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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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Saturday, October 29, 2005

Intense week at Techsoup

I hope some of you took the time to check out the Web2.0 fest in the Emerging Technologies Forum at TechSoup last week. Lots of good discussions and information in the threads there. I was really pleased they asked me to help host it. The action is over now, but the conversations are still posted - and are still going on, once everyone rests up a little. I've done so much posting over there this week that I need a break from the hard work of blogging. So today I'll just point you to some useful resources I've come across during the last week.

While I was hanging out at Tech Soup I noticed this gem get posted, citing the YMCA of the USA's Steve Heye on Implementing Operations Software, the YMCA Way. I just met Steve last week! The attachments include some useful worksheets produced by the YMCA for planning software implementations. It's definitely worth taking at look at this packet if you are about to start a major software implementation.

Another article posted during the TechSoup event that I admired was Alexandra Samuel's piece on RSS for non-profits - if this is one technology you have not yet figured out - it's time you did.

While all this was going on, Joshua Schachter, the founder of delicious and the guy who started the current flurry of attention to tagging, was being wined and dined at the Berkman Center at Harvard School of Law. Beth Kanter captured some of his remarks and links to others sites discussing the event.

One more item this week I hope you take a look at: Green Media Toolshed gives some pointers about non-profit blogging... since I'm always evangelizing about the non-profit blog I hope you take a look at this.

All this talk of web2.0 this week has gone to my head... you know I usually want to talk about mundane stuff like membership management software or how to make sure you are getting good backups or how to avoid duplicates in your mailings. We'll get back to all that. But now for something completely different on the technology front: the single-molecule car.

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Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Keeping Credit Card Information Secure

Everyone is worried about identity theft and misuse of credit card data these days. Whose responsibility is it to keep this data secure? Well, if you accept credit cards, the responsibility, in part, is yours. And since June 30th, the Payment Card Industry (PCI), the umbrella industry group for the credit card providers, has been requiring that you meet quite a stiff standard for keeping this data locked down.

And be forwarned - these rules are not just for the big guys. In an article in Network World shortly before the requirements became mandatory, Ann Bednarz wrote:
Particularly for smaller merchants, PCI compliance might require purchasing security products, such as encryption, access control, and activity monitoring and logging devices. There are also procedural mandates - such as the need to implement formal security policies and vulnerability management programs - that will require IT resources.

Not only does the standard require you keep all sensitive data encrypted, and that you eliminate data no longer needed, it also stipulates that you document your procedures for handling the data. Do you allow supporters pay a pledge via credit card? You will need to document how that data is recorded, entered into the database, and utilized. Do you take credit card numbers in the mail? You'll need to document who receives that mail, how it is recorded, and how the originals are destroyed. You can find the complete standard here.

Database security begins with strict login control. You'd better make sure each person has a unique login, and that people are not walking away from their desks with the computer logged in and available. Requiring your users to logout or lock, and use screen savers that require a password to re-enter, are wise moves.

Although the non-profit world is late in meeting the implementation deadline, people are starting to wake up. We have exactly one client who started to meet these requirements without any prodding from us. And now the YMCA of the USA is urging compliance: they devoted a session to this issue at their Technology Conference last week.

We are in the midst of announcing what we are doing on this issue for the users of our software. If you use MEMBERS ONLY and have not yet received information from us, please give your project manager a call. And if you are not a MEMBERS ONLY user, call your vendors and ask about this issue. It's time to start moving on this issue before you have to explain to your donors -- or your bank -- that your card data was stolen.

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Sunday, October 23, 2005

The g'Earls on Tech Training

On the drive back from the YMCA tech conference from Raleigh, Doria and I popped the Uncle Earl CD into the player, and listened to our friend Rayna play her fiddle and sing the tender cold-blooded murder ballad Willy Taylor. When the band drops out and we learn "she took out a brace of pistols that she had at her command..." Doria said to me "that's the lesson right there. It's not enough to have the tools - you need to have them at your command. You need to master them."

It's a lesson to take to heart when thinking about the technology infrastructure at your non-profit. We see so many instances of organizations acquiring information tools at significant expense, and then skimping on the training that would really help them maximize the return on their investment.

An organization is almost certain to spring for training on its principal operations applications - the tools it is using for CRM, Membership Management, Meetings and Events, Fundraising -- at the time of new system roll-out. But these same organizations often fail to develop a plan for ongoing and new employee training. Instead, they rely on informal on-the-job instruction, where as one user of our software told us "I try to spend about a half hour with a new employee before turning him loose on the system."

This barely-trained staffer will later be expected to train the next wave of users, with the result that as time passes, more and more features of the application will be forgotten. And new features that arrive with service packs are never disseminated to the users. I can't tell you how often we get requests for customized reports that are already the menu, or to make some change to the system that users can do themselves using the configuration utilities. The user community once knew about these features. But the knowledge has faded away.

But dragging in a consultant to provide training every time you turn around costs a fortune. Fortunately, there are a variety of training interventions you can make that are far more cost effective. These involve exploiting the knowledge already in your organization, but in more formal ways, designed to capture that knowledge before it fades away. There are two such techniques we've found particularly useful.

1) Develop your own in-house training manual. This is something you can do better than anyone else; you know your job roles and your organizational procedures, and can weave them into the technical material to create a single manual - if there are holes in the technical information when you are done, then you can use a consultant to fill them in. And you can include ALL the applications you expect your staff to use, not just your big operations systems. Don't forget office apps - we are often asked how to do a merge document in Word, or how to make a pie chart in Excel, for example.

2) Hold regular technology clinics. The clinic is a session where users bring their questions and problems, and other users, including your tech gurus, help to resolve them. You will be surprised how much information is in your organization, just waiting to be shared. You can hire a consultant or vendor to be present at a clinic - but you can also derive a lot of benefit just sharing information within your staff.

All this training consumes effort, time, and some money. But it will pay off for your organization. And for you as your organization's IT evangelist it will pay off immediately. For as the g'Earls go on to tell us, things look up for our well-trained heroine after she dispatches the faithless Willy:
When the captain came to hear it, of the deed that she had done,
He made her ship's commander, over a vessel from the Isle of Man.

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Saturday, October 22, 2005

Hardware Lifecycle Planning

One of these days, the computer on your desk will die.

In the last week, I've had a number of conversations with my clients, and with the attendees at the YMCA Technology Conference in Raleigh, about how they deal with this fact of life. Not surprisingly there are a good many small non-profits out there that do not budget for the replacement of the their computers. When a computer dies, the organization's ad hoc high priestess of tech goes to the executive director and begs for some money to buy a new pc.

Once her prayers are answered she makes a few frantic phone calls to see how quickly a new computer can be dragged in. The bereaved staff member, meanwhile, either works from home or floats from office to office until the new box is in place. Not a pretty picture. But it avoids having money encumbered for a need that might not arise this year. It might seem like a reasonable trade-off in an environment where money is always a bit scarce.

But the failure to budget for routine desktop replacement - not to mention the replacement of other components from file servers down to power strips - has a serious hidden cost. When devices are replaced with no schedule, and always on an urgent basis, the network equipment tends to become more and more varied. I'm sure you've seen it: five pcs on XP, five on Win 2000, and two ancient boxes on 98 that just won't die. Each one running a slightly different mix of standard software apps. This mishmash leads to hidden expense, as the support of these users becomes incrementally more difficult. Sarah's laptop can't come up on the old projector; Joe is back on Excel 97; the graphics software won't work with Jack's video card. It's hard to tally this expense, but it's there, making your work just a little more time consuming every day. And as you grow, the harm caused by this heterogenous network will mushroom. If you have multiple sites, so that you are often giving phone or online support, the problem is even worse. The organization successfully deferred an expense until the last moment - but how much staff time and productivity -- how much focus on mission -- was lost in minor computer problems everyone has just learned to live with?

The solution for many organizations I talked to was to plan for the lifecycle of their desktops and other devices, and replace them at the end of this cycle even if they are still running. For example, they might decide a desktop computer has a three year life. So they set up a rolling replacement schedule, in which each year they replace a third of the computers. This way each wave of machines is purchased from the same vendor and be similarly configured. This schedule can include a spare computer or two kept on the premises, so that when the CFO's pc melts down during an audit, you don't have to run out during your lunch break and get him whatever you can find at Best Buy.

Several non-profit execs - at the Ys and elsewhere - told me that they found leasing to be a valuable tool in moving to this type of scheduled replacement. When the lease is up, they return the boxes, get a new set, and start another cycle. And the lease payment schedule creates a regular budget item, month in and month out, eliminating the sudden and always unexpected expense of machine replacement.

But others reported that leasing was difficult to manage. One of our clients, who at this point has over 150 desktop computers, said the return of leased items -- which required they match up by serial number each system unit, keyboard, mouse, and monitor as it was when it was delivered to them -- was next to impossible. So they buy all their computers outright, and replace them on a rolling schedule.

You hear a lot of talk nowadays about technology planning. Hardware lifecycle planning is a good place to start.

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Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Tags and Web2.0

In a recent post I claimed that tools like social bookmarking and tagging might be making waves among the technoscenti, but they are not high on the nuts-and-bolts priority list of the typical non-profit. I got dissapproving comments by half a dozen readers - typical was a comment from Mike at Mind Valley who says:
I am surprised that you doubt the business value of tagging and social bookmarking.
The fact is, these are powerful tools that are reshaping the way people use the Internet, just as the Search Engine did a few years ago. Eventually, you will be taking this stuff for granted, just like a text search on Google. My point was simply that most of the non-profits I work with have far more crucial technology issues to resolve at this moment. But personally, tagging and social bookmarking are an essential part of how I use the web. So sure, let's talk about tagging. There's a great deal of esoteric talk about tagging to be found out there - but I'd like to take this space to introduce new users to the technology.

Let's begin at the beginning by making sure you've heard of one of most interesting phenomena of web2.0: social bookmarking. The Wikipedia article on it is clean and concise and points to a lot of important sites. Look it up., as the article points out, is the mother of all social bookmarking sites. And if you frequently do research on the web and need to save pointers to a great many sites, you will immediately see its value. At first blush, its usefulness seems to be that you can store your bookmarks on the net, so that they are available from any computer you use. But that is just the beginning.

Tagging is the key to social bookmarking. Instead of putting your bookmarked sites in folders, as your browser does, delicious lets you assign as many tags as you wish to each bookmark. You might tag my recipe for Mahi Mahi Veracruz as Fish, but also as Cuban. Then you can look it up under either. You can just make up the tags on the fly, and do a global replace later as you refine your tagging terms. By clicking on any of your tags, listed in a menu down the side, you can see everything you have tagged that way.

But why do we call it social bookmarking? When you bookmark a site, delicious will tell you how many others have also bookmarked that item. If you click on the reference to those others, it will show you all those citations -- anonymously -- and you can see how each person tagged it. This is where folksonomy, as people are calling it, really kicks in. Suppose you bookmark my blog and tag it nonprofitsoftware. When you look at how others have tagged it, you will see the tag nptech commonly used. So you might go and edit your tag to fall in line with other users.

Now you know that lots of folks tag articles about non-profits and technology as nptech. So you might ask delicious to show you everyone's recent bookmarks on that subject, by going to

Now your're cookin! But wait, there's more. You can use this tagging mechanism as a quick way to publish. Suppose you save a bookmark to a document on your own website and give it some standard easily understandable tags. Then others will find it when they search delicious (or other sites, like Technorati, that aggregate delicious bookmarks). So you can use delicious not only to organize your own book marks, but to put your information into the hands of other tech-savvy users. This sort of internet searching is becoming more and more common: Just an hour ago I got an email from someone who found my blog by looking for nptech tags in delicious.

I don't want to give the impression that tagging is synonymous with delicious. Lots of sites are doing different things with tagging. Tagging is the Wednesday's focus next week at the Techsoup Web 2.0 Online event. Check it out!

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Saturday, October 15, 2005

Announcement: TechSoup Web2.0 Event

I'm excited to have been asked to partcipate in this event:
please check the TechSoup site often during the week -
As my friend Carl always says,
"We'll learn a lot and have a lot of fun!"

The Impact of Web 2.0 on the Nonprofit Community

It’s happening in TechSoup:
a five-day online post-fest

October 24-October 28

Join CompuMentor’s community engagement program director John Lorance and a host of leading Web technology advocates as they demystify Web 2.0 technologies and illustrate how using new socially oriented technological innovations can help the nonprofit community. Web 2.0 technologies such as tagging, social bookmarking and online social networks, blogging, content sharing through Wikis and RSS, and new Web widgets need not only be in the hands of well-funded developers; but also can be used by organizations to further their missions.

Join us the week of October 24, for a free, five-day online event, in the TechSoup Emerging Technology forum as we discuss issues such as:

* What do we mean by Web 2.0?
* How can you use an RSS feed to get pushed information as well as to push your content to others?
* What on earth is a Wiki? How is it better than the old-fashioned Web site?
* What is tagging and how is it relevant? How can you learn from others’ Web searches?
* What are widgets and how can these new tools help you solve age-old problems?
* How can an online social network help your organization find volunteers?

Co-hosts include:
  • Marnie Webb of CompuMentor
  • Ruby Sinreich two-time winner of “Best Blog” from The Independent Weekly
  • Chris Messina of Flock and SpreadFireFox fame
  • Marshall Kirkpatrick, trainer and educator on Web 2.0 technologies
  • Phil Klein , nonprofit technologist of Pen and Pixel
  • Alexandra Samuel, online community consultant with Social Signal
  • Michael Stein, nonprofit software developer and technology blogger
  • Yann Toledano, nonprofit technology consultant and TechSoup forum co-host.
  • Eddie Codel, social networking technology advocate and Webzine conference organizer.

These leading voices of Web 2.0 technology will help you bring the ever-changing field of the second wave of Web applications and tools into practical focus. Event hosts will share their real-world stories, demystify the buzzwords, and provide resources. Discussion will focus on exploring the latest trends in Web publishing for all, effective online communications, emerging research and discovery methods, and collaboration tools.

This event will eliminate the buzz and bring into focus how nonprofits can use these tools to learn from other organizations’ Web travels. You will come away with practical tips, models, resources, and tools for bringing collaborative technologies and processes to your own organization.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Coming up....

October is shaping up to be a busy month.

On the 18th and 19th, Doria and I will be in Raleigh, where we've been invited to give a presentation at the first of a series of regional technology conferences sponsored by the YMCA of the USA. We share a panel with Mark Julian of the YMCA of the Triangle Area, and Sloane Mayberry of the YMCA of Greater Charlotte. The topic: Managing Technology across Multiple Locations. Should be a hopping discussion, since so many YMCAs face the technical and organizational challenges of keeping their branches on the same page. The Triangle Area Y, with whom we've been working for many years now, has (at my last count) fourteen separate facilities. Sorry - there's no public link to the event announcement on the YMCA site.

The following week, I'll be hosting Wednesday's installment of the week long web2.0 online event sponsored by TechSoup. The topic is "tagging" - and I'll be interested in learning about how folks are using tagging and other web-based tools for knowledge management. Marshall Kirkpatrick, familiar to readers of these pages, will be hosting another of the days. Techsoup does not seem to have posted a public announcement about this event yet either - stay tuned!The format of this event is still taking shape -- I'll let you know more about it next week.

I'll be spending most of that final week of October in Omaha, where my coworker Curtis Matthews and I will be poised to put out fires as we put the Omaha/Council Bluffs YMCA new public camp registration system online. We've been very excited about the development of this module, which should make it very easy for community members to register their children for an entire summer's worth of camp sessions on a single calendar-like web page. As always, feel free to drop us a line if you'd like a demo of any of our wares.

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Monday, October 10, 2005

Annual Support in a year of calamity

What a year. Since last Christmas, our planet has suffered through the tsunami in the Indian Ocean, this week's devastating earthquake in Asia, Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, and the recent horrific mudslides in Central America. Each time, people around the world have reached into their pockets and given generously to the organizations working to provide relief to those affected by these catastrophes.

Although it seems insensitive to worry about it outloud, it's impossible for a non-profit leader not to wonder, "What will all this do to our fundraising program. How do we ask our supporters for donations when the communities affected by these calamities clamor for their help?"

And there's good reason to worry, reports the Denver Business Journal:
In a survey conducted in late 2001 and early 2002 by the Alexandria, Va.-based Association of Fundraising Professionals, half of the charities had experienced an increase in revenue through August 2001. But just two months after the terrorist attacks, nearly half of charities polled reported a decrease in funding.

CommUlinks of Colorado, a Denver-based nonprofit consulting firm, found similar results when it surveyed charities at the beginning of this year following the tsunami in late December 2004. Half the nonprofits surveyed reported revenue declines in the first quarter -- and more than 56 percent of them attributed the declines to the tsunami.
But Guidestar in an article by fundraising consultant Jeffrey Byrne recommends that you "Stay the Course" and not shy away from your normal fundraising activities:
Although it is well advised to be sensitive to what donors perceive in other causes asking for support in the face of disaster, you must continue to advocate for the needs of your nonprofit and the people you serve. Well-thought-out appeals underscoring your continued needs, tempered with a degree of sensitivity, will help you weather possible bumps in the road ahead.
Another fundraising mentor, Ellis Robinson, writes on the One NorthWest site in a similar vein.
Despite Katrina, your current members continue to care about your issue and understand that your work is valuable.
and raises an interesting point:
After 9/11, groups I worked with saw an increasing interest in close-to-home programs. One person may not be able to control the weather or stop terrorists. But you can help your constituents improve their community and quality of life by providing a chance to invest in an important need in their town or state.
Both of these writers remind us that fundraising is basically a matter of building relationships , and the natural disasters around us do not change that.

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Friday, October 07, 2005

Y so few Ys in the blogosphere?

Of all the various kinds of non-profits we work with, I've thought that the YMCA's might profit most from the community-building benefits of a blog. But when I scan the net for YMCA blogs, I don't see a lot going on out there. Technorati lists two sites tagged YMCA: one is me, and the other is in Japan.

But look at how warm and immediate even the most straightforward blog can be -- for example this newsy site from Camp Copneconic in Michigan. Further information is a click away in many cases, and it is focused on specific knowledge campers and their families will want to have.

You've got to use a blog for the right sort of thing though: Here we see the sports committee of a YMCA using a blog to post complete (and now out of date) notes for an "upcoming" meeting. A wiki might be more appropriate for pages of lengthy material like this - with a link to it from a blog announcement. The site looks great, though, doesn't it? They really ought to get this off the ground!

The 92nd Street Y in New York (not a YMCA but the old YMHA - New York's Jewish Y) has an extremely active blog focusing on Jewish Culture - and doesn't hesitate to jump into contraversial theological discussions. Heavy, eh? The story of the Binding of Isaac in Genesis is read in the synagogue on Rosh Hashannah's second day, so it is a timely post.

While I had a hard time finding blogs posted by YMCAs, I had no trouble finding blogs that mention YMCAs. Most of these are from people's online journals and say stuff like "Gotta start working out again - after all I am paying for that YMCA membership..." More interesting than most, The Fat Lady Blog, by a woman in Bethlehem PA, invites us to share her struggle to lead a healthier life and refers often to her local YMCA.

But this one item might convince you of the effect blogging can have: check out this item from the webblog of one Brian Baily:
Still wonder if the blog conversation can impact your organization? My wife Lori posted about our miserable experience with the local YMCA summer program. Ten days later it's the 6th result on Google when you search for "Coppell YMCA". [Link]
If the Coppell YMCA had been filling cyberspace with its own blog entries, participating very actively in what Mr. Baily calls the "blog conversation", this negative impression could be more than offset.

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Thursday, October 06, 2005

Building by Blogging

A few days ago I suggested that the most immediately valuable way - valuable in terms of directly supporting mission - that a non-profit can utilize some of the web2.0 technology being talked about on sites like mine is in online community building. Today I will suggest a simple way to begin that effort: blogging.

Blogging builds your community in two ways. In the old way, and in the new way. The old way: each blog entry adds to the footprint of your web presence, and is another voice getting your message out to your community. Each page adds to the likelihood that somewhere someone sitting in front of a computer will find your site while searching, and say, "Oh, I should get to know them better." This was put very well in an article posted last year by Graham Jones on the online community Ecademy.

And the new way: if you build a blog where you encourage the participation and posting of numerous people among your organization and its supporters, you can create a site that becomes a focus within your wider community. Maybe you get a volunteer to post about their experiences; a staff member to post about upcoming activities; a beneficiary of your services to talk about the encounter. People will add comments. People will email. People will bookmark your site. It takes a while for momentum to build, but you can begin to sense it early on. The 2.0ish tools of tagging and social bookmarking will help propel your blog into people's awareness, - but we'll talk about that in another post.

Let me share a little about my experience with this little blog as an example. I've only been at it seriously for a few months. I have still never had more than four comments in response to a posting. But twice, people I had never met got so excited by a posting they sent it off to their entire email list. People have commented on it in their newsletters and linked to it on their sites. And as a result I have found myself in dialogue with people and projects I hadn't known of before. Monday next I have a phone call scheduled with someone I met through the blog. The following day, lunch with someone else. I have two people who have asked to "guest post" on the blog. This is community building.

Marnie Webb has posted recently about some examples of blogging being used effectviely by non-profits:
I try and have a big bag of example of nonprofits using blogs. For a while now, I’ve been pointed to the work that Lee LeFever and Nancy White have been doing with the March of Dimes Share Your Story site. I’m excited to see Surprising Partners: Adding Blogs to an Existing Non-Profit Community at Global PR Week 2.0.

You can start on a completely free, publically hosted site to see how it works for you. This blog is on You can start without any technical knowledge. You will want a plan to make sure postings go up an a frequent basis. You will want a plan to market the site, to prime the readership pump.

Then you will want to learn about tagging.

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Monday, October 03, 2005

May we all be inscribed

for a Good Year!

Bread and Butter 2.0

As I've been reading the explosion of postings all over the net dedicated to "Web2.0" I'm struck by a disconnect between the advantages of the new web technologies and the business goals our users are striving to meet on the network.

Here's what I mean: John Hagel in a post last week offered a tentative definition of web 2.0 as
“an emerging network-centric platform to support distributed, collaborative and cumulative creation by its users.”
I think this really sums up the user-centric view of a lot of the discussion. But what do my non-profit users want from the internet? Now jump in and pummel me if you disagree, but I'd say you'd tell me your major concerns are
  1. Getting your message out to your community.
  2. Allowing your community to register for your events, renew their memberships, make donations, and buy your literature on-line.
  3. Allowing the use of your key business applications from multiple sites.
These are the bread and butter issues facing non-profits and associations, and most of them realize they can still improve significantly in all of these areas. I think this is the reason I instinctively identified Ajax as someting my users would care about, and why I've not been as vocal about tagging or social bookmarking, for example.

Meanwhile, somewhere in their organizations people are researching issues, writing brochures, commenting on legislations, issuing press releases - all "distributed, collaborative" tasks. But that's the problem with distributed: the work is being done with other people in other organizations or offices who are probably not going to take the time to learn the great new tool you've been experimenting with. The Senator's aide does not want to sign up for a Writely account just so you can mark up her draft in a cutting-edge way.

And probably your executive director doesn't want to either. "Why can't you just send her a doc like you did last week?" I know. I've tried. We're talking innovation here, and adopting anything new comes at a cost. Sad to say, winning buy-in from your own staff is not enough to allow the use of these new tools.

So is web2.0 simply irrelevant for most non-profits? If not, how can web2.0 be tied directly into the bread and butter issues? I think one way is to focus on these collaborative tools as a path to on-line community building for the organization's members and supporters. By making a site available to your members where people can post ideas for comment, propsect for colleagues to work on specific projects, and just plain schmooze, you can increase the sense of involvement your constituents have. There are a variety of tools you can employ to do this. You get the early adopters excited and engaged right away, and the others will be lured in at their own pace. Meanwhile, you still can still send the Senator's aide an email.

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