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The topics discussed here grow out of the bread-and-butter issues that confront my consulting and software clients on a daily basis. We'll talk about prosaic stuff like Membership Management, Meetings and Events Management and Fundraising, broader ideas like security and software project management, and the social, cultural, and organizational issues that impact IT decision-making.

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Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Buzzword Buzz

You may have noticed a new buzzword lately. Everyone is talking about it. Is this just technohype? Is it simply an umbrella for the innovative collaborative tools I've been talking about, like Writely and Kiko? Or is it something new, some brand spanking new technology being brought to your browser?

Well, actually, no: -- it's not just hype, but it's equally true that there is really no earthshaking new technology involved. That's precisely what's so interesting about it. Web 2.0 refers to several new approaches to web application development that use tools your browser has been supporting all along, but use them in new ways. One key development - to me perhaps the most exciting - is an approach to web development called AJAX. It stands for - here you see I am a nerd after all - Asynchronous Javascript and XMLhttprequests. Here's the background for technical readers - but here's what it means to a user:

Is it my turn yet?

Up until now, web applications have required you to take turns. You read a page, then click next. Your turn is over until the browser gets the next page from the server. You fill out a form and click submit. Your turn is over until the server informs the browser your order is being processed. Server and browser do not keep up a running communication - they talk in bursts while you stop and wait for the hourglass. Its all because each communication with the server consists of a request for an entire new page to be transmitted - a page the browser then needs to render on your screen. This lack of intimacy between the server and browser give web applications their halting feeling, and have made them less suitable than desktop apps for complex business programming with high data entry requirements and complex business logic.

This is just what Ajax means to change. To make a long story really short, an Ajax application uses JavaScript to get data from the server whenever it is needed, without requiring the browser to redraw the entire page. The script can redraw all or part of a page as needed, hide or reveal elements, and open new windows. Because it can redraw just relevant bits of the screen, rather than requesting a whole new page, an Ajax application can look and feel much more like a traditional program running right on your desktop. I mean this both in terms of speed, and richness of the user interface. Drag and drop capability, for example, so common in GUI desktop apps, is usually not available in a web app. But Ajax makes it easy to bring familiar desktop behaviors like this to the Browser.

Are we there yet?
There are still difficulties with this 2.0 world that make programming sophisticated web applications problematic. Testing and debugging is one of them. We are starting to see some automated testing tools for JavaScript and XML. This is a good thing, because the browser will not warn you about most JavaScript errors; it will just stop executing your code. And tt's difficult to "trace" a javascript app to see just what it is doing. Lastly, if the application is for public use, rather than an inhouse application, you need to test it in the last several versions of all the popular browsers. So testing and debugging is intense and time-consuming.

But the tools will mature now that developers are starting to build with them. Just yesterday my coworker Curtis and I were identifying places where Ajax would improve our online applications. I'm not ready to throw out the desktop when it comes to mission-critical inhouse applications - but Ajax will definitely have an impact wherever we need to put something in the browser.

A further look.
If you'd like to see a bit more, take a look at this - its a link to an exciting Ajax development tool called BINDOWS that we've been evaluating here at Members Only Software. Click on the "Click for a Quick Demo" link on the Bindows home page to see just how much like a desktop app these programs can be. And here is a cute little app for creating your personal web startpage that shows off Ajax drag and drop. That Writely collaborative word processor I talked about a few days ago? That's Ajax as well.

Saturday, September 24, 2005

Web-based writing

A few weeks back I talked about the wiki as a tool for collaborative writing. A wiki is a website that is easily editable by all members of a community.

Recently I came across a tool that takes another approach to joint writing projects. Writely is a web-based word processor designed for shared writing. The person who originates each document can select which other users are allowed to work on it. To participate each editor just needs a free Writely account, which takes just seconds to set up. The document can be created from scratch on the site, or uploaded from your pc. When the collaboration has borne fruit, the finished document can be published to the web or to a blog directly from the Writely site.

How useful any of this is remains to be seen. The creators claim they are not just trying to write a web-based word processor: their goal is the bring the "anywhere, anytime" nature of the Internet to joint writing projects. I can imagine its value, for example, in developing a draft with a board committee, who do not have common access to documents stored on your LAN. A tool like this might be a lot easier than emailing the draft to ten people like you do now, and then collating their separate edits. Can't hurt to take a look at it.

Which raises the question, "How in the world is anyone supposed to keep up with all this new stuff on the internet?". Insomnia comes in handy, I've found. You might also want to check out the blog of Marshall Kirkpatrick, whose site is full of ideas to help organizations make better use of the web. For example, take a look at the tip sheet he posted the other day on internet searching.

Thursday, September 22, 2005

Making rain

I've been slowly working my way down the list of sites participating in The Non-profit Blog Exchange, reviewing one each day over my morning coffee. This morning we arrive at The Rainmaker's Blog. Maintained by fundraising professional Dana Salisbury, the site provides longer articles on non-profit management and finance. I couldn't find a statement of any sort on the site that explained the mission and orientation of the site, or the biographies of the authors. That's a real oversight: such a statement really helps potential readers evaluate a site's usefulness to them. But articles on forging nonprofit partnerships, working with major corporations, and working with stock gifts seemed like they might plant a few seeds in readers' heads, especially in organizations just starting to launch a serious fundraising effort. New articles seem to appear only once every few weeks: not necessarily a bad thing in this age of information glut. If you are involved in development at your org, its probably worth your while to bookmark this site and check it every now and then.

Saturday, September 17, 2005

Meatball Subs & Knowledge Management

I was in the middle of an office move many years ago, all my papers and books and files stacked on the floor or dumped in cardboard cartons, when the messenger service showed up to collect a proposal we'd just finished and and needed to get into the hands of our prospective client by close of business. Yikes... it was somewhere in that mess of papers and folders and boxes, but who knew where? Thirty minutes later I was still rooting though piles of paper and growing more frantic by the minute when in strolls my friend Phil, just back from Germany or Japan or somewhere and looking to see if I want to go get a meatball sub. "Not now, I've vanished a proposal in this junkheap here and I've got to find it!"

-- What's it look like? asks Phil.
-- Blue glossy folder, I answer.
Phil scaned the mass of paper littering the room for about 30 seconds, reached deep into a refrigerator-sized box, and there it was! He saved my hide.
-- I can't believe it, I told Phil. I've been searching for that for a half an hour.
-- See, your problem is you try to be totally organized, so when something is misfiled, it might as well be gone. But I'm always a total mess. My office looks like this all the time. So I've had to get very good at finding things quickly.

This memory came back to me the other day while reading the promotional material for Google's Gmail. Their hook is that with the superfast Google search technology lurking behind your email reader, there is no longer any need to worry about filing your mail in the correct folders. Don't organize, search! they say. They've gotten very good at finding things quickly. It's just an automated version of my friend Phil's approach.

And it's a significant story as your organization starts to think about knowledge management. We see lost knowledge gobbling up time and money in our own organization and in the offices of our clients all the time. And one major way knowledge is lost is that the documents in which the relevant knowledge can be found are not easily retrievable.

Obviously, retrieval can be improved by an organized approach to document management - naming conventions, storing in the proper folders, keywording, attaching douments to the proper contact records in your CRM, and so on. We wrote a document management system for the president of a major university a few years ago that took this approach. But we can compare the struggle to get organized with my friend Phil's approach by a quick experiment.

Sit at your desk, in front of a computer attached to your office LAN and the Internet. Okay. Now, using your favorite search engine see how long it takes you to find the name of Paris Hilton's lover in those infamous videos the gossip columns were all talking about last year. Okay. Write down your time. Now let's try someting else. Using whatever tools you have at your disposal, find out when the service contracts on your major office equipment expire. Took longer, I bet. Pretty bizarre world we live in.

Rapid full text search is a very powerful natural language way to retrieve information. In our office, we find that we rely heavily on our ability to search the full text of every user service request and its resolution in order keep track of information about our software. So I suspect Phil's approach to knowledge management is going to become more popular in the next few years. Tools that bring the power of Internet search engines to your own document repository are already available for a a few thousand dollars; they ought to start selling like hotcakes. We can find information on the internet at lightening speed with no special training, and without requiring the authors to use any special filing conventions. Why not at work?

Thursday, September 15, 2005

Delegating online fundraising

As a next stop in the NonProfit Blog Exchange, I visited Betsy's Blog, which is maintained by Betsy Harman of Harman Interactive. Betsy consults with non-profits on development strategy and online fundraising. When I look at a new blog, I realize I'm scanning for gems - for something to pick up, put in my pocket, and take away. It didn't take long to find it here: On August 23rd, Betsy wrote about a technique that is new to me: personalized fundraising pages.

In brief, this means allowing your constituency to create their own web pages that explain why they support your organization. They can set their own fundraising goal for the page, and provide a link for donation entry right there. Using a service called Just Giving, you can add this capability to your website. Betsy used it to set up a page to raise money for the Anti-Cruelty Society in Chicago. You can check it out (and donate) right here.

If you are already working with a highly structured campaign tree, this may be a very useful new branch to explore. I'm already pondering how this can be linked directly to the Campaign Tree in MEMBERS ONLY.

But this is a review of the blog, so I should find something to quibble with as well: Betsy, you don't make it easy to get a permalink to a specific post. I want to pass your August 23rd post on to a client or two - it took me a while to realize that the best way to do this is give them a link to August - by luck, the posting I care about is at the top of that display. It would be easier to share your insights around if I could get a link to a single item.

Monday, September 12, 2005

Like pulling teeth

Software Engineering texts often talk about “extracting requirements” from users. The dental analogy is painful. The implication is that the requirements are all right there - - but the users are oddly incapable of just spitting them out. A tray full of nasty-looking instruments will be necessary to grab onto them and yank.

I’ll tell you a story. We were working with a new client, a membership organization, to develop a specification for the customizations they’d be needing to MEMBERS ONLY. We held a three day series of meetings to work it all out. One of things that came up repeatedly was their dues billing process.

Each time it came up we were told that there were exactly two ways a member could handle his dues. The member could get an annual invoice, or he could have a monthly amount charged to his credit card. If he wanted to be invoiced, he had to pay the full annual amount at once. If she wanted to pay monthly, it had to be by automatic payment. End of story.

On the third day of the meetings, one of our client’s staff corralled me in the corridor. “I’m afraid we may have given you the impression that we do not allow members to receive monthly invoices.” Given us the impression? They had practically sworn to it. But it turned out hundreds of members received monthly invoices and paid them by check.

So there were three billing plans, not two. We had finally extracted the requirement! But why was it so difficult to learn this? In this case, it was because the monthly invoicing was in contradiction to the organization’s stated policy. But the membership folks in the trenches knew they’d lose members if they dropped the monthly invoice plan. Now they had a dilemma. Tailor the new application to reflect the board’s reality, or the staffs?

Each time it seems we will need to use Novocain to find out what the users really want or need, it turns out there is an organizational development issue festering beneath the gum line. And often the group assigned to work with us to deploy MEMBERS ONLY does not feel that they are empowered to tackle these deeper issues. When this empowerment exists, the software “Business Integration” process can be an exciting journey moving the mission of the nonprofit forward. But when the group can’t take on these issues, the process is about as thrilling as an hour in the dentists chair..
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Saturday, September 10, 2005

My Blind date with

It was Emily Weinberg's idea, as far as I can tell, to get folks who are blogging on non-profit topics to take a glance at each other's blogs and comment on them. She called it the Non-Profit Blog Exchange. She introduced pairs of bloggers to each other and suggested they make a reference and a link to each other's blog.

I had the good fortune to get paired with the blog at I didn't know this outfit before, but I gather that their mission is serve as advisors and consultants to non-profit organizations who are tackling any of a wide range of social issues.

I've barely explored the information available on their main website, but the blog is a veritable ticker-tape of valuable resources. In just a cursory read of the last few days posts, I bookmarked new resources relating to the Open Source Movement as it relates realms other than software, the chaotic but valiant efforts of the tech sector to try to help with tracking missing persons during the worst days of the Katrina crisis, and a site put up by the city of San Francisco on how to build a disaster plan for your home of office.

This valuable resource is going into my bookmarks to stay!

The blog exchange has its own Blogger website, by the way, in case you'd like to join or comment. And Emily, you should know, is looking to move to the DC area, and is seeking a position in Washington, DC with either a nonprofit, educational organization, or web design company. Drop her a line if you'd like to talk about any opportunities you might have.

This blog has moved!

Well, I've moved my blog to blogger! I was really enjoying the freedom and wide open space of the Editme Wiki I had bent to my purposes. But a bit of reading convinced me that our blog would have far better visibility in one of the standard blogging sites that build RSS feeds, support tagging, are indexed by Technorati and other services, and in general are a full part of the hum of internet conversation.

We're still using EditMe in the office for a variety of purposes. In fact, we are getting ready to do a beta test of an online help system built on the Editme Wiki. There will be more on that here as soon as we have something for you to look at!

But it just didn't seem to be the best place for a blog.

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Finding a role?

Donate to the Red Cross

What is there one can say about not-for-profit organizations and the continuing crisis of Katrina that would be of some use to our readers? Looking for something edifying to write about I went to look at the web site of the YMCA of New Orleans and found … silence. timed out. It’s gone.

Then I did a general search for YMCA and Katrina and found that: the YMCA of Houston is housing evacuees, and the YMCA of Ann Arbor Michigan is collecting gift cards from national chains and sending them down to the Houston Y. The YMCA of San Francisco is providing volunteers to help staff the Red Cross Bay Area Call Centers, which are receiving over 200 calls an hour. The YMCA of Grand Rapids has made a branch available to the Red Cross to house evacuees. The YMCA of San Antonio is matching all employee contributions to its Katrina fund. And numerous YMCAs all over the country have announced that all of their facilities are free to people displaced by the hurricane.

YMCAs seem to have several built-in ways to help out. But what can other organizations do? Look within your domain of your organization's special expertise and you may find a very organic role. Two of our clients have done just that. Our friends at Outdoor Advertising Association of America are providing the Red Cross with posters, broadsides and bulletins for their instensified fundraising, while a “Meating the Need” program run by our colleagues at the American Meat Institute is collecting donations of meat from its membership to send to the Gulf Coast.

If your organization has found a creative and effective way to encourage its constituency to respond to the crisis, please leave us a note about it here.

Thursday, September 01, 2005

Ten Things That Every Non-Profit Executive Needs to Know.

All week I've been trying to spit out a blog entry, but the catastrophe on the gulf coast has had me preoccupied. What a horror! But then, I remembered the Blogger's Prerogative: I can just write about someone else's blog! And there really is something I wanted to bring to your attention: the non-profit technology blog of Deborah Elizabeth Finn. Deborah thinks and writes about a lot of the issues you and I would be thinking about if we weren't so busy dealing with the nuts and bolts of the information system. She reminds us to come up for air and think about IT as a part of the overall development of the organization -- a theme I try to pick up on before I sound again for the depths of some new output or website requirement.

Take a look at this recent post of hers, titled Ten Things (Just Ten!) That Every Nonprofit Executive Needs to Know About Information Technology. She's captured in this brief posting a lot of the same lessons we've learned through years of hard work with your organizations. This article is particularly valuable, I think, for the executives in your organization who are not wrapped up in IT on a day-to-day basis.

I'll be pointing out other of Deborah's gems to you from time to time!