Help a newbie blogger out

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 07, 2005

A few days ago, I got a letter from a reader named Randy:

I am father to a 2 1/2 yr old girl with her second cancer who is going for a bone marrow transplant in late March. I have just started to think about fundraising when I was forwarded your interview in Wired and it got me thinking that perhaps I could use the same approach to raise money for Julia.

I have been keeping a blog since she was diagnosed the 2nd time on 12/30/04. Although I am a web architect, I know next to nothing about blogs and am spending all my time researching cancer. Thus, the format, graphics, and look and feel have been completely neglected — the main focus has been the content in order to — keep a record for family, journal for Julia for when she is older, help me philosophize about life and put her illness into perspective, etc.

I was hoping you could give me some tips on getting started — some questions that come to mind:

- Finding an ISP that allows you access to the servers (I am currently hosted at Geocities and would have to upgrade just to get PHP and MySQL).

- How to set up processing for micropayments? (We have a fundraising idea around Julia’s treatment and progress which would require periodic debit from an account.)

- Tips for building traffic.

- Links to 1) sites that help a blogger, 2) sites to blogs you would consider top-notch, anything else you feel is useful

I know I could find this stuff myself, but I was hoping that you could jump me up the learning curve so that I could get Jules’ site up and running.

I emailed him some recommendations but I figured you folks would have some good advice as well. Are there alternatives to PayPal for donations? Tips and sites for beginning bloggers would be helpful as well…Google was only moderately helpful and most links I found skew towards business uses of blogs. Try and keep the duplicate information to a minimum and when in doubt, be more verbose rather than less…”Bitpass is good for micropayments because…” rather than “Try Bitpass”. Alright, go.

Reader comments

ChrisMar 07, 2005 at 9:36AM

For Blogging you can try http://modblog.com it its a great service that is free and you can customize it.

AndykMar 07, 2005 at 9:41AM


I would be willing to host the site for free as I have a reseller account with loads of spare space. To give him a jump start I can also install pretty much any PHP powered blogging system for him (text pattern, pmachine pro etc). All he would need is a domain name.

Feel free to pass on my details.


DaveMar 07, 2005 at 9:42AM

There’s a great online journal(www.darn-tootin.com) that deals with a family’s attempt to deal with a child’s congenital brain disease.

Eric WintherMar 07, 2005 at 9:55AM

Hi Guys! I tell you something:Just now I began to make a MT weblog for a fund-raising project. To be honest I was inspired by Jason. What I read what he was going to do, it was like finding new horizons in my life.So this morning I began to make my weblog and now when I checked here, I was amazed. You have come to give hope to the people Jason!Thanks a lot. I can also host the site for free.Thanks you guys!

florianMar 07, 2005 at 10:05AM

Can somebody look into this so we know it’s somebody honest … and there is a girl ? Before we all start donating.

DejanMar 07, 2005 at 10:08AM

If Andy can offer free hosting for Randy site blog that will be great .. instead Randy, You can find these days cheap hosting as litle as $3 per month, domain name about $7 .. And it’s better to have Your own hosting then to be registered on some mass bloging site.

Randy when You start Your site feel free to email me Your link. I’ll put it on my site. stonehr@yahoo.com

bretMar 07, 2005 at 10:10AM

well…if you are going to do the site yourself (like im in the process of coding…but since i code all day i generally dont feel like it when i get home…ok now im just babbling), i might recommend going through ipowerweb because they allow php and mysql.

other than that…if anyone knows a way for me to motivate myself into actually coding my own site for a change…please feel free to tell me.

Andrew KMar 07, 2005 at 10:22AM

As far as building traffic, getting mentioned here on Kottke.org will help Randy out. That said, I’m having some trouble locating his current blog. Is Julia the girl at Phoenix Children’s Hospital, by any chance? I don’t want to barge in with the links, but it might be useful to see what you’ve got (blog-wise) at the moment so we can offer sensible advice?

BryceMar 07, 2005 at 10:29AM

Here’s a suggestion for Jason. Why don’t you put together a white-paper/fact-sheet kind of document (similar to your 2004 voting guide) with the collected input of these comments, plus whatever resources you’ve already recommended. Call it ‘Running a Donations-based Site with Available Web Services’ o rsomething..

Btw, was Dropcash in your emailed recommendations? Anyway, I find the static linkable resource page to be a compelling… um, resource, I guess. With the bonus of some editorial quality control. Throwing up a call for requests is easy, and also very valuable, but the end-result is often hard to sift through. (One of my favorite such discussions was this one to find Meg a new hosting provider - a lot of good opinion in there, and it helped me choose my own provider. But by the 3d or 4th posting, it’s already become a jumble.

Another good example of the edited Resource Page format is the Six Apart Guide to Combatting Comment Spam.

just a suggestion…

MerlinMar 07, 2005 at 10:40AM

Not the exact answer you’d requested, but I’d just recommend he do a TypePad blog and put up a Paypal link in the siderail. I’m happy to throw him a blog on my acct. for free (provided you’re sure this isn’t a Kaycee Nicole thing).

Unless he needs more sophisticated functionality and server control, that’s 30 minutes to an hour end to end, and it’s back to the content, as it should be.

Good use for Dropcash, too, obviously.

Phil PeterMar 07, 2005 at 10:41AM

I would suggest looking into the Serendipity PHP Weblog System for creating the blog. It’s simple enough to use, in my experience.

I would suggest spending time finding as many related sites as possible and contacting them for their advice on anything that feel would help and also to ask for some free publicity to help your cause.

If you also provide content that is of real value to people in similar situations or people researching the topic you will more and more interest.

Chad BakerMar 07, 2005 at 10:45AM

Another great host is AQHost.com. I’m currently running a MT blog there and have had excellent technical support. While they don’t natively support MT (they have “Fantastico” which allows you to create instances of other open-source / free blogs, portals, wikis, etc. with a few clicks), they will install it for you if you provide the install.

Marc KermischMar 07, 2005 at 11:31AM

If this person has not checked in with the LAF.org web site he should. LAF provides grants and other support for those battling and surviving cancer.

DuncanMar 07, 2005 at 11:35AM

RealTime Cancer hosts blogs for cancer patients on our Portal (http://portal.realtimecancer.org/); if you’re interested, give me a shout (duncan@realtimecancer.org). We’ve got PHP, MySQL, and we could very likely setup a WordPress blog or something similar for you!

MikeMar 07, 2005 at 11:44AM

Whenever I see people trying to raise money online, I always think it’s too easy for visitors trying to decide how much to donate to make excuses to postpone the decision to help out, to never.

Maybe Randy can set up a cafepress.com store to prompt more of these impulse (non)donors. He sets the markup of anything he sells, and he can pick up bonuses for sales of a certain quantity — to more than just his immediate family and acquaintances. Maybe they even offer a non-commercial rate. “I can help out by doing that thing I like to do — buying.”

Also, that person who made a windfall online just to clear her credit card debt makes opportunities like that more difficult for the rest of us. I think it’s important to make it a habit to “frame” the act of donating as an ongoing concern of fundraising, as Jason does with his micro-patron/medici themes.

You’re trying to fulfill the trust you’ve been granted with the well-being of your child, and there’s enough of a general disdain for childhood that you shouldn’t tolerate the indifference. I think we measure strength too much by our dominance. The people who help out can measure their strength by the generosity they demonstrate for a change. Or however the hell you want to phrase it. You can try to change people, too.

Al S.Mar 07, 2005 at 12:22PM

I would be more than happy to give him a domain under my primary TextDrive account and install/configure the weblog tool of his choice. Feel free to pass along my info.

kevinMar 07, 2005 at 1:38PM

I’d second the option about doing things besides straight-up donations. Cafepress is cool, but an Amazon referral would be great. Whenever I buy anything from Amazon I pick a site to buy it through so somebody is getting some referral cash. It won’t neccessarily bring in big cash, but it can add up over time.

I’ve used PayPal for donations and my only complaint is the big fees for small donations. Paypal takes something like 30 cents and a percent of the transaction as a fee (don’t quote me on those numbers, but they should be close)—so if someone donates $1, hardly two-thirds of the money is going to the cause. The rest is eaten up in fees. It’s not so bad if they’re giving larger quantities, but for true “micropayments” losing 30% to fees is not cool. (then again, maybe I’m one of the few cheap people who would want to donate a buck)

CatherineMar 07, 2005 at 1:44PM

Well, as far as traffic goes, make sure that you are linked to many other bloggers as possible. Getting this much space from Jason helps, but also try to link to other cancer sufferers as well. I will definitely link to you since I lost my Mommy to cancer two years ago at Christmastime. As a PR person, I would be happy to dicuss pitching your story to your local media as well. Send me an email or drop by my blog.

JeffMar 07, 2005 at 2:05PM

I’d be happy to help out hosting his domain. I’d be willing to donate the domain name and hosting his way. I have a couple of colocated boxes that would do the trick. They even come with Drupal (a decent CMS) and all he’d need to do it supply the content. He would have PHP, mySQL, access to the server and a decent chunk of bandwidth. If you pass along my details, I’d be happy to help.

Anil DashMar 07, 2005 at 2:12PM

I hate to channel Jeff Veen here, but I don’t think content management is the answer here. Everybody either has a hookup or a recommendation for who to host a site with, or which app to use, but assuming the cause being promoted here is legit, any technical solution will probably do.

What’s needed is a set of requirements; That’ll usually make the right choices obvious. I’d suggest the following as a minimum:

* Requires the least management and maintenance possible. This man has much higher priorities than tending to a server.

* Recurrent micropayment structure for charging an arbitrary number of web users. Any system that would have him running this application himself would require him to store payment information such as a credit cards, opening himself up to liability, so a third party payment system is the only reliable answer.

* It seems like a pay-for-content system might be useful. The fundraising idea is only vaguely described, so it’s hard to be sure, but some of the systems designed to sell content (such as PayPal’s subscriptions) allow recurrent charges.

* Promotional collateral. Bloggers like having causes to link to, and being able to show their support for or promotion of an idea through badges, link graphics, and buttons. I’m sure someone in the audience here could make a great design for a promo for the fundraiser.

* A marketing/promotion plan. Goals for which sites to get linked on, targetted questions to popular bloggers about which mentions got them the most traffic (TV, radio, newspapers, other blogs?) and which ones resulted in the most donations/payments.

* A content plan or posting schedule. The single best way to get repeat traffic and visits to a site (as well as the best way to get incidental promotion through other media) is by having frequently updated compelling content. Who’s going to take the time to write it? When will it be posted? Is there an editorial calendar that can be used to brief press in advance of a post to get them on board when a new item goes live?

* Support? Will the payment/publishing/hosting platform have support for when something goes wrong? Because it’s likely some component will fail at the worst possible time, and if Randy is dealing with his daughter’s health, he doesn’t want to have to be troubleshooting some technical issue under duress because the payments have stopped coming in.

Once those requirements are refined into a real plan, there will probably only be one or two real choices. I’d suggest finding a vendor or consultant who’s selling a complete fundraising solution and see if they are willing to donate their platform in order to show it off. Everything else seems to involve a whole lot of geekery, and as much as we all love that, it seems unreasonable to just advocate one’s favorite web tool when this is a parent dealing with a sick kid. The non-technical requirements are probably a lot more daunting.

BobMar 07, 2005 at 2:38PM

How to set up processing for micropayments? (We have a fundraising idea around Julia’s treatment and progress which would require periodic debit from an account.)

Is the fundraising for you and Julia, or is it fundraising for the organization that is treating Julia (or some other cancer-related group)?

People are less likely to donate to an individual who sets up a webpage than they are to donate to an organization… and if they are going to donate to an organization, why should they go through you instead of doing it directly? Similarly, what reason do they have to donate to Julia? What’s their payback/reason to do so that would be so compelling over donating to legitimate 501(c)(3) charities and thereby getting a tax break?

Rob ThrasherMar 07, 2005 at 3:08PM

Bob and Anil nailed it. 1) Show this blog the plan and info. 2) Set up a trust at your local bank with the little ones name on it. This is very easy! And finally 3) Pick a payment method. Anybody who has a credit card merchant account knows that PayPal doesn’t charge much more, if any, than the credit merchants. A check made out to the trust fund is best. You can set up a trust easily. If you get into larger amounts of money find a good lawyer and set up an entity like a 501(c). I am not a lwayer, but recently helped friends do something very similar. God bless you Julia !

Donnie JeterMar 07, 2005 at 3:09PM

I don’t really see the benefit in Jason showing everyone how to start a donations-based blog. I’m with Bob on this one, if we have everyone asking for donations, the causes and initial novelty of the idea will give way and bloggers as a whole will end up looking like greedy nerds. While I sympathize for Julia’s situation, I don’t think blogging is the way to go about it - nor do I think others should consider setting up kottkesque blogs in hope of getting donations. Jason is a one in a million blogger who’s been doing this for a long time. Not just anybody can pull off this donations thing.

SarahMar 07, 2005 at 3:31PM

People fundraise for medical bills all the time and this guy can’t be the first to do it online.

Just because Jason is the first to try and live from donations for a year doesn’t mean that Julia’s donations would have gone to him or vice versa. The donation pools probably overlap very little and even so, everyone is always being hit by requests for donations across every media, even in the office.

Marathons, bake sales, cookies, candy, even people with a plain old blog will post their wish list in case some random person will buy them something from it!

You can’t stop people from asking for money, so I say let ‘em learn how to do it well.

ChristinaMar 07, 2005 at 4:04PM

I see a lot of suspicion regarding fundraising, and I can certainly understand why. Although I will occasionally promote something because I like it, I rarely do out of “sympathy” because, unfortunately, there are too many frauds out there.

My suggestion for fundraising is to get an Amazon associates account.
First, sign up for the account, so that people can buy books by linking from your blog.

Second, keep the blog interesting and frequently updated. Link to helpful sites, but don’t feel the need to overwhelm by putting in all the good links at once. If the site is helpful to others rather than being only personal, people will come back to it more, and find more worth reading.

Third, put links to Amazon books that relate to your blog entries. That way, people will be able to help financially by making purchases of items they want, rather than donating in blind trust.

I’ve been very happy with the blogspot/blogger user interface; for a newbie, it’s very simple to use, and they are adding additional features fairly regularly.

MaggieMar 07, 2005 at 4:26PM

An alternative to paypal for collecting donations is Amazon’s Honor System amazon.com/honorsystem.

If you are looking for a hosting service that provides excellent and timely support, I recommend GeekISP. The people running it are very nice, have most tools necessary for blogging already installed, and might help you out with an installation of a blogging system (moveable type, wordpress, etc).

Jonathan FenocchiMar 07, 2005 at 4:36PM

The email seems to indicate that he is not satisfied with the way his site currently looks. Maybe someone would be kind enough to redesign it for him, for free?

OyvindMar 07, 2005 at 6:20PM

I would go with something easy, like TypePad. There’s enough to worry about, if not having to struggle with technical issues with your blog.

The use PayPal or Amazon honor system for payments. Why? Because everybody know PayPal and Amazon.

If he still want’s to go with a host and a blog set up for himself, Dreamhost (www.dreamhost.com) has 2,4 GB of space, lots of traffic and one-click install of WordPress for 8 dollars a month. There’s a free domain name registration included in that price.

Justin FrenchMar 07, 2005 at 6:27PM

Justin from TextDrive here. We’d be happy to give him a free place to host his blog/site. We’ll hook him up with an install of Textpattern, and I’ll throw in a couple of hours of design and Textpattern tweaking for him free of charge.

SimonMar 07, 2005 at 7:37PM

A while back I wrote what turned out to be a popular, albeit slightly tounge in cheek, tips for blogging modestly called everything you wants to know about blogging but were afraid to ask. At the end of it is a set of links to various other blogging hints and tips.

jermdwMar 07, 2005 at 9:01PM

I think thats great and I wish him all the luck. Its good to see something positive about blogging these days with all the corporate “i got fired” mumbo jumbo going on out there.

Kirk GeierMar 07, 2005 at 9:55PM

I am currently hosting with GoDaddy.com

$3.95 per month with decent bandwidth and storage. They are currently offering $6.95 domains.

Free is good to though.

Kirk GeigerMar 07, 2005 at 9:57PM

One more thing, they also offer a package where they will install different free & easy to use programs to assist you in blog making.

TheLoneCodemanMar 08, 2005 at 6:57AM


We just have to help out here…

There are a lot of Blog services, personally I use www.Blogger.com, which I can recommend!

Otherwise I’ve been looking around for free PHP/MySQL providers and here are my findings:


Free PHP/MySQL hosting list:

Mark CraneMar 08, 2005 at 8:26AM

Randy, if you could post your snail mail address here, or email it to me, or send me a link to your site with your address, I will send you a copy of Jeffrey Veen’s book, which addresses many of your questions better than I could.

Also, I am terribly sorry to hear about your child. I can’t imagine what you are going through.

ChrisMar 08, 2005 at 3:24PM

Serendipity is, IMO, the absolute best Weblog software out there, and it’s free.
As for hosting, I use HostingBegin.com - they’re dirt cheap ($42/year, including a domain name) and they support PHP, MySQL, and a whole lot of other things.

ChrisMar 08, 2005 at 3:27PM

Oh, and before I forget, you can get free Serendipity hosting, with (almost) no ads, at Supersized.org. It works well, even though it’s in beta.

And, of course, you could use Blogger, but I much prefer Serendipity. Sign up at Supersized.org and see if you like it, and if you do, consider getting our oen domain and hosting.

Well, that’s my two cents.

hfisherMar 09, 2005 at 8:47AM

check out www.davedennsiton.com

it’s a site devoted to supporting Dave Denniston, a 26 year old championship swimmer, who broke his back in February and didn’t think he was covered by the US Olympic Committee insurance. He’s since discovered that he is covered but the site remains to lift up his spirits while he’s in rehab and to also raise money for the huge expense of living with paralyzed legs. There’s some cool stuff in the links section and it might give you some ideas on how to set up a foundation or solicit donations. good luck…

hfisherMar 09, 2005 at 8:49AM

oops…. quick slip of the key….

it’s www.davedenniston.com


Ron BieberMar 10, 2005 at 8:12AM

DreamHos t(http://www.dreamhost.com) is an affordable provider that provides one click installation of software (including wordpress). Wordpress blogging software is themable, allowing you to use “look and feel” that others create. I highly recommend it and DreamHost. I have been with DreamHost for about 4 years now and they have great customer service and a great product in general.

Ron BieberMar 10, 2005 at 8:14AM

Forgot to mention in previous post, but MySQL and PHP are part of the deal as well.

Jeff FMar 10, 2005 at 10:51AM

I didn’t read all the posts here, so excuse any duplicate (or already rejected) suggestions:

The dad could make it easy for people to donate without spending money. Start a website, and ask people to participate in various affiliate offers. Some pay over $25 per referral, so he could say “support our cause by applying for a Platinum Visa Card”, or some such.

This would cost participants nothing, provide new customers for the affiliated companies, and raise funds, all at once.

There are even some charities with affiliate programs. If someone sponsors a child in Somalia, you get a commission. That way, two kids get help from one transaction!

Susie DownMar 10, 2005 at 11:11AM

I’m so surprised at a few people’s negativity. This guy Randy sounds genuine, and I’ll take the tiny risk he’s not and donate. Also, I totally agree that blogging could be a great way to raise money. Charities over the last few years have realised that the best way to get donations is to tell the human story behind the organisation. All the adverts are saying things like:

“Maybe one day you’ll hear the words ‘all clear’.”
“We’ll send you regular updates on how your sponsored orphan is faring.”
“Help women like Sadie get back on their feet by calling…”

Thus, a blog perfectly encompases this: people can read about how their donations are helping, they can become emotionally attached to little Julia, and more than likely, as this attachment develops, they will donate more and more.

I think this is great. Is there a link to the site yet?

Anthony YeungMar 13, 2005 at 2:55AM

This is quite a sad thing to happen, I’d like to help him out by giving him some advice on getting donations.

This thread is closed to new comments. Thanks to everyone who responded.