Simple mobile tools yield community impact in Grand Rapids

Communities / Article

The following blog post is written by Amy Grahan, a journalist, editor, trainer and media consultant. It is cross-posted from the Knight Digital Media Center’s blog

Should community foundations have a mobile strategy? Why not? For the last three years the Grand Rapids (Mich.) Community Foundation has included mobile in its community information and outreach efforts. Here’s what they’ve done, and how it’s working.

Launching a mobile-friendly website was the first step on the mobile path for the Grand Rapids Community Foundation. (Go check out that link on your smartphone.) Currently about one fourth of its web traffic comes from mobile devices.

Roberta King, vice president of public relations and marketing, explained their intent with mobile: “It’s about customer service – meeting our customers where they are and making the experience easy for them.”

The foundation’s first thought was to build a downloadable mobile app, and they discussed this idea with the Community Media Center – a Grand Rapids-based organization that helps nonprofits deploy technology.

The staff at Community Media Center made the point that the The Grand Rapids Community Foundation website already offered a full array of information and services. What more would an app do? “I couldn’t come up with something else that an app would do,” said King. “An app has to do something more than deliver info. So we decided to just make our website easier for mobile users.”

The Community Media Center then talked the foundation through what it would take to create a mobile website. Together they looked at the full site’s most popular content, and also prioritized what GRCF wanted people to know about the foundation and its programs. They then created a scaled-down version of the full site which displayed and worked well on small touchscreens. Certain kinds of content (news, staff changes, etc.) automatically feed into the mobile site.

In technical terms, The Grand Rapids Community Foundation‘s mobile website is a separate mobile website that’s powered by the same content management system as their full site. So far the mobile site has been through one redesign. It’s not simply a mobile-friendly theme (stylesheet) applied to the full site, nor does it use responsive web design (although King said that’s probably in a future redesign).

Having a separate site allows The Grand Rapids Community Foundation to deliver a smaller, more selective and customized subset of its content to mobile users, focusing on basic information rather than complex tasks. For example, both versions of the site allow visitors to make direct cash donations to the foundation or its programs. In addition, the full The Grand Rapids Community Foundation site offers complete details on other more complex types of donations (annuities, real estate, etc.). In contrast, the mobile website only covers these options very briefly, since it’s unlikely that anyone would want to begin the process of donating real estate via their smartphone.

Similarly, King noted: “You can learn about how to apply for a grant on a mobile site, but not actually apply via the mobile site. It’s a pretty complex process, you have to provide a lot of information, so that’s easier on a computer.”

This year, The Grand Rapids Community Foundation added a new mobile tactic: Text messaging.

Among its many programs, The Grand Rapids Community Foundation also provides scholarships. Applying for a scholarship is also a complex, time-consuming task that requires writing essays, providing financial information, and more — again, not something people would want to do on a small touchscreen. And in fact, it’s a process that people often don’t fully complete even on a computer. GRCF found that using text messages to remind people to finish incomplete scholarship applications increased the number of applications received.

“Two years ago we received a large gift for scholarships from the Meijer Corp., a major family-owned grocery chain, for us to manage a scholarship on their behalf for Meijer employees and their families. We started noticing that these applicants had a lower completion rate, compared to applicants for other scholarships we manage. We’re not exactly sure why they were leaving their applications incomplete, but those forms are complicated, people run out of time, some people may have had language barriers, there are all sorts of issues. So we asked, what could we do to encourage people to complete their applications? Maybe we’d do better to text them. So now on this grant application, applicants are required to provide their mobile phone number.”

GRCF hired a text messaging service provider to help them manage their texting list and transmit messages for this project. Applications for the Meijer scholarship opened in January. In mid-February, all applicants who had an incomplete application in the system were sent a text message that said: “Reminder: 6 more weeks to complete your application. If you need help, call us.”

Further reminders about incomplete applications were sent out at the end of February and at the beginning and end of March. “We did see bumps in completed applications after each reminder,” said King. “They may not be huge numbers, but even if it’s five more people, for a program like this that’s really important. It worked, that’s why we kept doing it.”

Encouraged by their experience with the mobile web and text reminders, The Grand Rapids Community Foundation intends to keep finding more ways to use mobile technology to engage and serve their community. “Mobile will become more and more important to us moving forward to remain relevant — not just to younger people, but also to older audiences and to everyone using this technology. We need to have it and stay with it in order to stay connected. We don’t want anyone to drop off our radar for any reason,” said King.

“Don’t be afraid of trying something. The Grand Rapids Community Foundation is fearless. If some of what we try in mobile doesn’t work, at least we would have given it a good try. Don’t be afraid of technology, afraid that it’s going to cost you a lot — it probably won’t.”

By Amy Grahan, a journalist, editor, trainer and media consultant.