Blogs

Pros and Cons of Processing Payments with Lockboxes

There was a great discussion recently on the FUNDSVC discussion list (a list focused on the legal and tactical nuts and bolts of gift tracking) about lockboxes. A lockbox, usually provided by your bank, is a mailing address where donations by check or in the form of credit card transaction slips can go. The staff of the bank then immediately processes the money and sends you an electronic report as to who donated how much, possibly with copies or scans of actual checks or letters.

But, Laura...(you may be saying to yourself)...lockboxes aren't software, and usually you focus in on software with anal laser beam precision. Well, lockboxes are essentially an alternative option to software solutions. And truthfully, I didn't know that much about them, so I thought I'd pass on the great stuff I learned.

There's a number of advantages to lockboxes. The folks on the list mentioned:
  • They can save staff time, compared to opening letters, getting checks to the bank, and data entering all the gifts.
  • They're considerably better for security. Far fewer people touch the gift, so there's fewer places a gift can get lost or go awry.
  • Checks are immediately processed and cashed - great for cash flow.
The advantages are straightforward and pretty compelling. But they have some downsides as well - more subtle but also very important - compared to receiving and processing all the gifts yourself:
  • Costs can add up quickly. Many banks include only name and dollar amount in the data file, and you need to pay additional charges for other data or scans.
  • You may well have to go back through each payment anyway to verify the legal donor, check to see if was a tribute gift, etc, etc - so you might not save that much staff time after all.
  • You're relying on someone else to adequately pass on important information that might be included with the check - notes, letters, or other things. Some mentioned that their bank scans everything that's in the envelope, and they've never had a problem. Others are more skeptical, saying that those that who process the gifts are often evaluated on their speed rather than their accuracy. And it's you the donors will blame if you miss their question or concern.
  • Checks are typically immediately cashed without careful proofing. For instance, if you receive checks that are actually intended for your national office, or that the donor has specified should be held before cashing, chances are that they'll be cashed anyway and you'll need to sort it out later.
  • It can be challenging to get year end gifts from the bank in time at year end, especially for schools that close over winter break.
  • The new address may have implications to donors. This is especially true for local, community based nonprofits. If the gifts are going to an address outside your service area, will donors question how community based you really are?
  • It's not as satisfying to get a report as it is to handle the check and letter, which can affect the ability to get buy in from development staff.
Several mentioned that their transition to a lockbox was surprisingly seamless. They updated the address on all correspondence, which donors didn't seem to question, and didn't see any drop in donations.

Resource Roundup 7/28

Twitter: Not Just Chatter But a Channel for Your Cause (NTEN)
Nice look at the benefits, drawbacks, and uses of Twitter for nonprofits

Still a Big Gap Between Reality, Wishes for Web 2.0 (IT Business Edge)
Very useful look at how the social media software available for businesses overlaps (or not) with business needs

Assessing the Marketplace of Digital Asset Management (DOCUMENT Media)
Terrific look at the current state of the Digital Asset Management universe (in an annoyingly nifty viewer)

Web Traffic Spikes: When You Need Attention NOW (NTEN)
Jonathon Colman of the Nature Conservancy talks about using social media sites to draw attention to your cause or resources with a very short lead time.

A New Kind of Society for the American Cancer Society (NTEN)
A short but intriguing case study about an internal social networking site that the American Cancer Society is using to bring staff together across offices and geographical locations.

The twilight of direct mail? (Beaconfire Wire)
A look at Obama's outreach and social networking activities, and how they might apply to nonprofts

Precision Not Found on Facebook (The Buzz Bin)
A reminder of the obvious but too often forgotten: big social networking sites like Facebook make it difficult to segment, and often more niche approaches are called for.

Putting SharePoint into Action

[The always wise and profilic Gavin Clabaugh posted some terrific, detailed thoughts about SharePoint on NTEN's great "NTEN Discuss" discussion list - which he and NTEN were kind enough to let us edit and re-post here. This is the second of two posts - yes, from the same (amazing) discussion list post. You might want to read his overview of SharePoint first. You can read more of Gavin's wisdom at his blog, www.digitaldiner.org]

Here at Mott, we use SharePoint. A lot. It’s an amazing package. But it can be daunting and confusing. To really understand the power and the glory, some information about how SharePoint is structured and how we use it might help.

First off, "lists" are the soul of SharePoint. Lists come in many forms. Document libraries are lists, with documents attached. Calendars are lists of dates, and picture libraries are (you guessed it) lists with pictures attached. In a list, you define many things. You can define metadata or you can just define things like last name, first name, and email address. Lists can have look up fields, multiple choice fields, and calculated fields. I regularly make a field called “Expired” that is calculated – usually it’s a function of the date added plus some arbitrary number like 60. This gives me a date 60 days in the future, and I make things display only as long as [expired] is greater than [today].

If a list is the soul of SharePoint, then "Web Parts" are its heart. Web parts display things – they can display the content of lists; sorted, filtered, and organized the way you want them to look. They can display the same list multiple ways on the same page. Web parts can also be written in .NET for fancy custom things. But you can just as easily create a web part that holds straight HTML, or .ASP for that matter. There are hundreds of web parts – many that come with MOSS/WSS and others that you can download (or buy). You can also hook them straight into lots of free Web Services offerings using SPD. Using Web Services, I have a few that do fancy things: Weather (with graphics), currency rates, stock quotes, etc.

Web parts are, of course, portable. I regularly create one or two at home, and then bring them to work, and drop them on a page where I want them. Any particular page can have multiple web-part zones.

Integration with Office (Office 2007 is best) is terrific – although integration with Outlook calendars is just OK, in my opinion – It depends on what you are looking for. I prefer just embedding my exchange calendars directly on web pages. (it’s a simple web part I built). That way there is no “integration” ... it’s really just a shared exchange calendar on the web page. No muss, no fuss, no kitchen drudgery.

You can also buy web parts and plug-ins. We bought cheap web parts and utilities that will do the following:
  • Draw charts and graphs from database sources and/or sharepoint lists
  • Allow bulk-import (with metadata) of documents/items stored in fileshares
  • Index PDF files (this is free from Adobe but we use one from FoxIt).
  • Automate the importation of documents and pictures, adding appropriate metadata (our scanners read a cover page and add metadata about the document that they read from the cover page)
I also recommend a copy or two of SharePoint Designer. This way you can modify the various page templates (I didn’t like the left navigation area and turned it into a web-part zone). Designer also lets you create “Data View Web Parts – these are parts that can connect to back-end databases to display data in nice formats. SPD (SharePoint Designer) sucks, by the way. Crashes all the time. But, it does let you build some terrific stuff – trust me when I say, if you have data in databases, Data View Web Parts are more fun than a bowl of bobotie.

All in all, at Mott we have the following types of things, all built in SharePoint:

  • Basic Intranet (with functions that display master calendar, roll-up announcements from departments, HR documents, policies, crap like that)
  • Custom pages that display dashboards of our various grantmaking activities, filtered by user or team, including any alerts fired by our grants management software (SQL), and a live feed of any new funding inquiries generated by our web site (filtered by designated program person).
  • The weather (got to have the weather).
  • The usual collection of HR stuff
  • Document repositories that aggregate a wide collection of documents, scanned and created, into a single view that can be filtered and displayed based upon metadata – I have one that gives an ‘all-in-one” view of all documents related to any particular grant, filtered by the grant, the organization, and/or EIN).
  • Custom Infopath libraries that store and/or display, for example, all travel (based upon a travel approval Infopath form) – the display is filtered to show only future travel, with people that are out of the office on the current day high-lighted in red. Form data ties back to an Access database that records actual travel expenses.
  • Custom information feeds that use RSS to populate a feed of all things about us, or about our programs (we’re vain).
  • Custom document libraries that use an automated email news clipping service to first consume the news clips, and then sort and display them by various metadata fields
  • Custom “travel information” pages that pull exchange rates from the web using web services, show current airport delays, etc
  • Custom hotel information that draws on a backend database of the various hotels we regularly use, provide information on their rates, and any corporate rate we might have. (everything is hot linked with web sites, and email addresses, etc)
  • For our investment office.. feeds of everything from Yahoo Finance, to the current market conditions, to our list of this or that stock, complete with charts showing their downward spiral.
We did this all without a consultant, but I have been known to be slightly creative. I sent myself and my staff to school. I have done most of the development myself, or with the assistance of a part-time DBA who has a little Dot Net. Most of it is simply: ponder, point, drag, and click, ponder some more.

I would invite you to take a look at the number of posts I have written on SharePoint, on my blog (http://www.digitaldiner.org/category/sharepoint/). There are a few on building a WSS system on Windows Home Server, there is one on building a “Digital Asset Management” (DAM) system in WSS for holding pictures, and there are two on how to do a quick and dirty “KM” system using SharePoint’s mail-enabled document libraries. We use that to hold all the bits and pieces of flotsam and jetsom we create about how all the computers, and networks, and information systems work here at my humble place of work.

A Microsoft SharePoint Overview

[The always wise and profilic Gavin Clabaugh posted some terrific, detailed thoughts about SharePoint on NTEN's great "NTEN Discuss" discussion list - which he and NTEN were kind enough to let us edit and re-post here. This is the first of two posts - yes, from the same (amazing) discussion list post! You can read more of Gavin's wisdom at his blog, www.digitaldiner.org]

I’m going to talk about Microsoft SharePoint. And, straight off, I’m going to tell you I am biased. SharePoint rocks. We at Mott have used it since version 2001, and are rolling to MOSS as we speak.

It’s solid, and it will do some amazing things. Currently, ours holds some 100,000 documents – mostly PDFs – and we index many, many more. It’s responsive, and with a little creative thought, can be customized to do lots of stuff. For the price, it blows the competition (what little there is), out of the water. And that’s it’s problem. It does too much.

My MAIN critique of SharePoint is this -- it’s too much and too many things. Hence, it is daunting and confusing. It’s a development environment, it’s a document management system, it’s a workflow system, it’s a CMS, it has decent indexing and search; it’s too much. People get confused by its possibilities. The secret: start slow. Start with a simple “Intranet”…and then begin to add things. That, and don’t be confused by the templates and pre-designed “Intranet” sites that come with it. Nothing is sacrosanct: I usually blow away much of the default stuff and set up my own simple structures.

Now, into the meat of the matter. First off, there are three versions. Microsloth, in its strange inability to name things, calls them all SharePoint. All of the versions are pretty damn amazing. The versions are:

Version 1: Windows SharePoint Services – AKA: WSS.
WSS is the heart and soul of SharePoint. It provides the basic development environment, document management and storage, and most of the part of SharePoint that you will use. Other versions of SharePoint are built on WSS. WSS is free – if you have Server 2003, you can download it and run it. WSS includes (out of the box) templates for a “team site”, shared document workspaces, Blogs, WIKI, and meeting workspaces.

Contrary to popular belief, it DOES include search – but it is a search that only works within a single WSS site. That means you can search all docs or pictures, or PDFs, or whatever, within a set of document repositories, but you can’t add other web sites, or fileshares, or other sites into that index. If your needs are modest – or if you design your repositories so that they are all within one site collection, search works just fine.

Version 2: Microsoft Office SharePoint Services (Standard) – AKA: MOSS.
MOSS is the “Portal” version of SharePoint. It adds cross-site searching, and the ability to add anything into your search index (such as fileshares, or other websites, or just about anything you can point an HTTP at. MOSS also adds LOTs of pre-designed templates that will get you up and running in short order. In fact, in my experience, you can have a decent (non-customized) Intranet up in just a few minutes. Figuring out just what you have, and what it will do, can then take some time. Customizing – really customizing – takes some work. But it can be done, once you get the hang of it.

MOSS adds “social networking” components, including a public and private user profile, and personal sites that let your users set up their own Blogs, upload shared pictures, etc etc.

MOSS also adds RSS (to any list or document library), audience targeting (you can filter the display of just about anything based on membership in an audience), Mobile device support (automatically creates WAP versions of just about any standard page or library).

Finally, the MOSS versions directly integrate with Active Directory, automating profile import from AD, and directly tie into Exchange, updating the GAL for things like mail-enabled document libraries (these are very neat things).

Version 3: Microsoft Office SharePoint Services (Enterprise) – Also AKA: MOSS.
Move to “Enterprise” and you get a couple of really neat things: Excel Services, InfoPath forms server, Single-Sign-On, and the Business Data Catalog. These are hard to explain. Excel services lets you publish live spreadsheets on a web page (including charts and graphs). It’s a quick way to build a dashboard, for example. The excel sheet can be connected to a back-end database, and update in real-time. InfoPath forms lets you serve InfoPath as a web form. InfoPath is the cat’s PJ’s anyway.

Finally, the Business Data Catalog is amazing. You can take ANY database (including MySQL, for example) and make MOSS treat it like a “List” in SharePoint. Once connected up, it becomes sharepoint data, that can be filtered, structured, and connected to other things. It can be set so you can edit it too. If you want to report or display dynamic data from any database within SharePoint, you can. Easily (one you get the hang of writing a BDC connection XML thing).

Two New Articles: Online Conferencing, and CRM Case Studies

We have two new articles up, in two of the areas that people ask the most about...

First off, Anthony Pisapia and Brett Bonfield bring us a detailed look into four organization's implementation of Constituent Relationship Management systems in Managing Constituent Relationships: Four Case Studies. This is always a thorny area - the software is really only a small of the story - so I'm excited to have a look inside at the actual process and issues behind implementation.

And then we have a look at desktop sharing and webinar tools in our A Few Good Online Conferencing Tools article. The question I get asked the most - by a lot - is which online seminar software we're using... so hopefully this will lay out what the options are for those of you wondering. And as we wanted to look at the packages in detail to find what would make the most sense for our own needs, this article is even more thoroughly researched than usual!

Resource Roundup 7/20

Google Analytics Help: Questions, Answers, Tips, Ideas, Suggestions (Occam's Razor by Avinash Kaushik)
Avinash Kauskik, by way of NTEN, answers a whole slew of great questions from NTEN members about Google Analytics.

Planning Education Projects in Rural Ethiopia Using GIS (ArcGIS)
Useful case study on the IRC's use of GIS tools to plan school sites in Ethiopia (tip of the hat to Allan Benamer).

Blackbaud to Integrate Raisers Edge and Sphere
(Non-Profit Tech Blog)
Blackbaud announces that they intend to integrate Raisers Edge and Kintera Sphere before the end of 2008.

Google Trends Reveals Which Tech Trends Are Hot Or Not (Small Business Computing)
Google Trends allows you to compare the number of searches for commonly used keywords - interesting for judging the popularity of concepts or particular terminology.

New Firefox Version: Nice New Features (Beaconfire Wire)
A nice overview of what's new (and what's missing) from the new version of Firefox.

You’ve Got a Friend in Barack Obama: Integrating Social Networking Tools into Political Campaigns (ePolitics)
An interesting case study as to how the Barak Obama campaign is using social networking, with some lessons extracted for the rest of us.

Tips for Standardizing Your IT Infrastructure (TechSoup)
A nice overview of how and when to standardize your hardware and software across your organization.

The MaintainIT Project (TechSoup)
A resource rich site that provides information about technology for libraries.

Linux desktops? (Zen and the Art of Nonprofit Technology)
Some very useful thoughts from Michelle Murrain on when it makes sense to use Linux operating systems - and when it doesn't.

Sources for Congressional Voting Records

Looking for records as to how each member of Congress voted on a particular bill in a useful format? In another great conversation on the ProgressiveExchange discussion list (have I mentioned recently how much I love that list?), the community talked about the available sources. Daniel Atwood of Iraq & Afghanistan Veterans of America was kind enough to post a summary of the responses, in the form a huge number of sources of this data. I've cribbed from and adapted his summary below...

http://projects.washingtonpost.com/congress/
A votes database going back to 1991 that lets you sort by everything including astrological sign

http://www.govtrack.us/
An independent site that brings together information on the status of all federal legislation, voting records, and other congressional data, with available email updates and RSS/Atom feeds

http://www.opencongress.org/
See how lawmakers voted on any bill in the 110th Congress

http://www.votesmart.org/index.htm
Project Vote Smart collects data on key votes, along with stated positions of politicians on key issues

http://progressivepunch.org

Votes on progressive issues broken down by issue area

http://maplight.org/
Get more info on the connection between money and votes

http://clerk.house.gov/
The official data provided by the government for the US House. The vote records are XML files, and so can be easily opened using Excel 2003 or later, or viewed by writing your own XML stylesheets

http://voteview.com
For those looking for actual raw data

http://vis.org/
Vote data available in a parse-able format for a small fee.

Resource Roundup 7/10

VoIPowering Your Office: Do I Really Need this VoIP Stuff? (Small Business Computing)
A quick look at some of the considerations when thinking about Voice Over IP phone lines.

And the Walls Start to Tumble Down, Open Platform/API/Source Free For All! (NonprofitTechBlog)
There's been an promising amount of movement and buzz towards open platforms, with announcements by Convio, Kintera, and MPower. Alan Benamer looks at these announcements in detail.

Ways to Follow Your Friends on the Web (Wall Street Journal)
The Wall Street Journal looks at sites that can help you consolidate your social networking profiles

UNICEF Uses Web 2.0 to Double Video Views (About.com)
Quick but useful case study about how Unicef used a number of different video sharing sites to drive traffic to their site.

In the Cloud: Storage Meets Collaboration (Small Business Computing)
An introduction to the idea of cloud services- distributed file storage solutions that can be useful for backup or online collaboration.

CSS support in email clients (Campaign Monitor)
A fabulous, although technical, guide summarizing how different email browsers interpret the CSS code to format your eNewsletter or solicitation email.

NTEN Mobile-apaloza (NTEN)
NTEN's June eNewsletter is chock full of Useful information, advice and case studies on how nonprofits can effectively reach constituents through mobile phones

Should Your Nonprofit Embrace Social Media? (NTEN)
As the first installment in NTEN's and Beth Kanter's We Are Media Project, this collection of resource provides a useful first step in understanding and considering social media

Ask Idealware: VOIP Phones for Small Organizations?

Megan asks: We're considering one of those online/virtual phone systems. Regular phone systems are so pricey and if there's a VOIP option for multiple lines, voicemail, etc that's reliable, easy to setup and use, that would be great. Are these systems worth considering for a small organization? If so, what systems would you recommend?



Ron Zucker, with 2020 Vision, responds:


Are any nonprofits using VOIP phone systems? Yes, certainly. Some love them and swear by them. The availability of advanced phone services, including voice mail and "Find Me" phone routing at a very reasonable price, is certainly attractive. Does VOIP make sense for smaller nonprofits? That's harder.

One of the key considerations for VOIP is the reliability of the internet connection that you're using. If your internet connection goes down, so does your phones. If it blips out just for a second - which you wouldn't typically notice if you're just surfing the web - your VOIP phone call will be disconnected. For most home VOIP users, this is fine. If your phone is down for a couple of hours, or it disconnects, they'll call you back. If it's someone you really care about, they have your cell phone. But for business, that's typically not acceptable; you don't KNOW in advance who needs to find you (what if your phone's down on the day your big grant proposal is due?), and an unstable phone system is just plain unprofessional.

If that kind of reliability is important to you, to use VOIP you really need an internet connection with a Service Level Agreement (SLA) of at least 99.9% uptime (i.e. down less than two working hours per year -- 52 weeks/year minus 10 federal holidays times 40 hours/week = 2000 work hours/year). And most cable and affordable DSL internet services aren't willing to give you any SLA at all, let alone a 99.9% uptime commitment, or any arrangements for you if they fail. (Note: Some business DSL services will give you an SLA. You'll need to check it with your provider.)

So that would imply you likely need to have a T1 internet connection. A T1 comes with uptime guarantees and failover solutions - but at a cost, often between $350 to $650 per month.

On the other hand, a Plain Old Telephone Service (commonly abbreviated POTS) tends to be very reliable. And they're really not very expensive. At 2020 Vision, we spend $17/month for 2 lines that are local plus charged long distance, and $39 for two that are unlimited long distance. Incoming calls are routed to local lines first to keep the outgoing calls on the lines that include free long distance. Can you REALLY beat that by enough to justify the lower uptime of a VOIP line? Especially when you consider that you typically need to buy new physical phones when you switch to a VOIP line?

VOIP phone service is certainly worth investigating if you have a T1 connection already, or one makes sense for other reasons. Or if the reliability of your phone service is not a critical concern. But for a typical small organization, Plain Old Telephone Service is likely to be pretty hard to beat.

The Ask Idealware posts take on some of the questions that you send us at ask@idealware.org. Have other great options? Disagree with our answer? Help us out by entering your own answer as a comment below.

Working with Voter Files

There was a great thread recently on the ProgressiveExchange discussion list, about the challenges and options for working with voter files. I didn't know much about this area, so I found the conversation really useful.

The basic problem is that voter files are big. Really big. A statewide voter file - summarizing the registered voters for a particular state - can have millions of entries. The general consensus was that these files are too big to try to read via common office software, like Access or Excel. Excel has a cap on the actual number of rows you can have (the number depends on the version, but it's only around a million even for the most up-to-date versions), and Access is likely to be extremely slow and undependable - and at risk for catastrophic failure and data loss.

So what should you do instead? A number of people suggested outsourcing the data management process - there are folks who specialize in voter files, such as Astro or VAN (Voter Action Network). These services aren't cheap, but they provide a number of benefits. They deal with all the data, and let you just pull the reports, walk sheets, call sheets, etc that you want. They also can be accessed over the internet - a big plus for organizations working with organizers in multiple offices or locations.

It can also be useful to look for other organizations using voter files for the same geographic area - you might be able to share their file infrastructure, or go in together on one of the outsourced services.

If you do want to store the data in-house, the consensus was that you'll want a SQL database back end, optimized by a professional, and likely a specific database server - probably a several thousand dollar investment at a minimum.

The Progressive Technology Project has more info - as well a lot of great resources about technology useful in organizing in their Voter Tech Kit.
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