by John Borst

For over a decade of conventions, RI has spent considerable energy promoting the creation of club websites as a means of informing the public of the work of local Rotarians as well as the good works of Rotary International.

This has, we all hope, had the double advantage of recruiting new Rotarians in the process.

At the same time, almost no attention has been paid to promoting or discussing District websites. This is unfortunate because, in my opinion, the district website is as vital to the organizational success of Rotary, in the modern age, as is Rotary central. A good argument can even be made that it is more important than the role of RI’s own website.

Although too many districts make a farce of geopolitical realities (a topic for another time), it is the District through which most initiatives of Rotary are or have been traditionally coordinated. Programs such as local and global grants, youth exchange, friendship exchange, peace fellows, and training are all organized through the District.

So what are some of the features a district website might include?

Some of the most obvious and  common pages should include the District’s organizational structure and personnel from the Board of Directors with its all-important Executive Committee to the various committees and sub-committees responsible for the various programs listed above.

Similarly, each program requires a description which includes its main features, personnel with contact information, and brief descriptions of the initiatives currently underway including access to application forms.

Both of these components usually make up the heart of the tabs menu which is a common feature of tradition websites.

These two prerequisite components are also a huge undertaking and in my experience are the most difficult components of a district website to keep up. My policy has been to insist that those in charge of each portfolio have as part of their responsibility to inform the web editor of any updates and changes that need to be made.

Regrettably, few leaders give much thought to keeping their portion of their District website up-to-date. This can range from the District Governor to a chair of some small sub-committee. Hopefully, this is a transitory phenomenon as a new generation of web-savvy Rotarian leaders takes up the reigns.

At the club level, the creation and maintenance of a site is more than likely to be the work of one Rotarian. This is simply not possible at the District level. Even the components described above require one to three persons, especially because the information changes on an annual basis and is most heavy in the summer holiday months.

I would maintain, however, that the District site should go much beyond just being a good source for Rotarians to learn about and be involved in Rotary International initiatives.

It should also be a place where Rotarians can learn what other District Rotarians are doing in their clubs and communities. As well it can be a place where District Rotarians can learn what is happening throughout the Rotary world in an easy to access way.

Keeping both of these features current is also a monumental task and ideally requires the assistance of one or two volunteers for each component.

All of the above features, however, highlight one of the most important differences between the club and District websites. Whereas the club site is directed at non-Rotarians and outward to the community, the District site should be directed inwardly to Rotarians and Rotary activities.

Recently, this has caused a bit of a stir within the District 5550 community with some Rotarians believing that, like the club site, it should be a place where non-Rotarians can investigate Rotary or even join a club.

My position is that since the District’s primary focus is its members this feature is unnecessary. In the spirit of compromise, however, it was easy to create a sub-full-width banner which would take a person to Rotary International’s excellent series of pages informing and leading potential new members to local clubs.

d5550-banner-688x355

As if the foregoing were not enough to keep a website editor busy, website design and layout are continuously changing. Five years ago when I inherited the District website, it was formatted using Version One, of the ClubRunner CMS. My job was to rearrange it in Version Two. Since then Version Three has been released and more recently an expanded range of “next generation” formats have been provided.

The task of design is much larger than just knowing how the particular Content Management System (CMS) functions. One needs to consider the three key platforms upon which the home page of the site may be viewed: desktops and laptops, tablets and smartphones. Ideally, quick, easily readable text and graphics should lead one to delve more deeply into a topic literally with the tap of a finger.

Not being a professional in this field, it has been my practice to monitor the design parameters of five major newspapers as they appear in each of the above modes. The differences are most pronounced with tablets. They present some of the greatest variety of new and innovative content layouts.

Using the most common three column ClubRunner template, I was aware that the D5550 site had taken on a cluttered look and with the challenge of upgrading to one of the Next Gen formats, I borrowed another increasingly important feature from the newspapers.

district-5550-sectionsNewspapers have taken to dividing their tablet websites into five or six main sections such as Feature news, community, opinions, sports, business or lifestyle. I decided to emulate this practice. The Feature news was the best of the District, Clubs, International and Opinion sections.

Yes, the District site should have a place for opinion and commentary. District 5550 has its own blog but this new arrangement now permits pieces from other bloggers and our Rotary leaders to be shared.

To gather club news one needs to monitor the news on the District Club’s websites. Another useful tool is to establish a Google Alert for each club so that when a club is featured in a community newspaper a link to that story can be provided.

In a somewhat similar fashion Rotary International supplies either e-mail feeds or RRS feeds to its news stories, weekly or monthly newsletters, and Rotary Voices blog.

Using this approach means the District 5550 site has become an aggregation of news features. Aggregators have been around for many years. In their most recent guise Apps such as Flipboard and Mashable have taken the technique to new levels of sophistication.

Example of aggregation
Example of aggregation

In terms of layout, the link is embedded in a 300 by 200 pixel picture or graphic with a title in text superimposed upon it. The actual story is not visible on the Home page but is housed in the story library.  The illustration on this page provides an example of the simplicity of this design.

Finally, two additional features should be considered.

Every manager of both a club and district website should be monitoring the site,s traffic statistics. Only in this way will the club know if its effort is paying dividends measured in increased viewership. The goal should be to increase traffic by a minimum of 10 or more percent annually. This is especially true of the portion of traffic coming from within the District. If as a web administrator one does not know that figure one is falling down on the job. Google Analytics is the godfather of such data but StatsCounter works fine on ClubRunner CMS as well.

More controversial is the issue of ads on Rotary websites. Personally, I am a strong supporter of advertisements on Rotary websites. This permits Rotarians to support other Rotarian’s businesses which after all was one of the founding principles upon which Rotary was formed. It also helps to defray some of the cost of hosting the website.

At this point in time Rotary’s central leadership has provided little discussion through its conventions or Zone institutes on what makes up a good quality District website. Similarly, few District leaders have given much thought to what such a website might optimally look like. In general, it has been left up to District web managers to experiment with District content.

District website management seems caught in the middle, something that has been more evident since Rotary International created its new design. It is now time for Rotary’s leadership to pay more attention to this important communication vehicle.

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