Laura Quinn's blog

Want a Field Guide to Software for Nonprofits?

We're nothing if not busy over here at Idealware world headquarters! In addition to putting up new articles, setting up a new office space, and finishing off our Data Visualization report, we're in the planning process for a new resource, The Field Guide to Software for Nonprofits: Fundraising, Outreach, and Communications - a concise book that will help nonprofits pinpoint the types of software that might be useful for their needs and provide user-friendly summaries to de-mystify the possible options.

Does the Field Guide sound useful? We're looking for some Pilot Partners to help put it in the world - read on!

The Field Guide will help nonprofits understand the many different types of software that can help with particular organizational functions—like fundraising, or reaching new audiences—based on their own level of technological sophistication, and then provide friendly and easy-to-reference information on each relevant type of software, including typical pricing levels, features, common vendors and additional resources. We plan to eventually cover the whole spectrum of software for nonprofits, but are starting with a more targeted look specifically at tools for Fundraising, Outreach and Communications.

We may sell copies of the Field Guide through our Web site, but the primary distribution channel will be via licensing partnerships with foundations, affiliate organizations and membership organizations. For a license fee of between $1000-$2000, depending on number of members or affiliates, we'll provide a co-branded and a distribution- and print-ready version of the Field Guide, and our partners can then print or distribute as many copies as desired to their specific community. We can also work with partners to customize the whole Field Guide for your organizations, for an additional fee.

There's more about the Field Guide, including pricing and a mockup, online at

Know an organization that might be interested in this? Spread the word! A printed book version would make a terrific premium or membership benefit for a membership organization. Or an affiliate organization could use it to help all of their local offices get up to speed at the same time. For foundations, it would be a terrific way to boost the capacity of their grantees to support both theirselves and their specific program work, without a huge investment. We're getting a lot of interest, but hoping to sign on a few more partners to make sure we can make it happen.

If you know folks that may be interested, send 'em my way, at

New article: The Role of Email in Your Communications Mix

We've just posted a great new article: The Role of Email in Your Communications Mix, by Heather Gardner-Madras.

I'm really happy with this one. Heather interviewed a number of actual organizations about how they're using email compared to other communications methods (everything from direct mail to telemarketing to mobile texting), and summarizes their thoughts on the strengths and weaknesses of these different methods.

Is email dead? Or is it thriving and instead killing off direct mail? We found that these were the wrong questions. Rather than deciding whether to use email or another method, nonprofits should be using email and other methods to communicate with constituents, volunteers, donors and others.

The article was created as part of the content for Aspiration's ANSWR project, a knowledge aggregation platform being developed to track best practices and frequently asked questions in nonprofit technology.

Resource Roundup 7/20

The State of Print and Electronic Publications in Higher Ed (Higher Ed Experts)
An informal survey looking at the use of print vs. electronic publications, and the pace of movement from one to the other. (Tip o' the hat to Michael Gilbert)

How to Implement "Share This Email" Tools (Beth's Blog)
In a guest post on Beth Kanter's blog, Carrie Lewis provides some detailed and useful information on how to implement tools that allow your supporters to share emails on Twitter, Facebook, or other social media tools.

How Nonprofits Are Using Video Online: 20 Examples (Beaconfire Wire)
It's always great to see examples! Beaconfire provides 20 examples of interesting uses of online video.

Social Media Guides from ONE/Northwest (ONE/Northwest)
The always smart and practical folks at ONE/Northwest have put up a series of guides to understanding social media techniques, including blogs, Facebook, and Twitter.

‘White Flight’ Online? MySpace vs Facebook (The Pop!Tech Blog)
Pop!Tech summarizes Danah Boyd's though provoking comments about potential divisions by race, class, and education between MySpace and Facebook

A Sample Online Outreach Plan (e.politics)
From the always helpful Colin Delany: an example outreach plan that he put together for a client.

Outsmarting the Facebook Lobster Trap (The Gilbert Center)
Michael Gilbert provides some useful cautions and principles for dealing with Facebook

Ten Useful, Free Web Services To Improve Connectivity (Practically Networked)
Ten utilities to help you test the speed of your connection, whether an email address exists, determine whether there's a problem with a site, and more.

Twitter on the Barricades: Six Lessons Learned (New York Times)
An interesting summary of insights based on Twitter's use in mass political protests in Moldova and Iran.

Virtual Phones for Virtual (and Physical) Orgs

I'm looking into phone options for Idealware's own use, and in the process really clarified my own understanding of how this whole thing works. There's two major components: phone service, and PBX services, and once you start to thing about things beyond traditional hardware options, they're quite separate.

So there's a couple options for phone lines - to get your staff members the ability to call in and out:
  • POTS, which sounds all technical, until you realize that it's an acronym for Plain Old Telephone Service. It's just like it sounds - you call up your local telephone service provider and get your service connected.
  • You can also use VOIP services - Voice Over IP, through someone like Vonage (Vonage primarily serves residential customers- I assume there's business focused ones too? Anyone know the main players?). VOIP lines function like regular phones (and in fact, you just use a regular physical phone), but they rely on your internet connection to make and receive calls. This can have important ramifications for the reliability of your phone service, as Ron Zucker's written about here before.
  • Or you could use cell phones, if you wanted. Obviously, that's likely to be a better option for folks who work in more than one location.
With the phone service, your staff has phone numbers, and the ability to get and receive calls. But you may or may not have niceties like voicemail, and you're unlikely to have anything that really feels like an business phone infrastucture. So for instance, you won't be able to let people hear a greeting and choose an extension, or let your staff transfer from one extension to another. That's where a PBX comes in. PBX stands for Private Branch Exchange, but no one calls it that (in fact, I only know it because I just looked it up). It's the hardware or service that links all your phone lines together. You could use a traditional PBX, or a hosted one.
  • A traditional PBX is a piece of hardware, installed locally with the phones physically wired to it. This will work for POTS or VOIP phones, but it won't help with cell phones. As a piece of hardware, you typically pay up front - like $5000 for a used one - and then have no more fees.
  • There's also Hosted PBXs like "Virtual PBX" or "OneBox". These are online services that help you stitch together your existing phones with things like a call-in menu and the ability to it to then ring multiple phone to find you. It doesn't care what type of phone line you're using - so for instance, someone's extension could always ring their cell phone. For this type of service, you typically pay a monthly fee (starting at about a $50/month level). But that doesn't include the actual phone lines - you'll need both actual phones and phone service for all your staff to use it. Many of these service have a cap on the number of minutes of incoming calls and if you exceed it, you could need to pay more.
At least, I think I've got that all down! Did I get anything wrong?

Free Software to Get Photos Ready for the Web

I did a little research of late looking for photo manipulation software that lets you quickly and easily do a lot of the standard manipulations needed to add a photo to your website. In addition to letting you crop and adjust colors and optimize file size for the web, I particularly wanted something that will let you crop to a specific size - say, 128 pixels by 324 pixels. That one was a killer requirement - it seems like an obvious need to me for almost any designed website, but very few tools let you do it.

But I found two great tools that really impressed me - and they're both free!

Picnik is an online photo manipulation tool that's impressively easy to use. It's very friendly and polished, and has a terrific cropping tool that not only lets you crop to a specific size, but gives you really nice "rule-of-thirds" cross-hairs, to help you create a composition that follows the typical advice to align it into thirds. You can easily add text or borders, and then save it off with useful optimizing functionality. It doesn't do vastly more than that - but that's a strength for folks who just want something simple and easy.

Paint.NET, a windows-only installed software package - is kind of a slimmed down Photoshop. Only free. It's suprisingly feature rich - it not only does all of the above, but has some nice features for controling layers and selections in a Photoshop-ish way. But without quite all of the bloat and confusion of Photoshop for those who need to just do simple things (don't get me wrong: I love Photoshop. But it can be baffling to those who aren't familiar with it).

Great Deal for the Grassroots Fundraising Journal!

Do you know about the Grassroots Fundraising Journal? If you fundraise for small organizations, or work with people who do, you really should. It's a great, tactical magazine, full of practical advice on how to raise money without huge budgets or a ton of staff. (by the way, they're not paying or incenting us to say these things - I'm just a big fan personally).

They're in the midst of a big subscription push at the moment, with a great deal available to friends of current subscribers (and to you, by permission): just $20 for a full years' subscription to the Journal, plus an invitation to a free conference call with Kim Klein, grassroots fundraiser extraordinaire, on Thriving On Uncertainty.

Affirmative Action for Open Source Applications

I love the tenants of open source software. What's not to like about software that's open to customization or modification, and (typically) costs nothing to download? And I fully support anyone's right to advocate for open source - there's certainly plenty of room to provide education and support to nonprofits, and to lobby organizations that publish information (yes, like Idealware) to balance out vendor's lobbying influence.

But these days I seem to be getting more and disappointed and angry emails from open source advocates who feel that Idealware has a systematic bias against open source software - that our reviews don't do justice to open source software. Given that our methodology is to interview representative folks in the field to understand the key factors that are important to them in choosing software, and then round up software based on those factors... wouldn't that mean that many open source tools don't do justice to THEMSELVES?

Customization, ability to exchange data, and price are all critical aspects where open source tools shine, and these areas play a big part in many of our reports and articles. But they aren't the only areas that are important. All too often, open source communities seem to disregard the functionalities that are often critical to small nonprofits - reporting, easy mail merging, and straightforward setup, for instance.

We cover open source software in all of the areas we review. We in fact go out of our way to include the open source software that's qualified, in a kind of "affirmative action" program for open source. I think that's as it should be, given the likely benefits for the sector as a whole if there's solid open source options.

But some open source advocates seem to be asking for a whole different set of qualifications for open source software, as if simply being open source should be enough. Or that every Idealware article should give "equal time" to open source, as if open source vs. proprietary should be the key framing concept for everyone software decision any nonprofit makes, rather than basing decisions around features and needs.

There's huge promise in both the tenants of open source and specific open source applications. But it doesn't serve the nonprofit sector to tell them a piece of software is likely to meet their needs if it won't, or to tell them their needs should be different than what they are. And it doesn't serve the cause of open source software to pretend that there's a different set of market realities for open source software than there is for every other kind.

Buying Software Before You'll Use It

Want to save thousands on your software implementation? A guest blogger who prefers to remain anonymous (let's call him or her the Masked Adviser!) had a great suggestion:
Organizations often go through the process of deciding on software, finally make a decision, and get so excited that they sign contracts immediately. Many, many times, they aren’t able to use it for months while they are transitioning from other systems or don’t have capacity to manage or get trained on the new system. The whole time they are paying for it.

I see many groups paying for expensive systems like Convio or Kintera spending thousands or tens-of-thousands on systems that are laying fallow while they get up to speed. Even if they are migrating, they often don't need services while they're doing discovery and design, and they may not need, for instance, email delivery and fundraising services until right before switch over. I know one organization who paid for nearly 6 months, and could have saved well over 25k had they waited.
Thanks, Masked Adviser!

Resource Roundup 6/12

The Million Dollar Email (Global Health Magazine)
Terrific case study about how Nothing But Nets is using email, their website, blogs, and social media together to raise money.

Introduction to Data (ONE/Northwest)
Great primer on data and databases

My (FREE) iGoogle Brand Monitoring Dashboard (Carie Lewis)
A look at the Humane Societies tools and process for monitoring what others are saying about them

Facebook Pages vs Facebook Groups: What's the Difference? (Mashable)
Great rundown on the difference between pages and groups in Facebook

Enterprise PBX Comparison Guide (Web Buyer's Guide)
Matrix comparing high end PBX software (to support large organizations' phone systems)

URL shorteners: how to stay out of trouble (Beaconfire)
Pros and cons of URL shorteners, like TinyURL

Easy Step by Step Video Training for Non Profits (Charity How To)
Interesting site with videos for sale (for low prices, like $8) to help you navigate basic areas, like how to use photographs online, and mapping

Nonprofit Organizing in 140 Characters or Less (M+R Strategic Services)
Incredibly useful article on how to use Twitter to meet organizational goals

Teens 4 Planet Earth Moves to Ning (Beaconfire Wire)
Tiny case study of why Teens 4 Planet Earth chose Ning for their custom online community, with a list of other tools they considered.

Is Drupal Over-hyped? (CMS Watch)
Useful article looking not so much about Drupal (takeaway: it has strengths and weaknesses like any other CMS), but about how to protect yourself from hype.

Managing Multiple Twitter Accounts for Your Nonprofit (Beth's Blog)
Nice look at tools and process to manage multiple twitter accounts

Data Visualization Tools - An Early Preview

Here at Idealware world headquarters, we're working on a report on Tools to Graphically Depict Data on a Shoestring (I know, the title needs some work). We're still very much doing research and writing, but we've mapped out a pretty decent view of the tools that are available in this space, so I thought I'd share and see if you know of any I'm missing.

Here's what I've got, for tools that will help you display quantitative data in a visual form without a lot of time, money, or specific skills:
  • Excel: the obvious one. It's quite a flexible and complex tool compared to the others (though those go together -- it's flexibility is so obscure and complicated that many don't know it's there), but it doesn't make it easy to publish graphs online or even in polished printed form.
  • Google Docs: nice features for both simple and more interactive graphs, and pretty polished graphs, though very little control over the look of them (check out both the Charts and the Widgets features). All can be easily embedded. Free.
  • ManyEyes: the best known of the online visualization tools, with a lot of great format options, and pretty professional looking (though again, very little control over the look). You must publically publish your data with ManyEyes in order to use the tool. Free.
  • DabbleDB: lets you create nice, simple graphics from data; simple and easy. Free if you share your data; $8/user/ month otherwise
  • Swivel, iCharts, WidGenie: all online tools that let you easily create charts from data, and then publish them. We're still researching them, so I don't know as much about them.
Those are ones you don't need a programmer to use; if you've got a programmer, consider FusionCharts or Chart Director as coding language plug-in libraries, or the Google Visualization API, Yahoo Charting API or Open Flash Charts. Or if this is going to be a big part of what you do, consider R or Processing as visualization/ stats specific programming languages. (tip 'o the hat to Chris Mulligan at YouGov for the Yahoo API and Open Flash Chart)

What else is out there? What have I missed?
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