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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.

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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