Laura Quinn's blog

Avoiding Technology Ice Dunes

This may be a metaphor that doesn't mean a lot to you southern and California people, but Idealware's based in Portland, Maine, and up here we give a fair amount of thought to snow. I was shoveling out the driveway from our first big snow of the season (maybe 6") yesterday, and while I did it, I was giving a fair amount of thought between the overlap in shoveling and technology planning. Bear with me here.

While you're shoveling out your driveway, you plan how much room you'll leave for the cars. Maybe you're feeling lazy, and you shovel out a passageway with just an inch or two to spare. Or maybe it's an easy shoveling job, and you shovel out generous room to turn in from both sides of the street.

It doesn't feel like a decision of much importance, until you've lived somewhere where it's below freezing most of the winter. Here, you build some serious snow dunes with what you've removed from the driveway. And soon those dunes thaw a little, freeze a little, and there's a little rain, and a little more snow on top of them... and within a few days your casually shoveled banks of snow become impenetrable blocks of ice. Which may well be with you until spring, unless you have an unseasonable thaw or invest a lot of backbreaking labor.

Okay, so here's where the metaphor comes in. There's a lot of technology decisions that we as nonprofits approach just as casually. But just as often, our decisions can be with us for much longer than we thought they would. You decide to just throw up a temporary website without a lot of thought to the structure... but then between one thing and another, you're still using it two years later. You decide to use a particular piece of software mostly because you need something in a hurry, but then your staff is used to it, knows how to use it, and doesn't want to change.

Change is hard, whether it's chipping through the ice to widen your driveway, or trying to move off something you've been using for a while. It's worth giving a little extra thought when you're making those "temporary" decisions, to consider whether they're likely to make your life a misery if you need to try to maneuver though between the barricades they've imposed for much longer than you planned.

Help put us over the top for the Research Fund!

We're getting really, really close! As of 1:45 this afternoon, we have $14,380 towards our goal of $15,000 for the Idealware Research Fund!

Only $620 to hit the goal. Can you help us hit $15,000?

Any amount can help us transform nonprofits' work --allowing shelters to help more people, advocacy and arts organizations to reach a wider audience, and environmental groups to make more of a difference.

Can you donate now?

We can't say thanks enough to all our donors, but especially the consulting firms who made this possible with their generous donations. A huge thank you to Phase 2 Technologies, who came through with a thrilling last minute $1000 donation. And we wouldn't be anywhere near this close without the help of the firms that donated at the $500 level: Beaconfire Consulting, Exponent Partners, Database Designs Associates, and Rad Campaign.

Thanks to them and all of you guys, we're so close I can taste it!

Help your local museum, food pantry, and the environment all at once

We've just launched a campaign I'm really excited about: The Idealware Research Fund.

Almost all nonprofits struggle to keep up effectively with new software tools and tactics. Many have no one with technology experience on staff, and no one to ask for reliable software information. That's where Idealware comes in!

By helping us to seed the Idealware Research Fund, you can provide them with information about the software choices that can transform their work—increasing the effectiveness and efficiency of vast numbers of nonprofits working on critical issues, from decreasing illiteracy rates, helping abused animals, fighting global warming, and so much more.

Help us raise $15,000 by Dec 31 by making a tax-deductible gift to the Idealware Research Fund today.

The Idealware Research Fund will give us the flexibility to create the new, high-quality research that will most help nonprofits. By supporting the Fund, you will allow us to build on our base of more than four years and hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of software research to provide the new resources that nonprofits need most, like on social media tools, mobile text messaging, constituent databases, and more.

Please help provide nonprofits the software information they need to effectively tackle their missions by making a gift to the Idealware Research Fund.

And, most importantly, thank you for your continued support of Idealware!

Should You Just Spend the Time Calling Donors Instead?

For a lot of more traditional fundraisers and nonprofit managers, communicating via the internet is a kind of scary idea. It's hard to believe in the economy of scale that communication technologies can provide and to believe that sending broadcast emails or creating a Facebook page, for instance, can ever be helpful in developing the type of personal connections that nonprofits rely on.

In my line of work though, I just as often run into nonprofit technology staff and consultants who I think have an *over-reliance* on technology. Technology is the hammer for which many things becomes the nail. Want to communicate with donors? Let's do email! Facebook! A blog! We need to use these online tools to start a conversation! Those things absolutely can be useful, but it's important to prioritize them against other things you might do.

For instance, you could spend that time simply calling donors and constituents at random, to thank them, or to ask them a quick set of questions (how did they like the services they used? what do you do well? not so well?). If you've never done this, it can be pretty magical. Often people are amazed that you've called, happy to talk, and have useful insights. It gives you a great sense as to who your constituents actually are and what they care about. And not coincidentally, my experience is that it fosters great new connections. People want to volunteer, wanted to ask you something, and, not coincidentally, donate at considerably higher rates after. Nothing starts a conversation like, well, an actual conversation.

I think this is a really useful bar to measure online communication techniques against. Should I send that email, create that Facebook page, write that blog, or would it be more effective to just spend that time calling donors?

Emails often pass that threshold - for instance, we spend about two hours a month sending out our eNews. It's pretty clear to me that the number of people that we reach and affect (and inspire to help us) by sending out resources beats the number of people we could connect with by phone. But Facebook? The jury's still out for me on that one (though just trying it out is mission related for us - so we have the luxury of investing for other reasons).

And blogs? A tough call, based on the goals you're trying to achieve. A blog can help you reach out to more people, have conversations that you hadn't considered, and show you as an expert to the press and your sector. But it's so time consuming for your staff people (assuming it's actually a staff blog). Would you gain more by spending that couple of hours a week calling donors? Perhaps. It's worth considering.

Event and Auction Management Software - for your review

Here's another blurb we're working on for our Field Guide to Software for Nonprofits - this one on software to manage the LOGISTICS (not just the registration, which is a different topic) of events. We'd love your comments on this, if you have them - we're not sure if we've found all the appropriate software that might apply here. Special thanks to Heather Mason of A Caspian Production for contributing her event management expertise - though any errors are ours, as she hasn't reviewed it!


A large event has a lot of logistics to manage – will you have sponsors? What’s the budget? Where will people sit? What rooms will be used for what? Some Donor Management Systems, Constituent Relationship Management Systems, or member/ association management software can help with these details. If your event involves organizing volunteers, some volunteer management systems can provide useful functionality to manage who will be doing what and when. While it can be useful to have event management functionality integrated with other constituent management functions, the feature set provided by these types of tools is often not as sophisticated as is offered in stand alone packages.

More sophisticated Online Event Registration packages also frequently have event management capabilities – for instance, to assign seats or do some basic management of agendas and rooms. If you’re primarily trying to manage attendee details (for instance, session preferences, seat assignment, or meal preferences), having this functionality combined with the tool you’re using to do online registration makes a lot of sense.

As your events become more complex, keep in mind that no software will actually plan all the details for you – if your logistics become more complicated than what you can easily manage in Excel, it might well make sense to hire an experienced event planner and use whatever software they recommend. However, there are a number of packages - like StarCite and eTouches – that are designed help you to track complex logistics, speakers, rooms and budgets, as well as manage all your attendee registration details for huge events and conferences.

Live and silent auctions tend to have a particularly difficult set of information to track. You’ll need to track the items that you’re selling, their fair market value, the buyer, and the selling price – and be able to generate bills and receipts on site within minutes of the auction itself. Software packages like AuctionPay and ReadySetAuction provide tailored functionality specifically to meet these needs.

Strategies for Adapting to the Shifting Media Landscape

One World is putting on an interesting seminar in Washington coming up next week, on Thurs Oct. 15: New Communications Strategies for Nonprofits. A number of great speakers will talk about how your organization can effectively adapt your communications strategies to the challenges and opportunities presented by the shifting media landscape.

Suzanne Turner, President of Turner Strategies, will talk about how the media landscape has shifted and how nonprofits can adapt and position themselves to effectively communicate about their issues.

Colin Delany of Epolitics.com, will talk about tools and tactics organizations can employ over both the short and long terms to leverage the explosion of influential voices online to create action in the real world.

Kira Marchenese, Director of Online Communications at Environmental Defense Fund, will share examples of how EDF is dealing with the challenges of the new media landscape.

This meeting will take place in Washington, DC. It costs $30 for staff OneWorld partner organizations and for others it costs $60 to participate in the meeting. Register at http://bit.ly/2YqVpV

Take NTEN's Data Ecosystem Survey

NTEN is taking a look at how nonprofits' systems work together (if they do at all) with their first Data Ecosystem Survey. They plan to analyze this data and provide a report to help you start to evaluate the systems your organization uses and how they connect.

But they need your help! When you have a spare 10-15 minutes today, please take the survey.

> I have 15 minutes free right now. Take me to the survey!

Everybody who completes it will get a free copy of the final report.

Multimedia Editing Software (for your comments!)

We’re hard at work over here on our Field Guide to Software for Nonprofits: Marketing, Outreach and Communications – a small reference book that will help nonprofits think through what types of systems would be effective for them based on the processes that they need to support and their current technology level.

We’re taking on 39 different types of software for that, including a few areas that we have little prior research about. As part of our guerrilla research process for this, I thought I’d put some of them up here for your comments. Did we get it right? Are we missing important things? I’d love to hear your thoughts.


Many thanks to Mark Sansone at
See3 Communications for helping us out with this piece– though any mistakes are our own, as he hasn’t seen this version!


If you want to create videos or podcast with even a basic level of polish, you’ll need editing software. These tools allow you to cut out pieces you don’t want, splice together different sections, and overlay things like titles onto your piece. For a podcast, you may want to edit an interview down for length, cut out “um”s and pauses to add a more professional polish, and then add some music and a voice over introduction to the beginning. For a video, you might cut an interview with a constituent together with scenes of your program participants, and put a title screen at the beginning.

While good editing takes time and some skill, a number of low-cost and straightforward editing tools have put the software within any nonprofit’s reach. If you’re using a Mac, iMovie (which comes free with the computer) is a great editing tool for straightforward movies. The free editing software available for PCs (like Windows Movie Maker and Pinnacle Systems’ VideoSpin) often impose substantial and confusing limitations (like what formats you can import and output, or insistent front-and-center ads), but Adobe Premiere Elements ($15 for nonprofits on TechSoup, or about $140 retail) provides friendly features very similar to iMovie.

Found that you’ve outgrown the low-cost options – for instance, you want to create more robust animations or special effects? On the Mac, Final Cut Express or Final Cut Pro provide logical stepping stones; Adobe Premiere is also a widely used on either PC or Mac. These products, all under $1000, are likely to provide all the power that a nonprofit is likely to need before it makes sense to hire a professional video editor.

On the sound editing side, both GarageBand (for the Mac) and Audacity (for the PC) are free and solid tools that provide all the functionality a nonprofit is likely to need for in-house work.

Annoucing the Consumers Guide to Data Visualization Tools

We're thrilled to release today the Consumers Guide to Data Visualization Tools - this 30-page independent Idealware report provides an overview of the types of graphic formats that might work for you, and then compares eight low-cost tools that can help you create them.

How do you transform your data into charts, graphs, and maps that will help your audience understand the data and move them to take action? This report will help you understand the considerations, and walks through the software that can help - including Excel, Google Docs, DeltaGraph, SmartDraw, ManyEyes, Swivel, Google Maps, Microsoft MapPoint, and more. Read the report now (free registration required)>

The Trouble with (Bad) Metrics

I'm a metric junkie. If I could spend all day just hitting the refresh button and watching the numbers go up, I'd be happy. And metrics are wonderful things: they can tell us what we're doing right, and when we should stop and try something else.

But metrics are also dangerous things. As the old adage says, you get what you measure. If you don't define meaningful metrics, it's very easy to get wrapped up in a number that's not really tied to anything that matters to your organization. How many site visitors do you get? How many clicks on your emails? How many Facebook friends or Twitter followers? While all of these things can be very useful to make tactical changes, none of them measure the *effectiveness* of your communications. Only measuring actual *outcomes* - actions, changed behavoir, donations - can tell you what's actually effective.

So it won't come as a shock that Seth Godin's recent post about nonprofits really pissed me off (I'm not alone: Beth Kanter has a terrific summary of the responses, which also got a ton of insightful comments). He observed that nonprofits are unwilling to change in order to effectively use social media. Based on? A few conversations, the fact that there are no nonprofits in the top 100 Twitter users, they don't use Squidoo (the obscure social media platform HE OWNS), and that they continue to send those darn old school direct mail fundraising letters.

Are nonprofits more or less effective at using social media than other types of organizations? I don't know. Effective to what end? Maybe; certainly no one would argue that there's room for improvement. But his data sucks.

I will say boldly and proudly: If we at Idealware spend a single dollar or a single minute trying to be one of the top 100 most followed Twitterers, we're wasting the resources that our constituents have entrusted to us. Trying to do massive broadcast communications with millions of people is not our mandate. I don't believe there are that many people in the world on Twitter than are likely to 1) benefit from our services or 2) take any action to help Idealware serve our mission. Like 95% of all nonprofits in the world, we have a niche audience. We shouldn't be trying to reach EVERYONE. We should be trying to reach the people that matter to our mission.

Don't get me wrong: we're using Twitter (and it takes a lot more than a minute a day). And we've in fact found Twitter to be helpful in reaching the people that matter to our mission. But the type of follower is as important as quantity.

And frankly, that's the point of marketing. No marketer worth his/ her salt, whether in the nonprofit or business world, is trying to just broadly reach EVERYONE, and none of them make decisions based on anything other than actual outcomes. You don't just decide which method sounds the coolest. You figure out what works.

Speaking of what works. His point about Squidoo (again, the obscure social media platform HE OWNS) is that although they often give away $10,000, not that many nonprofits try for that. Great. I'm really pleased by that. Nonprofits too often chase money that isn't likely to come through. Let's say it takes you 4-5 hours to create a great Squidoo list to give you a shot at that $10,000. Not even Seth claims that you'll get a good outreach return, so let's focus on the money. Let's say you have a 1% chance of winning the money (I've just pulled that out the air, but it seems like pretty good odds for a public contest). So your expected return if you did lots of these would be $100 each time. But it took 4-5 hours. You could do as well with a bake sale. Could you raise more than $100 in a single hour by picking up the phone and calling your supporters? I bet you could. Maybe a lot more.

Why do nonprofits continue to send those old school fundraising letters? Because they work. If they were measuring based Seth Godin's coolness meter, they would make different decisions. But then they would raise less money and make less real change in the world.
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