A Storefront Makeover: Operation Groundswell's Website Redesign

What could be more important these days for a business than their website? For many, if not most, the website has become not just a virtual storefront, but really their only storefront. I know that for my organization, Operation Groundswell, our home on the internet is the primary place that anyone gets their information about us. It's their one stop shop to discover what we do, explore our programming, learn about financial options, and ultimately apply to join us overseas. That's why we made sure to invest both our time and money in creating something that truly speaks to who we are as an organization and the importance of the work that we do at home and abroad. 

Earlier this month, we launched our beautiful new website at A stunning new look that captures the ethos of our organization, clearly elaborates on what it means to travel ethically and volunteer responsibly, showcases the experiences of our alumni through visuals, and really just makes you wanna strap on your backpack and hop on a plane to anywhere.

It was a HUGE proejct and one that I am incredibly proud to have spearheaded. I thought I'd share some of my biggest takeaways...

1. Your team is everything. I've worked on a website redesign only once before, but only on the periphery and that was back when I was just a summer student in university. This time around I was at the forefront leading it and bringing together a diverse team of designers, developers, and SEO experts. I had no real experience in this sort of project nor any real sense of what goes into the process, but having a solid team of self-starters is what made all the difference. Our designers and developers at Loop: Design for Social Good are actually magicians and our SEO consultant Michael Gordon is a no-nonsense perfectionist that always gave us the straight goods. Our head office team at OG is also a wicked mix of meticulous role jugglers that helped with a wide range of tasks from troubleshooting technical issues with our server host right down to painstakingly editing the copy on the website (all while doing their "normal" jobs in finances, program development, and/or fundraising). 

2. A three-month timeline to completely redesign an organizational website complete with SEO and mobile optimization is incredibly ambitious. We all knew that going in, but we went for it anyway. To go from brand analysis to design conceptualization, from development to testing in three months is a huge stretch (some may even say unrealistic). Throw into that mix SEO training and implementation and you're pretty much right on the edge, if not completely over it. Don't do this unless you absolutely have to. You will lose lots of sleep and it will be very, very stressful. 

3. But if you hustle hard and have a dynamic team, you'll pull it off. It really all comes down to your team and your collective determination to see this project through. Admittedly, we missed our target date by fifteen days but given the size and scope of this project, I will still give ourselves a pat on the back because that's still pretty damn close. Bottom line, ANYTHING IS POSSIBLE. 

4. Communicate effectively and frequently...even if you feel like a nuisance! Working with external contractors requires an extra effort to effectively communicate their responsibilities, as well as your expecations and timelines. It's one thing for me to work with our crew at head office who I see every day and whose working styles I've grown accustom to, it was an entirely other thing to communicate and coordinate with external designers and consultants. Even with a really phenomenal team, it was a challenge to stay conscious about openly collaborating and keeping all lines of communication as free flowing as possible. (But maybe don't text your developer past 2 a.m. Sorry, Ryan!) 

5. Plan for unexpected obstacles. We switched servers to allow for greater space and bandwidth on our site. All was going well and we were all set to launch a week after our initial target date. Not bad considering the tight timeline we had to begin with. But of course, just as we're about to launch, we encounter major issues making our dev site completely inaccessible. I'll spare you the technical details but it cost us at least an additional week in delays. Make room in your timeline for unforeseen issues. Anticipate the delays so they don't even become delays! 

6. Going live doesn't mean it's over. It's actually just the beginning. The website is up. It's unbelievably beautiful. We love it. But that doesn't mean it's perfect. We're still in the process of testing different elements and improving the user experience. We're carefully tracking Google Analytics to see how our new website stacks up to our old one, what paths visitors are taking through the website, and if they're getting to the information they're looking for. We've set up a heat and scroll map to observe where visitors are clicking or where they are (or not) scrolling to. We're conducting live tests with volunteers to gain an understanding of their impressions not just of the website, but also who we are. So even though we've launched, this is still very much a work-in-progress and we're ready to take all the data and insight we glean from these tests and make the necessary changes to make the site even better.

7. Wearing many hats is my secret weapon. I won't say anymore on that. 

There are a ton more tiny little lessons that I've learned, but these are the biggies. I hope you'll take some time to browse around, make yourselves feel at home, and share any feedback you might have (good and bad!).


Celebrating Literacy this Holiday Season from Canada to Kenya

The stockings have been hung and filled with goodies at the Operation Groundswell head office, our Early Bird prize is just waiting to be handed out, and two sets of teams are ready to start their winter adventure to Guatemala. So what else is there to do? Celebrate, of course!!

We've had a tremendously exciting and successful year and we are ending the year with style this Sunday, December 16 at Handlebar in Toronto's Kensington Market. We're bringing together our alumni from all years and all places to spread some holiday cheer while boogie-ing down to some electro-reggae jams (is there a better way to celebrate?!). And in the spirit of giving, we're asking everyone to bring a children's book (elementary school level) as a cover charge. We'll be donating these books to our partner, the Young County Change Makers, who recently opened up a community library in Kisumu, Kenya! You can RSVP here and don't forget to bring your friends and family too!

Painting YCCM's Community Library

This book drive is extra special to me as I was lucky enough to work directly with Mike, Brian, Winnie, Steve, and Zaq, the inspiring people behind YCCM. I traveled to East Africa with Operation Groundswell this summer where our team helped to paint and put the final touches on this community library. In the informal settlement of Nyalenda where there is little to no access to electricity, families must rely on paraffin candles to light up their homes at night. It's a pricey expense and many go without light. Children are unable to do their homework or continue their learning after school without this basic necessity. YCCM saw this gap and recognized the need for a safe and productive space where children can finish their homework and learn to read. Their development of the community library has allowed for this.

Reading at the YCCM community library

Our team was on the ground when the library was just bare bones and it's been amazing to receive updates from YCCM about the library's progress and see photos of the space full of children. "I share, with a lot of joy, that we host over 45 children every day since the library's opening in July," says Winnie. "It overwhelmed us since we didn't expect so many, but felt so satisfied when they kept coming back! We felt like we found an answer to a question that no one had been able to address in the area."

YCCM recently held their own fundraiser within the Nyalenda community for the purchase of primary and high school books.  Mike told me the other day, "We managed to raise the money for 100 text books for both children in primary and high schools, a very encouraging move!"

At Operation Groundswell, we're hoping to help continue this momentum for change and success in Nyalenda during our own holiday party. So this coming Sunday, come out and celebrate a year of incredible travels, solid partnerships, and literacy from Canada to Kenya!  

Brain Pickings: Trivia Night for Philippines Disaster Relief

Hit by the strongest and deadliest of storms, the Philippines faces one of the largest humanitarian disasters in recent memory. Super Typhoon Haiyan/Yolanda has killed approximately 4000 people and displaced millions of others, leaving truly immense destruction and devastation in its wake. 

Join me at 7 p.m. next Tuesday, November 26 for a trivia night fundraiser to support the disaster relief effort in the Philippines. 

It's only $5 to compete and Pour Girl is generously donating 10% of all sales on food and beverages. All proceeds will go to Gawad Kalinga, a Filipino non-governmental organization, to support the rebuilding and reconstruction process. GK is on the ground rehabilitating damaged homes and relieving crowded evacuation centres in affected areas. 

RSVP on Facebook and get ready to put your thinking caps on! It'll be a night of nerdy goodness! 

Makeshift's Trade Issue: Beyond the Greenbacks and Silver Dollars

Old for new, this for that, goods for cash. Exchanging goods, services, skills, land—even people—has pushed the world toward its current state. And, for better or for worse, it underpins our modern world. The latest issue of Makeshift Magazine explores the intricate labyrinth of trade around the world. But we're not talking about Wall Street here. We're talking about inventive exchanges and backroom deals. This latest issue features everything from analog wire transfers in the Middle East, organ swapping in China, and bustling exchange in the Nakivale refugee camp.

I had the opportunity to sit down with the community organizers behind the Trade School Toronto (TSTO) and write about this growing global network of learning spaces that run exclusively on barter. Anyone can teach a class and students attend with barter items that the teacher requests. Two-hour classes run the gamut from urban forestry to learning the 8-count lindy hop. And you can learn it all for the price of a vegan meal, a song, a baking sheet, or even just the simple promise to try swing dancing again. TSTO and its equivalents around the world is a manifestation of the move away from traditional educational systems to alternative, more accessible learning models.

Get an insider's look at offbeat, dirty, ingenious, and original tales of trade from street levels around the world by grabbing your copy of Makeshift Magazine here.