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May 2010

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Dear Aspen and Beth,

Thank you for sharing the story of how Exhale's online community came together.

I do agree that there is too much emphasis on getting someone to "come out" with their story for a fundraising purpose. It is not dignifying to the person, and speaks of the sensationalism and entertainment our culture is now focusing on. Often, what a nonprofit should do, if they wish to focus on such dramatic stories, is take several peoples stories and get a third, unrelated person to tell the story, emotionally, in public. That way no one's privacy is compromised, and the conglomerate story is told by someone uninvolved with that particular person's story.

I would like to share a story, also from the women's movement, about a domestic violence organization that tried to create online community.

This organization had a myspace page, and did not have a friend acceptance policy. (Except for obvious spam requests.) One day a woman wanted to "friend" the organization on myspace. She was a friend to other DV orgs online, so she was accepted. Later, it came out in the programs that we were friending survivors who came from our own shelter, which could pose a safety risk to them. So the whole page was taken down.

I talk about this example to illustrate the importance of privacy and of allowing women to tell their stories and be part of a private community, something Myspace and Facebook do not foster. If only other Domestic Violence organizations had resources such as Exhale, allowing people to speak candidly about their experiences, in a safe place. We would all be much better off building a safe community as well planned and executed as Exhale's.

Aspen Baker

This is such a great story. Thank you so much for sharing it. This is a great example of some of the stories we heard in our conversations about whether or not to start a community, and how we wanted to go about doing it. The need for privacy is very real.

I do want to clarify what you mean, when you write "if only other Domestic Violence organizations had resources such as Exhale." Do you mean if DV orgs had the financial resources like Exhale has? If that's the case, I want to let you know that in 2009, Exhale's annual budget was $360,000 and we received no dedicated institutional funding to build the online community, and we receive no government support. We held a fundraising campaign in the summer of 2009 to support the launch of our online community and through donations of $25 and $50 we raised $20,000 for it.

In 2009 we had 3 full-time staff people, including myself, and we leveraged an amazing amount of volunteer labor towards the community, as well as our other programs. A staff person with no previous technical experience built the community by following how-to manuals and guides. We used free social networking platforms.

Do I wish we had more? Heck, yes. We fundraised tirelessly for institutional support in 2008, right as the economy-tanked. We decided not to wait for financial support and to move forward the way we always have: through a grassroots effort that makes the most of what we have and that leverages the strengths and talents of our volunteers and staff.

Now, in order for the community to grow and reach more people, we absolutely need additional financial support.

Do I recommend this boot-strap, do it anyway without any money, process? I don't know. It was and it is, very very difficult. And yet, for us it felt critical to where we wanted to take our organization. We were tired of talking about what we wanted to do and we were ready to build some experiences around our ideas, even if they were small in scale.

It's not an easy choice and many times I wasn't sure if we made the right one. At the least, I hope we contribute some new thinking and new strategies to the conversation about how nonprofits can use social networking in their programs.

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