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

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.

New articles: Event Registration and Intranets

We have two new articles up! First off, we have an article that lots of folks have asked for - A Few Good Event Registration Tools, which takes a look at the myriad of options available for those who want to collect online payments and information from registrants for anything from tiny events to big conferences.

Also up this week is Behind Closed Web Sites: A Look at Three Nonprofit Intranets. Just as the name would imply, the article focuses on three nonprofit administrative intranets. We provide case studies of ONE/ Northwest's wiki intranet, PETA's form-centric intranet, and the sophisticated intranet created by the American Lung Association.

Ask Idealware: CiviCRM and CiviMember

Dan asks: I serve on the Technology Advisory Counsel of a San Francisco-based Arts non-profit. We are currently researching software to support our organization's membership management needs as the bulk of our constituents are "members" as opposed to pure "donors". A couple questions: First, is CiviCRM and CiviMember ready for prime time? We are willing to invest time and money into the initial set-up of these systems, but are concerned about the stability of the initial feature set. Any comment on how much momentum is behind CiviCRM? Also want to get your opinion as to how "integrateable" CiviCRM & CivMember are with say white-label social networking software and/or custom applications (we are looking to build apps that involve fairly advanced data integration and UI such as uploading pictures of art work and other artist information during the registration process).

Michelle Murrain, Principal of MetaCentric Technology Advising, Steering Committee of the Nonprofit Open Source Initiative, and Zen of NPTech blog, says:
CiviCRM is right now pretty young - it's got a fairly strong base of features, but it's not yet near the feature set, maturity or stability of other major CRM platforms, unfortunately. It has the advantage of being open source, but the APIs aren't well developed yet. It works with either Drupal or Joomla, both of which can be integrated with other things -but that could take a lot of work, depending on what you were trying to integrate.

Anyway, there is some adoption momentum. It does have a broad user base, and there is a lot of development going on. Many organizations seem to be finding it up to their task.

One thing is that you'd need to make sure that the detailed requirements you have match up with the requirements that CiviCRM has, and what might need to be built. It's critical that no matter what decision you make, that you've generated a document that makes it possible to know for sure what features you absolutely need.

CiviMember is totally integrated with CiviCRM (it comes with the basic install, which is nice), but it's honestly, er, well, rudimentary, as a membership management tool. Basically, it allows you to have an unlimited number of different membership chapters and types, and assign people to those chapters and types. And people can sign themselves up (or you can sign them up). And, well, that's just about it. Members are individuals in CiviCRM, so all of that functionality goes with it - but a *real* membership management package it isn't. So it totally depends how important sophisticated membership management is to you.

All of that said, the acquisition cost of CiviCRM is nonexistant, it has the advantage of being open source, and therefore adoption of CiviCRM and any ways that you get involved in the community has broad benefit. There are quite a number of Drupal specialists out there right now who can implement it for you - I'd say that if the feature set matches your requirements, it might be worth a try.

I think CiviCRM will be around for a while, but it is still pretty nascent. Ready for prime time? That depends on what your needs are. Definitely go in with your eyes open. But then, that's true with any software choice.

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

Do you need to register in each state for online fundraising?

There's an eternal, thorny question of online fundraising: Do you need to register in each state, in addition to your national 501(c)3 status, to legally solicit funds online?

Beth Strachan of VolunteerMatch has done a lot of research on the subject, and recently posted a very useful summary of her findings to the ProgressExchange discussion list. Her findings:
  • "The states' laws are not entirely clear (which always makes this fun!).
  • "It's not all 50 states that require registration, just 43 and the District of Columbia (so you're 10+% done already!)
  • "You pretty much must register in the state in which you're domiciled. The organization probably already does that as part of your 990 submission each year.
  • "Internet solicitations generally fit within the scope of state registration statutes since most states define "solicitation" pretty broadly -- and a handful of states (eight, I think) *have* actively pursued unregistered nonprofits that solicit online (I don't know whether these were bogus NPOs)
  • "The laws are especially murky regarding whether Internet-based solicitation triggers the need to solicit, but the letter of the law says that an organization should register when it is doing any kind of solicitation (major donor, direct mail, even a foundation proposal, which I found hard to believe until I recently went to apply to a community foundation that required proof of registration in the state), so unless your funding source is entirely online, you probably already need to register
  • "Some states make exceptions if you receive only a limited number/amount of donations from the state
  • "Note that registering in all states that require it is an expensive proposition -- we're talking a few thousand dollars in fees to the states plus an enormous heap of staff time (which costs you) or agency fees to file on your behalf (the registration process is very cumbersome and bureaucratic). Oh yeah, and you get to do this every year.
"Another good resource is NASCO's Charleston Principles -- not legally binding but a good framework.

"If you aren't raising tons of money and aren't targeting a specific state, this is an especially gray area. I'd take into account the spirit of the state's laws and your level of comfort with taking any risks, take a look at your full family of fundraising sources, and decide from there."
Great stuff - and many thanks to Beth for sharing. Like with any thorny fundraising decisions, you may want to consult your own lawyer before making up your mind.

Ask Idealware: Building in FileMaker Pro?

Gail asks: We are considering changing our ACCESS database, which relies on a consultant who is not very responsive, to FileMaker Pro. I could not find any reference in your materials to FileMakerPro or ACCESS. Is FileMakerPro a database that you do not recommend? If so, why? We have been very impressed with its flexibility, user-friendliness, and price. We have found a highly regarded consultant who will convert the ACCESS database into the FileMaker Pro and provide training and support for six months for $9100.

Eric Leland, Founder and Director of Leland Design, says :
Both FileMaker Pro and Microsoft Access are strong tools for nonprofits to consider. FileMaker Pro has always focused more on the non-techie user than Microsoft Access. On the one hand, that can make most of us a quick study in developing simple FileMaker databases. On the other hand, FileMaker can get quite a bit more complex to improve as more is demanded from it. Access is more complicated to learn out of the box, but is more flexible as requirements increase.

Access and FileMaker are databases without an application - they require that you build what you need. Thus, they can work to solve a tremendous array of business problems, but to do so, organizations should be prepared to bear the higher costs of custom engineering, ongoing support and training needs. In general, we should always review existing database applications first before signing on to a custom project, in order to avoid paying high costs that end up largely reinventing the wheel.

Maintaining your access to expert, reliable, available and affordable consultants is the biggest challenge with Access or FileMaker. Too often organizations start designing a new FileMaker database, only to find that the work (and thus cost) is quite a bit more than expected, or that the consultant becomes unavailable or unreliable. I recommend you consider identifying someone on staff who can be the office "power user" of FileMaker, who can grow to learn the new FileMaker application over time, manage consultant changes, and become a primary support provider for the organization in its proper use.

With most custom applications, you will want to maintain a relationship with your consultant for the long term, years if possible, and to negotiate a handoff plan should you need to replace this skillset. Be sure your consultant provides a detailed written specifications and work plan for what she is going to build, and how she will implement your project. You should have several opportunities to evaluate functionality in progress, to help clear up misunderstandings before they go unchecked too far. Be sure to carefully screen the references of your consultant by checking long time clients of theirs - do they still use their custom database? How was the implementation process for them?

Finally, be sure that you budget more than the $9100 project cost for maintaining this solution. During and after the implementation, I recommend you send a designated staff to FileMaker training to bring more FileMaker support skills in-house. Additionally, you may discover during implementation that a feature that sounded nice when you discussed it, actually needs more once you see it working in the database. This may entail additional cost - these change requests are common, and anticipating a 15%-25% project cost expansion is a wise strategy.

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

Online Payment Cost Calculator

In all of our articles about taking online payments (for instance, A Few Good Online Payment Multitaskers or our Online Donation report) we talk about the importance of estimating the size and volume of payments you expect in order to compare the costs of different vendors.

Andrew Page of MAPLight did just that, and was kind enough to share his Excel model for calculating fees based on actual donations recieved. You'll likly need a bit of understanding of Excel and how Excel models typically work to use it, but it's a really nice framework that will help you think through the fees.

Download Andrew's Excel Online Payment Cost Calculator

Thanks, Andrew!

Article Collaboration Via Google Docs

After dipping my toes in the water a few times, I just recently took the plunge to use Google Docs for a full article collaboration process. It seemed like an obvious tool to try – when I’m working on an article, I often send it to five to ten or more people for their review and comments. Getting back ten Word documents with ten different sets of comments to merge (often including several from friendly souls who have copyedited the entire article) is just a nightmare.

So I decided to try Google Docs. I actually wrote a draft of the article in Word (just familiar, I guess), and then pasted it into Google Docs. I was pleasantly surprised by how well the formatting transferred – everything, including some fussy headers and highlighting, looked just as it did in Word.

I then invited all the contributors to edit the document through Google’s functionality – it sends an email with a link. This process became a pain. As far as we could figure out, Google will only allow you to be logged in once for any Google application, so if a contributor was logged into their Google Calendar or Start or anything with one email address, and then tried to access the document through a link I’d sent to another address, Google got really unhappy. So there was confusion with that, and in the end we had to add in additional email addresses for about half the contributors. [update 9/13: Aha! As JR points out below in the comments, there's a "Invitations may be used by anyone" option on the 'Share' tab in Google docs - and if you check it, it shouldn't matter if someone's logged in with a different email address than the one you invited. So that's next on my list to try.]

Editing itself went really smoothly. It was useful to be able to see who took a look at the document, and it allowed me to act on the comments in a much more iterative way than I would otherwise. When you’ve got ten Word docs to consolidate, you do all the updates in one (annoying) shot, but the Google Docs method allowed us all to see each other’s updates, respond to them, and prevent other people from having to make the same comments.

Google Docs has a nice ability to add a comment into the text (similar to Word’s comment functionality). It also allowed me to see what changes each person had made, but I found this feature a little wonky. It was nice to be able to compare changes between two specific timeframes rather than just all changes or nothing (like in Word), but it seemed to flag a lot of things that weren’t actually changed. So there would be whole fields of highlight, supposedly marking an update, but when you carefully compared, there would be no changes. Annoying. Also, you can’t (as far as I could tell) view what had changed and edit the document at the same time, which was a functionality I missed.

All in all, though, a very successful trial, and I’ll definitely use it again.
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