In Search of Better Data About Nonprofits' Programs

What are we really asking for when we require nonprofits to produce data on performance, effectiveness and impact? While the surface logic is clear – we need to know this information – the full context and set of assumptions surrounding the request bears closer examination.

Our Executive Director and Founder, Laura Quinn, recently posed this question to the community and shared her thoughts on answering it over on the Markets for Good blog. We believe this is the beginning of a great conversation. Click through to read it, and let us know what you think. 

AskIdealware: What Is an Infographic?

There's a big hullabaloo lately about infographics, but what are they? How do you make your own? Kyle Andrei explains in this preview of Idealware's newly released report. Watch the video, download the report for free, and then get started creating and sharing your own infographics.

Maine 501Tech Club Reboot

If it’s not clear from our website, we love to discuss two things: nonprofits and technology. We can’t get enough of either. With that in mind, we’re excited to be the new hosts and organizers of Maine's 501Tech Club. If you’re in Portland on April 24, make plans to stop by. Register today.
What will we be talking about in April?
NTC for ME: National Nonprofit Technology Brought Home
The 2013 Nonprofit Technology Conference just wrapped up, but we’re not done talking about it.
Couldn’t make it to Minnesota? Come and learn from those who did—and if you were able to attend, share what you learned. Did you find out about a new way to use technology? Talk to a nonprofit doing cool stuff? Sit in on a thought-provoking presentation? 
Share your ideas over drinks and snacks.
• Learn from Idealware staff and other conference attendees’ five-minute presentations on what they learned at this year’s NTC
• Network with other southern Maine nonprofit staffers over beer, wine and snacks
When: Wednesday, April 24 from 4:00pm–6:00pm (EST)
Where: Idealware’s Office, 1 Pleasant St., Suite 4E, Portland, ME 04101
We hope you can join us. Register here.
What is a 501Tech Club?
An informal local group that meets regularly to get to know their colleagues, develop a professional support network, and talk shop. The groups usually meet in coffee shops, bars, or a member's office. Topics for these gatherings range from networking to full presentations, group discussions to panel Q and A, and everything in between. 
501 Tech Clubs also have an online space where they network by creating profiles, talking via a listserv, posting blog entries, and maintaining shared resources. All of these conversations are stored in the group’s online space and are open for anyone to join and participate, whether they are NTEN members or not. The Portland group can be found here:

NTC in Review

The Idealware team has just returned from the 2013 Nonprofit Technology Conference in Minneapolis. It was an amazing gathering of leaders in the nonprofit technology community, and we were thrilled not only to attend but to lead six sessions over the three-day conference. Couldn’t be there in-person? We’ve got you covered. We’ll be re-running four of these sessions via webinar in May.
From content management systems and data measurement to social media policy and mobile technologies, we were privileged to speak on a wide variety of topics that we feel are important for nonprofit organizations. We also led a special collaborative session designed to help foundations understand the importance of funding technology and to teach nonprofits how to best ask for support. And our executive director, Laura Quinn, joined a special CIO panel to discuss technology decision making. Needless to say, we were busy, and we learned a great deal. We want to pass along some of that knowledge, so please, join us for NTC in Review.
May 2—Based on the new Idealware report, a Consumers Guide to Nonprofit Content Management Systems, learn what 11 of the most popular open-source and proprietary CMSs have done to address the demands of today’s Internet: who passed, and who failed?
May 9—There’s a movement across many different human services field toward providing services via web conferencing, texting, video, interactive websites and even Skype.  How can organizations make the most of these technologies to provide services to geographically distributed constituents?
May 23—Many organizations are racing to develop a social media policy that governs who does what, what's OK (and not OK) to say on behalf of their organization, and how to handle sticky situations. But even more than legislating these details, the process of creating such a policy can help you engage in important discussions that will mature your organizational culture.
May 30—As a leader of your organization, you'd probably like to see clear metrics to track your programs, outreach efforts, and the financial health of your organization. Based on NTEN's and Idealware's research into what's actually working for nonprofits, we'll talk through what you should think about to define your own data-based metrics strategy.


What is a Computer Replacement Cycle?

Surprise, surprise, computers won't last forever. As they grow old and outdated, they stop being tools to make your job easier and start becoming burdens, which is a waste of staff time. But computers are also expensive. If your plan for replacing your organization's computers is to "run 'em into the ground" before buying new ones, you're bound to be presented with sudden, unpredictable costs, and that is hard to budget for.

Instead, a replacement cycle tells your organization when it's time to replace your computers before they "catch fire," so you can budget in those costs ahead of time. You can replace all your computers in bulk, so everyone has the same machine, and you only have to worry about the cost every four years or so. Or, you can replace your computers "ad-hoc," maybe one quarter of them each year. Both methods have their pros and cons. Replacing all your computers at once means that you only have to think about it once every four years, but you're taking a big hit on the years when you do replace them. Buying computers ad-hoc means that you can spread that cost out over time; you only pay a quarter of the cost of buying in bulk, but you pay it every year.

Want to learn more about computers, replacement cycles, and other parts of your organization's technology plan? Idealware's Tactical Technology Planning. Less than a week remains to purchase it at the reduced price, which was made possible by the Pierce Family Foundation. For more information, visit

AskIdealware: No One Is Coming To Our Events - What Do We Do?

 Ryan Triffitt explains why low event attendance isn't always a bad thing.

Google Reader Gets Scrapped

Google is no stranger to controversy, and the latest news from Mountain View sparked a range of reactions around the interwebs--and at the Idealware office this morning. Google is retiring its popular RSS reader due to a "lack of interest."

To some Idealware staff, the announcement that Google Reader is getting the axe was almost life-shattering. To me, who only recently started using the RSS reader, it was a bit of a bummer. 

Fortunately there are other options out there to fill the void. Gizmodo has a line-up here, and Lifehacker offers its own list, including tips for importing your feeds to a new reader.

Meanwhile, a petition asking the White House to intervene and beg Google to reconsider failed, to no one's surprise. A second petition is being circulated to get Google to release Reader as Open Source code, which would no doubt see it live a long and happy life. 

Your thoughts?


The Facebook Shuffle

The other day, I realized that I've been on Facebook for exactly nine years-- the timeline feature tells me I joined on March 6, 2004, back when it was still My undergrad institution was the third university to get access to the site, which was much-hyped even then, and I remember waiting with bated breath for midnight to arrive so I could set up my profile (yep, I was pretty cool in college). That means that I've been a Facebook user longer than I've lived in any one city, longer than I've had a driver's license, and about four times longer than I've known my husband. In fact--yikes-- I've been on the site for just about one-third of my life. Kind of puts things in perspective, no? 

I don't want to think about how many hundreds of hours I've spent scrolling through photos of high school friends, procrastinating writing papers, first in college and later in grad school, and scanning the status updates of people I've only met at conferences. I've thought about quitting the site lots of times, but love the way it helps me keep in touch with my friends and family, especially since I've now moved far away from most of them. It looks like I'm not the only Facebook user who's thought about leaving. A new Pew Internet and American Life research report, "Coming and Going on Facebook", indicates that 61% of their sample size of the network's users have taken a break of a few weeks or more over the course of their membership, and close to a third plan to spend less time on it in the coming year. Twenty percent have already left. Why'd they go? Most people reported they were too busy, weren't interested in what they saw there, or found it to be it was a waste of time.

Nonprofits who've spent a lot of time maintaining their organization's presence on Facebook might be getting a sinking feeling right about now. I don't think the news is all that bad, but I do have a sense that among my generation and the one just behind me, the site is getting far less popular. This small exodus is something to watch, not to panic over. Facebook's ubiquity isn't going away anytime soon. Still, it's a good time for organizations heavily invested in the tool to make sure that their communications mix is diversified to ensure that they continue to reach all their constituents wherever they spend the most time.


The CAN-SPAM Act and You

The “Controlling the Assault of Non-Solicited Pornography and Marketing Act,” or the CAN-SPAM Act, has been in place since January 2004, but many organizations still aren’t clear on what it means for them. While the law is in place to stop floods of emails from unsolicited evil doers, it can have an adverse effect on even small nonprofits’ email marketing efforts. Whether the law affects your organization or not, the regulations outlined in the CAN-SPAM act can act as a good guideline for making sure your emails look professional, and that you are being courteous to your subscribers.
When the government talks about spam, they don’t necessarily mean that stuff that ends up in your unwanted Gmail folder. The CAN-SPAM act is a set of rules that applies to any message that is primarily commercial. While most nonprofit emails are not commercial inherently, they can be in some situations. Involvement from a corporate funder can put your message in a grey area, as can using email to market products. For example, Idealware advertises our annual “Field Guide to Software for Nonprofits” and recordings of our training sessions through email. While fundraising appeals do not count as commercial content in the government’s eyes, there is no specific exemption from the law for nonprofits, so it’s a good idea to follow these rules just to be safe.
Make sure to let your recipients know who you are and how to reach you in every email. Provide a valid street or PO Box address in the body of your email, as well as a usable return email. Emails are informal, so don’t be afraid to get personal. A message from is a lot more likely to be viewed as spam than one from
Along with that, be honest in your subject line and email body. Even if you’re just trying to be unique, a misleading subject to entice a reader to open the email can be illegal. If you are trying to sell a product or service in your email, or trying to help someone else sell something, you should include language to reflect that. Simply noting somewhere in the email that it is an offer or an advertisement is specific enough.
Finally, make sure that everyone who is on your email list wants to be there. It can be tempting to send emails out to a few people whom you know might be potential givers, but unless they have asked specifically to be on the email list, they shouldn’t be. It should also be clear how a recipient can opt-out of your emails. A direct link to unsubscribe is the most comprehensive method, but including language suggesting that recipients reply by email to unsubscribe can work for smaller list.
A subscriber also shouldn’t have to pay anything, or offer any information other than their email address to unsubscribe. Offering a way for subscribers to opt in or out of specific types of emails from your organization can be a good compromise if your constituents’ inboxes are getting bogged down by content. In any case, the change must be made within 10 business days to comply with the law.
If you outsource your broadcast email to a marketing firm, you should make sure they are following the rules as well. They may be able to keep your email out of a spam folder, but they might unintentionally be breaking the law. If a case is filed, both your organization and the marketing firm can be fined, so it is in everyone’s best interest to check.
Complaints regarding breaches of the CAN-SPAM Act should be directed to the Federal Trade Commission at You should also inform your email provider and the sender’s email provider, including a full copy of the email in question.
If you have serious concerns about your own emails conflicting with CAN-SPAM’s regulations, contact a lawyer who is familiar with email best practices. Other countries can have even stricter regulations regarding email, so if you conduct any international business, make sure you are complying with their laws as well. While it’s unlikely that a small organization could run into legal trouble, violations of the CAN-SPAM act can mean up to $16,000 in charges. A few simple measures to make certain you are in compliance can save you a lot of money, and keep your email etiquette in top shape.

Three Acts in Three Minutes: Screenwriting for Nonprofits

 When you watch a lot of movies, you start to get the feeling that they’re all the same story, just told in a different way. Take romantic comedies for example:

  • Boy meets girl (the “meet cute”)
  • Boy and girl start dating>
  • Boy and girl have a fight
  • Boy wallows in self-pity
  • Grand Romantic Gesture
  • Boy and girl are back together
  • End Credits

You’re not crazy; there really is a formula to movies. In college, I took a screenwriting course from a professor who went out of her way to drill that formula into my head. (Her favorite movie? Independence Day.)

That formula is called the Three Act Structure. It’s actually a really useful way to learn storytelling, and there’s nothing wrong with using it (but sometimes the best movies are the ones that take a few liberties). This is also a useful framework for nonprofits that are just learning how to tell their story through video. For a typical Hollywood movie, your three acts might look like this: 

Act One

  1. Inciting Incident or Catalyst: what starts the story in motion?
  2. The Big Event: what changes your character’s life?

    Act Two
  3. The Pinch: Point of no return.
  4. Rising Conflict: build tension, character takes bolder choices.
  5. Crisis: the low point for your character.

    Act Three
  6. The Showdown or Climax: exactly what it sounds like. The final showdown.
  7. Realization: the character (or audience) realizes that the character has changed
  8. Denouement: Tie up all the loose ends.

You can also simplify that down, especially for a shorter story. 

In a three minute or shorter video, you could just hit the Big Event, Rising Conflict, Climax, and Denouement; the important thing to have a beginning, middle, and end to your story. 

So, this is great for potential screenwriters, but how would a nonprofit put it all into practice? First, think about what you want to accomplish with your video. Do you want the people at home watching the video to take a specific action? Are you motivating them to donate, sign a petition, plant a tree, or volunteer? Whatever that action is, that’s the end of your story.  Your Inciting Incident is that your organization needs money to continue to operate, the Big Event is your annual campaign, the Rising Conflict is all the services your organization won’t be able to provide without the support of the viewers at home, and the Climax is the audience actually making that donation. There’s an example of a thrilling short video with a cliffhanger ending—will our hero, the scrappy Nonprofit-That-Could, survive to provide services another day?

That story could look entirely different depending on who the main character is. Maybe the protagonist is not the nonprofit, but a potential supporter. Their story begins with an email from a nonprofit, asking for a donation. The Big Event is making a donation, and the Pinch is that the nonprofit still needs other forms of help. In the Rising Conflict, our new donor pitches in in other ways, donating canned goods or blankets, volunteering to help deliver services, and asking friends and family to also donate or help out. In the Climax, the nonprofit meets their fundraising goal. Finally, the supporter has the Realization that they made a difference in the community.

No matter the character you follow in the video, make sure that their story has a beginning, middle, and an end, and that the choices they make or actions they take make sense. This doesn’t have to be an epic, cinematic thriller where the “stakes are high and the danger is even higher” to be compelling—but you can be a little tongue-in-cheek if it feels appropriate (a little goes a long way—don’t make fun of your mission or constituents). This isn’t a two-hour feature film, it’s a YouTube video; there’s only so much characterization or plot development you can do in three minutes.

It wouldn’t be an Idealware blog post if I didn’t include some examples to inspire you. Check out the winners from the DoGooder Video Awards for examples of nonprofits telling short stories. My personal favorite is Meet the Digits from Ronald McDonald House Austin.

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