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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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Thursday, December 29, 2005

That Was The Year That Was

I've been taking some time today to browse through a year's worth of service requests from our clients. It's very useful to step back and take a look at what the non-profits we work with have been trying to accomplish with their information systems. What are the challenges these groups are facing? What seem to be the burning needs of the advocacy groups, service organizations, think tanks, and associations we work with? And what technologies are emerging to meet these needs? We see that the trend to make more and more services available via the web has brought xml-based webservices and innovative web-development techniques to the fore. But as always, most of the requests dealt with mundane issues of organizational workflow and business rule enforcement. Here's a picture of what we find our non-profits have been up to.

XML-based web services
Probably the biggest trend we see is that organizations are trying to push more functionality out to members and supporters via the internet. The most common web-related projects we find ourselves involved in relate to online events registration, online donations, and self-management of member accounts. We've been making extensive use of SOAP and other XML-based webservice technologies to bring complex functionality like this to the web. I don't often see SOAP listed among the "emerging web technologies" discussed on non-profit tech sites, but it has definitely arrived. XML webservices allow complex business logic to be placed in a middle tier between the database and the browser. This multi-tier design allows secure real-time interaction with an organization's database, while leaving the user interface design completely flexible. And since these services are now an accepted standard, most up-to-date website development languages and frameworks offer built-in support for them. SOAP services have been our answer to many user requests in the last year.

Integration with 3rd party services
There are a lot of ready-to-use "Software-as-a-Service" products on the market to meet specialized needs of a non-profit. Tools for on-line advocacy, for example, make it easy for a supporter to write to Congress. Online donation tools are a great help for organizations that don't want to deal with setting up their own merchant account and secure server. But these tools store their own data - they don't talk to your organization's database. Requests to integrate with tools like these were high on our users' wish lists this past year. No one wants to waste valuable time retyping donor or member names back into their main database. In the last year we've been asked to integrate with the two types of products I just mentioned, as well as a couple of mail-room systems, a retail point-of-sale system in an organization's bookstore, and a data feed from a call-center that handles an organization's member service phone line after hours. Getting all their in-house and on-line systems talking to each other seems to be a pressing concern of the organizations we work with.

Integrated Calendaring
I see we have some calendar-related requests lined up to deal with in the next month or two. There are a number of web-based calendars being touted as "web2.0" tools - but none of these excite our users. What they want are calendars tied directly into their facilities management and events management databases. So we've just started developing an Ajax-based web calendar that can take its information from a variety of different sources, and allow authorized users to edit the calendars over the web. I see Ajax emerging as a very important tool that will help both non-profits and businesses build more responsive and active public websites.

Bar Codes
How ho-hum, eh? But the optical bar-code is still a useful technology for improving performance that is not in use everywhere it could be. One client recently requested we place bar-codes on the pledge reminders they send out so that payments can be entered into the system more quickly. Another has requested bar-coding of meeting confirmations to speed-up registration lines at major events. And of course all of our YMCAs are using bar-coded Membership Cards to control facilities access. But for the first time this year we had a serious request to handle access control using RFID-based cards. These can be scanned without being removed from a member's pocket or purse.

System Documentation
We have a lot of requests to explain the use of this or that feature of the system, to help troubleshoot some little mystery, or to remind users how to perform a rarely-used function. It's very difficult to keep up-to-date documentation of the Information System of an active non-profit organization. Fields and reports are added by the users. Business rules change. Programmers make enhancements but the help file is not updated. The developers of the system do not know all the decisions the users have made about how or when to perform certain tasks. Answers to users' troubleshooting questions are to be found in scattered emails.

Early in January we will be turning one trial user loose on our new Wiki Help. The idea is that with no special tools, any authorized user, at our end or theirs, will be able to add information to the Wiki Help system. I think Wikis are going to prove to be a key component of inter-organizational collaboration in the coming years. But tools with adequate security and editing controls need to be used so people can trust the contents and be assured of privacy.

But by far most of the requests we receive...
These "emerging technology" requests are exciting, but they comprise a small part of the requests we receive. By far the most common requests have to do with building organizational business rules into the system to improve printed outputs, minimize error, and enforce organizational policies. Here are a few typical requests:
  • A member should not be able to put himself on more than three waitlists for sold-out events
  • Please ask the user for a batch number when exporting to the general ledger. This field should be appended to each line in the export.
  • We need a utility to transfer ALL the records maintained by one workgroup to another.
So while we've had the chance to use some exciting new tools this past year, the challenges faced by our non-profits are the same as always: stay in touch with your constituents, make it easy for them to support you, and by all means do everything possible to save your staff's energy for tasks that truly advance your mission, by making the technology do the grunt work and enforce the rules.

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Friday, December 23, 2005

Keeping up with the news

How can you possibly keep up with all the new little internet-based software applications being placed online everyday? There are a few web-sites devoted to serving as portals to all these new apps. Here are three you might want to check on every few days:

1. Solution Watch. This site was created by 19 year old Brian Benzinger, a student at Gibbs College in Norwalk Ct. The site profiles new applications that Brian has reviewed and deemed worthy to pass on to this readers. These a real reviews, not just a cataloging of new sties that have come to Brian's attention. His most recent post describes an Ajax-based chatroom service you can add to your blog or website with just a few includes.

2. eHub. Emily Change is an award-winning web developer, designer, and consultant based in San Francisco. Her eHub site, updated nearly every day, brings us pretty much every new web-based application that she has run into. The stream of information from this site will inevitably bring something to your attention that you want to use -- or emulate.
Unlike Brian, Emily usually justs points us to the site and lets us draw our own conclusions. But she posts longer pieces too, often interviews with the development team responsible for some new application. Recently, for example, Emily interviewed gOffice, developers of a browser-based office suite. If you are interested in how far the current move toward internet-based computing might go, take a look at what these developers are envisioning.

3. Techcrunch. Currently claiming 17,150 subscribers to its RSS feed, this blog's mision statement tells us it is "dedicated to obsessively profiling and reviewing new web 2.0 products and companies." Creator Michael Arrington strikes a more bloggy, industry-savvy tone. In addition to telling us about the applications, he follows their fortunes in the trade press and blogosphere. Michael is also attuned to the competition between web2.0 developers: recently he devoted an inch or so to the competitive impact of Performancing's blogging plug-in for Firefox had on the Flock browser.
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Thursday, December 22, 2005

Tools for Blogger

Since installing and modifying my new template, I have a new-found confidence in my ability as a CSS programmer. So I started trolling the net for new ideas and sample scripts for improving my Blogger site. I found quite a few. As I play with these tools over the next while I'll offer more substantial reviews that might be useful to other Blogger-based bloggers out there - but until then, let me leave you with a few useful sites:

1. Blogger Templates. Not surprisingly, this is a site where you can find quite a few templates. Seems to be quite a popular little spot - there are over 500 delicious bookmarks on it. Mostly two-column templates, with prominent graphics.

2. NOIPO.ORG also has some elegant looking templates. I was quite taken with the British Museum template. Again, these are two column templates notable for their graphic design.

3. Freshblog is full of elaborate hacks for adding functionality to blogger - such as utilizing delicious tagging as a round about way to establishing categories in blogger - a sorely missed feature. Its a nice idea, and I'll probably try this one sometime soon.

4. BloggerHacks is has a couple great additions to blogger down as javaScript. Included are a replacement for the blogger comment system, complete with a form that allows the user to comment with name, email, and url without being logged into blogger, and a script for displaying recent comments in the sidebar. Very nicely done. The complete commented script is provided for inclusion into your templates.

Let me know your results if you try using any of the tips or tools you find here - and I'll do the same.
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Sunday, December 18, 2005

Managing Technology Across Multiple Locations

In all the talk about emerging technologies I rarely hear discussed solutions for the problems faced by organizations with more than one location. But for many of our MEMBERS ONLY clients, building and maintaining an IT infrastructure across numerous locations raises issues every day.

Thin-client computing.
One technology we've seen quite a few organizations use effectively in this situation is "thin-client" computing, where applications are hosted on a central application server, and published out to workstations. Since all that is being sent to the desktops are keystrokes and screen images - not data or applications - bandwidth requirements between branches and the servers are kept to a minimum and speed and performance maximized. As we will see, there are some other compelling advatages as well. The two most common thin-client solutions in the Windows world are Microsoft Terminal Server, and Citrix Metaframe.

A Case Study
The YMCA of Triangle Area is a 14 branch YMCA in the Raleigh-Durham area of North Carolina, with two camps -- Seagull and Seafarer -- a several hour drive away on the Pamlico Sound. Trying to build a single network in this environment created numerous challenges the Y has had to meet. In meeting those challenges, this Y has gradually shifted more and more of its computing to a Citrix-based thin-client model.

Saving bandwidth
Originally, the Y saw thin-client computing as a way of utilizing their data-intensive management applications, such as our MEMBERS ONLY programs and their general ledger, without requiring enough bandwidth to move an ocean of data down the pipeline. Other applications were still installed and used in the conventional manner.

Simplifying Software Management
But management issues soon argued for moving MS Office and email applications to Citrix, as well as their fundraising and employee time-clock system. Hosting all the commonly used applications centrally meant that software upgrades involved nothing more than updating apps running on the centrally located Citrix servers. Suddenly it was easy to guarantee that everyone was on the same version of all applications - and installation no longer involved driving out to a remote branch.

Improving Workstation Management
The YMCA's network administrator, Gary Autrey, points out that because the applications are all hosted and no data is stored locally on desktop PCs, users are far less dependent on working at their own PC. And setting up a new workstation consumes far less staff time, because the applications do not need to be installed. Citrix publishes the appropriate applications out to each user based on the Windows Groups they belong to. So there is so much less that can go wrong on each workstation.

Back on the Farm.
But by now it was getting to be lot of processing to offload on a single central computer. In the case of the Triangle YMCA, which has 320 users, one server could not bear the load. Fortunately Citrix allows clustering of application servers into what they call a server farm. The software manages the load so that as more users log on, the number of processes running on each machine is kept in balance and performance is optimized. The YMCA has a four server farm, running Citrix Metaframe over Windows Server 2003.

Packet routing is managed by their ISP. When a packet gets sent out of a branch, the ISP routes it directly to the central office Citrix farm if that is where it is addressed, rather than letting it move to any switch further downstream. Otherwise it is sent out to the internet. And a certain amount of their total bandwidth is reserved for the Citrix traffic. The server farm is also accessible via the public internet - so authorized users can run the applications from home, and vendors like us can log on to investigate a trouble ticket.

Internet-published often is taken to mean browser-based nowadays. But with thin-client solutions, conventional Windows apps can be made available over the internet. They can even be launched from a browser. It's a route to take seriously if you are struggling with the problem of multiple locations.
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Britt Bravo on Blogging

Britt posted a very nice piece on her site yesterday about getting started with your new blog. If you've been putting off your blogging debut, you'll find this a great tool to help you master the nuts and bolts. In her detailed tutorial, Britt walks you through basics that are hard to find in one place, including

  • setting up your blog account
  • posting pictures
  • dealing with comments
  • making sure your feed is published
  • tracking access to your site
  • and making use of tagging to help readers find relevant posts.
Britt provides clear step by step instructions for getting things set up if you opt to use the services she recommends - such as Blogger and Bloglines. Since I use them myself, I can't fault her there. So if you've been contemplating launching your weblog, follow this step by step guide and you'll be online in no time. And then join the Non-Profit Blog Exchange to connect with a wider community of other bloggers tackling non-profit issues.

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Sunday, December 11, 2005

Delicious leaves some with a bad taste.

I've just be reading the conversation on the net about Yahoo's acquisition of - as you would expect, feelings about it run high.

Those who are excited about it see it as a vote for tagging and web 2.0 technology by the established providers of widely used internet services, and as a reward for innovation. Those who are vehemently opposed list a few likely scenarios that might harm the usefulness of - banners, sponsored links, and a too-wide usership that would end the elite quality of the taggers who made the service so valuable.

And I suspect some are just depressed at the end of the illusion that "web2.0" was a democratizing wave that limited the power of the big internet companies. Now all the most talked-about tag-oriented sites belong to Yahoo:, FlickR, Upcoming.

I read through a long thread on metafilter about the Yahoo-delicious alliance. Here you can find the full range of view expressed:

some benign-
Flickr hasn't been ruined. Upcoming hasn't been ruined. Why will be ruined?
and some at the opposite pole-
I give it a week before Yahoo starts fudging the links to quietly direct more hits to their clients.
One comment pointed out that the value of the site is to be found in its small club-like membership. ejaned8 wrote: was valuable partially to me because of the type of users and links it attracted, so I knew it was a place I could go to find the obscure things that hadn't been posted to boing-boing or wherever yet. I think as it gains more users (doubtless it will as it becomes a yahoo!) that the amount of time to find relevant items may increase.
And of course, the thread has quite a few readers who never "got" delicious - with its minimal interface and geeky documentation. "Your favorite site sucks" And those who don't get the merger at all: after all, Yahoo has tagging on MyWeb2.0 anyhow.

So what's new? In the old days, whenever a small company built a piece of software that began to take off, Microsoft bought them - it seems that now there are four or five big players capable of rewarding an innovator - Google, e-Bay, and Yahoo have all made news recently with acquisitions. I never liked Front-Page; but it's clear Microsoft's purchase of this early web development toolkit encouraged the first wave of small organizations getting websites up. I still run into organizations all the time with their own in-house webmaster who can't imagine another way of putting up a site.

Clearly a wary eye toward the internet giants is warranted. But I don't think that the sale of will stand in the way of the current wave of innovation.
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Friday, December 09, 2005

This just in..., Joshua Schachter's killer app that created the entire web2.0 social bookmarking genre, has been acquired by Yahoo.

Yahoo's last big acquisition was Flickr, the industry leading photo-sharing site, which like, uses tagging as a way to classify and retrieve images. Looks like this "emerging" technology, as some like to call it, has emerged. You can read announcements of the acquisition on the Yahoo search blog here, and on Joshua's blog here, where he writes:
We're proud to announce that as joined the Yahoo! family. Together we'll continue to improve how people discover, remember and share on the Internet, with a big emphasis on the power of community. We're excited to be working with the Yahoo! Search team - they definitely get social systems and their potential to change the web. (We're also excited to be joining our fraternal twin Flickr!) We want to thank everyone who has helped us along the way - our employees, our great investors and advisors, and especially our users. We still want to get your feedback, and we look forward to bringing you new features and more servers in the future.I look forward to continuing my vision of social and community memory, and taking it to the next level with the community and Yahoo!

Heather Green, blogging in business week online just a few hours ago, says Joshua told her there would be no press release. According to her posting, Joshua told her that will continue operating as a stand along service at the same time as Yahoo will integrate more of the tagging technology across its network of offerings.

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Thursday, December 08, 2005

Managing Software Updates

I'm just back from working with one of our YMCA's for a few days. We installed a software update while we were there, and it got me thinking. Books are written about managing software rollouts in organizations. But what about the minor update?

Your vendor has fixed a few bugs, added a few features you and others have been asking for - now it's ready.
What planning and preparation is needed before installing?

To hear Tim O'Reilly talk, the direction the industry is moving in is to make the software update a non-event. In a now-famous piece, What is Web 2.0?, he claims that the new models have brought about the end of the software-release cycle, and goes on:
The open source dictum, "release early and release often" in fact has morphed into an even more radical position, "the perpetual beta", in which the product is developed in the open, with new features slipstreamed in on a monthly, weekly, or even daily basis. It's no accident that services such as Gmail, Google Maps, Flickr,, and the like may be expected to bear a Beta logo for years at a time.
But your mission-critical systems are NOT Gmail or Flickr. Sudden and unexpected changes in software behavior are not just little treats for your staff, but issues that require policy consideration and training. They can change your workflow. They can expose you to risk. And a day long unexpected outage, like Google's Blogger outage the other day, can be a real problem if it occurs at the wrong time.

A real-life example.
The changes that we've been making for enhanced credit card security basically narrow the window during which a full credit card number is retained by the system. This has an impact on issuing a credit card refund. During the walkthru of the new credit card features for this YMCA, the team realized staff members now need to ask for the card number again when a member requests a refund. Other minor policy issues came up as well during our walkthru - and these changes needed to get out to the full staff before the new features could be installed.

Besides these usage issues, there is risk to consider. There is always a risk of some new problem when changing your software. The more enhancements and fixes in the release, the higher the risk. The more setup and interfacing with other players and systems, the higher the risk. In this example, the big risk is obvious: what if we get the new software set up wrong and it is not communicating with the bank? The users could be out cash!

So even for routine maintenance updates in your mission-critical systems, I'd stop, take a breath, pull your technology committee together, and consider the following:

Workflow considerations.
  • What are the changes in this version? Do any of them require a policy decision or a change in workflow?
  • Do any of these changes represent a real problem for us? Are there new features we'd like to hide, turn off, or make available only to certain users? Can that be done?
  • Is there any training warranted? Do we need to hold any sort of training or walkthru with a larger group of staff to make sure everyone is on the same page about the changes. Do we have in-house documentation we ought to update?
Risk Management Considerations
  • How high is the risk associated with this update? If the risk is high, careful testing is worth the time it takes - if the risk is low, you might be costing yourself money by spending days testing it.
  • How will we determine if the risk conditions are occuring? In this example, how will you make sure the payments are being authorized and settled properly and card numbers properly starred out after posting?
  • When is the best time for us to encounter this risk? For example, if you are expecting a rush of registrations next Tuesday, that's a bad day to make this change. Either do it early enough to be sure you are solid by then, or put it off until after that date.
Using this open-eyed approach when scheduling an update with your vendor can make the transition to the enhanced software much less of a hassle and get you reaping the benefits of the new features sooner.
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Monday, December 05, 2005

Blogging Potpourri

Last week our friend Erin Kimrey from the North Carolina Conservation Network stayed at our house while she was in DC for some meetings. She listened politely through my little dinner table rant about how important it is for non-profits to blog and how few of them are doing it. "We've got a blog" she said when I finally took a breath. And in fact they have a great blog. It makes excellent use of images, and has a nice blend of detailed wonkish and more accessible articles. I like how often their postings remind you that conservation is not just an issue, it's the world right around you. If you give it a read, you'll be impressed as well by the quality of the comments they receive.

Steve Shu of 21Publish works with a group that takes blogging one step further. While I'm always exhorting organizations to start a blog, he's focused on "blogging communities". 21Publish is the developer of a software platform for this sort of multiuser blogging. I ran into his blog when he picked up on my recent content creation posting recently. Take a look here get an idea of his approach to non-profit community blogging.

But you know, it's not just a few of us nerds who seem to think blogging has become a main-street communications tool. The Harvard Business School recently told the very mainstream readers of the Harvard Management Communication Letter that they can ignore blogging only at their own peril. Take a look at this synopsis to see whats they have to say on the subject.
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Saturday, December 03, 2005

How to Subscribe to Blogs via RSS

I'm just realizing how few people really understand how to subscribe to a blog -- this blog in particular -- using its RSS feed. The Firefox browser has done its best to "degeek" RSS with its live bookmark feature. But the live bookmarks do not give all the advantages of a full-featured feedreader, in my opinion. So I've added a little HOW-TO page to the site, explaining how to make use of RSS subscriptions.
Additional Reading: Marshall K's RSS tutorial.
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Thursday, December 01, 2005

Meet TravelerTrish

Earlier today I complained to my friend Emily that I was getting those "early winter blues." Her prescription was to assign me my partner in the next round of the non-profit blog exchange. Now I'm really depressed.

Why? Because for me working with non-profits means - oh just to pounce on today's issue - trying to figure out why all of a sudden at one of our client's offices the database server has decided that all users should be prevented from creating new tables. But for TravelerTrish it seems to include travelling to far off exciting places and having deep and meaningful conversations over elaborate meals where both the discussion and the menu are worth blogging about. What have I done wrong?

Envy aside, Trish is trying to bring an important global perspective to the nptech discussion. On the Worlds' Touch blog, which is only a few postings old, Trish admits struggling for her voice in the technology arena. In a recent post she says that here, unlike in her personal blog,
I feel compelled to make it like so many of the nonprofit tech blogs I read, all informative and impersonal.
But Trish's blogging at its best is informative and personal. In this posting that takes off from Deborah Finn's recent comments on the technical problems of getting close enough to an interviewee to record both voices, Trish reminds us that the parameters of proximity are cultural variables, and that in this and so many other cases, technology assistance across cultural lines is being mediated by meanings we must not be oblivious to. Trish's unique contribution to the nptech discussion is the familiarity a lifetime of travel has given her with walking back and forth across these cultural lines. These cultural issues impinge on what at first glance might appear to be purely technical or organizational problems.

And as she points out in one of her personal blog posts, you don't have to cross borders or oceans to need this sensitivity - even working domestically you are encountering these differences all the time - between people of from different regions, races, religious backgrounds. I think that as Trish gets as comfortable with this new blog as she is with the personal one, we are going to see some valuable discussion on this page!

TravelerTrish is Patricia Perkins, the executive director of World's Touch, an organization that provides technology assistance to non-profits and NGOs in the developing world. Their website explains their work this way:

Worlds Touch is a nonprofit organization partnering with successful charities in developing countries to provide information and communications technology (ICT).

  • We provide information systems for international grassroots organizations working to end poverty.
  • We design and build web sites for community groups.
  • We train and support non-profit management.
  • We bring cultural sensitivity to every project.

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