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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, August 26, 2006

In-box reveries

Beth Kanter, like me just back from vacation, was fretting over the inbox clutter she returned to, and posted a link to an interesting piece in my home-town paper by Jeffrey Zaslow on in-box management styles and personal productivity. I've been enjoying new-found control over my correspondence I switched to using Google's gmail as my email client - and Beth, an MS Outlook user, asked me to share a few words about my approach to email management using gmail. I'm never sure whether these personal musings on how one guy works are of any use to anyone, but here they are.

First a mini-review of the Google product. All I can say is that it is the sleekest and most efficient email interface I've worked with. Among its innovative features:
  1. Conversations, as threads are called in gmail parlance, are tightly tied together and displayed as a single line when you view your inbox. Deleting or archiving is done by thread, not by individual email, saving time and preventing error.
  2. Labels. There are no folders in gmail. Instead, email is classified by tagging it - and as it most tag-based systems, you can apply more than one tag - or label, as they are called in gmail - to the same item. Tagging a piece of email tags the whole conversation. A built-in label - the star - is useful for flagging items you want to keep on a high-priority list.
  3. Archiving. You do not need to tag a conversation to move it out of your inbox. Just archive it. When an email arrives that is part of an archived conversation, the entire conversation pops back into the inbox.
  4. Search. Rather than relying on tags as your main avenue to retrieval, use search. The rapid Google search we've come to rely on when searching the web will retrieve the mail you are looking for in a fraction of a second.
  5. Setting the From address. Most email clients and services let you set the Reply To address, but gmail lets you set the From address as well. So all my professional email goes out as being sent from my office domain, though I manage it all from gmail. I have all my accounts forwarded to gmail.
  6. Link to the Google Calendar. If gmail sees something that looks like a date or time in the email, it displays a link that will put that event in your calendar. And as my friend from Omaha says, the Google Calendar is "slicker than snot on a doorknob" with an interface that can parse time, date, and location out of a single text input.
Beth asked me to explain my gmail workflow. I never really thought about it, but I have evolved one. I try to use the email system as a tool to enhance my ability to keep my work organized, rather than as an input that makes things more chaotic.

Minimize disruption. First of all, I shut off the notifier whenever I need to concentrate - when I am programming, or writing something that takes a lot of concentration. I hate being constantly interrupted while I am trying to think.

Tag automatically. I have set up a lot of filters to label my mail automatically as it arrives. For example all my mail from clients arrives with the proper client label already in place. I try to label other mail as I read it, to avoid having a big classification project later. I delete anything I am not going to read even if I do not want to flag it as spam - newsletters I sometimes read, for example, but am not going to have time for this week. I don't worry about tagging everything I save since its so easy to get it back by searching for sender or any word in the text.

A morning email review session. Each morning, I review my inbox, and immediately archive everything that I have already responded to, or which requires no response. So I keep a pretty short inbox - maybe 50 conversations items max. I star important things I will want to look at again in the next few days. Then I check the entire starred list to see what can be unstarred. I use this daily review to remember what I did the day before, remind myself of promises I have made for today, and add them to my to-do list. Many emails take time to respond to - I put these tasks on my to-do list, rather than just falling into them. I also use the email review to remind myself of small billable items I have done for a client that I might otherwise forget, and get those timeslips logged. Ya gotta eat!

Sharing email. Another thing I do during my email review session is cut and paste emails that should become part of our office knowledgebase into our project tracking system, so that the information is not mine alone. Making the proper emails sharable is an important part of email management in a collaborative working environment. Note to Google: I'd love to see a team email system with a share flag to make an email sharable to by all members of a group.

Downloading. Since this is a web-based service, there is no issue of where you download your mail. You can check it all, even the archived mail, from any pc on the internet. But since gmail is POP-compliant, you can download it perioidically to Outlook or Thunderbird as a backup. I do it now and then.

Mobile Gmail. Gmail has a mobile interface designed for the small screen. I can check my mail on my Treo at any time. I can even archive and label from the treo, so there is no need to let my inbox become a mess when I'm travelling.
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Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Fundraising University

Just back from vacation. And although it's still August and the calendar says summer lasts another month, that Back to School vibe is in the air and the season is definitely waning. The "let's get back to business" feeling seems to be widespread - everyone is blogging about fundraising this week. I always eat up this information, because I'm not an expert in development, but I'm always asked to help automate development tasks. And even my vacation was not free of fundraising concerns - the group that sponsors the music camp was in the throes of a new campaign, which we aided by auctioning off a Cajun fiddler.

Amy Kincaid of Fundraising Breakthroughs kicked off my reading with a piece on Improving your Annual Support Letter. A lot of communication pointers here: she reminds us that a lot of people will not read the whole letter, just the first paragraph and the tear-off. And she suggests trying to skim the high donors off, and giving them a separate communication. She also suggests adjusting the ask for people who had given in the past but are not current donors, to try to lure them back. And finally, she stresses the importance of accurately tracking response.
Track your returns. Percentage of gifts vs. letters sent. What's ave gift? Look for trends, look for oddities (maybe call and talk with—listen to—the donor who give $32.58). Targets for new, cold list are only 1-3% return. For your in-house friends mailing list, following rules, and making it more personal, 10% (with follow up phonecalls, 15%). And over time, with a good program taking care of grassroots donors annually, you should be getting a 66% renewal rate.
Speaking of separating out high dollar donors - Jeff Brooks over at the Donor Power blog shares a horror story that comes from undervaluing the low dollar donors. It's true that a donors making a lower first gift will on the average turn out to give less total support over the lifetime of their involvement that someone who makes a high first gift. But Jeff tells the tale of an organization who, armed with this one fact, decided to shift their focus to high dollar donors, and in the process devastated their revenue picture. The moral:
Shifting from a volume orientation to a value one is something most nonprofits would be wise to do. Just don't do it with a chainsaw.
Nancy Schwartz of Getting Attention is just back from the Direct Marketing Association's non-profit conference and shares a few take-ways about online fundraising. To me, the most interesting idea she brought back was the value of using creative and interactive methods to keep online donors engaged and informed.

I rounded out my post-vacation course in fundraising with a piece by Joe Waters over on Selfish Giving about Philanthrotainment. Philanthrotainment is Joe's new word for an event that is equal parts of fundraising and entertainment. The idea is to move beyond tired event formats like the benefit dinner to a festivity that is really enjoyable in its own right:
Tired of rubber-chicken dinners, golf tournaments and magazine subscriptions, Generation X's and Y's are looking for more exciting and creative ways to give.

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Friday, August 11, 2006

Friday Links

Well, I haven't been much of a blogger lately, what with how busy it's gotten around the office this month. And tomorrow I'm off for one of my favorite weeks of the year - Southern Week at Ashokan. Here's a fantastic set of pics from last year, taken by George Touchstone, another software developer/fiddler, just to let you know what you're missing. And what's best, Ashokan is located in a valley that is a complete wireless blindspot - so if you need assistance on your project next week, don't call me! Ring the office and Sharon will make sure you are taken care of. Have a great week!

Non-profit Marketing
I found this buried among Kerri Karvetski's round-up of links yesterday: Building a Better Business Card. Marketing guru Harry Joiner suggests that a business card be thought of as a special-purpose tool. With the cost of printing as low as it is, why not print a new card for each conference you attend, or each time you write a new article? He urges you to think about what action you are going to want the recipient of the card to take, and build the card to encourage that action. I picture it like this: in the weeks before your big fundraising event, feature the fundraiser on your card. At the fundraiser, you'll want a new card, with a new action step emphasized. I have to admit I've never considered this approach, and I like it.

15 Minute XP Tune-up
Here's a nice resource for the accidental techy - a brief course in "cleaning up" your user's pcs to improve performance. I found it through the always useful Geeks are Sexy site. This site also in recent days pointed out a new stage for malware - malicious Firefox extensions. So download with care!

Application Development
If you develop software applications, or contract with developers, I hope you are familar with the Creating Passionate Users blog. It's a blog that deals with the human and organizational side of creating applications that get users excited. Last week, Kathy Sierra posted an article on why users can so often use only a fraction of an application. Making an analogy to her digital SLR camera that she has never taken out of automatic mode, she says:
The camera manuals describe precisely how to turn the dials and push the buttons, but never tell us why we'd want to. They focus on the tool rather than the thing the tool enables (taking pictures). What good does it do to master a tool if we haven't understood (let alone mastered) the thing we're using the tool for?
This implies that the developers should not be documenting alone - your training materials need to be built in conjunction with operations staff who understand the actual tasks involved. A developer-written helpfile may miss the point entirely.

Wikipedia takes center stage
Nicholas Carr has been bemused for a good while now by the growing popularity of the publically editied Internet knowledge compendium Wikipedia. In a posting a few days ago, he points out the seriousness of his concerns - Wikipedia is quickly gaining the highest page rank for any number of google search terms. It's becoming, in other words, the first place net users get their information. Nick pointed out it was the #1 page for World War II and Israel. I found it was the Number 2 rank for Islam , and #3 for George W Bush, right after two White House sites. It's hard to find a topic where the Wikipedia entry is not among the top 10! (well, not that hard: for "non-profit", it came it at 11.) Nick says
That's pretty striking, and I bet that most Wikipedia entries are continuing to move upward - and many will, like "World War II," come to reach the top spot. In the not too distant future, we may be living in a world where the default source of information about, well, pretty much everything will be a single and not altogether reliable amateur reference work.
[See the first comment below, which came in shortly after my posting, for the opposing view.]



Introducing Aptana

Here's another very promising open-source web development tool I've come across in my month of feverish web development - the Aptana IDE. Aptana is an integrated development environment for HTML/CSS/JavaScript projects, built on the Eclipse desktop. It's a major step towards bringing to web development the same kinds of tools we take for granted in java, Delphi, or C++.

Aptana provides
  • code-assist for html, CSS ,and JavaScript, including your own JavaScript functions and libraries.
  • Syntax checking in all three languages.
  • Support for user-developed macros ("actions" they call them) written in JavaScript to manipulate your code.
  • An outliner that shows you the structure of your HTML, CSS, or JavaScript file, and lets you jump right to an element or function.
Take a look at their little demo video. The product is still in beta, and indeed the developers consider it at version 0.2. What's glaringly missing -- though planned for a later release -- is a JavaScript debugger. This is a must have; it's absence means that in the meantime you'll want to use Aptana in conjunction with the SplineTech JavaScript Debugger, which I reviewed here a few weeks ago.

With an integrated debugger, Aptana will leave pure script debugging tools like SplineTech in the dust. And even without the debugger, this is a great editor to use for your next web-project. I found three problems in my CSS by simply openning the style sheet in Aptana. Aptana is available for Windows, Mac, and Linux. Download it and take a look.

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Monday, August 07, 2006

Friday Links on Monday

Take a look at Gliffy. Gliffy is a diagramming tool, in the same general family as Visio - but its a web app. Like a lot of the web apps I find noteworthy these days, its not so much that this service will change your life, as it will show you what is possible with new browser-based programming techniques. But this flash-based software is not a toy application either - you can use it build network diagrams, entity-relationship diagrams, floorplans, mockups of user-interfaces... And there is a lot to be said for free software that requires no installation. Take a look.

I've also been exploring DesktopTwo- this application came to my attention via Emily Chang's eHub site. It's is a totally new genre of application - a browser-based "desktop" of the sort Windows or Mac users are accustomed to. And it comes equiped with a range of applications you can open from the desktop, including RedHat's distribution of the web-based office suite. And a 1 G "hard drive" for storing and sharing files. Again, I suggest you take a look at this more as food for thought that as a suggestion that you change your entire personal computing paradigm.

Desktop Two comes from Sapotek, who tell us on their home page that they are committed to developing web applications that are indistinguishable from traditional desktop applications. Does this mean we've reached the end of the road for new ideas about user interface? In The future of Human-Computer Interaction, John Canny explores new UI ideas like context sensitivity - where the system utilizes information about location, time, and situation to control the interface. But the author points out that almost any idea in this area also raises serious privacy issues. For example, he has lots of ideas based on the possibility that your phone could use face and voice recognition software to know who is around you physically when you are using the phone. It could know, for example, not to ring when your executive director is holding forth.
Speaking of phone interfaces, Jeremy Wagstaff, in his Loose Wire blog, comments on the shortcomings of trying to use a desktop point-and-click approach on a phone.
I think in the near future we’ll wonder what the hell we were doing with our mobile interfaces. Why is it harder to answer a smartphone than it is to answer a normal mobile phone?
He's right. I've been using the Palm Treo 650 for some time, and while I love the Palm-based PDA, and love having only one gadget to carry, there is a lot of phone-related stuff that is hard to do without the stylus. Including dialing on that tiny qwerty keyboard.

A couple sophisticated posts on the do's and don'ts of blogging came to my attention this week. One is from Vickie Davis's Cool Cat Teacher Blog. There are a lot of exciting technology related blogs in the educational sector, and the issues these folks are dealing with have a lot of overlap with non-profit and NGO bloggers. Vicki takes on the role of commenting in building your visibility as a blogger, and discusses in some depth how to comment effectively and constructively. Meanwhile, Amy Gahran takes on the etiquette of editing already posted material. Her gist:
If you make a mistake or go seriously overboard, you’ve got to expect some heat for it. But believe me, you’ll look much better in to long run if you own up to errors than if you try to cover them up. Removing published content without explanation always looks like a coverup – or that you’re a hothead or thin-skinned.
And now for something completely different.
I can't remember who pointed me at this piece from the Onion - but those of us working with non-profits will recognize at least ONE place we've worked, I'm sure...

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Thursday, August 03, 2006

J is for javascript....

Not a programmer? You might want to skip this posting. But as I've mentioned, I've been doing a good bit of coding these last couple weeks, updating an old web app we did for one of our clients. So it's what's on my mind.

If you do some web programming but you haven't tried the new Ajax techniques in your Web projects yet, you can find some great examples that demystify the whole thing in Ajax Hacks, by Bruce Perry. You'll find it's not rocket science, and after a brief learning curve you'll be creating web apps that are far more responsive than your old sites. But pretty soon find yourself lying in bed at night wondering about the best format to use to feed data to the web page.

Since XML puts the X in AJAX, and the J is for Javascript, the most obvious approach is getting the data as a textbook XML data file and using Javascript to display the data elements wherever you wish. But before long you'll get fed up with the tediousness of parsing individual data elements out of the raw XML feed.

XPATH promises a way out. Instead of using procedural code to travel down the XML tree, XPATH lets you address an element or list of elements with a string that looks like a directory path. For example, if you want to build a list all authors of all books with a publication date of 2000, you could reference them with a string like

But here you run into browser problems - the Mozilla family and IE implement Xpath in entirely different ways. Mozilla has the more powerful implementation, but it is pretty complicated to use. IE has a much more straightforward take on it. Charles Toepfer has posted a nice cross-browser library that implements this straightforward approach to xpath for the Mozilla browsers.

Still seems pretty complicated? You might want to try JSON (javascript object notation). This little trick lets you transfer data in the same way you might define it within your script - for example

book {
title: "War and Peace";
author: "Leon Tolstoy";

Besides being fewer characters to transfer since the "tags" are not closed, it's trivial to parse in Javascript - just use the javascript eval function to turn the string into a javascript object! And the file is very easy for a human to read.

But JSON hasn't helped us with the formatting issues. An approach which does is one Christine Herron blogged about not long ago: using microformat-style xml as a data transfer mechanism. This is a format that uses html div and span tags to identify the data elements.Like so -

<div class="book">
<span class="title">War And Peace</span>
<span class="author">Leon Tolstoy</span>

The semantic information, as you see, is indicated by the element's class. You can just assign the entire XML string to a div's innerHTML, and let your stylesheet handle the formatting. Microformats were originally developed as a way to make web pages that would be easily scraped by other applications, but turning the technique into a data transfer mechanism seems sensible in some cases.The Rico effects library uses this as one of its standard approaches to Ajax data exchange.
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