Blogs

Do You Miss the Resource Roundups?

Okay, I'm wracked with guilt. On this blog, and then summarized in our eNews, I used to round up articles from around the internet that I felt would be useful for nonprofits choosing software.

I really liked doing it - I thought it added great diversity to what was covered in our own articles, and I feel strongly that winnowing through the huge amount of stuff out there to find truly useful things is an important editorial service in of itself. And I don't know if anyone else noticed, but it meant that you could search the Idealware site and find many more articles than we have actually written.

But it's really, really time consuming - I was spending a solid 10 -15 hours or so a month on it, unpaid. In particular, you really need to go out of your way these days to find good coverage of anything other than Web 2.o tools. I stopped trying to systematically cover what's out there in August, as it just didn't seem to make sense - with an extra 10-15 hours, we could do another original article, for instance. We started the Ask Idealware series instead, which is considerably less time consuming for me, and also (hopefully!) adds good new content into the world.

But I really miss the article roundup, especially as part of our eNewsletter. I feel especially guilty as it means our eNews has closed down from being a roundup of the world of content to now focus almost exclusively on our own. Does anyone out there miss it too? If so, any thoughts on how we can carefully filter the world of content down to a useful summary in less time, or actually make money to cover that time?

The Wacky World of Grants Management

These days, I'm thinking a lot about software to manage grant making processes. We’re working on a large project – including a survey, many interviews, and vendor research – to create a “consumer’s guide” to grants management software and an overview of gaps and issues in the market.

(By the way, do you work for an organization that MAKES grants? Please take our survey, to help in the research: http://www.performanceleaders.com/?grantsmgt)

One of the initial stages for us is to try to get a sense of what’s out there. There’s far more research to come, but here’s my initial impressions of what grant management software is out there. This software is designed to help foundations manage and review incoming grant applications, track reporting requirements and outgoing payments for grantees, and create the many communications and reports needed throughout the process.

MicroEdge GIFTS is the 800 lb gorilla in the space, with a huge majority of the market share among large foundations. There's several levels, but all are powerful, expensive and complex installed packages, designed for organizations that have dedicated grants management staff that do much of the data entry and reporting from the system.

There are several web-based tools, also geared towards the large foundation space. Cybergrants, Easygrants, and FoundationSource are all in this space, but these tools put together have only a small fraction of GIFTS’ market share.

It’s not as clear what’s available for smaller foundations. Bromelkamp offers several levels of their Pearl products, geared to suit a gamut of small to large foundations. These products are installed applications. PhilanTrack offers a small foundation solution, though they are very new, and it’s unclear how many foundations, if any, are using it. Community TechKnowledge (CTK) also offers a package in this realm, which has some uptake among United Ways.

Some of the packages cater to particular audiences. For instance, JK Group works with corporate grant makers (Cybergrants is mostly focused on this space as well).

Community foundations have a large set of additional needs, which means that most need specialized grants management software. In addition to paying out grants, community foundations need to fundraise themselves. Often, money raised is devoted to restricted funds, which makes for very complicated tracking and accounting requirements to manage both money in and money out of dozens or even hundreds of funds. There’s a set of packages geared towards these needs: MicroEdge makes FIMS (formerly NPOSolutions) and Foundation Power; Bromelkamp makes Community Pearl. I believe that FusionLab's GrantedGE is also geared towards community foundations.

There’s a few people beginning to use Salesforce in the grants management space. It’s an interesting fit – Salesforce is a fairly powerful hosted tool geared towards companies who manage sales to other companies. It’s quite configurable, however, and has gotten a substantial amount of traction in the nonprofit world (thanks in no small part to the fact that Salesforce donates up to 10 licenses for free to nonprofits). As grants management is, at least superficially, about managing data and workflow around organizations, just as corporate sales are, my initial instinct is that it might work very well. Foundations would need to customize it, but this would be offset by the lack of license fees.

There’s a lot of additional packages, but I don’t have a good sense yet as to how they fit into the space. For instance, there’s ChesterCAP, Foundant Technologies, PowerOFFICE, Bamboo Solutions, FreeBalance, and Grantium (formerly Infoterra)

This long list is particularly puzzling as a number of those we’ve interviewed have told us there are very few packages available – that MicroEdge (with GIFTS and FIMS) has nearly a monopoly hold on the market. Are many of these packages used by very few foundations (and if so, how are they still in business)? Or are there perhaps different silos of the foundation world that don’t have much software cross-pollination, and we’ve been talking to people within a single silo? There’s a lot more research yet to be done!

Do you have thoughts or insight into the world of grants management software? I’d love to hear from you, either in the comments here or at laura@idealware.org

New article: Comparing Google Apps to Microsoft Outlook

We have a new article for your software comparison pleasure: Comparing Google Apps to Microsoft Outlook. We took a look at Google Apps, and what it offers as a potential substitute for Microsoft Outlook's features. And I have to say, it looks pretty compelling.... though perhaps a bit more risky.

Ask Idealware: Considering Proprietary vs Open Source CMSs

Benita asks: We are in the process of redesigning our website (which is housed in a homegrown CMS) and plan to include a new CMS in the process. Our new IT staff members are concerned that the web staff is not investigating other commercial CMS systems that may be viable options. Seems most of the nonprofits are using open source or completely customized systems and our IT folks are wondering why we're not looking at products used in the business world. It seems like an overwhelming task to review everything and I'm not intent on reinventing the wheel. I'm sure other organizations have had to deal with this - do you have any knowledge you could share? Are we limiting solutions based upon the nonprofit community experience?

Jeff Herron of Beaconfire Consulting, says:
Good question! This is something that a number of organizations struggle with.

First off, you mention that it seems like most nonprofits are using open source or completely customized systems. I'm not certain that anyone knows how many nonprofits are using which type of CMS. Regardless, if in fact many are using open source, that doesn't mean that open source is necessarily the direction to go for you. The choice of what solution is right for your organization has to do with many factors, but likely not very much to do with the fact that you are a nonprofit in and of itself.

But it sounds like the crux of your question is whether you should look at commercial solutions as well as open source ones. My advice is that you should look at all types of solutions that seem to meet your requirements, including commercial solutions, nonprofit specific ASP tools and open source. I'm not sure why you would eliminate a category of tools from the get go unless you've got some preferences or other criteria that dictates this. It doesn't sound like that is the case for your organization if this question is being asked.

Step 1 in any process of selecting software is to document your needs. Beyond requirements, there are other factors that have a big impact on the decision. These include things like:
  • The availability and capability of technical skills at your organization.
  • The existing technologies or languages your team is familiar with.
  • What systems that your CMS will integrate with – do you have an eCRM package or ecommerce tool?
  • What sort of budget do you have? Think beyond the upfront license costs that come with commercial software, but also to the implementation, enhancement and support costs.
  • Ease of use – if you are asking non-technical content authors to enter/update content if it is too difficult, they won't regularly use it, defeating part of the point of a CMS.
It is very possible that based on these criteria, you can eliminate many tools including whole categories of them. Without specific criteria for your organization, however, it is hard to say you should not consider commercial tools outright. From your question, it seems open source tools are preferred by the Web team and commercial solutions by IT. I'm sure each perspective is based on at least one of the criteria identified above. On the surface, both perspectives have merit but the decision should be based on all the top criteria not a single one.

Given that budget is often initially one of the driving factors towards open source since there is often no licensing fee, let me suggest that there are an increasing number of low cost commercial solutions out there too. Ektron (~$11k) and Hot Banana (less than $20k) are two that offer a boat load of features for not a lot of money.

The reality is that it is not possible to review all systems, nor is that even necessary. Step 2 in the evaluation process includes doing some preliminary research with colleagues, other organizations, and experts like Idealware to help you get an idea the most prevalent tools. You can get pretty far by comparing these against your requirements to narrow your list. Focus on 4-6 solutions that generally meet your requirements, it shouldn't require too much time/effort to investigate them further as Step 3.

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.

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
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