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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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Tuesday, July 22, 2008

The Summertime Blues

You'll love those lazy hazy crazy days of summer - those days of hot dogs and pretzels and beer... remember that old tune? I can remember listening to it on the radio as we drove to the Catskills in my Dad's old Dodge. But vacations are different now - everywhere I'm reading articles about how we Americans don't really get away from our work anymore when we go on holiday. We go loaded with smartphone and laptop and a plan to get six weeks of special projects done during six days on the beach. I know that's how I made my last trip miserable.

But I don't think we should get too new-agey about this one. For the techie in the non-profit or association space, taking a guilt- and anxiety-free vacation is not about state of mind, but about preparation. It's about making sure your organization, your clients, your users, really will be OK during your absence. Its a sort of preparation you need to be thinking about in one way or another before any absence - whether its a day off to paint your kitchen or a month-long trip through India.

Prepare your users. Your users depend on you on a daily basis for solutions, for advice, for troubleshooting. The longer your absence is going to be, the earlier you need to let people know about it. Make sure all your key users understand when and for how long you will be out, and give them a good understanding of the limits on your availability during your vacation. Encourage them to think now about needs that might emerge during your time off. Make sure they factor your absence into their timeframes for special projects! And let them know where to turn for help while you are gone.

Prepare your backup. The folks who are going to be filling in for you during your vacation need to know exactly where your major projects are at, how to find the information they might need, and who they can turn to for further help. Make sure they know exactly how and when they can contact you, and when you be unavailable. What should you prepare them for? Look through your last years log of issues you've had to resolve. And be careful: documenting your network is useless if you have not made sure the right people know where to find that document.

Don't have a backup person? - no wonder you and your coworkers are anxious! Take care of this first. If its not someone on your staff, make arrangements with a consultant.

Prepare yourself. Your work pattern needs to change as you get ready to leave. We did a project several years ago for Deutsche Bank in Frankfurt. Frequently our partner Jochen would fly there for meetings. Pressed by the users to make enhancements to the application on a short time frame, he'd crank out code in his hotel room in the evening and install it the next day. Then he'd get on a plane to come back to D.C. Inevitably the user would have some huge issue with what he had done while he was on his seven-hour flight home. None of us back in the office had a clue what the requirements were or what the discussion had been. We've identified this as the Friday Install problem. Now we know to wait until we are in a position to support before we change. When your absence is going to be longer than seven hours, this issue becomes much more sensitive. Make sure you are not adding to the support burden in the days before you leave.

And send me a postcard!

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Sunday, July 13, 2008

Building your Donor base on Facebook - The Nature Conservancy's experience.

There's been a lot of excitement in the last year about social networking in general, and about Facebook in particular. And a lot of talk about the value of social networking for non-profits. But is there really a return on investment for non-profit participation on these sites?

Here's a success story. The Nature Conservancy (TNC) is a 501(c)3 organization that works in the U.S. and over 30 other countries to protect ecologically important lands and waters. Using tools readily available on Facebook, the organization has raised almost $48,000 in the first six months of their social-networking effort. They did this by creating a Cause and a Fan Page for the org, and by forming a relationship with an ecology oriented game on Facebook, (lil) Green Patch. Six months later the (lil) Green Patch application is one of the most popular on Facebook, with of 6 million users!

Jonathon Colman , TNC's Associate Director for Digital Marketing recently developed a slide presentation that summarizes the organization's experience using Facebook as a marketing tool.
You can find the presentation here. The slide presentation raised a number of questions in my mind, so I messaged Jonathon on Facebook and we chatted about (lil) Green things.

Me - How did (lil) Green Patch come about? Was TNC involved in the creation of lil green patch or was it already on line when you formed your relationship with it?

Jonathon - No, the Conservancy was not involved with the creation of (Lil) Green Patch. It was already on Facebook when we found it by doing a search on our name (hence my first recommendation to organizations seeking to use Facebook for marketing purposes).

At that point, (Lil) Green Patch already said that they were going to donate a share of their advertising revenue to the Conservancy, but had trouble connecting with the right people in our organization. I immediately wrote them and we started the conversation. From the very first conversation, we encouraged (Lil) Green Patch and other Facebook application developers to donate to us directly through our Facebook Facebook Cause.

Me - Can you explain the business model of the application? How does it make money for you?

Jonathon - The application is supported by advertising on the site. It's a share of their advertising revenue that's donated to the Conservancy's Cause at on a month-by-month basis, depending on the application's usage and ads impressed/clicked on. It tends to be somewhere between $6000-$9000/month.

Me - how can a consumer be sure an app actually is providing the social benefit it claims? The other day I got several messages in my inbox accusing another app (oceans-related) of not really having a relationship with any non-profit.

Jonathon - This is why we're asking (Lil) Green Patch and other Facebook applications like Stop Climate Change Now to donate to us directly via our Facebook Cause -- it provides a complete change of accountability to the application developers and to the Conservancy.

When an application donates via the Cause, it's very simple for everyone to see how much was donated: just visit the Cause and scroll down to the "Hall of Fame". You'll see that, to date, (Lil) Green Patch has given $44,650. Clicking on their name of the amount that they've donated yields a graphical chart containing the people that they've recruited and/or recent donations that they've made.

Me - So do you need to have folks on staff to oversee the maintenance and ongoing development of the app?

Jonathon - Not at all. The Conservancy is in no way involved with the ongoing maintenance nor development of (Lil) Green Patch. Anyone can participate in this process, actually - There's a discussion board and links to the developers' profiles off of the main application page where you can talk with other users and get in touch with the development team.

Me - This is all very exciting. But what skills do you think a non-profit needs to bring on board to develop a marketing program built on social media?

Jonathon - My team at the Conservancy has incredibly talented editors, producers, a designer, and even a project manager. I couldn't do anything without them. In terms of social media, I think that organizations need to find people who can bring the right balance of:
- Writing for the web (specifically writing for members)
- Engaging in search engine marketing and optimization;
- Marketing to verticals and other segments
- Researching marketing and communities
- Testing and documentation
- Recording metrics and interpretation of "actionable" data
- Taking the "long view" on building a social media program and not expecting success right away

The right person could come from a direct mail background or from a marketing communication background or even a business information/analytics background... They just need to have some intuition and be willing to fail a few time sin order to succeed. That said, my background is actually not in marketing, but in technical writing .

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Wednesday, July 02, 2008

A new chapter.

The other day a friend dropped by the office to talk to us about how we manage chapters in our software. For example, he wondered if we assumed that the national organization did the dues billing, and distributed revenue to the chapters? Or the reverse: that chapters collect the dues and send it upstream to headquarters? The conversation led me to think about the forces that make organizational policies so often unwieldy and complex.

We've learned that there is no general pattern that governs the relationship between an organization and its chapters. These relationships are not structured by logic but through the working out of real conflicts of interest and mission between national, state, and local bodies. And these conflicts are resolved differently in every case. The challenge for IT is to model the internal reality for the specific organization.

Chapters are interesting because they are a very clear-cut example of what goes on in the definition of almost any organizational policy - a process of compromise between interest groups within the org. Streamlining inefficient or irrational policies is so much harder than one would expect because the differences between groups are so rarely spelled out. In the case of chapters, it is just easier to see these interest collisions.

It works like this. Not surprisingly, chapters want as much independence from the national as possible. And specifically, financial independence. But at the same time, they would like as much service from the parent org as they can wrangle. So the more successfully independent the chapters become, the harder administrative life is in Washington or New York.

For example a national conservation group we work with manages all the dues billing for its chapters and state divisions. These very autonomous chapters and divisions each create their own membership structures and dues levels. Thus the membership database mus t be able to store three membership types for each member: one each for National, State, and Chapter levels. And they must allow a person to hold multiple chapter and division memberships. All of these dues amounts must be reflected on each member's renewal notices. It's clearly an enormously complex system for the national to maintain. But this approach works in the interest of the chapters - and the chapters have the upper hand in this case.

So when the policies you are trying to model seem resistant to simplification, remember you are dealing with real conflicts, not just procedural craziness.

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