Blogs

Comparing Apples to APIs – A Framework

There’s been a lot of hubbub recently about the release of new APIs from Convio and Kintera. It’s exciting news, but hard to cut through the hype to figure out what precisely is being offered, and to who… as you can tell from the varying reviews from people who are trying to compare the offerings: Michelle Murain, Allan Benamer, and Judi Sohn.

Which API is better? Well, better for who? And to do what? Like any complex decision area, there are a number of different factors to be considered. And in this realm, each of these factors is complex in of themselves. We need a framework that can help us compare the data exchange offerings of different vendors.

In fact, we feel so strongly that we need it that we’re doing it! In partnership with NTEN and Beaconfire, and with generous donations of expertise from folks like Beaconfire, Database Design Associates and Forum One, we’re in the midst of developing a framework that will allow us – or anyone looking to understand their options – to rate the strengths and weaknesses of any package’s programmatic data exchange capability. We're not going to be actually rating the tools just yet (that's Phase 2!) but a framework for rating should help us all compare apples to apples.

Under Paul Hagen’s steady hand, the project is powering along, and we have a high level framework already. Here are the areas we’re in the midst of fleshing out:
  • Costs: How much does it cost to use? To get support?
  • Access: Who is allowed to use it?
  • Usage: Abut how many people are using the API, currently?
  • Open Standards: Does it support several widely used standards for data exchange? If so, which ones?
  • Ease of Getting Started/ Documentation: How easy is it to understand how to do what you want to do?
  • Security: If your data transfer needs to be secure, how secure can you make it?
  • Performance: Will your transfer be speedy? Will you run into volume limitations down the road?
  • Backwards Compatibility: If the vendor updates the application, how likely is it to break everything you built?
  • Robustness: The big kahuna. How much of the useful data can you access programmatically? Can you query it, write it, modify it, access it in real time?
We’re still hard at work at what all of this means, and how you would rate it, but would love your thoughts in the meantime. Does this seem to cover the key elements that would affect the quality of software in the data exchange area? What would you change?

Robustness is a particularly challenging one – any thoughts on how best to usefully rate software there?

I'm Getting Things Done

I’m just finishing up an article on Project Management software, and one of my biggest takeaways was of the non-tool variety: a whole heck of a lot of nonprofit project managers have bought into the Getting Things Done methodology, first proposed by the book of the same name by David Allan.

I’m not a big believer in this stuff, but hearing everyone talk about it coincided with a week in which I was completely overwhelmed with stuff I had to do. So I bought the book – hey, it’s both research and personally useful!

And I was compelled. Four days after the book arrived, I had finished it and was starting to set up the system. I have to say, it’s been really very useful. The effects in fact seem to be more powerful than the steps warrant – there honestly seems to be a kind of synergistic thing going on. My email in-box has been completely under control for almost two weeks now, after years of almost-at-the-brink of email chaos. My desk is clean, which anyone who’s ever worked with me would tell you is entirely unheard of.

For me, there were some particularly powerful rules in there (some of these have been a bit personally adapted):
  • If an email’s going to take less than two minutes to respond to, just respond right when you read it. This includes printing attachments that you’re going to feel the need to print. Otherwise, make it a task to manage along with other tasks. This has transformed my email inbox from a black hole that I felt I could never get on top of, to something that is nearly always organized.
  • If you’ve got papers or other stuff and can’t think about what to with it at the moment, you get to throw it in a box of random stuff. My kind of rule.
  • But then you have to go through the box of random stuff at least daily, and figure out the next step with each. That’s a little less fun.
  • Filing shouldn’t involve categorizing. Decide on the first label you think of, and put it in that folder, or create a new folder just for that piece of paper. The first label you think is likely to be how you’d look for it anyway, and any folder is better than not filing because it’s a pain (my former system)
  • You don’t get to have random papers or emails floating around that you haven’t really figured out what to do about. Take the time to decide what’s next – which is hardly ever going to take more than 20 second. This was one of the biggest for me. Probably half of all my outstanding email was stuff I hadn’t thought through, which made me panic every time I thought about going through them all.
  • Every week, think through all the projects you’re working on, and make sure you’ve captured all the next steps
What software am I using to manage stuff? I’ve got my tasks organized around Gmail, with the GTD Gmail plug-in, which is working pretty well. I have emails about many of the tasks anyway, and I can email myself new tasks. Things like Projects, Status, and Context become labels.

My only complaint with this system is that it’s hard to parse the list – I’ve got everything outstanding in my Inbox, and that’s a long list. But searching/ filtering by projects or context or whatever only shows 20 things at a time (why is that? It’s annoying). Because of this, I'm using the (non-GTD-compliant) Star in Gmail to note something that I should do soon – mostly to surface it from what is otherwise a list of a hundred things.

I also have some suspicion that the GTD plug-in sometimes becomes a memory hog over the course of the day. Anyone experience that?

I’ve just been trying out L8R – a service that allows you to schedule emails to be sent in the future. I’m using it to send myself reminders of things that I don’t need to think about for awhile, or that I want to make sure catch my attention on a particular day. I like it, and it works, but it seems a little wonky and buggy on the interface side.

So, overall, I seem to have drunk the Getting Things Done kool-aid. And I’m not typically one to jump on a bandwagon.

Ask Idealware: Finding Current Users of Online Software

Rachel asks: Our org is looking into GiftTool as a solution for several of our needs. However, our senior management has requested recommendations from actual users of the product. Other than contacting them directly, do you know of any way we could get some further insight into what it's like to use the product?

Laura says:
Hmm, getting feedback from actual product users - a topic close to my heart! We talked to some folks and summarized the results in our Online Donation Tool report, but it's getting a little old now, and it can be very useful to talk to actual software users yourself. There's the obvious method of posting questions to one or two of the nonprofit technology discussion lists (for instance, the Information Systems Forum, NTEN Discuss, ProgressiveExchange) - but I noticed that you already did that! For a pretty specific tool like this, it can be hard to find users, especially more than one to give you a more balanced perspective.

But I actually do have a trick. If you're looking at tools that are used to collect information online, or especially payment processors like GiftTool, you can often find a lot of organizations that are using it simply by Googling the name and paging in to the more obscure results. A lot of organizations will mention what tool they're using in a privacy policy or as an explanation to their site visitors. For instance, I see a number of organizations using GiftTool on page four of the Google results for "GiftTool." You can then click through to the site, find contact information, and send off an email. I've actually done this a number of times, and, surprisingly, gotten return emails from at least half the people I contacted this way.

The Ask Idealware posts take on some of the questions that you send us at ask@idealware.org. Have a great option to suggest for this question? Hate our responses? Help us out by entering your own answer as a comment below.

Two Great New Software Reports

Two really good resources on two entirely different types of software have hit the scene recently. First, the Nonprofit Open Source Initiative has updated their primer - "Choosing and Using Free and Open Source Software: A Primer for Nonprofits." It’s a great, detailed resource for those considering open source, and provides a remarkably even handed look at both the benefits and the drawbacks of open source software.

And, on about as different a topic as you can get, MarketingSherpa has done a nice article comparing survey vendors – both the low end ones like SurveyMonkey and Zoomerang, and the much more powerful ones that will allow you to create more sophisticated surveys and then do statistical analysis on the reports. The article is available to the public until October 16th – presumably after than point you’ll need to be a member to view it. By the way, many of the MarketingSherpa reports aren’t free, but they are typically solid reports that are well worth the money.

Data Integration Extravaganza

We've got a great new article by Peter Campbell that went up last night: XML, API, CSV, SOAP! Understanding the Alphabet Soup of Data Exchange This is a particularly exciting article to me, as I've been trying to figure out how to put out something like this in quite a while. It's an overview of how data exchange and data integration works, and how you would go about connecting two pieces of software, directed at non-programmer types. Check it out!

And if you're interested in data integration, don't miss our Understanding Data Integration webinar (online seminar) which is coming up tomorrow at 1:00 EST. Steven Backman of DDA and I will be talking through the options to integrate data from one system to another, including the types of programatic integration options that are covered by Peter in the new article.

Overview of Online Outreach and Fundraising Marketplace

Idealware was hired by a software vendor to create and present a birds eye view of the software that's available for nonprofit online outreach and fundraising. It was an interesting project, with a more theoretical market perspective than most of the work we do.

What we ended up creating was a high level look at the myriad of software types that are available - everything from event registration tools to discussion lists to social networking platforms - the ways that they are combined into various types of integrated tools, and an opinion on the number and quality of the tools that are available in each category.

Want to get a high level market view of the nonprofit online tool space? You're in luck. Check out our presentation

Feature Rich Discussion List Tools

I’ve had a couple of conversations lately with people who were looking for tools to allow them to do careful management of email discussion lists. This is a surprisingly difficult thing to find.

There’s a number of options for creating a simple discussion list – free options like Google Groups or Yahoo Groups, great and affordable services like ElectricEmbers’ NPOGroups, and even the ubiquitous Mailman that comes with many hosting packages. Truthfully, so many organizations run mailing list services like Mailman or Sympa that many organizations will be able to find a free home for a simple list simply by asking around.

These tools work great in a freewheeling environment where there’s no desire to know much about who is on your list. But many nonprofits these days are looking for more ability to manage their lists, and integrate them with other data.

If you’re looking to send one-to-many email blasts, there’s a million and one vendors who will allow you to sign people up for your list online, collect a bunch of information about those registered, allow people to manage their own information, segment them into a number of different lists, integrate the list with a constituent database and the like...but what if you want to do this kind of management for a discussion list? As soon as you’re looking to let your constituents talk to each other, it seems to be a whole different story.

In fact, the only software packages I know that seem to fit the bill are considerably bigger ones, like GoLightly and Convio. They offer this functionality, but as part of a package with much more functionality (GoLightly, for instance, is strongly focused on online community) for a lot more money than you’d pay for an email blast tool. Sympa will do some of this, but you'll need to have a server to host it and the skill to administrate it. Anyone aware of a straightforward solution to support advanced discussion list management?

Incremental Growth Dukes it Out with Scalability

I’m a big fan of building in small incremental steps – to make sure something’s a good idea before investing a ton of time and money into it. In practice, if you’re waiting for a giant pool of money to come in so that you can buy the perfect piece of software, it’s likely to never happen. It usually makes sense to start with something small and affordable to see if it’s going to work before investing.

On the other hand, I’m also a big fan of scalability – of making software choices that will grow with you, so you don’t have to remake them next year. And I’m realizing that those two principles are really not very compatible with each other. In a lot of cases, you’re forced into a trade-off which is hard to weigh.

For instance, take the Idealware website. Our website is currently (I’m cringing as I write this) static. We're not using a database backed CMS – all of our pages were built and are updated by hand, and with the help of Contribute (there’s a little php going on, but only for easy updates of global elements like the nav). That’s clearly not the best infrastructure for our current site. It’s in fact an enormous pain when it comes to links to articles seminars – they all have to be added and deleted from multiple pages by hand. And it precludes structures which would make it easier to find articles – something where articles could be affiliated with multiple categories or tags to allow easier browsing. We have failed to drink our own kool-aid.

And we’re now in a place that’s hard to get out of – we need to migrate all the static content into a CMS. We don’t really have the time or money to do that right now, but the longer we wait, the worse the migration will be.

It’s not a good place to be, but in trying to think through where the decision making went awry, I’m not sure what I would do differently.

When we initially put up our (five page brochure-ware) website, more than two years ago now, a static infrastructure made a huge amount of sense. I was funding everything out of my own pocket, and was unsure whether anything about Idealware would fly or not. At that point, a minimal investment was critical, and open source CMSs were not so stable– using one meant a considerable investment in either money or learning curve, and there was notable risk that whatever package you chose would wither and die. These days, it might make a little more sense to invest in a Joomla or Drupal website, but unless you have the skills to do it yourself or ready volunteer help, I’m not sure I would recommend it even now for a brochure-ware site for a startup nonprofit.

The structure continued to make sense at each step. Putting the Online Donation Report up, starting the article series – all fit quite well into the current site. It’s only now, when the volume of articles and resources is outgrowing what our navigation structure can reasonably support, that the gap between what we should have and what we actually have is so painfully apparent. But I guess that having so much stuff that it's hard to organize is a good problem to have.

So maybe at the end it’s inevitable. Two years is a long time in web years – maybe it’s outside of the timeframe that one can plan for as a startup, and it’s to be expected that we would need a new website now. And maybe if we redesign now, we should go ahead and plan for another big-band redesign in another three to four years.

It also vividly brings home for me why investing in effective infrastructure is so hard. It demands making decisions in favor of fuzzy long term strategy goals which are in conflict with short term mission related objectives. There’s no question that a redesign done right will cost us several thousand dollars at least in time and money, even assuming that friends of Idealware might offer substantial help at way-below-market rates.

Is it worth the money for a redesign? It’s so hard to say.

As annoying as it is, certainly we’re not spending several thousand dollars, even over a couple of years, in simple site update inefficiencies. What’s the dollar value of increased ease of use? Better cross-promotion between articles and webinars? I don’t think anyone has enough information to effectively put a number on those. On the other hand, what’s the long term mission or strategic value of other things we could do with that several thousand dollars? That’s a lot of money for us, which could fund a lot of things. Should Idealware even invest in ways to distribute our content ourselves, or should we be a content creator that primarily relies on other channels to distribute it? Sigh.

Anyone out there have the mystical answer to how to reconcile the desire for incremental growth with the need for scalability? Or how to balance long term strategic technology needs against short term mission objectives?

Do You Know Your Project Management Software?

Here at Idealware world headquarters, we’re at work on our next Few Good Tools article – this time on project management software (i.e. MS Project, Basecamp, or assorted alternatives).

These articles are written by interviewing folks in the field who have experience with more than one package in the area, and then rounding up the collected wisdom into an overview article. Contributors aren’t quoted directly but are of course credited.

Do you have experience with multiple project management packages – especially something besides MS Project or Basecamp? I’d love to interview you for the article. Drop me a line at laura@idealware.org

Building a Social Networking Site is Not an Outreach Strategy

I was down in New York City last weekend for Craigslist’s Nonprofit Boot Camp. It was a great event – I really enjoyed seeing old friends again, and meeting a ton of new people.

As the conference is geared towards young and startup nonprofits, there event was filled with ambitious folks with ideas for new nonprofits. The energy and passion was amazing, but I was a bit alarmed by a new trend I haven’t seen before: easily half the people who talked to me about their startup idea were focused on building a new social networking website.

There are a number of things wrong with that model. First, social networking sites can be useful, but they don’t replace the need to build the actual social network. The “if you build it, they will come” strategy is even less likely to work in this realm than in all the other realms in which it also doesn’t work. Second, consider whether your constituents really want to join another social networking site. My suspicion is that most constituents you might serve would find as much value in a happy hour, a discussion list, a Twitter network, whatever, as opposed to yet another social networking site. Third, why not use the social networking tools that exist? There’s already too many of them, and they already have visitors – build on what’s there to create your own sub-community.

My advice, for what it’s worth? Start with the network. Create a happy hour, a discussion list, a pen-pal community, anything. Use simple technology that won’t present barriers to entry for your constituents and will cost you virtually nothing. Once your community is so large and vibrant and overflowing with stuff that it can’t be contained in the structure you’ve established, then it’s time to start looking to more advanced ways to serve it, like through a social networking site.
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