Virtual Facilities are nothing new; in fact, they have been used for years by groups of people in different locations wishing to collaborate on ideas and projects. Typically these are secure online collaborative workspaces designed to enhance the exchange of information among a project team working from different locations. The term Collaboratory was coined as far back as 1989 by William Wulf while he worked for the US National Science Foundation. Wulf’s vision was a “center without walls”; a place in which the nation’s researchers could interact with colleagues, share data, and access information in digital libraries all from geographically dispersed locations.
Since then, rapid advances in computing and communications technologies, such as the internet, social media and mobile (Smart Phone) technology have made near real-time delivery of information quite common. Average people have become adept at sharing such things as music, photographs, schedules, ideas, opinions and messages all in real time over the internet; to many, this has become their preferred medium of communication with third parties. Recognizing this, many progressive organizations have recently deployed Live Chat technology on their websites, allowing the public to interact directly with sales or customer service staff without having to pick up the phone or visit a facility.
This is just one example of ways that a member-based non-profit organization like the YMCA could extend their brand and their mission beyond the physical boundaries of their bricks and mortar facility. Imagine being able to communicate with a virtual Health Coach where you could get exercise and nutritional advice right from the comfort of your own computer. Some people prefer to exercise outdoors, perhaps jogging or cycling; imagine if these weekend warriors had online tools where they could plan their workouts, set goals and objectives and track their progress—all while being held accountable to their fitness program by their personal trainer who resides inside their iPad. Other compelling virtual solutions include an online Health Assessment, Symptom Checker, Health Calculators, Recipes, Online Learning and Positive Coaching Courses. There is certainly no better way to reach out to today’s youth than through this medium. The opportunities are endless but the journey might seem more daunting than the destination.
In a recent survey I asked several of our YMCA customers if they viewed their websites as a critical tool for mission delivery and the answer was a unanimous “Yes!” The next question I asked them was whether they thought their members found their websites to be a useful source of information and the answer was a resounding “No!”—curious disconnect. It seems that although many progressive member-based nonprofit organizations understand the importance of this medium, few have the time or resources to invest in delivering the online tools that drive member engagement and positively impact the community.
The good news is that most of this technology already exists and there is no need to reinvent the wheel. Live Chat again is a good example—there are literally hundreds of different options to choose from—and most of them are easy to deploy and work rather well. Online health and wellness tools are common too, as are learning solutions. The challenge is identifying the best-of-breed providers and integrating their solutions into a useful online offering. For this, finding the right development partner who is focused on mission delivery solutions could be the best answer. While not entirely painless, the dream of a complete and interactive “center without walls” for a member-based nonprofit is not that far off.