Blogs

Webinars: Open Source CMSs, and Donor Databases

Just wanted to highlight two online seminars we've got coming up. Both are only $40, and can be accessed with any phone and web browser.

This Thursday, we're taking a look at three open source website content management systems - Joomla, Drupal, and Plone. An expert on each system - Ryan Ozimek for Joomla, David Geilhufe for Drupal, and Patrick Shaw for Plone - will demo each platform, and we'll compare their strengths and weaknesses. That's from 1-2:30 EST this coming Thursday, Feb 21st. Read more or register>

And then next Thursday, Robert Weiner will be talking about 10 Common Mistakes in Choosing a Donor Database (and How to Avoid Them). This is a great seminar - Robert talks through a lot of practical nuts and bolts in deciding what you need in a donor database and then how to find it, with great examples and tools. That's also 1-2:30 EST, on Thursday, Feb 28th. Read more or register for that one>

Should You Podcast?

Podcasting is one of these social media tools that is getting a lot of buzz these days – it’s the ability to create an audio program that people can then listen to, or pull in routinely through something like iTunes. There’s no question that this is a nifty technology, but like many of Web 2.0 tools, I’m concerned about the amount of attention they’re getting in the nonprofit world. Are they a great option for nonprofits? I’m unconvinced. They’re certainly not for everyone.

I had a conversation with a friend the other day that helped to crystallize my thoughts around this. Podcasts are like the ability to create a radio show that reaches your constituents. I like this analogy – it’s really cool that almost anyone can now create their own radio show. But that doesn’t mean that every nonprofit needs one.

At the end of the day, a podcast is still pretty time consuming to create. You need plan it, record it, edit it, put it up for distribution – easily 4-8 hours for a half hour show. And the audience is pretty small – you need people who are familiar enough with technology to know what a podcast is and how to get it, and who also want to listen to a long audio program (commuters, say, or serious runners). And for the most part, they still need to hear about your organization – it’s not really an outreach method, but rather a piece of content that needs to be marketed yourself.

My advice would be to think about it as if someone offered you a slot on a radio station. Would you be excited about that? Can you already imagine your programming? Would you be eager to start to put staff time into it and start telling your constituents where to find it? If so, then podcasting might absolutely be a good opportunity for you. But there’s an awful lot of nonprofits I’ve worked with whose mission isn’t easily served with a radio program. And for those folks, I’d say that podcasting isn’t a good fit – no matter how cool the technology.

Otherwise, how about some good old fashioned written content? You can reach the many more people who know how to find and read written stuff, and use the many distribution methods that exist to promote and get it into people’s hands. It may not be as exciting, but it just may be more effective.

Ask Idealware: Hosting Video

Barb asks: Do you have any recommendations on good web hosting companies for a mid-sized site with video? I'm looking for a plan that allows for 1-2 GB disk space and a monthly data transfer around 25-30 GB. I would like support for PHP and MySQL as well as Real Video and Windows streaming servers (not for a huge amount of video but some).



Michael Hoffman at See3 Communications says:

There are two factors to consider when hosting your video: 1) the amounPublish Postt of traffic on the site and 2) the size of the files. In addition to volume of traffic, file size also increases the amount of content transferred, which impacts price and possibly quality of playback (depending on which solution you choose).

The first decision you need to make when considering the media delivery portion of your website is where you will host the video: at a single location, or through a multiple locations Content Delivery Network (and the rest of the site through a regular web server)
Single location serving
Serving content from one location for the type of website you describe (ie, not much transfer, not too video heavy) may work just fine. You will experience the best connection times closest to the server, so this solution works best for a mainly domestic audience. It may be unacceptable for an international project, especially at higher traffic numbers. Single location hosting is in the range of $30-600 per month, depending on the amount of transfer you will be using. Most hosting companies do not require a long-term contract.

Multiple location serving through Content Delivery Network (CDN)
A CDN is a global network of computers linked together across the internet. When a user sends a request to view a file, the file is cached to the server nearest to the user's location. This is the best method to ensure consistently fast play for a global audience if you have large files and a lot of traffic. It is also relatively expensive.

Once you've made the decision to host either through a single location or multiple locations (a CDN), there are two potential types of streaming solutions to consider for your media delivery:
Progressive download (http streaming), or True Streaming (Flash, Windows Media, Real Video, etc.)
Progressive downloading
Progressive downloading, also known as http streaming, is a type of delivery that can be handled by any web hosting company. A copy of the file will reside on the user's computer (some consider this a security problem). It requires fast connection on the user's side. Sometimes the file will download slower than it plays. However, with a site that is light on video and doesn't have tons of traffic, it could work very well. This is an extremely inexpensive option if hosted at a single location.

Although progressive downloading is called "http streaming" it is not true streaming.

True Streaming

True streaming requires a special type of streaming server: Flash Media Server, Windows Media Server, Real Video Server and so on. Some companies allow you to host alternate versions; for example, you could have one version of your files streamed through Windows and another version through Real Video. True streaming uses the network bandwidth more efficiently and thus delivers better audio and video quality to the user. It also never stores a copy of the file on the user's computer (better security).

We recommend Flash streaming to our clients, since most users have the Flash plug-in installed; one provider quoted it as over 90% of PC users. The Flash platform is pretty consistent and ubiquitous.

True streaming (single location)
This could be a good way to get the benefits of true streaming somewhat inexpensively, assuming you have relatively modest traffic numbers, a small amount of bandwidth transfer, and a domestic audience. Once you starting doing significant traffic worldwide on a video heavy project, the cost to performance ratio of this option is poor; ie, the money you save is small in comparison to the loss of quality.

Some true streaming (single location) providers include:
Flash: Influxis
Windows/Real Video streaming providers: ValueWeb, Digital Rights Director

True streaming (CDN)
This is what the big boys and girls use - MSNBC, Dreamworks, you get the picture. True streaming on a CDN provides smooth, consistent performance internationally and is able to grow with your traffic. This is the method we recommend to large clients launching a large, sustained campaign with several videos and high traffic. Most CDNs will allow you to set up a test account for a week or two. However, keep in mind that the test will likely work fine. The real benefit of a CDN is handling large volumes of traffic, which is typically hard to replicate in a 2 week test.

Pricing again will be based upon the amount of bandwidth transfer you use. Most CDNs do require a year-long agreement, along with a minimum monthly commitment that may start around $500 per month.

Some options for CDN include EdgeCast, Mirror Image, and Limelight Networks. You may also check with your website host to see if they partner with any CDNs

Please note - no matter which type of media content delivery you choose - that you will want to host the rest of your website on a regular web server. Some options for this include HostMySite and Speakeasy.

One approach we recommend is to set up your site on a regular web server, delivering your video content through progressive download to start. Tell the hosting company your PHP and MySQL requirements and they will guide you to the correct plan based upon this information. Then test how the video on this server behaves, asking friends and coworkers with different computers in different parts of the country/world to test it. If you have more time to experiment, consider trying out a single location true streaming server. Most companies do not require a long-term contract, so you can try it for a month and see if the delivery is improved. Again, do a round of testing. If you are seeing large amounts of traffic and bandwidth transfer (especially if you have a heavily international audience), you would be better off paying for the CDN. However, for the purposes of the site described in the inquiry, a CDN is probably not necessary.

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 the response here? Help us out by entering your own answer as a comment below.

Software for Managing Grant Making - Survey Results

I've mentioned here a couple times that we're in the midst of substantial research into software that helps grants makers manage their process, and at long last we have a hefty report to prove it!

In November 2007, we conducted an online survey of grantmaking organizations about software used for grants management. 311 staff members at United States-based foundations responded, providing information about their current software, rating both the perceived importance and the effectiveness of this software at handling a list of thirty grants management software attributes.

And the results are out! View the survey analysis report now>

Note that this is a preliminary deliverable in a larger research project, and the report is targeted to those interested in relatively raw survey results (read: it's pretty darn wonky). If you're interested in the final report - a Consumer's Guide to Grants Management Software, you can sign up to be notified when it's released.

R and Other Free Statistical Analysis Software.

A recent discussion on the Progressive Exchange listserve provided this gem of a link for those looking for affordable statistical analysis software: The Impoverished Social Scientist's Guide to Free Statistical Software and Resources

There was also a fair amount of discussion about R, which is an open source statistical programming language which mirrors the common stats language S. The consensus was that R is a powerful and useful tool for analyzing and visualizing datasets - but it's really, well, a statistical programming language, meaning that it's going to require a substantial learning curve, especially for those who don't programming and statistics experience.

New article: The True Costs of Free and Low-Cost Software

Another great article for January: The True Costs of Free and Low-Cost Software, written by the always smart and sensible Michelle Murrain. She walks through all the long-term costs associated with any piece of software, as a guide to thinking through whether that piece of software - perhaps one that's been offered pro-bono, came with your printer, or is free online for reasons that aren't quite clear to you - is a terrific deal or a black hole of staff, training, and long-term costs.

Resource Roundup 1/22

How to get your small nonprofit up on the Web, Part 1 (Confessions of a Nonprofit IT Director)
A fabulous overview of how to get yourself a domain - the www.YOURADDRESS.org web address that you can use for email addresses and your website.

Evaluating Free and Open Source Software (NTEN)
A nice overview from Michelle Murrain on the factors to consider when you're looking at free and open source software

Online Collaboration Tools Have Political Uses (ePolitics)
Colin Delaney talks through a mini-case study - from our MNTP event! - of a group of software developers who used a whole slew of collaboration tools to work together remotely

Web site monitoring tools (Beaconfire Wire)
Quick summary of tools you can use to monitor whether your website is up or not

Detailed comparison of Plone vs Drupal (Modulus)
If you're trying to make a choice between Plone vs. Drupal for a website content management system, don't miss this excellent and detailed comparison geared towards those with some content management experience. It goes into much more detail than our own article on the topic.

The ROI of Social Media (NTEN)
A summary from Beth Kanter of her (substantial) work in defining metrics with which one can judge the success of social media projects

The Lowdown on Colocation (Beaconfire Wire)
Very useful look at what colocated hosting is, and why you might want to use it for your website

Detailed comparison of Plone vs Drupal

If you're trying to make a choice between Plone vs. Drupal for a website content management system, don't miss Matt Bowen's article comparing the two systems, on the Modulus blog. It's an excellent and detailed look, geared towards those with some content management experience. It goes into much more detail than our own article on the topic.

Ask Idealware: What Online Surveying Tools are Available?

Rian asks: Do you have a perspective on the different online surveying tools out there, that a nonprofit might use to conduct a survey of constituents? How does something like SurveyMonkey compare to other options?

Simone Parrish of Innovation Network says:
We’re a nonprofit consulting firm that offers evaluation training, consulting, and tools for other nonprofits and foundations. As an evaluation firm, we do a lot of surveys. We have been using Zoomerang for about six years and have always been happy with it, but there has been quite a bit of expansion in the field since we chose it, and I have been casually looking for a new solution. Before you start comparing packages, think about:
  • How many surveys you expect to do over the course of a year. This could affect your pricing.
  • How many responses you expect to receive (total). This is a sneakier pricing variable; some services charge for overages.
  • Whether you want to use skip logic (e.g., If I answer A to question 1, I skip to page 2; if I answer B to question 1, I skip to page 3). This is an often-requested feature, but many lower-end solutions don’t offer it.
  • What kinds of analysis you want to do with your results. If you’re just looking for percentages and a list of short answers, no problem. If you want more complex statistical analysis, you’ll need to check the features.
Most nonprofits we have worked with have fairly basic survey and reporting needs, which would be served by any of the below (the links go to the feature comparison pages):
  • New player Survey Gizmo offers a free version that allows for 250 responses per month and a “personal” version for $19/month. These omit some desirable features, like skip logic. For their more fully-featured offerings (“Pro” and “Enterprise”), they offer a 10% discount for an annual contract and a 40% discount for nonprofits—so you could get the Pro package for $25 a month if you’re willing to commit for a year. The support forums are lively, with most questions answered within a day or two. I haven’t used it myself, but it’s getting great reviews.
  • Survey Monkey is inexpensive ($19.95/month for up to 1,000 responses) and highly capable. There are some rumblings in the blogosphere about support being somewhat lacking, but it’s a solid solution with a lot of fans.
  • QuestionPro offers a lot of features, including skip logic, in its free-to-nonprofits “Web Professional” version (normally $15/month) in exchange for a reciprocal link on your website’s home page. (Only you know whether having someone else’s logo on your home page is worth saving $5 per month.) QuestionPro looks less committed to ease-of-use than the other solutions.
  • Zoomerang is a bit more expensive ($99 for three months or $350/year for nonprofits and educational institutions). It offers robust templating and sample surveys, which can be a big help if you’re not sure what kinds of questions to ask.
In short: If you think you’ll need to do a lot of surveys with complex reporting needs or statistical analysis over the next couple of years, check out Zoomerang and Survey Gizmo. For a twice-a-year customer satisfaction survey, look at Survey Monkey and QuestionPro.

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.

Should Your Organization Use Social Networking Sites?

We have a new article up, and this one's close to my heart: Should Your Organization Use Social Networking Sites?

Not only is long-time Idealware friend Brett Bonfield back after a hiatus to write this article, he provides some really useful, hype-free advice in an area that sometimes seems to be full of nothing but hype. He gives the expected run-down of reasons why social networking sites like MySpace and FaceBook might be useful for your organization, but also provides a more unusual set of guidelines: six signs that social networking isn't for you.
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