Nonprofit Online Community Software: Small World Community

Build’s team has spent many years helping nonprofit clients to improve their constituent relationship management. In the course of performing this work, we research countless software options, including within the “online community” category—about which we recently published a blog series: “Driving Nonprofit Impact with Online Communities.

One software product that intrigues us is Small World Community, offered by Personify. Build recently sat down with Personify’s Chief Strategy and Marketing Officer, Michael Wilson, to learn about the history and vision for that product.

Overcoming barriers to communication and collaboration

Prior to its acquisition by Personify (November 2015), Small World Community was owned by an independent company called “Small World Labs,” of which Michael Wilson was founder and CEO. The idea for Small World Community is very much a byproduct of his personal life experience.

Michael grew up in a family with two deaf parents. His father was born deaf due to a genetically inherited trait; his mother lost her ability to hear as an infant, due to spinal meningitis. Michael and his sister could hear—they were essentially bilingual, with the ability to communicate both verbally and through signing with their parents.

That experience was formative for Michael. As he put it during our interview:

Before the Internet, my parents lived very informational and socially isolated lives.  They weren’t hermits, but just because of the inability to communicate, they would interact with each other, my brother and my sister, me.

Once a year, we’d have a family reunion where about a quarter of my father’s siblings were deaf, three quarters were not.  And then the random person that we would see walking down the mall signing—my dad would make a B-line and talk to them because it was so rare.

Michael Wilson, Chief Strategy and Marketing Officer, Personify Corp.

But Michael’s family were early adopters of consumer technology. The entry of the Internet to the home was a game changer for Michael’s parents—connecting them in more direct and intimate ways not only to the larger deaf community, but also to the entire world.

A history of Small World Labs

The start of Small World Labs began from Michael’s family experiences joined with a perceived business opportunity. Michael wanted to create a platform that provided the next generation of capabilities that would enable people to “connect, engage, collaborate, share, and mobilize for a cause.”

Small World Labs launched its first online community for a customer in 2006. In the beginning, it provided member profiles, basic networking, and photo sharing. Over time, it added page-building, collaboration and sharing tools, and more. You can read our post that highlights key features for online community software—today’s Small World Community provides these features.

Early in the company’s development, Small World Labs realized that it would need to build a services team—not just to support the technology, but also the people that were leveraging the technology. This helped supplement customers’ internal capabilities, allowing them to be successful whether or not they had a web designer, or could hire a full-time community manager, or an engagement strategist. (There are many skills needed to make an online community successful.)

Small World Labs was acquired by Personify Corp in November 2015, at which time the product was rebranded “Small World Community” and positioned alongside Personify’s flagship product, Personify360.

The future of Small World Community

We perceived Small World Labs as primarily oriented towards charitable organizations, while Personify Corp is known more for association management software. As an advocate for our clients, we always take care to review recent product acquisitions carefully, to see if we can learn whether the acquired product is likely to continue delivering a high level of value to its traditional client base. So, we asked Michael Wilson a couple of key related questions. Here’s what we learned.

Personify is a major player in the association management software space. Will Small World Community narrow its focus to that part of the nonprofit sector? No. Personify sees itself as becoming a larger player within the nonprofit digital engagement space, and views its investment in Small World in part as technology acquisition but also the opportunity to learn more about, and serve more directly, other parts of the nonprofit market.

Will Small World continue to integrate with Blackbaud products and other platforms (not provided by Personify)? Yes. Personify does not see itself as providing a solution for every need. Integration with other industry-leading solutions represents an opportunity, not a threat.

Will Personify continue to invest in developing the Small World product? Yes. Small World Community is being presented as a cornerstone product for Personify. Note its pride of place on the Personify website and Personify’s choice of Michael Wilson, Small World’s founder and CEO, as Personify’s Chief Strategy and Marketing Officer. The team working on the Small World product has grown roughly 40% in the past year.

It will be very interesting to see how the Small World Community product continues to grow over the next several years—and perhaps even more interesting to learn how Personify and its other products change to embrace more of the nonprofit space.

Our viewpoint on Small World Community

In our analysis, Build is impressed both by the Small World Community product and the people we have encountered at Personify. We are impressed with the product’s history, its integrations with other leading nonprofit CRM platforms, its present-day feature set, and the support services provided.

Small World Community has grown steadily, and today counts the American Heart Association, the United Nations Foundation, and Blackbaud among its success stories—among other customers that range widely in size and mission orientation.

Small World Community isn’t right for every non-profit’s online community needs. But they are a leading competitor in the space. Evaluating the Small World Community product will help set your expectations for what is available within the online community category, regardless of whether it ends up being the best solution for you. Learn how to choose the right software for your needs.