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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, November 19, 2005

Read a good book lately?

Chris Locke's post of various booklists people have assembled at Amazon made me realize that the good old book is a problematic resource these days for those of us who inhabit the blogosphere - you can't just link to it, or receive it in your rss feed. Not yet. And you can't really read three or four of them while waiting to order your latte.

And I've been dying to start really using my wiki for something. So let's do it. Visit my booklist wiki page and post some book recommendations. And while you're there, post some suggestions about the next wiki page we should set up. Let's do something together!

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Friday, November 18, 2005

Weeding Out Misguided Complexity

One of the advantages of good software is that it enables an organization to manage a great deal of organizational complexity. But there is a sort of misguided complexity I'm concerned about, complexity whose cost outweighs its benefits.

We've been at this business for over 15 years, and in that time computers have become ever more central to organizational life. So it seems only natural that the IT systems we see -- in particular the mission- related database systems of the non-profits and associations we work with -- get more and more complex with each passing year.

Maybe it is natural, but it's also natural for your backyard to gradually become overrun with weeds. IT weeds grow out of your efforts to solve all the new little problems that your community springs on your each working day. You add new rules, new procedures and corresponding new software support, to deal with all these special cases and infrequent events. It's a complexity that would never have occurred without automation - it would be just way too convoluted manage. But even in the age of IT, this complexity does have a price.

The price is that it becomes harder and harder for anyone to wrap their minds around the system. Training gets harder. Data entry forms are more confusing. Messages that report a violation of this or that rule make it harder and harder to fill out a page and move on. Errors increase. And most distressing to us, users start reporting as bugs the new features we were paid to add to the system last month.

Although the financial and human cost of all this appears as an IT issue, the misguided complexity is actually organizational.

  • Misguided complexity may be a proliferation of member types, donor levels, and so on. We have at least two organizations working with us who by now have over fifty different member types with distinctive pricing and benefits packages.
  • Another client has had a steady explosion in the pricing options for the classes they hold. They have over 100 now, and as they add new options to this list, the names of these pricing options get longer as well so they can differentiate between them. So the field for the pricing option is name is now a full 100 characters wide! How can this not set off a warning flag in someone's mind?
  • Misguided complexity also occurs when new business rules or new data fields are added that will almost never be used. Looking at any of our clients' systems, we can find numerous fields added at users' request that are almost universally empty.
Each decision adding complexity has very little cost. Adding one new user-defined member type is a tiny thing really. But they all add up: expecting new staff to grapple with sixty-three membertypes is extreme and is costing the organization time and money.

As the compexity grows incrementally, there comes a time to weed the garden - to look for a novel solution that eliminates the complexity and replaces it all with a new simplicity. In the rare occasion, this may be purely an IT function, but most often it is organizational as well. Weeding complexity out of your organizational garden can be represent a significant savings.

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Tuesday, November 15, 2005

SPAM and the not-for-profit

Talking to my coworkers and clients, I've become aware that there are misconceptions about the regulations governing marketing email. People are afraid they will be labelled spammers and be hit with draconain fines. TechSoup this week is featuring a 2003 article by Lynn Mitchell about the law and its effect on non-profits. Since the article was written before the law took effect and disagreed in one respect with what I thought was the case I did a bit of further research.

Mitchell's article seems to ignore what I've seen stated very clearly over and over again: that the federal law voided the much stronger state laws already on the books. Many people have been very critical of the law for this reason. So I'm not sure the Utah example she gives is still valid, or her concern about how regulations differ from state to state. But I'd consult an attorney for a definitive reading on this.

But here's what I've found from the FTC as well as sites critical of the legislation as being too weak.

Until 1/1/2004, the rules against spam were governed by a host of state regulations. Most of these were much stricter than the federal statute which came into play in 2004 and which specifically supercedes pre-existing state rules. The federal law is known as the CAN-SPAM Act. The acronym stands for Controlling the Assault of Non-Solicited Pornography and Marketing. The Act met with general disapproval from the grass-roots movement trying to ban unsolicted marketing emails, who called it the You-CAN-SPAM act. Here's an example of how the anti-Spam movement saw the act.

Let's clear up the specific misconceptions I've run into.

Misconception 1. Lists must be opt-in. It is now illegal to send unsolicited marketing communications by email unless users have requested it.
This is not true. If you have legitimately collected the email address, you can email to it. The law does prohibit you from harvesting addresses from other websites or generating addresses at random by means of a program to find ones that exist, or trading in email lists that have opted out of someone else's program.

Misconception 2. If I am sending a marketing communication, I need an automatic function the email links to that will allow the user to opt-out with a single click.
This is also not true. Providing an email address that the recipient can use to opt-out is completely acceptable according to the law.

Misconception 3. It is hard to know exactly what I am allowed to mail to my member list.
You can always mail project, product, or company updates to your client, member, or donor lists, except for individuals who have specifically opted out, as long as the opt-put mechanism appears on the emails.

So what does the law require? An overview of its provisions can be found at the Federal Trade Commission website and include most importantly:
  • It bans false or misleading header information. Your email's "From," "To," and routing information – including the originating domain name and email address – must be accurate and identify the person who initiated the email.

  • It prohibits deceptive subject lines. The subject line cannot mislead the recipient about the contents or subject matter of the message.

  • It requires that your email give recipients an opt-out method. You must provide a return email address or another Internet-based response mechanism that allows a recipient to ask you not to send future email messages to that email address, and you must honor the requests. It is allowable for it to take up to ten days to drop someone from the list. You may create a "menu" of choices to allow a recipient to opt out of certain types of messages, but you must include the option to end any commercial messages from the sender.
So the impact on a non-profit marketing using legitimately obtained email addresses should not be too burdensome. Lynn Mitchell points out in fact that you can use the the opt-out opportunity as a valuable marketing contact. I love people who think this way. She says
CAN-SPAM allows organizations to offer e-mail recipients a list of unsubscribe options. Used properly, the list can be used to benefit members and create goodwill for the nonprofit. The opt-out list can give members the right to request the same information delivered in different formats, such as by fax or standard mail, providing communications that align more directly with member preferences.

The opt-out list can also include a list of alternate products or services that may interest members, increasing visibility for nonprofit products and services. If members choose one of the alternate selections, they are one step closer to buying a product or service, and the nonprofit has a more targeted e-mail list. In addition, the e-mail message has communicated that the organization considers its members needs.
I hope this clears up a little of the confusion.

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Friday, November 11, 2005

Content Creation

The last post talked about the importance of selected the right tools for your web publishing project. For your organization's main website, a full-featured Content management System is invaluable. For your blog, one of the well known blogging applications should suffice: Blogger, Typepad, and so on. (I'd love to see someone write a comparison of these blogging tools.) For special purpose collaborations, a wiki might be most appropriate.

But selecting the tool is just the beginning. You need content. And for a blog, you need an endless stream of content.

How do you generate a stream of content? This is the question I hear most often about blogging, both from other technology vendors and from non-profit staff: How do you decide what to write about? Doesn't it take an enormous amount of time? It's also the greatest single objection I run into when I talk about the benefits of blogging to non-profits. The generation of actual content of the blog or website seems to be an enormous burden. But it doesn't have to be.

The trick to effective blogging is to put a blogging process - a personal discipline - in place that governs the content creation and posting process. The same is true about updating your organization's main website.

Here's the outline of my blogging process:
1. Have a personal statement about what the blog is and isn't about, and what it's purpose is. My blog is about non-profit technology. It is not about other things that I may care strongly about, such as my family or foreign policy or music. Keeping your blog on topic will allow a community of readers who share a specific interest to find it and value it.

2. Maintain a topic list of upcoming things to write about. The topic list should always be about fifteen items long. This way, when it comes time to write a new piece, you can find something that you are in the mood to write about. Spend some time maintaining the topic list, so ideas are not forgotten. Distill your notes, scribbles, and bookmarks into entries in your topic list. Cull your emails with clients and colleagues to remember what the hot items this week seem to be. When your topic list gets short, its time to really focus on growing it. Keeping the topic list healthy is the key to avoiding writers block.

3. Be clear on the different types of posts you use, and keep a good mix of them. Think about your audience and make sure you offer something to each segment of that audience from time to time. Have a mix of long and short items. Have a mix of how-tos and backgrounders. Have a mix of items that create original content and items that point your readers to useful content created elsewhere. Referring readers to a pithy post in a friend's blog can make for a quick and valuable entry. But beware: blogs that do nothing but link to other sites are quickly seen as vacuous!

4. Keep some posts in the can, but don't let them get stale. It's invaluable to have a few posts written and sitting around. This way when you are already a day late and are staring at a blank screen, you can say, OK - this is the day for the piece of Moore's Law! But you don't want let your gems sit around for so long that they are out of date by the time you use them.

5. Think about your writing when you are not at your desk. I find that being able to outline my next three pieces in my head is a great way to endure a tale of lost luggage at a dinner party. When you do sit down to write, you already have a lot of ideas and your task is that much easier.

For the content on your organization's website, the process will be a bit more complicated. A blog is personal - you do not need approval or buy-in from others in your organizations. When the writing becomes collaborative, the process becomes more convoluted. This is where approval and workflow tools in a full-featured CMS will help you out.

Still, if you use the right tools and define a clear process, keeping your website updated will not be a constant struggle.

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Thursday, November 10, 2005

Content Management

I see a lot of associations and not-for-profits struggling with their websites.

My advice? As in so many other areas of life, first make sure you are using the right tool for the job. The tool for this job is a content management system (CMS).

Content management systems are software applications for creating, editing, and controlling the information on your website. At a minimum, a CMS will provide you with a word-processing like tool for WYSIWYG editing of your pages. The editing will be done in the browser, on your site, so there will be no need to up- and download pages. A CMS also ought to manage the menu structure of your site automatically.

Just this basic level of CMS functionality will bring a huge level of independence and ease-of-use to your organization. Without consulting with a web professional or learning HTML, you can create a document in the CMS, position it in your menu structure, and have it appear on your site - just about as easily as you can write a memo in your word processing program. I talked to a membership director just today who told me that to edit a page on their site currently they download it, edit the HTML very carefully in WordPad, and upload it back via FTP. What a hassle!

But CMS at its best provides many more tools than just ease in editing. Many such systems will also allow you to create pages and approve them for publication later, allowing you time to get the new pages vetted and checked before making them publicly visible. You may even be able to set the date you want the item to appear or vanish from the site. A good system will allow you to give many users the rights to edit content, while reserving for a select view the right to approve or publish.

A CMS might also provide you with templates for a variety of special-purpose pages in addition to the standard page. I'm talking about tools for building
  • catalogs
  • calendars
  • forums
  • polls and surveys
  • newsletter mailings
  • frequently asked questions
  • download pages
  • member logon
and the like.

At Members Only Software, we've just starting reselling the CMS that we use for our own site, Streamline by TechRiver LLC. One of the things we like about the Streamline solution is that the TechRiver folks work like we do - they see their product as a software application and a professional service. In helping you get the program set up, they assume you may need to work with their design team to get a template and graphic concept that reflects your brand, and you may need some consultation in structuring the information you need to present. They don't intend to leave you alone to figure out how to use the thing. And they know you will have strong feeling about how menus and other aspects of the site should look and feel.

We've also worked with them several times on client projects, so we've established the protocols for allowing MEMBERS ONLY to interact with the Streamline site to integrate registration, online giving, and so on directly into the website. Give us a holler if you'd like to take a look at it!

Once you have your Content Management System in place, you can move on to the really interesting problem: how do you create all that content you're supposed to manage in the first place?

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Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Back in D.C.

I'm back in D.C. after a week working with our old friends at the Omaha/Council Bluffs YMCA.

Here are two other D.C. non-profit pundits you'll want to add to your reading list:

Jillaine Smith's blog, At the Intersection, focuses on organizational development: leadership, strategic planning, communication. At the same time she is deeply aware of the role technology plays in the growth of any organization these days. One of those in-depth bloggers whose posts are all real articles, not clips and quips, Jillaine discusses in her October 14h post the value of creating real ownership of projects throughout an organization, drawing lessons from the work of an unlikely expert, Peter Hunter, who was writing about performance improvement on offshore oil rigs.
You can find the website for Jillaine's consulting practice here.

Amy Kinkaid, also a blogger and consultant, focuses more on fundraising. Her blog, Fundraising Breakthroughs, you'll notice right off, uses the same tasteful template as this one. Although her recent short posts gave me some food for thought, I particularly found interesting the longer pieces she wrote on donor cultivation in August, such as this entry on Turning Contacts into Donors. Amy's consulting practice also has a website here.

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Friday, November 04, 2005

Mark Liu from NetSquared: Part 2

(... in which I continue to interview my former dorm-mate, Mark Liu, now the project manager for TechSoup's NetSquared initiative)

[Me] What can you tell us about the April NetSquared conference?

[Mark] We have 2 main goals for the conference.

First, we hope to build a community of active participants in the NetSquared website over the coming months. This community will be figuring out how to accomplish these ambitious goals to bring the new technologies to the sector.

We'll be talking about new tools and technologies, best practices in adopting them, organizational development issues to adopt them, and infrastructural needs to support the transformation. In the coming weeks, we'll be soliciting suggestions from the community on the content, speakers, participants, structure of the conference.

Second, the conference is a fundraiser for TechSoup. NetSquared is only one of several major initiatives for us. Two other initiatives, which we hope to apply the funds to are: 1) expanding our TechSoup and TechSoup Stock programs internationally bringing the benefits of corporate philanthropy and our community's knowledge to nongovernmental organizations elsewhere, and 2) our Refurbished Computer Initiative - which is our effort to help expand computer refurbishing.

[Me] Is the NetSquared site intended to support the April conference, or do you see it having a longer life? If I was your ideal site member, how would I use it?

[Mark] Longer life, absolutely. We see this as a multi-year effort.

I don't think there is a single ideal member. Some people are programmers; others are IT practitioners; others are npo executives; others are computer industry product vendors. All can play a role. In fact, all are needed. We need more and better tools. Better understanding about how to best utilize them. Better understanding about how to deploy them. Nonprofits will need technical support and assistance. People can assist in outreach, knowledge development, tool development.

[Me] So what is the best way to partcipate via the site?

[Mark] As we develop the site, we'll be trying to offer lots of options for participation. At the moment, one of the things you can do is to help us identify great examples of nonprofit innovation, by adding a "case study" to the netsquared site An easier way of helping is by tagging sites and webpages describing nonprofit innovation or great new tools or techniques. We have a short list of ways to help at, and this page will be updated regularly as the community grows and develops new activities.

[Me] How did you choose Drupal for the netSquared site?

[Mark] Drupal has a huge development community, and has many features that we need, e.g., blogs, aggregators, surveys, wiki books. Bryght also generously offered to sponsor our work by donating hosting and consulting services.

[Me] Mark, tell us a bit about you. How did you end up at CompuMentor/TechSoup?

[Mark] I worked in the computer industry for about 20 years. When I started in the industry, I thought that I was doing good technical work that in some indirect way was for the betterment of society. In fact, I'm sure most of the technorati today feel exactly that way. The people at Google or FlickR or working on drupal should all feel justifiably proud that they are changing society in a positive way. But I reached a point where I couldn't see that benefit any more in the work I was doing personally, and decided I wanted to get more closely involved in socially-oriented work.

I found CompuMentor in 1998, where I was able to apply my technology and management background in a more socially-directed fashion. We don't provide direct services ourselves (unlike a homeless shelter or battered women's shelter) or do direct advocacy work (unlike a environmental organization), but we have saved 100's of millions of dollars for other nonprofits, and helped many, many nonprofits do their work more effectively. It's been great.

And as you can see from my previous answers, we think there's still a great need for more innovation and collective action, and a lot more social change to be made.

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For more information, check the NetSquared site at
If you're interesting in sponsoring NetSquared, check out

Thursday, November 03, 2005

Interview with NetSquared project manager Mark Liu: Part 1

I'm sure last week's TechSoup forum on web2.0 technologies produced a lot of interesting exchanges on a whole range of issues for a lot of people - but the most exciting for me was the message with the subject line "Are you the Michael Stein I used to know?" that got me back in touch with Mark Liu, who lived in the room directly above me in Bexley Hall in 1968.

Today, Mark is the manager of TechSoup's NetSquared initiative, a project designed to make sure the non-for-profit sector gets involved early and actively with the newest tools and trends in internet technology. And once we got through catching up, I admitted to him that I was just a bit perplexed about the NetSquared project. How do NetSquared and the NetSquared website differ from TechSoup? What exactly is their purpose?

So Mark agreed to answer a few questions for this blog.

[Me] I've not been completely clear on the nature of the NetSquared project, and I know others share my confusion. Can you explain in a couple sentences what it is all about?

[Mark] I'm not good at the elevator pitch. So here goes my own interpretation.

We TechSoup people believe that this is a moment of great opportunity for nonprofits and individuals who are interested in helping their communities and benefiting society. Some of the key changes we see are that there are new tools and techniques that allow
  • people with common interests to find each other and form virtual communities around these common interests.
  • them to share their stories, knowledge, research, analysis, and resources and build on them
  • them to reach outside of their virtual communities and have greater impact on their real world communities, through more effective advocacy, education, and service delivery
At the same time we see community-building as the core of non-profit work. Thus, we think that the new Internet technologies are a natural fit for nonprofit work.

But the problem is that most people working in nonprofits don't know about the new technologies, or how to apply them. We find that the new Internet technologists (We call them the "technorati") talk among themselves, and the nonprofit people talk among themselves, but there are few people who are conversant with both sides. That's where we think TechSoup comes into the picture. We have something like 60,000 registered nonprofits in TechSoup Stock. We have 100's of thousands of readers of TechSoup. We believe that we're in a great position to get the message out.

[Me] I see how this is a natural extension of TechSoup. Like the Web2.0 discussions you sponsored last week. But how does NetSquared fit in?

[Mark] Techsoup cannot accomplish this by itself. Our hope is to build a community of technorati and nonprofit people, who will work together to understand the new technologies and how to best apply them to social change work, and at the same time work to teach nonprofits how to use them and help nonprofits over the hurdles of adoption. We see TechSoup's role as being the catalyst for this effort. We'll provide infrastructure and support for the NetSquared community, and help to get the community's message out to the sector, but the community itself will do much of the outreach to expand the community, develop the knowledge base, and deliver knowledge, assistance and support to nonprofit adopters.

We know that other people have a similar vision and similar goals, and some had these before NetSquared was launched. We hope that we can all join together in a NetSquared community that will have the critical mass of resources, visibility, and credibility to really have an impact.

[to be continued...]

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Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Membership Managment?

A lot of times in our business we hear the phrase Membership Management. We even call one of our modules Membership Managment. But what the heck is Membership Management? In a posting back in August, I quoted from my friend Esther Merves, who after a seven-year stint as a Membership Director in an education association, complained that all the software she looked at to help her "manage" her members offered very little to help her retain members or attract new members.

We reconnected with Esther after many years recently, when she decided that to prepare for hanging out her new shingle as an independent consultant, she needed to call all the software vendors in the known world and find out what we were up to. This had led to a number of very interesting conversations.

There's another missing area in most organization's handling of Membership Management, according to Esther. This is Outcome Tracking. "Most software lets me keep track of my outputs, but not my outcomes" she says. What is the difference?
"Outputs are: members of our association sent an average of six staff people to association events this year. We held 30 workshops and seminars, with a total of 3245 registrations."
Outcomes are, "of the 3245 members who attended our workshops, 2800 said they felt better prepared to deal with new regulations regarding blah blah blah. Indeed, 72% of our members report changing their policies regarding yada yada specifically because of information gained at our meetings"
Your first thought might be: "Great idea! To do this all we need is a survey module. There's lots of those. No problem!" But really, where you record the data is almost the last step, not the first. The process begins before each activity of your organization. The process involves trying to articulate the goals of each aspect of your program as measurable objectives, and then carrying out these assessments.

Your members do not want to be managed. They want to know that your work is furthering shared goals. Public Health programs have known for years that they cannot really attract funders unless they try to document a measurable impact on their communities. Esther thinks the rest of us would gain traction by incorporating this approach into our membership programs.

Further discussion: TechSoup article on outcome tracking.

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