Salsa Scoop> Tuesday Tips: Why Nonprofit Managers Must Use RSS ... And How to Start

Tuesday Tips: Why Nonprofit Managers Must Use RSS ... And How to Start

It's come to the point where nonprofit staff who aren't using RSS aren't really doing all of their job. I know. I know. You don't believe me, and you don't care. You already use the Internet, so why take time you don't have to learn some new way to get the information you already get? Especially when the first thing an evangelist says about RSS is that it's actually like 11 different data formats and nobody can even agree what the acronym means? I know because I've been there. It was about 1995, and the .sig files people used on Usenet started saying "Visit my page on the World Wide Web!" I ignored it for months, because who needs some crummy new platform when I've got all the text-based newsgroups goodness my heart could ever desire? The answer, then as now, is that it will totally change the way you relate to information. It's like being myopic, and then putting on glasses. If you're resisting RSS, that's understandable. Only a minority of web users have adopted it, and that'll probably be true for some time. But it's the thought leaders, the proverbial creative class (dreadful term) that are using it ... and if that's the kind of organization you have or the kind of career you're building, it's time to get over that resistance.

If you're a nonprofit manager right now and you're not using RSS, you're falling behind.

You're not getting information -- about your cause, about your people, about your profession -- efficiently enough, which means you're not getting enough information, period. And someone else is getting that information, or will be soon.
  • Someone eyeballing your job.
  • Or your press release.
  • Or your grant application.
  • Someone competing with you for your constituents.
  • Or someone competing with your constituency for influence.
They'll know when someone writes about your issue or blogs about your cause or has something to say about your organization, and know it without refreshing dozens of links and scouring dozens of mailing lists so their hands are free for the other hundred things they have to do. If they know it, you'd better know it too. Luckily, it's easy as pie.
Ready? It's Sturm und Drang above the fold, but we're all about answers down here. It might seem daunting, but RSS (used interchangeably here with the word "feed") is really pretty simple to use ... sort of like adding Tivo to your web experience. You're about to go from zero to RSS expert in three easy steps.

(1) Get a feed aggregator.

You need an e-mail application to read e-mail, and you need a feed aggregator to read RSS.* Like mail programs, some are web-based, and some are locally installed. If you're starting, don't get bogged down in feature sets as the essential elements are pretty generic; just pick one and go. The old web-based standby is Bloglines. The new hottness is Google Reader. I personally dig SharpReader. There are lots of others. The end result for almost any option is probably going to look something like a mail reader: a list of feeds subscribed to, a list of headlines for a particular feed (or folder of feeds) you've selected, and the text of a particular story you've selected from the headlines. (Image at right from Fagan Finder). And this is where the payoff is. Your list of feeds will highlight themselves when there's new material in them, and your headlines present scannable registers of material into which you can quickly drill without maneuvering around banners, clicking through subsections, or losing track when something interrupts you. Now, instead of a hundred different web sites with different navigations and different update schedules, you've got everything in one place. Or, as Stephanie Quilao explained it:  (Yes, we've cited this before.)

(2) Find some feeds.

Congratulations! You've done the hard part. Now you just need to start locating the feeds for things you want to track. It might take some getting used to, but once you start looking, they're everywhere ... although often in disguise. Increasingly, the icon on the right is becoming a standard RSS symbol -- and look sharp; you'll often see it in the browser bar, where it's a clickable link. For instance: Instead or as well, you might find feeds linked as plain text with a title like "subscribe" or "syndicate", or as clouds of linklets like this: That's a confusing hash of ingredients, but like casserole, it's all ending up in the same place. The branded links ("Bloglines", "NewsGator", "My Yahoo") allow one-click selection if you're using one of the associated services, but you'll undoubtedly want to subscribe to someone -- like, say, us -- that doesn't trifle with that sort of thing or doesn't happen to support yours. Fortunately, the "long" way around is one whole additional click. You don't need to care about the distinctions between RSS, Atom, XML, and the rest, any more than you need to care about the distinctions between an .html page and a .php page to browse the web. Just click on one of the links so named -- it won't look very nice, but don't worry; it's not meant to be read by you in this form -- copy the url, open your feed reader, select "Add" or "Subscribe", and paste in the url.

(3) Repeat Step 2 (x20, x50, x500, whatever).

There's no need to use RSS if there's only one blog you read. The value is in culling information from all over the Internet, alerting you of updates, and allowing stories from multiple sources to be quickly scanned and sorted. So now, you start adding. What to add?

All the major bloggers in your sector.

Whoever you normally read that writes about your issue or your line of work that's interesting, persuasive, or simply widely-read. As this pool grows with the blogosphere, just keep adding them to a common file. Keeping up with the daily output of 40 bloggers is a lot less daunting with RSS.

Whoever is blogging against you

Opposition research made easy: use the same process to keep tabs on the most influential voices opposing you. Blogs are great for testing out memes, and you'll get an advance peek at the memes in the other fellow's lab.

Bloggers who write about your particular line of work

Networks of blogs -- about, say, fundraising, or media work, or organizing -- are a copious professional development resource that are easy enough not to get to if you have to click a bookmark every day but an absolute trove when RSS is doing all the work for you.

Webzines in your sector.

It doesn't have to be a blog to have a feed. Most publications that are more like traditional news outlets now a feed of their own that updates when they publish -- whether that's monthly or repeatedly throughout the day. ... Everything pretty easy so far? Now, we get a little more interesting.

Persistent web searches on keywords.

Let's say you're doing work on health care and you want to know every time there's a news story about health care. A few years ago, you'd need to be a relentless human information aggregator. Today, it's a snap. Start with a site that channels news from all over, like Google News. Search on "health care". Click the RSS link. (Or Atom -- remember, it all amounts to the same thing.) Add to your feed reader. Voila! Google lets you know every time it adds a new article with that term. (More verbose descriptions of this procedure at NetSquared and The Bivings Report.)

... and on Tags, and on ...

The same trick can be employed with searches almost everywhere, and once you get the hang of it, it's an amazingly powerful way to keep a searchlight trained on the obscurest crannies of your cause. For instance, you can get a Technorati feed of the search "health care" to see every time a blog mentions it. Maybe that's a lot of dross. You could instead limit it only to blogs with a lot of authority (i.e., those that are frequently linked to by other blogs) -- and subscribe to a feed of that search. You could get every bookmark tagged "healthcare". You could keep tabs on the results pulled up by a search on "health care" so you know every time they change. And maybe you'd want to keep an eye on Craigslist "health care" job listings in your city. For an example of how this might look in practice, you can visit this small public demo of health care feeds I just set up in bloglines. Of course, this public display doesn't give you all the features you'll have with your own feed reader. This "Quick Start Guide for Educators" (.pdf) can guide you through the basic setup of increasingly specific persistent searches of various kinds -- on particular sites and in particular newsgroups, for instance. You don't have to go to that level of detail to start. One or two basic searches on obvious keywords are like a whole new universe when you haven't been doing them. That might be all you need, or you might find yourself adding more over time. But don't worry as you start about eventually having to drink all the RSS kool-aid on offer. There's a ridiculous amount of low-hanging fruit available at the most casual and readily comprehensible level of adoption. All you have to do it take it. With RSS, 90% of success is just showing up.
*Newer generations of web browsers actually have RSS-reading capabilities baked in. For tracking large numbers of feeds, it's still more efficient to use an aggregator ... and to the extent the two drive towards convergence, everything else in this primer will hold for either.



Great article, Jason. I would add one thing to your list of the blogs to include in your reader--blogs from outside your sector. I think that there's much to be learned from looking at other sectors and models and that we need to get in the habit of going outside our little corner of the world. Our habit of staying in our own yard is one of the reasons that I think we are not always as effective as we could be. Otherwise--good stuff. Thanks for the info.

Excellent piece, Jason

Jason, I think of RSS as an information coping tool. With so much out there, it's very efficient to get the information need to stay informed. I've written a lot of about this here: I've also written a detailed article about ego feeds - or listening - because that is critical use of RSS I also have to agree with Michele's point about thinking outside the field, although nonprofits have so little time that might send them over the edge. One way to manage it, is to create the "circle of the wise" folder in your RSS. A selection (2-5) of people who write on similar topics but are not in your field. You read these folks every morning over coffee after doing email. That's the big habit shift - to make RSS reading a daily habit like email is. On another note, something rattling in my brain - not everyone has to follow feeds. Maybe within the organization, there is the "newsmaster" who reads a lot of stuff and then parses to other people. Anyway, great stuff Jason. Love reading your blog!


Those are excellent suggestions. My feeds have been in need of cleanup for a while; a couple "circles of the wise" and some new blood would probably do them very well. Obviously you can tell the audience in mind here is one that hasn't yet adopted RSS in any way, so I was trying to stay at once basic and specific (a tough line to walk). But I liked your remark, Beth, that it's so much more efficient that e-mail seems like a drag. I meant to also link Alexandra Samuel's article, "How RSS can help you track twice as much news in half the time," which nicely captures the ROI for initial adoption even though a 4x efficiency gain is probably lowballing it.

Great article, I wish everyone would use RSS

I wish half of the organizations I deal with would use RSS to simplify their daily routine and save a ton of time. That being said I have created a couple of screencasts for how to us Google Reader to track RSS feeds and persistent searches as well as tags. Check it out. Intro to Google Reader - Adding RSS feeds from blogs, searches and - Thanks, hopefully I'll have some more in a while on using some other Google products or other RSS aggregators.

Jason, thanks for this post

Jason, thanks for this post as I've seemed to come back to after it a couple of times following our own RSS in house brown bag. The first sentence rocked too. You post did cause at least one person in my org to say, 'that's it, I'm convinced, what news reader do you use' - music to my ears. I'm planning on sharing it today too as we have an internal happy hour about blogging...what does it mean for us?


I'm so glad it's been useful -- thanks for the nice feedback! As long as we're here: your blog is great, and a great concept; I look forward to every new addition.


Thanks for the nice words! I'm not sure I have an answer but I have the same feeling about adding web pages to my world, despite their portability -- I use a local app, which just "feels" friendlier to me. Maybe that's part of the reason. I'd far rather look at SharpReader than Thunderbird most times of day, actually ...

Non-Profits Courses Don't Address this really

Hi all, I had to respond to this, because I am in an MPA program, and while I think the program is pretty good, I was stunned when I did a presentation in class and noone including the professor knew about RSS feeds or Tagging. They were comepletely clueless and these are individuals planning on becoming the next leaders in the Non-Profit sector. People won't start useing RSS Feeds and/or other technology until they really start realizing that "they have to." People think it always costs a lot of money for technology, when in reality it doesn't have to. Victoria


Talk about a digital divide. I'd love to hear more about that.

RSS in plain english: for the visual learners.

Information Overload

Speaking about a very plain approach to coping with information overload, I'm using my own application - Context Organizer - to summarize my reading material. When at a click of a button I see the keywords and the most important sentences - that helps me to quickly decide how useful the information is. In my experience summarization helps with finding specific information in a sea of disparate content and is critical in quickly focusing on the most relevant information. It is certainly very useful in going quickly through my RSS feeds.

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