It’s my pleasure to present the first in a series of interviews we’re doing with a few of the many nonprofits who have been awarded one of the Firespring Foundation’s nonprofit website grants. We’re excited to be able to talk with and feature nonprofit leaders who are making a difference in the world and are doing the hard work of engaging with their constituents, all with the help of a powerful website.

Our interview today is with Jeanie Thompson, Executive Director at the Alabama Writers’ Forum. I got to ask Jeanie a few questions about the organization’s work and vision for 2013–she had insightful things to say that would benefit nonprofits across the board. Read on!

Interview with Jeanie Thompson of the Alabama Writers’ Forum

Marc Koenig: In a few sentences, what would you say is the most important work that the Alabama Writers’ Forum is doing today?

Jeanie Thompson: The Alabama Writers’ Forum exists to promote writers and writing in our state. One of the things we do is try to help the general reading public know about writers who are our state’s best, most important living authors: the ones who are known not just around Alabama, but around the country and even internationally.

The other mission that we have is to encourage our new young writers. We do this through a variety of educational programs and literary contests for high school students.

What we are not is a literary, historical organization. We promote contemporary writers.

MK: In other words, you’re very much for people who enjoy reading and literature in general, not just for authors specifically.

JT: Right. ‘Writers’ Forum’ is a little bit of a misnomer, but if you say ‘readers’ instead of ‘writers,’ then the next step over is into literacy. We are not an organization that promotes literacy. We are about helping people find authors they might want to read.

MK: Connecting the readers and the writers for mutual benefit.

JT: That’s it!

MK: In your own words, what have been some of the biggest day-to-day challenges about running your nonprofit?

JT: The biggest challenge that I have is to be an efficient manager of an organization operating with a staff that’s about one fifth the size it needs to be, and on a budget that needs to be about 100 percent bigger.

In other words, the biggest challenge is to be a very good manager with limited resources.

MK: What’s your future vision for the AWF? What’s the next step toward that goal?

JT: In 2013, we’re trying to expand an initiative called “Writing our Stories,” which is a creative writing program that was originally started for incarcerated youth.

This program is about 16 years old, and we’ve published more than 50 anthologies of student work as a part of this program. What we’re trying to do in 2013 is take the curriculum to regular public schools (in other words, schools not for youth offenders), to help educators teach the reading and writing of literature.

We have a curriculum with 31 lessons, we know how it works and we know how to get kids to write. This is something that we have absolutely no doubt succeeds. But we’re trying to take it to a bigger universe of students and teachers in the state of Alabama.

We’ve been part of the intervention process–we’ve had the opportunity to teach creative writing for the Alabama Department of Youth Services, which is the state agency that’s charged with rehabilitating adjudicated youth. So, what we’re trying to do in 2013 is develop a partnership with a certain region of Alabama that has a lot of rural schools where there might be a need for a preventative for kids who may be at risk.

MK: What’s the most interesting way your website has helped you connect with your constituents?

JT: We hope for our website to be a point of information, so that readers can come here to find information about writers, and writers can come here to find information about services.

One way that we connect with our constituent writers is by having what we call the literary resources directory. We connect with our constituent writers by giving them a place to tell about themselves, link to their books, link to their publishers, tell whether they’re available for readings, and so on. This is a direct service for writers that’s free. It’s on the Web, so if you Google, say, Alabaman author Mark Childress, it’s going to bring you to his listing on our site, which may have some information you might not find otherwise.

We want to be a point of information for people about the variety of Alabama writers.

MK: What are you hoping to incorporate or improve for your online presence in 2013 – and why?

JT: I would really like to improve our video and the podcasts. We would like to have more and better videos of writers and writing events embedded in the website. That’s the area that I think we need to put some imagination and thought to, instead of just having a string of videos. It’s not where I’d like that to be yet.

There’s plenty of room for growth there. But it all comes down to staffing.

MK: What do you think will be your biggest challenge for growth as a nonprofit organization in 2013? 

JT: The biggest challenge is money. Because the state of Alabama–like many states–took a hit in its state budget and we had previously been getting a lot of our funds through state sources, we took a very big hit in the 2012 fiscal year budget. And we’re trying to recover from that hit by shifting the paradigm of how we are funded as best we can, by developing some more partnerships, like the one we discussed earlier, or by trying to be a little more creative with our corporate gift requests and looking toward doing some major fundraiser.

MK: That’s really interesting and encouraging to hear. We’re finding the nonprofits that will continue to function are realizing they need to be more creative–with their fundraising, their online presence, figuring out a way to personally reach out to specific donors. There definitely is a shift, and the most agile nonprofits can actually stand to benefit from being forced to make changes. So I think it’s great your organization is thinking that way.

JT: We’re not different from anybody else in the nonprofit universe, but that’s the biggest challenge to growth: funding. If we had more funds, we could provide more services. So, we’re looking at things like, for instance–looking into a way we could use something like Kickstarter.

Optimizing the website for search engines is something I hope we’ll be making some improvements on in the next month or so, too. We’re hoping to figure out how to make more people see the website, and drive more traffic to it.

And as always, we’re excited to continue our mission of both promoting Alabama’s successful adult writers and encouraging the next generation of writers and young authors.

MK: Thanks for your time! It was a pleasure chatting with you.

JT: Same here. Good luck with your writing!

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Check out the Alabama Writers’ Forum website to see the work they’re doing. Thanks again to Jeanie and the Alabama Writers’ Forum for sharing their vision for 2013!

Inspired? Find out more about the Firespring Foundation website grants.