Instant Messaging in Nonprofits: Catching On

Although we seem to be told constantly that we should be using Facebook and Twitter, a powerful application is quietly making  its mark in nonprofits without much fanfare. Instant messaging (IM'ing) is the old-but-new tool that is moving from tech companies to Main Street and to nonprofits.

"Our organization uses IM'ing all the time as a quick way to have short conversations, ask questions, etc. without having to run down the hall every time," says Hannah Wallisch of Danceworks (Milwaukee). "IM'ing is also useful when staff members are working from home, so they can still be in constant contact with staff in the office without tying up phone lines," she continues.

IM is for grown-ups now

Instant Messaging used be known as the communication vehicle of choice for teenagers. While doing their homework they could exchange short messages about teachers, dating, clothes and the like. But now the New York Times reports that nearly one-quarter of U.S. employees are using IMs at work. What are the best ways for nonprofits to make use of this powerful and free technology?

1. Surprisingly, IMs are a less bothersome way for both parties to ask the kinds of questions you might call out over your cubicle: "What does CDBG stand for again?" "Did you call that donor yet?" "Will April 12 work for you?" In fact, a recent study showed that employees who use IMs feel less interrupted than those who don't . . . a less surprising finding when you think about how many emails you get.

2. IMs make it easy for staff in different offices to connect with each other for short questions or comments. The Taproot Foundation uses it for their staff in six cities: "Picking up the phone to try to catch someone at their desk is soooooo 1990," says Carol Guttery.

3. IMs are great for people working from home, keeping them more in touch -- and feeling more in touch -- than just through email and phone.

4. On a conference call, IMs are a way to "pass notes" virtually and invisibly. If the call is among staff or board members, it's a way to get in clarifying questions without disrupting the main conversation. And if the call includes others, IMs are a good way to tell your co-workers that you disagree with the idea of holding a joint fundraiser, for instance, without having to contradict them on the line.

5. One Blue Avocado reader told us he IMs people for job references, taking advantage of the phenomenon that some people will say things via IM that they would not in a phone call or in email. If he's interested in an applicant, he uses LinkedIn to see if any of his contacts knows the person, then IMs that person for a fast opinion. "I've been warned off some people that looked really good on paper," he comments, adding that he doesn't want to be named in this article.

How do IMs actually work?

Individuals sign up for free IM accounts through Gmail, Yahoo, AIM (AOL Instant Messenger) and other services, then identify one another as "buddies" or "friends." A window will open (typically kept by users in the lower left corner of their screens) showing which of your buddies are online. You can then send a quick message to any one of them, which shows up instantly on his or her screen, allowing for a fast reply.

Danceworks has all staff use GChat (through their Gmail accounts) which is entirely web-based (doesn't require anything to be downloaded). If you want to IM with people on various services, use Pidgin or Trillion for Windows and Adium for Macs. These free services will show your buddies from all services in one window.

IM windows close when the computer is turned off or goes off-line. You can also choose to "hide," or display a message that says you're asleep or not available.

Getting started

As the New York Times reports, IMs are gaining in popularity through employees using them informally, rather than from top-down mandates. If you have a co-worker you frequently wish were just a few feet away, set up IMs with just the two of you and see how it works. Let it spread naturally as people discover how useful -- and surprisingly unobtrusive -- it can be.

There are dozens of other uses for IM'ing, including internet phone, conferencing, and more. Early concerns about security have large dissipated although organizations with 100 or more staff may want to invest in enterprise IM systems. This article just touches on entry-level use.

Like any communications vehicle, IMs can be abused. Just as letters and email are protected but still occasionally leak, so can IMs. Don't say anything you wouldn't want public, and just as you would with telephones, use IMs for work matters, and only occasionally for personal use.

Thanks to Blue Avocado readers for responding to the Query on IM usage, especially Hannah Wallisch, Carol Guttery and Jill Olen for their comments.

Jan Masaoka is Editor of Blue Avocado and uses Yahoo Messenger and Adium.

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Comments

I love IM and have used it for years in the work environment. However, one note of caution - when you use a free IM service such as AOL or Google, that means all of your communications go through a third party's server. So treat IM communications with the same level of confidentiality that you would an email to an outside party - that is, as if it were a postcard that anyone could read.

Should you want to use IM for more secure communications, you should look into bringing it in-house by housing the IM application on your own server.

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