Blogs

Idealware at #14NTC

Preparations are under way around here for Idealware's trip to the 2014 Nonprofit Technology Conference, or NTC,  which is organized by the good folks at NTEN. This year, three of us--Andrea Berry, Laura Quinn, and yours truly, Elizabeth Pope--will represent our particular brand of smart nonprofit technology decision-making. The conference will take place this year at the Marriott Wardman Park in Washington DC  from March 13 through March 15. We're really excited to catch up with old friends and meet new ones, too.

In one form or another, Idealware has been attending this conference for more than seven years now. It's a great opportunity to connect with other people interested in nonprofit technology, to share knowledge and expertise, and to learn from some of the best in the business. This year, Idealware is going to be represented in FIVE sessions. We hope to see some of you there in the audience, but even if you're not signed up for our session, look for us around the conference and say hello. We love meeting friends of Idealware face to face.

If you'd like to meet up with us, shoot us an email--first name AT idealware DOT org. And check out our head shots to help recognize us.

This year, Chris, Kyle, Tyler, and Joe will be holding down the fort at Idealware Global Headquarters, so whether you're down in Washington or staying home, there's someone from Idealware that can help you out! 

Here's the rundown on sessions with Idealware staffers in them:


Thursday March 13, 2014 1:30pm - 3:00pm 

Thurgood West

The Proof is in the Program Evaluation: Applying the Idealware Program Evaluation Pyramid [Also an Online NTC offering]

 Hashtag #14NTCprogeval


 Friday March 14, 2014 10:30am - 12:00pm 

Learn, You Will: Interactive Tech Training Tips from Jedi Masters [Also an Online NTC offering]

Hashtag #14NTCTRAIN


 Saturday, March 15 • 10:30am - 12:00pm

Shelving Legacy, Sparking Innovation. Building Effective Technology for Philanthropy

Wilson A

Hashtag #14NTCgive


Saturday March 15, 2014 1:30pm - 3:00pm 

Selecting the Right CRM - and Making Sure Staff Use It Effectively

Thurgood South

Hashtag #14NTCCRMculture


Saturday, March 15 • 1:30pm - 3:00pm

Tech Planning Smack Down! Tactical Vs. Strategic Vs. Missional

Maryland A

Hashtag  #14NTCsmack

Nonprofit Lessons from a Government Tech Debacle

Where do you go for trusted technology advice? Technology projects are difficult for anyone to manage. Miscommunication, delays, and budget cuts are possible in any size project--but the bigger the project, the more likely problems are to arise.

Whether you are a one-person nonprofit or have the budget of the U.S. Government behind you, there are resources available to help save time and money while staying on top of advancements in technology.

Joe Magee, Vice President of Marketing for RallyBound, recently wrote about the best places for nonprofits to turn for advice and support before diving into new technology projects. We're grateful that Idealware made his list. We work hard to provide the kind of impartial, accessible resources you've come to expect from us. We may be biased, but we think it's a good list.

Read the full article, Nonprofit Lessons from a Government Tech Debacle, for the rest of the great resources and insight he provides at the Stanford Social Innovation Review blog.

Best of the Web: February 2014

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. 
 
No matter how many people are at your organization, staff members coming and going is unavoidable. Thankfully, many of the technology headaches associated with it "are" avoidable. Some basic planning and essential information can go a long way in lessening the impact turnover can have on your tech infrastructure. 
 
Going over budget, having heightened expectations, and doing insufficient research are all easy traps to fall into when performing a major system overhaul. Friend of Idealware Peter Campbell wants you to learn from his mistakes in this excerpt from NTEN's "Collected Voices: Data-Informed Nonprofits". 
 
When a communications channel works--when it makes a connection between a nonprofit and its audience--it doesn't become less effective overnight. When social media came around, people predicted the end of email; when email came around, people predicted the end of pen and paper. You can still get great results from direct mail campaigns, and envelopes still play a big role in many nonprofits' fundraising strategies. 
 
When it comes to headlines, there are plenty of tricks you can employ to get people clicking, but the article, blog post, or picture has to deliver on the promise of its title or you run the risk of losing a click down the road. This article looks at ways to walk the line between clever headlines and blatant click bait. 
 
In many offices, Google's chat tool, Gchat, has taken the place of the water cooler. If you love it because you can stay social while keeping a quiet workspace, let the New Organizing Institute show you a few extra features that can extend its usefulness. 
 
There are a lot of moving pieces to keep track of when embarking upon a website project. Between complex technical issues like migrating your content to a different CMS, and more personal issues like keeping your team on budget and on time, you shouldn't hastily assume that your designer will be a good fit for your needs. Having a checklist of qualities to go over when considering different design agencies can help--and in this post, the Capulet Communications team does the work for you. 
 
Thanking your donors can, quite literally, be an afterthought. In this blog post, our own fundraising champion Andrea Berry talks about why you can never say thank you too much, and how a little extra attention can lead to bigger returns in future campaigns. 
 
Many articles have claimed that Facebook is trying make paid content more appealing by limiting the number of views pages organizations get. The good news is, good content will still get your fans talking no matter what Facebook does. This article outlines a few things that have worked for others that you might consider experimenting with to boost your Facebook reach without reaching into your wallet. 
 
A familiar name around here, our own Director of Research and Operations spoke to Arts Management and Technology Laboratory about her favorite iPhone apps for Idealware and for home. In her own words, "There are lots of productivity (and time-wasting) apps out there, but your phone should be a source of pleasure and fun, not just work!" 
 
Measuring your outcomes is important, but the definition of what exactly constitutes an "outcome" can get so blurry that it loses its meaning. This article takes a humorous look at how it feels to be a nonprofit stuck in the constant cycle of showing impact. 
 
Would you like to suggest a link for Best of the Web? Email it to info@idealware.org. 
 

Behind the Research: How Idealware Learned More About The Reality of Nonprofit Program Evaluation

As you might imagine, we at Idealware think there's a lot of value in the data you get from a well-designed, properly executed survey. Over the summer, we worked with one of our very talented interns, Rachel, to help her design a survey that was meant to get at the heart of a question we've been pondering for a while at Idealware: How are nonprofits conducting program evaluation in the real world?

We released the results of the survey that Rachel designed (with assistance from my colleague Kyle and our ED Laura) just a couple of weeks ago, in the form of our report The Reality of Measuring Human Service Programs: Results of a Survey, which you can download for free. While we always publish our methodology to help our readers understand how we've arrived at our conclusions, I thought folks might be interested in a slightly more informal look at how we design surveys over here, since it's a process we take very seriously. 

The germ of the idea came from the very question I posed in that intro paragraph: How are nonprofits conducting program evaluation in the real world? Since we work in the nexus of nonprofits and technology, and most program evaluation efforts need at least some basic technology to work, we were fairly familiar with the academic theories associated with program evaluation, and we'd recently completed a report generously funded by the Hewlett Foundation that aimed to present an overview of the kinds of technology and software nonprofits might use in their evaluation. What we didn't know, however, was how nonprofits were actually conducting program evaluation at their organizations. How often were they doing it? What tools were they using? How did they think it was working? 

Since we can't reasonably talk to all the nonprofits on our list individually (though we'd love to!), we thought a survey would be the best tool to help us answer this question. We also decided to focus on human service nonprofits to allow us more easily draw comparisons between respondants. We're not immune from technology challenges ourselves at Idealware, and one of the issues we faced was the fact that we don't have data about the mission of every nonprofit on our mailing list. Since we couldn't really segment the list to just the people working at human service organizations, we chose to send it to Idealware's entire mailing list in the hopes that human services staff would self-identify and take the survey, and that anyone else on our list would forgive the email that didn't directly relate to their work. We take all-list emails really seriously, and weighed the pros and cons of the decision before deciding that the potential of alienating our list was low. 

Rachel worked closely with Laura and Kyle to define a survey that wasn't overly long and that covered the topics we cared about, like who did the program evaluation work at the respondant's organization, demographic information like mission, size, and budget, and what kind of data the organization generally collected about its programs. We refined the survey drafts to include questions that weren't double-barreled-- ie, asked two or more questions in the guise of asking just one-- or biased. We also provided some free-text questions to collect narrative information, but included them only at the end of the survey, which is best practice. 

We had 120 respondants to the survey, and we analyzed their answers to provide the information presended in our most recent report.  As we noted in the report, "the results from this survey clearly do not statistically represent the whole of the nonprofit sector", but it definitely provides some interesting food for thought. We also included three case studies that we wrote up after site visits to nonprofits in Portland, Maine, where most of the Idealware staff is based. It's our hope that the case studies provide another means of looking at this topic, as well as some  of the challenges and victories that real-life nonprofits experience in this space.

We're really proud of the final result, and are eager to hear what you think. Download The Reality of Measuring Human Service Programs: Results of a Survey, and let us know if what we learned from the survey resonates.

 

Thanking Your Donors: Q&A

With our year-end fundraising behind us, we've thanked our donors and are already moving on to think about next  year's campaign--but we wanted to take a minute to talk about that ever-important thank you. You should be thanking donors for every fundraising campaign. We say it a lot, but it bears repeating—thank your donors.

Q: How frequently should we thank our donors in, say, a year?

In an ideal world I’d like to thank donors once a month. That doesn’t mean I want to send 12 letters or cards. Using technology like email, blogs, videos or social media can make this a manageable goal. Planning out a monthly Facebook post appreciating your donors is not a huge task, but can go a long way to make donors feel appreciated and encourage prospects to pull the trigger and donate for a first time. Creating a short profile of a donor every month (or every other month) for your blog can be a great way to generate content while showing people how much you appreciate their contribution.
 
Q: Most people know that a “personal” letter is just a mail merge. Great time saver, but it’s not very personal. What can make our thank you efforts seem more personal?
I love the idea of mail-merging names into emails. I received an amazing thank you letter from Planned Parenthood a few years ago that said “Thank you Andrea!” in huge letters on the top of the email. Now, I know this was just a mail-merge, like any old thank you letter, but seeing it online somehow felt more personal.
And while I’m a big fan of technology, I really feel like the personal phone call is the way to go. Each year our Board members make personal phone calls to everyone one of our donors. Granted, we only get about 100 for our end of year campaigns, but it is a wonderful touch point. Not only does it make our donors feel appreciated, it provides our Board a perfect opportunity to connect with our constituents directly.
 
Q: Is it possible to thank donors too much? So that they’re asking, “Why is this org spending so much on postage and mailing labels”, other token gifts?
Yes and no, I do think you can send too much mail. Especially to millennial donors (or online donors) who are often very conscious of the paper and money wasted. However, when you think about all of the ways you can augment the paper thank you letter with online tools, I don’t feel like you can really thank people too much. Just make sure you are sincere in your appreciations. Remember, reporting back on your progress is a huge way to thank your donors. And that is something you should try to do every day.
 
 

The Beauty of Tech is More than Skin Deep

In 2013, lots of new high-tech products came out that could revolutionize their respective fields. Logic dictates that we should be standing in awe at these crowning achievements, moving us ever closer to a future out of science fiction, but that’s just not happening. Before we even have a chance to put our hands on a new product, we are rushing to the comment section of our favorite tech blogs to call it out for being “ugly.”

Why are we so quick to despise a new idea or product, and for its looks of all things? Is it jealous budding inventors? Cynics scraping the bottom of the barrel for something to dislike? Website vandals seeing what they can get away with on an anonymous internet? Or is the popularity of internet retailers necessitating snap judgments based on a thumbnail?
 
For example: wearable tech really seems to be what the future looks like. Between Google Glass, GPS jackets, and even neck tattoo microphones, there are a multitude of wild, imaginative ways that tech companies are rethinking the way we live our daily lives. Whether you think their designs are perfect or not, it’s exciting to just think about how far technology has come, and what the future still holds.
 
One of the most talked about tech trends of 2013 was smartwatches, essentially, mini-smartphones that sit on your wrist. I’ve seen my share of sci-fi movies, and the wrist communicator is one of the most memorable tropes that come to mind. But for something that has only existed in our imaginations until earlier this year, there sure seem to be a lot of harsh words being spread about the look of these devices.
 
If you have to wear something, it should probably be marginally fashionable, but does it need to be more stylish than the phone in your pocket, or the computer at your desk? Compared to the first cell phones, or calculator watches from the 80’s, smartwatches from Samsung, Sony, and even the Kickstarter funded Pebble are unquestionably sleek and modern. Plus, they often come in enough colors that most people could find one they wouldn’t mind showing off.
 
Here’s the caveat about smart watches from my perspective: they aren’t yet standalone devices. Current smart watches only sync up with your smartphone. While I still think it’s an amazing idea, and an indicator of what's to come, I am not planning on paying $200-$300 so I don’t have to pull my phone out of my pocket. But if they looked prettier, that wouldn’t change. This is the smartwatch’s first at bat, and I don’t think anyone should expect a home run, but if you never acknowledge its potential it will never get any better.
 
Focusing on the "ugly" tells the manufacturer that you value looks over functionality, so when they release a new version, you run the risk of getting something that’s easier on the eyes, but might not actually work any better without a price premium. If we want smartwatches to become more useful anytime soon, we should be griping about the inside, not the outside.
 
This article looks at a prototype of an upcoming gaming console being developed by Valve called the Steam Machine. Their idea is to create a computer that lives in your living room, with a wireless controller as versatile and accurate as a keyboard and mouse, but suited for the couch. The first reports of the available hardware are impressive, but one of its biggest selling points is the concept that you can buy a cheaper model, and swap in upgraded graphics cards, processors, and RAM later.
 
In my opinion, this concept has the capacity to give a big boost to PC hardware manufacturers, who are seeing increasingly low sales numbers. It could also make a lot more people thoughtful about what actually goes on inside of a computer, what each part does, and how it affects performance. But all that doesn't stop people from obsessing over the exterior.
 
If you can’t tell the difference between the PS4, Xbox One, and the Steam Machine by looking at them, you’re not alone. Gaming consoles have almost always been black/gray rectangles with a few blinking lights to tell you it’s on and it’s working. I don’t see any reason why Valve should be expected to fix what’s not broken. They’re clearly innovative in ways that are more important than aesthetics, but naysayers are still putting these products down based on a minor detail.
 
I am personally not a big fan of Apple products, but I will give them credit where credit is due: everything they make is stunningly beautiful. They are so flawless in design that countless PC makers have ripped off the island keyboards and sleek aluminum design of a Macbook Pro, and I don’t blame them. Beautiful design is Apple’s brand, I get that. What I dislike is that they can release the same phone in new colors and call it a new product (then again, Google is encouraging their fans to play dress up with their smartphones too). It worries me when we’ve reached the point that we’re not focusing on innovation, powerful hardware, and ease of use, but rather, how cool we will look when we pull it out at Starbucks.
 
However, Apple has done some things that have gotten my attention lately. They recently released Mavericks, an operating system update completely free of charge to anyone running a relatively recent version of OS X. Apple’s model for operating systems differs from Microsoft’s in that while Microsoft releases a new operating system every few years, and stops supporting them after more than a decade, Apple releases a new operating system every year, and requires users upgrade every few years. Granted, Apple’s operating systems have traditionally been less expensive, but it evens out when you consider the amount of time some people have been hanging on to their copies of XP, for example.
 
Offering a product that works better, and yes, looks better, for free is totally out of left field for Apple. Perhaps now that they’ve got their visual identity firmly cemented, they’re working on growing their customer base to people who can't always pay that premium for beauty. They’re also rumored to be developing their own wearable tech, but are smartly taking their time. I suspect they’re waiting to see what people want from wearable tech rather than rushing something to market to be on the heels of a trend. It’s also expected that whatever they come out with, it will have at least some power without being tethered to a smartphone sister. Additionally, they’ve been working on more advances that might only appeal to pseudo-techies like me: moving to 64-bit processors, even in their smartphones, and offering unlocked versions of their smartphones for example.
 
What does all this mean for nonprofit technology? I would suggest that if you’re looking for software or hardware for your office, ignore the visual appeal completely (unless it’s the tie breaker between two products). In a perfect world, everyone could outfit their entire office with beautiful, 27” iMacs, but the fact remains that those bulky PC desktops are generally cheaper to buy, fix, upgrade, and use in an everyday office setting. I would even suggest against any laptops unless you travel very frequently (again, they’re more expensive, harder to fix, and have a shorter life expectancy).
 
The same is true of software. While a donor management system, for example, might have pretty colors, well laid out navigation, and more fundraising speedometers than you could ever use, it doesn’t mean it is the right one for you. Sometimes the plainest system will have the set of features you need most, at the right price. If you need a new office suite, and you can get away with using Google Drive or OpenOffice, go for it. They might not look as nice as other options, but they’ll get you where you need to go for free. If you need a mobile website, but can't afford a full on responsive design overhaul, a simple but usable mobile site will be much better than a pretty one that doesn't work.
 
It’s easy to get distracted by fancy features, but if you’ll never use them, they are useless. Nonprofits have minimal technology budgets, and little time to waste, so they must prioritize what really matters. The next time you need to decide on a new purchase for your organization, repeat this mantra: “it doesn’t really matter what it looks like. It just has to work well.” Take those Amazon ratings to heart a little less, and ask for the opinion of people you trust. While I can’t say the internet trolls will ever stop focusing on whatever minor issue is most easily disliked that week, in the long term, tech companies will take notice.

Best of the Web: January 2014

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.

 
To kick off the year, Markets for Good released a free e-book, Selected Readings: Making Sense of Data and Information in the Social Sectorthat provides a curated retrospective on the last 15 months of posts from the organization's blog. Each post is updated for the e-book by its author to reflect discussions or comments generated by the original post, new thinking on the topics, or any changes the posts helped to effect. While the entire e-book is as rich in content as it is in design, we're especially fond of the first section, In Search of Better Data About Nonprofit Programs, written by Idealware founder and Executive Director Laura Quinn.
 
What Nonprofits Can Expect from Facebook in 2014: Pay to Play (Epolitics)
Facebook has become one of the most popular online outlets for nonprofits to connect with their fans. One of its largest attractions is the enormous potential for reach; anyone with a free account can follow your every update. However, with the growing popularity of paid promotion on Facebook, should nonprofits be worried? According to this article, maybe so...
 
These Scientists Studied Why Internet Stories Go Viral. You Won't Believe What They Found (Fast Company)
Believe it or not, no matter what communications channel you use, content is still king. Make your audience feel something with that content, and it will never be forgotten. (Cute animals and kids are optional, but never hurt.)
 
Come Back NOW! (Idealware)
Idealware's Research Director Elizabeth Pope draws a few conclusions from a recent online shopping experience that nonprofits can benefit from in the areas of constituent engagement and privacy. (Don't miss the comments on this one.)
 
Lessons Learned from the HealthCare.gov Rollout (NPEngage)
Starting even a small technology project is not something to be taken lightly. What better place to learn from than one of the biggest technology projects in the last year: the launch of HealthCare.gov? Tips like "leave yourself plenty of time" and "test things before they go live" become even more invaluable when you don't have the budget of a large country behind you. Learn from the government's mistakes.
 
Seven Powerful Facebook Statistics You Should Know for a More-Engaging Facebook Page (The Next Web)
While there are no surefire ways to make your Facebook posts generate thousands of likes and comments, The New Web did some research to determine how you can experiment to improve your engagement.
 
What Nonprofits Can Learn from Public Radio about Storytelling (NTEN)
While you may not have anyone on staff with a silky-smooth radio voice, you can still take the public radio approach to heart when it comes to telling your organization's stories. Using audio as a storytelling tool can sometimes draw people in more than the written word. Will Coley explains how using the right tools, and of course telling a powerful story, will go a long way in creating the intimate feeling of a public radio broadcast.
 
Five Web Design Trends To Watch Right Now (Frogloop)
While making sure your site works on mobile devices is top of mind for most nonprofits, there are still plenty of ways to make your desktop site look modern and refined. Trying new things can breathe new life into a dusty site. In some cases, even small changes can make a big difference, as the very smart people behind the Frogloop blog show here.
 
New and Improved Annual Reports: From Two–Pagers and Postcards to Videos and Infographics (Kivi's Nonprofit Communications Blog)
If your annual report is a chore (to create or read) you may want to consider changing it up. You could add a modern flare by incorperating infographics to show progress, videos of your organization at work, or just think about how you can condense the information into a few short pages. In this article, nonprofit communications rockstar Kivi Leroux Miller provides some good examples to help inspire you for 2014.
 
Five Reasons Why Your Nonprofit Must Prioritize the Mobile Web in 2014 (Nonprofit Tech for Good)
It's almost guaranteed that in 2014 people will be viewing your website and opening your emails on mobile devices. Poor compatibility might be a negative to that potential donor, volunteer, future staff member, or lifelong fan. This Nonprofit Tech For Good post looks at a few of the facts on how people are interacting with nonprofits in the mobile connected age.

All of the Data Collection, None of the Data Entry

In many of our minds, "data collection" brings up a vision of paper intake forms and never ending data entry.  In fact, in our upcoming survey of what outcomes measurement looks like in the real world, one of the most commonly repeated themes (alarmingly) was that human services organization didn’t have all the data they wanted because they didn’t have enough computers for all their front line staff to enter it.  
 
There are of course many good reasons to have enough computers to allow all your staff to enter their data… but that’s not the only way to do data collection.  More people, I think, should be talking about passive ways to collect data – meaning, no one has to do any data entry, but rather the data – and often, lots of it—comes to you.  
 
What would this mean?  There’s a whole marketplace of passive data collection devices like:
  • Swipe cards. With inexpensive machines, you can code a card with a magnetic strip (like a hotel room key), and then automatically record wherever it’s swiped.  So your clients could swipe to get their free lunch, or to enter the library.  
  • Bar codes.  Even more straightforwardly, you could print bar codes onto a label, stick the label on things, and then read them with a hand reader. Most people think of package tracking when they think of this, but there’s no reason you couldn’t use it to track any kind of inventory or item.  For instance, you could scan the bar code on an item in museum storage to get information on it, or scan a patient bracelet to get a full case history.
  • GPS location sensors.  GPS sensors can report location information back to a central location. For instance, you could have a delivery vehicle automatically record where it is every ten minutes, and later dump all that data to look at the most efficient routes.  Or you could count the number of site visits a case worker does based on the number of stops her car takes.
  • Personal sensors.  For those clients who are willing to wear something a bit more intrusive, you can get all sorts of data – heart rate, mood, and more.  It’s very common for those with heart problems to wear a heart monitor around.  With enough buy-in from your clients, you could imagine a fascinating set of data that would report on when your anger management clients are most likely to get angry. 
  • Electronic gauges.  Many things can be easily gauged with a small device – for instance, rain amounts, energy usage, water flow.  For instance, a gauge on an office bathroom sink could tell you how often people are washing their hands.  
With these types of devices, the data is collected automatically—which means that reliability of the data is generally higher.  The GPS doesn’t forget to check in when scheduled, and the water faucet isn’t going to pretend that you’re washing your hands more than you do.  Instead of a huge pile of paper forms to be entered, you have a huge pile of data waiting to be analyzed.  Which of course isn’t the same as all the answers to your questions… but that’s another post.

Come Rain, Sleet, or Snow: How Does Your Nonprofit Work When Mother Nature Acts Up?

With much of the Northeast (Idealware Global Headquarters included) battered by a blizzard this week, I feel that this is as good a reminder as any to think about how nonprofit organizations can prepare and plan for how weather can interrupt their regular work days. With the predictably bad Maine winter weather, and all our traveling, Idealware is no stranger to snow days and cancelled flights.

When bad weather hits, and travel to and from the office gets hazardous, are your staff members able to work from home effectively? While some of Idealware's staff have laptops that can easily be taken home when a storm hits, many of us (myself included) can't say we'd want to do the same with our desktop computers, and that can complicate matters. How do you make sure your staff members have the equipment and software to get work done while bundled up at home?
 
This is also a time to think about how your data is stored -- can staff members access the files they need when they're at home? While temporary storage devices like flash drives and the tried and true method of email attachments can tide an employee over for a day or two of snow, they might not be able to cut it for longer storms. Last year, when Hurricane Sandy hit the Mid-Atlantic, parts of New York and New Jersey were without power for days, many offices were inaccessible due to flooding, and even offices that stayed dry may have been inaccessible to staff members who depend on the (flooded) subway lines.
 
Clearly, it's difficult to expect your staff members to get work done when they lack power or internet access, but good planning and preparation can ensure that work can still happen when the roads are too bad to travel, or planes are grounded.
 
How does your organization handle bad weather? Share your preparations (or tribulations) in the comments.

 

Come back NOW!

In an effort to avoid those sanity-draining trips to the mall, I've been doing a lot more shopping online. Sometimes I miss the experience of just browsing in a shop, and will check out the website of a retailer to see what they have to offer without necessarily intending to buy anything. But a recent trip to the website of a major home goods chain (I won't call them out here, but their name incorporates both crockery and farm architecture) made me wonder if "just browsing" is even a thing that can exist online anymore--and what the implications are for nonprofit list-building.

When I got to the landing page of the store's website, I was confronted with a popup that offered $10 off my order in exchange for my email address. OK, so I wasn't looking to buy anything that day, but not wanting to pass up a good deal, I entered my email address. I poked around the curtains section for a little while and then left without making a purchase or putting anything in my cart. When I checked my email later that day, I had gotten a welcome message, which I quickly flagged into Unroll.me, my preferred means of managing mass emails. 

The next day, I got a weird email. "Too good to pass up..." it read, and the body had a picture of one of the drapes I had apparently clicked on next to a message exhorting me to buy now. The day after, I got another. "Come back NOW!" was the subject line, with a similar message and picture of the drapes.

"That subject line has to dock them a few spam points," said my husband, who works in online communications at a nonprofit.

Still another arrived the day after that: "Come back and see our great products! Let us know if we can help!" the email pled. I was so creeped out by the amount of tracking I received from a five minute visit in which I bought nothing that I immediately navigated the passive-aggressive unsubscribe process ("Please unsubscribe me. I no longer wish to receive exclusive emails specific to my interests").

If a for-profit business with lots of funds to devote to marketing research can get it so wrong, it's no wonder that nonprofits struggle with the right balance between welcoming constituents online and driving them away with too much attention. There's undoubtedly a slow erosion of our privacy that's been going on for years online, and we're becoming grimly accustomed to the fact that our every click can be tracked. But even though I'm aware that nonprofits can and do profile me, if one sent me emails that clearly indicated that they keep track of where I go on their website, I wouldn't be happy, and I might even be driven away as a supporter.

I'm not the communications expert here at Idealware, but I'm interested to hear how nonprofits are balancing the increased tracking power that communications and marketing software can provide with their constituents' desire for privacy. How are you navigating these issues?

 

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