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You Down With NTC?

At Idealware, we’re already counting down the days until 16NTC in San Jose (239). One of the reasons we’re so excited is because we have a lot of interesting sessions proposed and we want to know whether anyone else out there in nonprofit tech land is also interested in attending or collaborating on any of them. 

I’ll review them below, but drop us a comment or an email at info@idealware.org if you have feedback or want to collaborate on any of these sessions. And vote for any or all of our sessions here
 
We’ve all been through those excruciating brainstorming sessions where everyone is struggling to find a good idea (emphasis on good).Maybe it takes a different approach to get at new and interesting ideas. Laura Quinn, our Director of Partnerships and Knowledge, will lead a few fast-paced games that can open up creative thinking when it comes to getting the most out of your technology or finding new ways to serve your population using the technology you already have.
 
As our friend Robert Weiner likes to say, Salesforce is free like a puppy. It might not cost anything to take it home, but it requires a lot of care and feeding to make it work. In this session, we want to break down misconceptions about Salesforce, highlight the strengths and weaknesses of the different packages available for the platform (including the Nonprofit Starter Pack, NGO Connect, and more), and provide a high-level overview of the most recommended and popular third-party apps. 
 
It’s always a little mystifying when you get rejected for a grant. You want to know why the funder said “no” or what you could have done differently. This session proposes to give you that opportunity before you submit your application. Our panel of experts will take you behind the scenes to show you what it takes to get the green light for your project.
 
As it becomes easier to communicate and collaborate from across the world, Idealware is experimenting with developing a remote office. We’ll share what we have learned so far and bring in other experts who can talk about how their remote office works. 
 
There’s only one week left to vote for what sessions you’d like to see at 16NTC. Go here to vote for one of our sessions. And let us know what you think about these ideas or whether you’d like to collaborate on one of these or your own session by emailing info@idealware.org. 

Practical (Not Perfect) Security

Bramah Lock
 
For most of human history, locks were like speed bumps to would-be thieves. A good lock might take a few extra minutes to pick, but anyone who wanted in could get in. That all changed in the 1770s, when a man named Joseph Bramah invented a new lock that was more complex and more secure than any the world had ever seen.
 
Bramah’s lock was so good and he was so confident that he created a contest. He put his lock in the window of his locksmith shop and offered 200 Guineas to anyone who could pick it—that's the equivalent of more than $30,000 today.
 
Jeremiah Chubb improved on the lock, adding a detection system that alerted the owner when someone tried to break in, and for nearly three quarters of a century the world was held fast by the locks made by Bramah and Chubb. Security experts call this the era of “perfect security.”
 
Of course, anyone who works in security knows it’s just a matter of time before someone finds a way to break through. Many career thieves tried and failed to collect the 200 Guinea prize. Challengers made bold pronouncements. Observers placed bets. The house always won.
 
Then, in 1851, an American locksmith named A.C. Hobbs arrived at The Great Exhibition in London. Hobbs was in London to promote the Day & Newell Parautoptic Lock, but his sales method was not like the typical exhibitioner. Hobbs had built his career by traveling around the country to banks and opening vaults. It was a dramatic and effective technique. London offered the biggest stage and the most dramatic sales pitch imaginable—the chance to crack the uncrackable.
 
In one of the exhibit hall rooms where a real Chubb Detector lock was installed in a real door, Hobbs found the vulnerability in 25 minutes and opened the door. The handful of people who witnessed the event couldn’t quite believe what had happened. They locked the door and asked Hobbs to open it again. This time it took him seven minutes. 
 
He then went to Bramah’s store to beat the famous lock. It took him 52 hours over nearly a month, but he did it, and with that great accomplishment, put an end to perfect security.
 
A recent 99 Percent Invisible podcast episode tells the whole story. There’s also an excellent article in Slate about Hobbs.
 
Since Hobbs beat the Bramah lock, no security system has proven itself invulnerable. We may never again see perfect security. But what about practical security? What steps should your organization be taking to stay as secure as possible?
 
Here are a few tips to keep the casual online thief or prankster at bay:
 
Strong passwords
Most cloud services now let you set a more difficult password strength requirement for all users. At a minimum, you want passwords to be at least 8 characters long, with a combination of upper-case and lower-case letters, numbers, and symbols. Of course, the most important element of password strength is secrecy. Even the strongest password is useless if you use it for multiple accounts, share it with coworkers, or worse, write it down on a post-it note on your desk. Loose lips sink ships! Password managers, such as LastPass, DashLane, or 1Password, securely store your passwords for all your accounts, letting you log in with a master password and two-factor authentication. However, you should be aware that these services are not immune to hackers themselves.
 
Multi-Factor Authentication
Many online services now let you enable multi-factor authentication—a login where, in addition to a password, you also need a randomly-generated security code, a PIN, or even a fingerprint scan. This ensures that, even if someone knows or can successfully guess your password, they still need your phone or fingerprint to access your data.
 
Firewalls
A firewall is an easy way to add a powerful layer of security. It can block unwanted downloads or potential threats.
 
Virus Protection
Malware (viruses, adware, or spyware) can cause a computer to lose access to the internet, corrupt important files, or compromise sensitive information. Make sure all of your organization’s computers have some sort of anti-virus software, which can detect and remove potentially harmful files. And, since this software can only protect your computer if you actually use it, make sure to schedule it to scan the computer automatically on a weekly basis and allow it to check for and install updated security definitions for newly-discovered vulnerabilities.
 
Physical locks or alarms
While most people worry about their online security when using cloud services, it’s equally important to consider the security of your physical hardware or onsite files. To start, do you lock up your office at night—with a deadbolt, not just the knob? Have you set a password for each computer? If you have a physical file server, is it locked in its own room, or does it just sit under someone’s desk (or worse, under the sink)? Is there an alarm if someone does break into your office?
 
Rules for how staff use technology at work
Many technology issues come down to human error and are therefore completely avoidable. While your staff members should only use their work computers for work purposes, we know that’s not always the case. Develop a set of guidelines for what employees can and can’t do with office equipment and make sure everyone understands these rules. While browsing Facebook is (mostly) harmless, and in some cases a part of someone’s job, if a staff member is using their work computer to torrent pirated Game of Thrones episodes, or visiting NSFW sites, they are potentially at risk of exposing their computer to malware. It is possible to block access to specific sites for all employees, but it’s best to start with an open conversation on what is and isn’t appropriate at your organization.
 
Unfortunately, most people will only follow these guidelines as long as they are convenient for them. Stronger passwords or two-factor authentication can be an easy sell, but when security policies make work less efficient, or your staff is confused or frustrated, then security usually gets left behind. The key to policies that people will actually adopt and follow is to find the right balance between good security and convenience.
 

 Image Credit: Wellcome Images, via Wikimedia Commons 

Best of the Web: July 2015

The Idealware “Best of the Web” is a monthly roundup of the top nonprofit resources from the Idealware blog, our Facebook page, and our Twitter feed to help you make the right technology decisions. Please forward it along to anyone you think might benefit from it.
 
2015 Digital Adoption Report (NTEN)
More than 60 million Americans do not have internet access in their homes, but 60% of organizations report that constituents need to use the internet to participate in their services. In collaboration with Mobile Citizen, NTEN surveyed nonprofit organizations to learn more about digital adoption within nonprofits and how the digital divide might be affecting the delivery of services to their communities.
 
What’s Data Got to Do with It? (JustGiving)
This beginner’s guide to data and fundraising shows how SolarAid, Parkinson's UK, Friends of the Earth, and Marie Curie are using data in exciting and insightful ways.
 
How to Have a Data-Led Approach to Fundraising (The Guardian)
You know data is important to your fundraising efforts. And you probably have a lot of it. This article breaks down four area of focus for getting more fundraising mileage from your data.
 
Tech Heavyweights Take on Human Trafficking with Big Data (Upstart)
Data analysis, image recognition, and mapping programs—powered by Palantir, Google, and Microsoft—are helping anti-trafficking nonprofits not only locate victims in real time, but predict their victimizers’ next moves. 
 
Advocacy & Fundraising Emails (Epoltics.com and Epolitics.com)
Mass email can be an effective way to reach constituents—as long as you stay out of your own way. Epolitics warns that your emails might be getting intercepted by spam filters and shows you how to increase the chances of landing in the inbox. It also looks at email design and finds that less is more when it comes to readers opening messages and taking action.
 
3 Keys To Selecting The Right Nonprofit Cloud Vendor (Tech Impact)
Cloud-based technologies can seem a little scary for a first-time buyer. This short blog post walks you through the three most important steps when considering which Cloud technology to choose and how to make sure you get what you really need.
 
Creating A Data-Informed Culture: Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater And Leading For The Future (Arts Management & Technology Laboratory)
We talk a lot about using data to market your organization and develop fundraising campaigns, but the lessons can sometimes seem a little abstract. This case study shows how one organization put theory into practice by centralizing patron management and learning how to deepen engagement across its entire network.
 
Seeing Beyond Facebook & Twitter for Social Media Advocacy (Epolitics.com)
There’s no better way to reach a mass audience on social media than through Facebook or Twitter, but that doesn’t mean other social media platforms don’t also offer opportunities. Check out these innovative approaches to social apps from Tumblr to Tinder.
 
Measuring Return on Investment for Technology (NTEN)
Our own Karen Graham explains how you can calculate your return on investment when weighing which technology project to pursue first.
 
5 Questions to Help You Integrate Mobile in Your Fundraising (The Nonprofit Quarterly)
The number of people who donate through a mobile device doubles when the page is designed to be responsive to mobile formats. Debbie Laskey runs you through the questions you need to ask yourself to better prepare your organization for mobile fundraising opportunities.
 
Database Management Tips (NTEN and Sunlight Foundation)
Choosing and implementing a database can be daunting, but it doesn’t have to be. NTEN and Idealware teamed up to offer five steps to get you on the path to being a data-driven organization. One important part of that process is cleaning and maintaining your data. The Sunlight Foundation examines why clean data is such a big challenge and what you can do to keep the mess to a minimum.
 
Google's Guide To Designing With Empathy (Fast Company)
Have you ever thought about how blind people might use your website? What about other disabilities? Google designers explain some of the ways you can make your site accessible to more people.
 
4 Ways to Use Your Smartphone for a Good Cause (Gizmodo)
Looking for new, innovative ways to harness the power of your constituents’ mobile phones? Check out these examples of apps that make a difference.
 
Businesses Are Hanging Up On Voice Mail To Dial In Productivity (NPR)
Voicemail seems to be going the way of the telegraph. Will anyone miss it?
 
Outputs, Outcomes, and the Meaning of “Impact” (Idealware)
The terms we use to talk about the good we do can get confusing. We break down what outputs and outcomes mean to us and talk about our recent report outlining outcomes management systems at larger nonprofits.
 
The Remote Worker’s Guide to Office Etiquette (Lifehacker)
If you work thousands of miles away from the rest of your team, how do you remain a good teammate? It’s not always easy, but these tips should help.
 

Would you like to suggest a link for Best of the Web? Email it to info@idealware.org. 

3 Mistakes to Avoid in Your Tech Grant Proposal

Want to write better grants? Try walking a mile in your funder's shoes. This spring, I had the privilege of helping a small, tech-savvy family foundation in Minnesota review technology grants. Here are a few “don’ts” I learned from stepping behind the scenes of the grantmaking process.
 
1. Don't Write to Fill Empty Space
Just because you are allowed 750 words, doesn't mean you have to use every last one of them. Instead, get to the point and make it easy to scan. Proposals stood out when they stated the problem and solution clearly using economical language and bullets.
 
2. Don’t Put Off Doing Your Homework
Show you’re already done a lot of thoughtful planning. For example, an organization that wanted funding for a software investment explained what alternative products it had considered and why this one was the best fit. It also provided a return on investment analysis, which included measurable improvements that linked to the organization's mission. Weaker proposals pointed to vague problems such as "inefficiency" or suggested new tools without any explanation of the selection process.
 
3. Don't Expect the Funder to Trust You Blindly
Most funders think of their grants as investments in the ongoing success of an organization, so it’s your job in your application to prove that your project is a strong investment. One of the biggest red flags for me was when applicants asked for money to purchase or implement technology, but gave no explanation of how they would pay for its support and maintenance in the long term. How do I know the technology won’t become completely unusable in two or three years? Stronger proposals also included a qualified consultant or staff member to lead the project, an assessment of risks, and evidence of the organization's past success with implementing and leveraging technology improvements. These details were crucial in winning my trust (and the grant).
 
Looking for more tips on how to gain funding for technology? Hear them straight from the funders. Sign up for How to Get Your Technology Project Funded: Tips from Grantmakers, a three-week course we’re offering in partnership with the Nonprofit Quarterly. Starting July 16, you will learn what it takes to get your project funded and get a chance to ask your questions directly to professional grantmakers at major institutions including the World Bank, JP Morgan Chase, and the Hartford Foundation for Public Giving.
 

 

Outputs, Outcomes, and the Meaning of “Impact”

 
How do you know whether your organization is making a difference? We talked to leaders at nine different large nonprofits to learn about the technology and strategies they use to help themselves answer that question. From this research we created a report that tells their unique stories and outlines their practices. You can read the report at: http://idealware.org/reports/technologies-and-practices-managing-outcomes-lessons-large-nonprofits
 
However, in the course of that research, it became clear that not all organizations use the same terms when talking about this topic. 
 
Performance management is commonly used to refer to a wide range of activities—from program outcomes to individual employee performance. To some, program performance management clarifies the issue, but that term often gets confused with program evaluation, which is sometimes used to define the practice of looking at the success of a program after it’s completed rather than while it’s still in progress. And we often hear that nebulous-but-important word “impact” get thrown around, which is just as often used to refer to small interventions as it is to sweeping change. 
 
Idealware views the terms this way. Performance management is the all-encompassing term that includes outcomes management, employee management, program evaluation, and most other practices relating to data about programs. Our report focused on outcomes management systems, which is our term for how organizations measure their impact, or success in the wider world, when it can’t be easily rolled up from the constituent level. 
 
The terms outcomes and outputs are not without confusion themselves. These are distinct ideas and opportunities for measurement. Outputs are the result of the activities an organization has carried out. For example, the number of people who turned out to a rally or the number of acres preserved by a land trust are outputs. Outcomes go further. They look at how outputs had a broader effect on the world. For example, that rally that thousands of people attended could have contributed to the passage of legislation. The legislation creating a new freedom or banning a harmful practice is an outcome. Similarly, the acres protected may have produced the outcome of hundreds of new migratory birds or cleaner drinking water. Counting those birds or measuring the pollution levels in drinking water are the outcomes because those are the results that the original activities were trying to produce. 
 
An outcomes management system looks at both—outputs and outcomes—in whatever way is meaningful to the organization to help it draw lines of progress and provide tangible measurements for processes that are at times abstract, complex, and messy. 
 
Even if we all agree on the terms, you probably have never heard of an outcomes management system. In fact, there is no such software. In our research, we did not uncover any software in use that could be described as a comprehensive outcomes management system. 
 
But that doesn’t mean that many organizations are not trying to put together their own systems. Read our report to find out how organizations such as GuideStar, the United Nations Foundation, DonorsChoose.org, Habitat for Humanity, and more have developed their own systems for measuring outcomes. You may discover approaches that could work at your organization.
 
 

Photo credit: NASA HiRISE camera, Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Measuring Return on Investment for Technology

 
Editor's note: This article was originally published in NTEN: Change (http://www.nten.org/change-quarterly/), June 2015, CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)
 
Don’t let technology gobble up staff time and money, without giving enough back. Effective organizations have a positive Return on Investment, or ROI, for individual technology choices as well as their overall investment in technology. In this article, we answer your basic questions about why ROI is useful and how it works. We’ll share simple ways to measure and compare return on investment and go over a few tips for establishing your ROI measurement process. No accounting background is required!
 
What if you were spending three times longer on troubleshooting your broadcast email tool than on developing the content of your newsletter? An exasperated executive director recently lamented to me that this is happening in her organization. Technology is gobbling up staff time and money, without giving enough back.
 
On the other hand, when an organization is using technology effectively, the results are greater than or equal to the resources invested. That’s what it means to have a positive Return on Investment (ROI).
 
Let’s take a closer look at some simple ways to measure and compare ROI and go over a few tips for establishing your ROI measurement process.
 
When is ROI Useful?
When you’re making a purchase decision, thinking about ROI can help you considered whether the product or service is worth your money. But that’s not the only time when ROI is useful. When you are looking at past investment choices, ROI analysis can help you evaluate those decisions and make more accurate projections of costs and benefits next time. When you are writing grants, articulating the funder’s ROI in terms of dollars and mission impact makes your case stronger for technology funding.
 
Challenge yourself to look beyond specific purchases and projects, and considered your organization’s overall return on its investment in technology. Your executive director and IT director or advisor should be looking at how resources are allocated toward hardware, software, and services; as well as across programs, fundraising, marketing, and administration. Are expenditures made in proportion to the way technology benefits each of those functional areas? Are you wasting resources on technology that isn’t doing much for you? Is your technology budget simply keeping the lights on, or is it fueling your mission?
 
Basic ROI Mechanics
To do return on investment analysis on a practical level, you don’t have to be an accountant and you don’t have to be perfect. For now, let’s not worry about net present value, internal rate of return, cash flow, or payback period. Let’s keep it simple.
 
The basic formula is: ROI = net gain/cost
Example: I spend $50 and make $75. My net gain is $25.
ROI = 25/50 = .5 or 50%
 
In order to do this, you need to assign numbers to the costs and benefits. Many of your numbers will be guesses and approximations. Just make note of your assumptions as you go along, and consider running some alternate scenarios. For example, if your estimate of staff time saved is over or under by 20%, how does that affect the equation? Also, choose a timeline. For items with an ongoing cost, such as a software subscription or equipment maintenance, I typically use a 3-5 year timeline.
 
Costs
Some examples of costs are money, staff time, disruption and frustration, and opportunity cost. Opportunity cost means the missed chance to do something else that might have saved or made money. In addition to the investment before you, think about the cost of other alternatives, including the option to do nothing. In the price tag for technology, don’t forget the costs of training and support, and disposal or recycling of your old technology.
 
Some costs are tricky to measure. I worked with one nonprofit employee who suspected she was spending an unreasonable amount of time on a tedious report creation task. She was comparing data management products that purported to streamline this work. So, she timed herself with a stopwatch on the current process, then timed herself doing the same task in each of the products under consideration, and multiplied it out by how many times per year she needed to create the report. By doing this, she formed a reasonable projection of how much time the old system was costing her.
 
Benefits
What are the benefits of a technology investment? You might think immediately of ways that it saves you money or increases staff productivity. Note that efficiency by itself isn’t worth much—it is the increased output or decreased personnel cost that matters. One organization made the case that by freeing up two hours per week for the development director, she could personally contact enough donors to more than cover the cost of the investment in her efficiency.
 
Technology can also lead to new or increased revenue streams, a broader reach of your services, and other benefits. For example, in my technology capacity building work, video conferencing and document collaboration tools enabled us to provide remote consulting to clients in an underserved rural area and helped to build our image as a tech-savvy organization. At another organization, a CRM investment improved morale by making employees’ data entry and reporting work more enjoyable, while at the same time improving the quality of services by providing visibility into the client’s full history and relationship with the agency.
 
Some return on investment analysis falls short because it does not fully capture the benefit side of the equation. Think about what your organization is trying to accomplish in the world. Is it possible to quantify mission impact in terms of social ROI? For example, if a technology investment can be tied to increased wages, helping people off public assistance, or reducing carbon footprint, consider how you might factor that into your ROI equation too.
 
Example: Should I Buy A New Server Or Move To Cloud Services?
Weighing return on investment for replacing a server versus implementing Cloud file storage and management is a great example because it’s a real decision that many nonprofit organizations face today. It’s interesting because multiple alternatives add complexity: you could replace or upgrade existing servers, move to a platform such as Office 365 or Google Apps, move completely or partially to a file management service like Box.com, use more lightweight hardware such as a NAS device, or many, many other options—including doing nothing.
 
It might be tempting to boil this decision down to a simple choice between costs that are more front-loaded and costs that are spread out over time. But the cost-benefit equation is more complex than that and will be different for each organization, depending on how you weigh various factors. For example, it’s generally agreed that Cloud-based file management offers greater mobility than a conventional server network. Does that matter to your organization? Does it matter enough to ask all of your coworkers to say goodbye to that remote desktop connection, which was such a pain to set up but now works almost all of the time, and go through the pain of learning a brand new system?
 
In this analysis, I didn’t attempt to assign a dollar value to morale or some of the other more fuzzy aspects of return on investment. However, I did try to unearth some of the hidden costs. Considering only the cost of the technology itself, a conventional server network looks pretty inexpensive, while Cloud services appear slightly higher. Adding in projected costs for implementation and support gives you a better feel for the total cost. Adding downtime, training time, and lost productivity changes it again—and this makes the Cloud look less expensive. In the end, it’s unclear which one is the winner, due to the margin of error.
 
Notes:
  • This is loosely based on a real nonprofit organization and the numbers came from an assortment of price quotes and best guesses.
  • It’s perhaps misleading to have such a precise total. It might be better to say the expected costs are “$20,000-25,000ish” for both options.
  • Actual downtime can make a huge difference in the totals.
  • For convenience, we’re saying there are 30 employees and cost of staff time is equal to the average pay rate of $30/hour.
  • I chose to use a five-year cost of ownership since that is a reasonable life span for a server.
  • This doesn’t count added productivity from increased mobile access.
  • This also doesn’t count any of the costs of a remote access solution with a server. 
More on the Process
Now you know a bit about how ROI analysis works and you’ve seen an example. Maybe you’re ready to try it in your organization. Who should be involved? How much effort should it take?
 
Like any aspect of a technology investment decision, if you want buy-in from leadership and end users, you had better involve them. End users will help you check your assumptions about the real costs and benefits. The executive director and board should be making sure ROI is considered in important decisions and provide guidance on the relative weight of each factor. Initiating and leading an ROI analysis is an opportunity for an IT director or other technology responsible staff person to position themself as a valuable resource and as someone who is capable of thinking strategically about technology.
 
Of course, you shouldn’t perform an ROI analysis for every little decision. If you need a mouse, buy a mouse. But make it part of your organizational culture by using it consistently for large investments—before and after deployment. Circle back to check whether your assumptions were right, and you will learn to get better at this.
 
When presenting the results of your analysis, don’t assume that everyone else is going to geek out on the details. Share a handful of data points to make your case, and tell a story that provides context and interest. Let’s say I was presenting the same analysis about server vs. Cloud. I might point out that the five year cost is approximately the same, but the chance to reduce down time by even a small amount is tremendously valuable because…etc.
 
And finally, remember that ROI is not the law. Sometimes you won’t be able to show positive ROI with numbers, yet there is still a strong business case for your investment. Do your homework and you will be able to make a deliberate, well-informed decision.

 

The Known Unknowns

A couple months ago, I saw this list of essential tech skills and ever since I’ve been thinking a lot about how little technology expertise I had before joining Idealware and how much has changed for me in the past year. 
Last spring I was in college, where I typically spent 70% of my working time reading books (made of paper, not the e-kind), and the other 30% writing. I wasn’t all that picky about the tools I used—Microsoft Word was good, but Google Docs did just as well, and sometimes a pen and paper was preferable if I just needed to concentrate. In a few art classes, I developed a deeper relationship with software such as Adobe Audition and Max 6. My use of calendar and reminder apps was minimal at best.

The technological ecosystem I inhabit now is far more diverse. My daily tasks include broadcast email, file sharing, CRMs, CMSs, spreadsheets, and social media. I spend so much time working in these tools that it can seem as though my professional potential is determined by what I can make technology do, rather than how hardworking I am or how intelligently I look at broader world issues. 
But looking down the list, I still can’t immediately do half of what’s here. And that’s fine, because my success isn’t actually dependent on what technology I can use. My ability to learn and adapt has been far more important than what I knew last year. I can Google articles and videos that will show me how to make a chart like Edward Tufte or export a list in CSV format. These are things I can learn in a few minutes, or an afternoon.
A lot of Xers and boomers expect college graduates to be technology experts in a box, but that’s not actually what an organization needs. Technology changes too fast for that. And the reality of life outside of a cubicle is most people have little reason to use many of those tools before taking the job. Besides, it’s too much pressure to be expected to know everything about so many complex functions and software programs.

To recent grads, I say don’t sweat what you don’t know. Convince your future employer that working with technology is not a skill set—it’s a mindset. The flexibility and intelligence to figure it out the system is what will make you stand out.
 
Photo Credit: Chris Hondros/Getty Images

 

Best of the Web: June 2015

The Idealware “Best of the Web” is a monthly roundup of the top nonprofit resources from the Idealware blog, our Facebook page, and our Twitter feed to help you make the right technology decisions. Please forward it along to anyone you think might benefit from it.
 
How to Build Your Email List (Fast Company)
The reports of email’s demise have been greatly exaggerated. As it turns out, email is still a great way to communicate with constituents and members. Here’s how to reach out to more of the right people.
 
Exploding Myths About Learning Through Gaming (NPR)
How can what seems like escapist fun be a tool for learning? Researchers and gamers argue that the central principles of gaming—experimentation, persistence, working toward goals—are what make games effective teachers.
 
Why Social Listening is Key to Donor Retention (Epolitics)
“Social listening gives organizations unprecedented insight into their donors’ lives and an opportunity for richer engagement through personalization. Far beyond surveys, focus groups or feedback forms, nonprofits have the ability to analyze, in real time, what their donors think, feel, and care about—and can react with predetermined triggers or send personalized marketing messages.”
 
Social Advocacy and Politics: How We Use (Not Utilize) Social Media (Social Media Today)
Social media has grown into a complex ecosystem of different user experiences, but many nonprofits have been slow to adapt. It’s no longer enough to post just to post. To make a platform work, you have to understand why people go there and provide content that meets that need. 
 
The Remote Office: Putting Free Video Conferencing Tools to the Test (Idealware)
At Idealware, we sometimes are the guinea pigs in our own experiments. Lately, we’ve been sorting out what it takes to be a low-budget organization with staff members in three time zones. To kick off our series on remote offices, we put the top free video conferencing tools to the test to figure out the pros and cons of each. Here are the results.
 
The Skills You Should Have to Be a Successful Remote Worker (Lifehacker)
Not everyone works well alone and at home. If you’re thinking about hiring someone to work from home or are considering a move to remote working yourself, this is a must-read.
 
Your Top 10 Topics (Tech Soup)
What’s been top of mind for nonprofit techies this year? Based on its blog engagement numbers, Tech Soup has compiled a list of the top ten topics over the past year and provides links to the stories. 
 
From Paint to Pixels (The Atlantic)
We talk a lot about finding meaning in data, but artists seeking new forms of expression are turning to data and technology in search of whole new layers of meaning. 
 
Texts From Teens Build Real-Time Maps of Crisis in America (Wired)
CTL, a crisis-intervention text message hotline, uses demographic data tied to keywords to give text responders some context for the conversation. The system also maps its data to help researchers and other nonprofits working on suicide prevention to see trends and where the need for help is greatest.
 
4 Ways You Are Putting Your Clients’ Information at Risk (Lawyerist)
Whether you’re a lawyer or any other kind of organization that collects a lot personal data, these tips can help you keep sensitive information safe. 
 
Platforms Connect Talented Instagrammers with Good Causes (Springwise)
Social media has opened up avenues for people all over the world to contribute to a cause. In this case, visual artists and other talented users of Instagram are being teamed up with organizations to provide beautiful and impactful content.
 
Technologies and Practices for Managing Outcomes: Lessons from Large Nonprofits (Idealware)
How does your organization know it’s making a difference? What strategies and technologies help you find out? We asked these questions and more to some of the top nonprofits in the U.S. This report collects and analyzes what we learned.
 
Product Teams: The Next Wave of Digital for NGOs? (Mobilisation Lab)
We’ve known for more than a decade how important digital content and communications are to the success of nonprofits, but organizations of all sizes continue to struggle with implementing and managing those technologies. The Mob Lab asks whether a different organizational structure—one that looks at your digital technology the way a product manager might—could make a difference.
 
7 Things Your IT Department Wishes You Knew About Tech Support (Lifehacker)
Just a little something to discretely slip into your colleagues’ inbox or innocently post on Chatter. You’re welcome.
 
Would you like to suggest a link for Best of the Web? Email it to info@idealware.org.

The Remote Office: Putting Free Video Conferencing Tools to the Test

Editor’s note: With almost half of our staff members working from home (not to mention in different time zones), it’s time to start thinking of Idealware as a remote organization. Over the next six months, we’ll take a closer look at our own back office tools and processes and report back what we’ve found.

For the remote office, the casual chat or the quick around-a-monitor powwow isn’t possible, so scheduled meetings take on a whole new importance. 

In the past, we primarily used Google Hangouts for meetings between in-office and remote staff. However, as we’ve grown, we’ve had some quality issues, so we decided to check out the free alternatives and compare them. 

First, a couple caveats about our “review.” Common sense suggests that how well different video conferencing tools work depends more on your internet connection and hardware than on the tool itself. Therefore, your organization will likely see different results. Additionally, this comparison was completely and utterly unscientific, and not even close to the robust methodology and review criteria we use for our reports and articles. The results presented below reflect merely how Idealware staff felt each tool worked for them personally.

And with that out of the way, on to the contenders in The Battle of the Video Chat Superstars!

The Contenders…

Google Hangouts (https://plus.google.com/hangouts)

The Good: We started using Hangouts because it is so convenient. Since Idealware was already using Google Apps, using Hangouts for meetings let us start video calls from our chat windows and include a link to a hangout as part of meeting invites. Since we often need to meet with freelancers, contract researchers, and other people from outside Idealware, it was nice to only need their Gmail address to call them, instead of finding their username and friending them. Being able to open up and view a Google Doc within the call was also nice because it often meant we could avoid sharing a desktop. 

The Bad: With eight people and eight separate computers on the call together, a lot of staff members noticed problems with our audio—low quality, tinniness, cutting out. One computer would fail to recognize the microphone every other week. In general, our call quality just wasn’t reliable.

The Ugly: I feel that a lot of our problems with video quality were because, if the connection is poor, Hangouts will automatically lower your video quality to limit everyone’s bandwidth usage. It can keep people from dropping off the call, and hopefully improve audio quality, but it won’t look pretty.

Skype (http://www.skype.com/en/)

The Good: So far, as we’ve tried out Skype, video quality has been higher and more consistent than we had with Hangouts, and audio has (mostly) been more reliable. 

The Bad: Skype has had some audio issues for us—tinniness, echoing voices, some dropped audio on a couple calls. During one meeting, one staff member kept losing her video feed. Setting up a call (especially for a recurring, weekly meeting) is more time-consuming with Skype than with Hangouts, as one person (usually me) needs to call everyone, rather than having the same link each week in the calendar invite. Since most of us do not have Skype set to automatically start when the computer boots up, some staff members forgot to open Skype prior to meetings, causing us to lose a couple minutes at the start of each call. Finally, since you can only call people who are already in your contacts list, Skype isn’t as easy as Hangouts for meeting with people outside Idealware.

The Ugly: Ads. They’re not too intrusive, but banner ads are kind of annoying to see during a work-related call.

ooVoo (http://www.oovoo.com/)

The Good: When you add a new person to your contact list, ooVoo lets you invite them to connect with other people in your list, which made setting up for the first time pretty smooth. 

The Bad: ooVoo was just the wrong fit for us. When you initially download and install the desktop client, you’re presented with a lot of pre-checked boxes to download new browser toolbars, search engines, and other (potentially sketchy) bloatware. While there’s a lot of video and audio quality settings for you to configure, the default settings are not great for quality. For example, the default is 15 frames per second for video, which, for an A/V geek like me, is pretty low. And we discovered that the auto-adjusting mic volume feature meant that when you’re not speaking, the volume will crank way up, leading to distracting background noise. Finally, unlike Skype and Hangouts, ooVoo doesn’t seem to auto-adjust each participant’s video quality based on your bandwidth, so if your connection is slow, it won’t try to conserve how much bandwidth each person is using.

The Ugly: Again, ads. The ooVoo client displays a HUGE banner ad next to your list—half of the entire window was just advertising. And, depending on what ooVoo’s algorithm thinks about you, the ads displayed may be rather inappropriate for the workplace. (No, I’m not interested in Bud Light with Lime, especially not during a call with my Executive Director!)

Talky.io (https://talky.io/)

The Good: We had heard pretty good things from people who had used this tool before. Talky.io doesn’t need people to create accounts or download and install a desktop client—all you do to join a call is follow a link—so it was really easy to set up and start the meeting. And since all you need is the link to access the meeting, it should be really easy for calls with people outside the organization. 

The Bad: We had such high hopes for this one, but Talky.io just isn’t right for Idealware. Right now, you can only have up to five people on the call, and we have eight staff members, so…

Those of us that were able to join the meeting experienced fairly low video quality and the audio went all tinny and “roboty” on us.

The Ugly: Talky.io is really well-designed, with a clean, minimal interface, and since there are no accounts or anything to download, it seems pretty idiot-proof. If only we could have more people on the call.

The Results…

Since staff members had pretty strong negative reactions to both ooVoo and Talky.io, that left us with a choice between Hangouts and Skype. A few staff members didn’t notice a difference in quality between using either of the two, but generally people felt that Skype was the better choice…for now.

It’s Not You, It’s Me.

Ultimately, the problem with call quality isn’t with the tools themselves, but with the internet connection at Idealware Global Headquarters. Broadband isn’t cheap, and we’ve been using a connection that worked fine when we only had one remote staff member, but now that each person joins meetings from his or her own computer, our connection isn’t enough to handle the load. The minimum requirements for Hangouts and Skype aren’t very demanding, but we never planned on having five or more Hangouts happening at the same time.

When it comes down to actually comparing your free options for video conferencing, the solution you choose really doesn’t matter as much as your internet connection does. Want to learn about both free and paid solutions for video conferencing, webinars, and desktop sharing? Read our article, A Few Good Online Conferencing Tools, updated for 2015!

 

 Photo credit: Wikipedia

Best of the Web: May 2015

The Idealware “Best of the Web” is a monthly roundup of the top nonprofit resources from the Idealware blog, our Facebook page, and our Twitter feed to help you make the right technology decisions. Please forward it along to anyone you think might benefit from it.

Is Mobilegeddon Coming? (NPR and NTEN)

Google’s new search algorithm now favors “mobile-friendly” websites in mobile search results. NPR covers the reaction. NTEN offers a solution.

Break Down the Silos—For Real This Time (Idealware)

Every organization knows what engagement is and knows how important it is, but how you get there can be tricky. Heller Consulting’s new white paper takes you through the barriers organizations create for themselves and how they can start to break those barriers down.

Civility in Social Media (Wired and Civicist)

Internet trolls and other bad online actors are a frustration in every corner of the internet. Even troll hangouts such as Reddit feel the need to keep online harassers at bay. Civic Hall suggests that bots that can automatically monitor an issue and report back its findings may be one solution to quieting the trolls and bringing forward important voices.

Let the Sunlight In (Sunlight Foundation)

The Sunlight Foundation continues its quest to open up more data to help citizens stay informed about how communities are creating social change. Its research into the methodological challenges of open data are a big step forward for the open data movement.

The last thing you want in your fundraising strategy is blind spots (read: missed opportunities). For many organizations, Gen X is that missed opportunity. If you’re looking for ways to make email fundraising work, start with these five experts. And if all you need are a few good tools, check these out.

Helping Your Board Collaborate (NTEN)

Our own Kyle Andrei wrote a guest blog for NTEN outlining software options for nonprofit boards seeking to improve information sharing and collaboration.

What’s New in Social Media (Mashable and Jon Loomer)

Google+ just unveiled a new feature that allows you to group images by topic-based sections called “Collections.” Some are comparing it to Pinterest. What do you think? And Jon Loomer provides you with every measurement you’ll need for posting images or ads to Facebook.

Why Are Social Causes Easy to Launch But Hard to Win? (NPR)

Zeynep Tufekei wonders whether the easy ways we gather information and move through spaces on social media are actually making people less motivated to take action for what’s right.

A Consumer’s Guide to Case Management Systems (Idealware)

If you’re in the market for a new case management system to track clients, a good place to start is our recent report lead by Kyle Andrei. His rigorous research methodology narrowed the field to a handful of general systems that can be adapted to most organizations.

How to Successfully Launch Nonprofit Infographics Online (Nonprofit Tech for Good)

Creating the infographic is hard work, but it’s only half the job. For it to have any lasting impact, you need to share it with the world. Here are a few tips how.

Measure Your Mission #BeyondVanityMetrics (Medium)

It’s easy to get caught up in the numbers and forget what you’re trying to measure. Jackie Mahendra talks about finding meaning in your metrics and learning how to measure what matters.

Biometrics May Ditch The Password, But Not The Hackers (NPR)

Will fingerprints and iris scans protect us from hackers better than passwords? And what about privacy concerns? Time will tell whether biometrics are the future, but NPR reminds us that hackers have a way of finding holes in the system.

How to Fix Most Any Computer Glitch By Yourself (Gizmodo)

For you accidental techies out there, here’s a handy guide to help you look like a computer wizard the next time your colleague asks you to fix his computer.

Researchers Are Rushing to Amazon’s Mechanical Turk. Should They? (Washington Post)

Amazon’s platform for hiring people to do piecemeal online work is often used by researchers to find study participants. The Washington Post weighs the pros and cons.

Inequality and Space: Mapping the Geography of Human Services (Nonprofit Quarterly)

“A core argument for privatizing human services is that it brings services closer to the people who need them, yet this argument is difficult to study. A cartography of the nonprofit sector could help, with mapmakers not only looking at geographic space but also at the relationship between people and the services they demand. There would need to be two different types of maps: one that charts the populations needing services, and another that charts the providers supplying those services.”

Would you like to suggest a link for Best of the Web? Email it to info@idealware.org

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