needs, think beyond PDFs



A few weeks ago a reader asked me to blog about effective ways that nonprofits and foundations can share their knowledge bases.

This is a subject close to my heart. There’s a lot of talk in foundations and nonprofits about disseminating information, but for the most part their online resources are still PDF lists—ugh.

No matter how beautifully designed your publications are, PDFs aren’t particularly user friendly—especially when there are so many free or low-cost ways to share knowledge online that better serve your audiences.

PDFs may be easiest for you—but we’re in the age of consumer orientation. Giving your online users what they want, enjoy, and expect is the key to their loyalty. (By the way, one of their online expectations these days is a little bit of entertainment.)

End your dependence on written research reports. They still have a role, but they should be just one piece of a more diverse knowledge base. Rather than assuming a written report is the best way to convey information—imagine the alternatives. They will require different kinds of resources than publications, and possibly more staff time, at least in the beginning. But the technical costs are usually quite low. And I’m betting your impact will be much greater. (Remember—you have to measure that.)

First be clear about what you want the outcome of the knowledge-sharing to be. It’s not just a matter of pushing out information to the public. You need specific goals about who needs the information and how you’d like them to use it, what actions you want them to take to bring about what changes. Those objectives will help you decide on an effective communication channel.

And don’t be afraid of a learning curve. Just because you’ve never produced a podcast or created a blog or twittered before doesn’t mean that it’s beyond you. Today’s nonprofits have to be agile, and that means trying new things. But, for your first experience with some of these technologies like videos and maps, you may want hire an expert to guide you through the process at least once.

If you do continue to use PDFs—at least draw out the golden nuggets for your readers. Rather than scholarly executive summaries or abstracts, create little “Five Big Take-Away” summaries for skimmers who want the gist not the tome. Not everyone has time to read 15 or even 5 pages.

So, what are some interesting ways you can engage people with your knowledge base, and maybe even invite two-way interaction?

Events: There’s big difference in impact between sending someone a report and inviting them to an event where the report is going to serve as a springboard for action. Often, translating knowledge into practice is your real goal, and face-to-face communication can be an effective way of getting there. Help people understand how they can USE your information to improve their organizations and advance a cause. Think of your report as an organizing tool. Maybe you follow up by developing an online community.

Webinars: This is a great way to stage “an event” that markets your knowledge without the travel inconvenience and cost for attendees and presenters. You can convey a lot of information in the fun, easy format of a free, hour-long, interactive webinar. Then, recyle it on your Web site to reach even more people. One great example is the Kaiser Family Foundation’s Today’s Topics in Health interactive Webcast series, which invites people to submit questions prior to each episode.

Podcasts: The Chronicle of Philanthropy could have produced articles about the topics on their Social Good podcasts, but how much more engaging to hear nonprofits and experts talk about best practices in social media. This highly mobile medium offers welcome flexibility to your busy audiences; they can listen while they workout.

Videos: Videos are short, pretty inexpensive, great at storytelling, and wildly popular online. You can share briefings and interviews, offer instruction, and feature best practices among many other uses. One good example is the Benton Foundation’s video series on best practices in community media. And take a look at the data-sharing video in this blog post: “When data can take your breath away.”

Slide shows: There are some very effective slide shows out there, some with sound. Here’s a good audio slide show from Chicago’s New Communities Web site, and others from the Kaiser Family Foundation. Maybe rather than asking researchers to write long papers, ask them to work with a creative consultant to create slide shows that convey the highlights of their findings. (Put them up on SlideShare if you do.) These slide shows can find their way into your own events and webinars, and can also be used by your supporters.

Maps: Since Google Earth and Google Map were introduced, maps have become one of the most exciting ways to visualize and layer information. The map-building options out there are amazing, and many of them are free. Here’s an example of 10 mind-blowing maps that convey a lot of information.

Photo stories: Many research projects include stories of individuals and groups that have benefited from some action. Tease out those stories, write them as if you were a journalist, and include some compelling photos. Never underestimate the power of good photographs to tell a story; here’s a simple recent example about the recession.

Blogs: If you have deep enough expertise on a particular topic and a continuing stream of new information, consider a blog to share your learnings. A good example is the MacArthur Foundation’s blog on digital learning—one of their major research fields—or the Nature Conservancy’s Cool Green Science blog.

Toolkits: Toolkits are a great idea—especially if you’re trying to share best practices and how-tos. But too many online toolkits end up a collection of PDFs. Think more creatively. Use podcasts, videos, photos, discussion forums, blogrolls, online communities, and social bookmarking as well as publications. Here’s an innovative free toolkit on creating social issue games that uses graphics, video, a multimedia resource list, and a highlights window to layer information and make it all  interesting, interactive, and fun.

Visualization: Lest you run out of ideas about how to visualize data and information, this periodic table of visualization methods is a great place to visit. Scoot your cursor over any item and an example pops up. In fact, the table itself is an example of creative visualization. Take a look at how the Kaiser Family Foundation visualizes research data on its Fast Facts Slide spotlight on its homepage, or how the Heritage Foundation uses charts.

Comments/Ratings: Yes, take the risk of “thumbs down.” Add comment and ratings features to your resources. (My previous post shows you where to download these free features for your site or blog.) Use them as research tools to discover which of your learning resources were most useful to your audiences and which weren’t.

Twitter: Don’t scoff! Twitter is a terrific tool to share research highlights. In the past, many communications practitioners broke up the major findings of a big report and released them individually to get more coverage and make the report more digestible for the media. Use Twitter the same way—if you’ve got a finding that’s newsworthy, tweet it and provide a link to the source. Tweet a stream of these findings over a week and track your Web hits.

Consider that each of the above channels has certain strengths. If you’re trying to organize a coalition to put best practices into use, an event or webinar might be a good first step. If you’re trying to wake people up to a startling fact so they make different choices, maybe you need to use data visualization or maps. If you’re trying to move people emotionally to raise funds, think about the power of video and photo stories. Try to match the channel to your objectives. But please. . .think beyond PDFs!

CC photo credit: jessamyn


Don’t forget to download a free copy of my eBook on best practices in nonprofits website design!

DOWNLOAD HERE: Best Practices: Nonprofit Web Site Design


8 Responses to “Sharing your knowledge base: Meet the user’s needs, think beyond PDFs”

  1. Luise Says:

    Thank you so much for this article! We at IssueLab could not agree more. And although we’re crazy about research and dissemination in general, we also think that there are some great ways to re-package research to make it more user-friendly and applicable far beyond its initial use. Thanks for giving such a great list of resources and getting us all thinking about ways to share this important body of work even more broadly!

  2. Ross Fortune Says:

    quite a helpful post. the games toolkit was a discovery for me.


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