33 posts about nptech

Don't pitch

Apr 1 2010

Last week I read this article on ReadWriteWeb that advises a startup to "Give It to Them Straight: Avoid "Pitching" to Your Board." The article explains how it can be bad to exaggerate your product and cover up problems that you are experiencing in development:

"VCs hear bad news all the time — it is part of the startup process and part of the VC job description," says Hirshland. "Any VC worth his or her salt should respond to bad news, provided it is shared in a timely fashion, by helping the entrepreneur figure out the best way to respond rather than dwelling on what went wrong."

To which I must respond: no shit! We all hear bad news all the time. Get is straight, a "pitch" is a lie plus hubris. None of us want to be lied to. Would it be that hard to just tell everyone on your project the truth about what your software does and how the development process is going?

It's incredible to me that we have created a world in which this has to be pointed out: don't delude your closest supporters. It's indicative of the fact that developer culture has become the domain of hucksters and charlatans. There is a deeply manipulative and delusional culture at work here, and let's be clear there is absolutely no room for it in nonprofit and humanitarian technology.

Read the language around a tech conference like TechCrunch Disrupt, where hundreds of startups come to fetishize themselves as combatants on a "startup battlefield." From their own words, it sounds like an joyous exercise in self-delusion: "It'll be a little bit like pitching a top VC, except it will be done live on stage in front of thousands."

Is it so crazy to imagine a conference where we are all honest about what our software actually does, and they types of frustrating issues that we are facing in development? Then we could join hands and sing songs, I guess.

It sounds unrealistic because, you get pitched everywhere. In software development the art of lying has become pervasive. Developers pitch their funders, their users, and anyone who will listen. And really developers are just pitching themselves, delusional about what their products are capable of doing.

'Slashtags' for citizen editors

Nov 9 2009

Updated Nov 16, 2009: @chrismessina created a wiki for the Twitter syntax http://microsyntax.pbworks.com/Slashtags

The NYT reported today on how the #fthood hashtag has failed:

Until lately, the main way to make sense of an urgent outpouring of tweets on a particular subject was to use text searches: look for the phrase 'Fort Hood,' for example, or maybe an agreed-upon label, '#fthood,' within tweets. Yet during events like the shootings on Thursday at Fort Hood that left 13 people dead, this method is useless. Hundreds of 'relevant' tweets pop up every minute, most repeating the same news reports over and over again or expressing concern from far away."Refining the Twitter Explosion" on nyt.com

I believe that there is an enormous potential to do citizen journalism better on the web, and that we need the leadership of people who are willing to help clean up the mess. Unlike some people, I do not think that the poor citizen journalism around #fthood is an indictment of citizen journalism — rather I would say it points to the absence of citizen editors.

In the Vote Report and Swift parlance, these are "Sweepers," the custodians working to clean the stream, validate claims, and generally insert some professionalism.

Taken to their logical next step, you can see the emergence of volunteer "citizen editors," who appreciate journalistic rigor and take time to bring signal to the noise in dozens of different ways.

Recently around Meedan we have been talking a lot about using Delicious and Twitter tagging to more effectively manage our content across our many networks, and to bring more meaningful conversations to our users.

This is the power of tags: they are impossible to contain in a single network.

By relying on Delicious and other social bookmarking systems, we've been able to build our editorial backchannel into numerous social platforms. Rather than being stuck with the limitations of some CMS, and have to copy everything out to our social network, we can use the social network and then bring it in to our own domains.

That's always a smart approach for nonprofits, because it builds your conversation in a meaningful, and searchable way. Metadata value (real usable value!) accumulates like interest in your bank account. And citizen editors are the people who are trying to make this system provide even more of a return, because fundamentally we want more people to care, understand and take action.

Twitter Lists Taken Seriously

So we've been looking into some of the existing pseudo-standards like the #hashtag, and looking for ways for improving our journalistic rigor. George recently posted about using the new Twitter lists features to curate groups of sources for our Iran Twitter feed:

Rather than treating our Twitter list as a gizmo, with shoddy maintenance and dubious output, what if we put some rigor into it by beginning with Journalism 101?

George, our lead editor, knows this stuff all too well:

What is the reported location of the Twitter Stream? Is the Twitter Stream using Farsi or a local language? How long has the Twitter Stream account been up and running?

(And oh yes there are many more criteria.)

I think these are the good, basic questions that may not be answered by some organizations — and their lists are thus quantifiably worse, in the sense that they are less reliable, less meaningful, and probably noiser. So we can see that by following basic journalistic standards, your attention data becomes more valuable. Garbage in, garbage out, or, more positively, the system can be improved.

For nonprofits, which typically do not have a microgram of energy to spare, these kinds of tricks can be really helpful.

#hashtags and /slashtags

A great example of this type of "attention data enhancement" is the #hastag, which clarifies the context of a short statement on twitter with a globally recognizable tagging syntax. (I'll spare us the debate around hashtags, but suffice it to say, they can be done better.)

Chris Messina, one of the biggest advocates of #hashtags and other microsyntax, has just described a few extra bits of attribution using the "slasher." (I think we could just call it a "slashtag.")

'Pointers' are short words with different intentions. A group of pointers should typically be prefixed by ONE slasher character. You can daisy-chain multiple pointer phrases together, padded on both sides with one whitespace character. There should be NO space following the slasher. Hashtags should be appended to the very end of a tweet, except when they are part of the content of the message itself and indicate some proper name or abbreviation. Normal words that would be part of the content of a tweet anyway SHOULD NOT be hashed."New microsyntax for Twitter: three pointers and the slasher"

Particularly I think using /by is a great idea to reference an article or direct quote.

Using /by gives a very specific meaning to the username that follows it. It's intuitive enough that I don't think it even needs to be explained, you can just read it:


Not beautiful, but very clear.

This is useful for when you need to be more precise — say, if you wanted to use your attention data in another application.

For us at Meedan, this is the direction we are headed, fast. We are working on developing a clear and simple standard for using tags on the delicious network. This standard will be something that our editorial team (and anyone who cares to participate) can use to route information to our hand-curated database. You don't have to leave the comfort of your own twitter client, or use any fancy tools — just the simple, clear standards that we are figuring out.

We are already making great use of social bookmarks at meedan as a editorial backchannel. For example, you can see all of Meedan's Iraq sources on delicious, from our lead editor:


And everything that the Meedan user unthinkingly (me) has tagged as being generically "for meedan" (using an informal tag "for_meedan").


Because George also uses this tag, we can get a nice community of practice working together. This page shows the shared pool:


So, as you can see, we are using underscores, which is a common tagging convention because it looks like a space. We're not so happy with this: it's simply not expressive enough.

(Even though you can do a lot with a single little shared tag like #nptech.)

A more robust tagging system, which I believe would be very compelling if it were well designed, would extend some of this syntax. The question is: how to extend the syntax without making it overwhelming?

Setting some goals

I think that any tag needs to follow a standard that meets several critiera:

1.) it should read naturally when spoken out loud (no dots, equals signs, or weird abbreviations) 2.) it should be as cross-network as possible (for now the syntax should not break on Twitter or Delicious) [1] 3.) it should rely an aliases instead of strict taxonomies (tag first, fix it later)

So what I'm talking about is extending the tag that George used to curate Iraqi newspapers, iraq_newspaper to something like this:


which I think has several advantages.

  1. of the tag in ways that make the taxonomy immediately clearer. Iraq is nested "inside" a type of source.
  2. It works on Twitter
  3. It works on Delicious
  4. It is still very short (adds only one character over the underscore)

On delicious, spaces are not allowed, so I have started using two slashes. So where previously I might have tagged the article with a kind of meaningless tag:


but now I can tag it


Which is still a pretty meaningless tag, but is at least prefixed meaningfully to mean "this content is by this person" as per chris' helpful article above.

Also I can improve the previous technique of using the for_meedan shorthand





Which has the benefit of being equally readable, while obeying a more general rule of syntax.

Machine tags are not what we want, we are not machines

By far the most complete standard that is being used to solve these problems is the machine tag. This tag uses a colon and an equals sign to indicate a much more specific (though not necessarily accurate) structure. The history is from the geo community, mostly for this:


These namespaced key value pairs are admirably used as the output of some web apps, but are quite intimidating for human input.

Common opinion seems to be that they are too "dorky" to be usable at this point, considering especially that any good taxonomy is constantly in slight flux. (Though Flickr has made great use of them to kick of custom actions in their UI).

Similarly, what might be called a "double tag" is an interesting simplification down to a context-less key value pair:


In fact this is what comprises almost all of the tags in OSM, one of the most ambitious tagging innovations on the web. (I have said before that tagging is the secret sauce that makes a crazy project like OSM work.)

Finding a balance

Replace the equals sign in that last example, and you have slashtags, which I think are much better at communicating that "color" is a parent of the "red" value:


In this way, this "slashtag" or "slasher" approach, extended a with tiny bit of folksonomic conventions, could really strike the right balance between editorial simplicity and powerful machine-readablity.

Finding better editorial tools for realtime crises

I think that a better-defined tagging approach could really help make sense of critical, breaking news.

A wiki about hurricane Ida, for example, is probably not the right way to manage news about a critical event:

[http://farm3.static.flickr.com/2712/4089097932_350f83174c.jpg Ida]

Mediawiki makes me groan just looking at it. I'd much rather help update that information by tagging links into delicious, and knowing that someone is listening on the other end. This would motivate me to learn the emergent standards, follow a loose taxonomy, and generally try to be more articulate.

If we could react in realtime to create a more sophisticated picture of the news by expressing ourselves more clearly in the tagging interaction, I think we could ultimately make great strides in improving citizen journalism (even if all the idiots keep on tweeting, which, naturally, they will.)

This is why the usability of a citizen editor tagging scheme is so critical — it needs to be flexible enough (to handle hurricanes) but maintain a low barrier to participation (to cultivate citizen editors). The tagging approach has already proven itself in many trivial domains, now we need to step it up using our journalistic standards, and our shared interest in making sense of the news, particularly crises.

We are early in this strange distributed crisis data management effort, but I think that some of the ideas proposed by Chris Messina, and the experiments of the OSM community go a really long way in this regard. Particularly the nestabilty and readability seem like great virtues of this tagging system. Overall the "slash" is a widely understood metaphor, used by all major operating systems to indicate travresing "down" or "up" a taxonomy.

I'm going to transition some of my tagging habits accordingly, and see where it ends up!

I would love to know what you think. Stop by the contact page or @unthinkingly on Twitter and let me know what you think.

[1] notice how it breaks on gnolia.com and breaks on flickr.com Although it appears that Flickr preserves the slashes in the background, just doesn't display them on output.

[2] On Twitter there is s a bit of a variation required if we are to follow existing patterns: 1.) I can omit the space, so I will, and 2.) You need to prefix a user's name with the @ sign, like /for @meedan — I think this is still quite readable, but the difference between networks might need to be cleared up. We could in fact collapse the twitter tags to /for/meedan (ie: identical to the delicious tag) but this would probably break some automation in twitter clients that are expecting the @ prefix.

The "Special Case" of NEED Magazine

Sep 24 2009

During the collapse of the journalism industry, I have rarely been surprised — and only occasionally truly saddend — by a newspaper going out of business.

It's not that I don't have empathy. I have worked briefly as a journalist, have a degree in journalism, and many of my professional heroes are journalists. I actually attribute most of humanity's advances in the last 100 years to communications infrastructure, particularly good journalism.

And still, I make a living with news. So, it's only with my teeth clenched that I can say, "we need this" and try to keep the longer view toward the 1500s, and the previous revolutions that fell out of Gutenberg's noodling with the press. Like Clay Shirky says. He's pretty blunt:

Round and round this goes, with the people committed to saving newspapers demanding to know if the old model is broken, what will work in its place? To which the answer is: Nothing. Nothing will work. There is no general model for newspapers to replace the one the internet just broke. Clay Shirky in Thinking the Unthinkable

I agree with Shirky that this is an inevitable collapse of the old school. And I agree that our best option is to work as creatively as possible to get through it and find another way to make meaning, to build understanding, to be journalists.

The thing is, it's brutal. And it's not just print — all news costs money. Meaning-making takes energy. Real editors, real photographers, real writers. And, yes there is still the bottom line of printing. (Or, in my case, the expenses of wrangling servers.)

The collapse is even harder to accept if your family depends on a paycheck from your publisher. We want it to work, and we want to think it will be better soon.

But anyone who has worked in a newsroom knows the sucking sound that comes from the ad department. Most times the demanding economics ruin the possibility of doing quality work. You must write news that sells, which is typically not news that edifies, inspires or enlightens. It means that you end up writing stories about potholes on your street instead of international events. Because international events are, for most people, irrelevant, if not unreadable.

To some degree this gulf between "us" and "them" is understandable, or at least it has been until now. We do not want to pay for news that is not relevant to our own lives.

But relevance is, well, relative. Our sphere of influence has expanded dramatically with the internet, and with globalization. And today we live with an infrastructure that extends our relevance to millions of people that we do not know: this is the problem. We have not learned to care about things — people — that are in fact relevant now to our lives. We haven't learned to care about the people who make our socks, our bikes and our computers. We haven't learned to care about the people we influence with our policies and purchases. We are all bumping up against one another now, unwittingly.

And we haven't learned to pay for news about these people, other people.

This, I think, is understandable. That's the tragic part, I suppose: We are humans running on hardware that is incredibly out of date: the human brain. We have evolved, biologically and culturally, to get by, to survive, and to take care of our own. We now have influence that far exceed out capacity to understand. We experience sometimes deep existential disconnect from each other; there are simple too many "Others" to care about; we are atomized the most just when we are bumping into each other the hardest.

Even the concept of philanthropy, I would say, is in some way fundamentally inhuman in this sense. We were not born to care about others until we have taken care of our own.

But today buying articles about distant cultures is not about philanthropy. It's not even about being interested in other people.

That is, this is not an issue of being kind, or being well-mannered and cultured, it is actually essential for survival now — we must to understand these things, these Others. Homophily is not just a cultural phenomenon or academic observation — this problem is actually deadly. Just as previous generations were forced to adapt to environmental change and technological capacity.

As usual, Ethan Zuckerman writes about this best:

Understanding Iraqi attitudes towards a US occupying force and Shia/Sunni/Kurdish tensions better might have mitigated the disastrous invasion of Iraq. Understanding Chinese and Indian economic aspirations is probably a prerequisite to figuring out how to regulate carbon emissions while those nations embrace automobile ownership. And activists trying to change Chinese policy in Darfur would benefit from better understanding of Chinese pride, the concept of 'face' and the power of nationalism. - Ethan Z. in Homophily, serendipity, xenophilia

It's with this context that I am really sad to see that NEED magazine is very close to going out of business.

In 2006 I noted their premier issue and have been incredibly impressed by the work that they have done ever since. It's just an amazing, beautiful magazine about humanitarian work and the people involved on the ground.

Here's their two-sentence angle on the world:

NEED magazine is an artistic hope-filled publication focusing on life changing humanitarian efforts at home and abroad. We are not out to save the world, but to tell the stories of, and assist, those who are.NEED Magazine


If you have never seen it, you should check it out — it's the highest quality printing that you can get, with gigantic gorgeous photos of some truly incredible stories. A rare find.

So I was incredibly disappointed to get an email from them this morning explaining their difficulties with revenue, especially after they suffered a major break-in last year, that cost them nearly $250,000, I hear. It's a sad story, especially as we watch the last gasp of the newspaper industry, weakened by it's ad model, now totally broken by the freedom of the internet.

What should they do?

Who knows.

And, to their credit, they are soliciting opinions about what it is that we would actually pay for. I applaud their willingness to completely reevaluate their business model — take their new survey and tell them how they should start anew.

Go NEED. We trust you will be bold in your experiments.

At the end of his article, Shirky's pessimism is tempered by his observation that previously minor adjustments have proven to be groundbreaking: "nothing will work, but everything might. Now is the time for experiments, lots and lots of experiments."

Tinkering works. If you do it enough. Hmph. OK.

Well, the conclusion is not optimistic, but it is liberating — we have the freedom to try many alternative models. We in fact must experiment and explore because anything we do can perhaps give us a window into some new way to make meaning that is relevant and readable. Even when people will no longer pay for news about international problems, there are ways to make these stories meaningful. Increasingly it becomes clearer that there is not one way, there are many ways, each appropriate to its community and its content.

These are the "special cases" that will make our patchwork understanding of the world.

Shirky again:

For the next few decades, journalism will be made up of overlapping special cases. Many of these models will rely on amateurs as researchers and writers. Many of these models will rely on sponsorship or grants or endowments instead of revenues. Many of these models will rely on excitable 14 year olds distributing the results. Many of these models will fail. No one experiment is going to replace what we are now losing with the demise of news on paper, but over time, the collection of new experiments that do work might give us the journalism we need.


This is not really about NEED or newspapers. It's about all of the amazing groups that are bringing empathy and challenging homophily on the web. For those of us in online news, we are all looking for the "special cases."

Meedan is exploring several special cases:

I think of these strategies, especially programmatic journalism (hack hack), as being temporary measures. In a country without farmland, you harvest dandelions from the side of the highway. You take what you can. Likewise, we are gleaners, making the most of the understanding that already exists. We just circulate it more widely with translation, bring it together in innovative ways with aggregation, and broadcast it more effectively with smart code.

More critically we talk about it in a wide-ranging discussion — we recoup some of our lost community of newspapers by building our own. This creates our own content and gives us a more natural connection to news that is otherwise incredibly far away. And, fittingly, we trample all over international borders as we do it.

These are some of our "special cases" where meaning making can actually work, even in a world where all information is free, and it's tough to make a living as a meaning-making journalist. We are finding, just a little bit at a time, the spaces where we can continue to promote empathy and community beyond the collapse of our traditional models.

Education is the only permanent social change

Apr 11 2008

I've felt for a long time that education is the most important vehicle for social change. I mean, really how else does anything actually get done? You've got to have some kick ass teachers along the way, or you're gonna be a vegetable. And vegetabledom happens to entire societies. Watch out.

So I'm a little depressed that I don't get to work directly in the education sector anymore — I used to have a great time working on educational evaluation projects, and for a time I was a mentor. Now I'm a full time geek staring at an LCD, and I don't so much ever get the thrill of seeing kids make the grand connections. (read: manipulating young minds, bwah ha ha.)

Anyway, just watched a great TED video from Dave Eggers. Give it 20 minutes and tell me if you don't want to sign up to be a volunteer. It's a hilarious talk anyway, even if you hate kids.


Experimenting with IBM's "Many Eyes"

Jan 28 2007

IBM's new Many Eyes rocks. I experimented with the nptech data last weekend and built this in about 10 minutes. It's a very rough bubble map of the users of the nptech tag. Interesting how it shows the distribution of the tagging activity. Related: Swivel and Data360.

Number of times "nptech" was tagged, by del.icio.us username

many eyes nptech data

My Many Eyes account is here. (You can get an RSS feed of my visualizations.)

EDIT: Just to be clear, the usernames in the plot above do not reflect the actual number of contributions (the top posters are not getting credit for more than 100 posts each), because of a bug in del.icio.us, which I have discussed previously.

Understanding a community tag: the history of nptech

Jan 11 2007

Recently there has been a lot of discussion among the nonprofit technology geeks about the use (and usefulness) of the tag "nptech".

When the nptech tag started one of the ideas was to gather enough data to look and see what words people were using to describe, say, open source (open source, floss, foss, open source software) and then use those words to inform a taxonomy. It's a taken a long time but I bet there's enough data in the nptech tag on a combination of bookmarking systems to do a little crunching and get at some of those commonly used terms. Sort of an emergent taxonomy... Marnie Webb,
nptech proto-tagger

The nptech tag (on del.icio.us) dates back to December of 2004 and was created by a group of nonprofit technologists that were exploring the potential for social tagging in the community. While I have a "curmudgeonly" eye for Web2.0 gizmos, in addition to a deep distrust of technophilic "progress" ... I think that the development of this tag is arguably the single largest reason for the current (thriving I think) state of what is commonly called the "nptech community." Which means a lot to me.

(A great summary of the current conversation is at Beth Kanter's blog.)

Opinions abound. Most of us seem to be worked up about the efficiency of the tag. On this note there has been a lot of interesting reaction to a post by Gavin Clabaugh, which was critical of folksonomies. Laura Quinn of Idealware largely agrees with Gavin.

In this context, it seems that generally the consensus has been that 1.) Taxonomies are harder to create than Folksonomies, but they are better in many contexts. And 2.) we need more data about how to make the nptech tag more useful as an "emergent taxonomy".

So, in the spirit of improving the tag and promoting the nptech community, here's some data:

  1. A plain text listing of every word that has been used on del.icio.us in association with nptech. fulltext.xml
  2. A sorted and ranked list of these tags. nptech-tagged.txt
  3. All of the tags presented as a scrollable tag-timeline.
  4. The script that I wrote to gather the data from delicious (in perl): community-tag-robot.txt. (The code is also displayed below with syntax highlighting.)

 [Prototype removed]

The script that I wrote crawls the pages of del.icio.us and pulls out all of the tags that were used to describe the same stuff tagged "nptech". This gives us an idea of how the tag has been used — effectively describing the tagged links, if we assume taggers are using "synonym clouds". Del.icio.us has a "related tags" feature but it is lame (only 10 are listed), and judging from my initial review of the data it is pretty random. (Not really sure if I broke some terms of use or not with my script, but it's our data, right? And besides, the script is very polite.)

There are a lot of delicious mashupy-type things that show you tagging patterns, but these approaches seem somehow very passive, and not community-oriented. I mean, in general delicious is used very passively — people want to be able consume more efficiently, not create some community in which greater action can be taken. Or it is just used for explicitly personal purposes, as a web-based bookmark service.

What I like so much about the nptech tag is that it was intentionally created to support and reflect a community (unlike, say, the tag "nintendo," which may very well support a community, but it is not active in a self-critical, dialogic way.) And certainly there is a beauty, I think, in using these hyper-technological tools (which have the ability to be very atomizing and consumerist) for the sake of doing things that are explicitly not-for-profit and mission-driven.

And personally I tend to agree with Michelle Murrain that we need to be wary of an "expert" approach to developing our tags and community taxonomies. That line of thinking is what made me want to do this in the first place. (Likewise I need to point out how much I have really been thinking lately about stuff that I have been reading at Ulises Ali Majias' blog like this.)

Anyway, further experimentation (graphs/charts from excel would be easy using the text files, for instance) would be nice; please let me know if you are doing something interesting with the data. I'm hoping that this will help us, as a community, determine what we want to do with this tag now that we have been using it for more than two years. What patterns do you see in the data? What does the nptech tag mean for our community? I am not going to try to start doing any analysis here, now — but I would really like to hear what people's reactions to the tag timeline are.

There are still a lot of holes in this data that I could answer with a bit more programming. (i.e., who has been using the tag?) Suggestions for extending the script are welcome. What do we want to know?

An Open Source Strike?

Dec 18 2006


Many Debian developers denounced the Dunc-Tank proposal. Some even demanded that Towns be removed as leader because he supported Dunc-Tank. Their objection was that by financially supporting developers, Debian would become a two-class system and that, in turn, would be destructive to the Debian community.
Linux-watch.com just posted this article commenting on recent delays in the much-loved Debian distribution of Linux. Interesting to note some of the internal politics on an open source project. I have to respect the developer's (reported) concern that the new pay structure at Debian might create a kind of class system on the project. So to me it makes sense the developers might stop contributing their time if something starts to smell bad in the project, but I haven't ever seen a "strike" called quite like this as the article suggests. I might be inclined to chalk this one up to something other than pure politics, anyway. (Gasp, a behind-schedule software project?)

The Darfur Wall

Dec 17 2006

Darfur Wall

The Darfur Wall is a beautifully executed charity project that fills a very simple, traditional purpose (collecting money) using an innovative and stark interface. The black and white, no-images design reinforces the tragedy of the situation without being overwhelming. I think this is a great example of online design serving a progressive cause — which is not so easy to find.

Online Focus Groups are Getting Simple, Cheap and Pretty

Feb 22 2006

37 Signals is a super-smart little company known for creating easy-to-use web-based project management tools (namely the Basecamp suite), and they have just announced the latest in their product family: Campfire. campfirelogo

According to their website, "Campfire brings simple group chat to the business setting. Instant messaging is great for quick 1-on-1 chats, but it's miserable for 3 or 4 or 7 or 15+ people at once. Campfire solves that problem and plenty more. "

A little background: By day I work at a university with a nonprofit evaluation team. We work for other nonprofits that are trying (...or are being forced to by their funders) to discover and amplify the best aspects of their program. A major part of our job is finding out what people think works well — so we are typically creating surveys and conducting focus groups or our clients.

Focus groups are a great way to bring together a lot of good people and get a lot of good advice about a program. Among all the fun things we do with nonprofits, they're my favorite. But in-person focus groups are expensive and difficult to arrange, especially when you are working with busy people. Who has time to sit around and talk about making a program better? You've too busy working on the program, dammit!

This problem is what first attracted me to the idea of conducting focus groups online. At the American Evaluation Association's conference last year in Toronto, I was fortunate to sit in on a session that discussed the existing methods for doing this type of work. All of the evaluators in the room seemed to really get excited about it: online focus groups solve so many of of the distance/time/money problems evaluators face, especially in the nonprofit sector. Some people have already been doing this with telephone surveys, but in many cases (depending on your phone company and country) this can be really expensive — and it's unlikely to give you a transcript.

And, unfortunately for most of us at the evaluator's conference, the presenters were from the for-profit world, and their solutions were ridiculously expensive — about $1500 per focus group administration. These are basically managed chat rooms in which invited participants are egged on with questions from a well-trained facilitator. This is why online focus groups have been largely a marketing research arena — big pharma et al don't need no stinkin' open source solution.

screenshot2After the session I raised the issue of reconfiguring WordPress or a more robust CMS (Joomla or Drupal) with a chat feature. If you could just manage to get all of your participants together online at the same time (or over a 3-day period), you could easily solicit lots of feedback. (And you wouldn't have to transcribe the results). Folks (including focus group guru Richard Kreuger) were excited about the possibility of finding a cheap way to do this: there is a serious need for something way below the $1500 range.

screenshotUnfortunately, in my research, I that most server-side free/open source chat software is buggy, poorly designed, and horrible with server resources. I found that people were using hosted solutions like Yahoo discussion groups in a pinch, and having limited success. So, not really able or willing to create a program from scratch, I put the project on hold. The recent release of Campfire brings a number of awesome features to the under-$20 table. Here are my notes on the best features for focus groups with Campfire:

So I'm really excited about Campfire and I look forward to trying it out, hopefully with a longer post in the near future about the existing options for online research of this nature. Until then, check it out for yourself if you need to do some group instant messaging, I think the possibilities are amazing if you just have a talented coordinator and some people that have valuable things to say.

NGO in a Box: FOSS Mixtapes for Change

Feb 8 2006

The Tactical Technology Collective is a nonprofit based in Amsterdam that has been doing great work distributing Free/Open Source technology to the global NGO sector.

This morning I was reminded (via Worldchanging) that they are working on creating several different "best of" software compliations for NGOs-- kind of like that lovely old mixtape you have in your car, except with encryption tools, spyware tools and Firefox, among many others. And better liner notes. The first to be released was the "Security Edition" last October (which I suppose is, um, not to be confused with the ubiquitous AOL Security Edition discs at the grocery store).

The security version of NGO-in-a-box ... is aimed predominantly at human rights, anti-corruption, and womens groups, independent media and journalists. Its purpose is to help these groups, and those who work as trainers and technical support with these groups, to orient themselves with the kinds of security and protection tools they could use and the ability to easily access and try them out. This boxset is made of three CDs and printed manual.


One of the most important parts of the CDs is the documentation, which somes in English, Spanish, French, Russian and Arabic. (Unfortunately a lot of the software only comes in English.)

It came as some surprise to me that the Security edition comes with a collection of FOSS applications that are designed to run on Windows (TM)(!). I think the decison to run on a closed platform (instead of Linux) was rather unfortunate ... and unfortunately necessary for now. This CD provides a lot of great tools for NGOs at zero cost — and very few of the Tacitcal Tech's audience is up and running with an Open platform on all of their machines. I hope, of course, that this won't be the rule for future releases, but for now it seems pragmatic.

I'm looking forward to their future releases of a "Base Edition" "Advocacy Edition," and especially the "Open Publishing Edition" (they're only a few months behind schedule ...)

Also worth noting: the Tactical Technology Collective is also a great proponent of the E-Riders philosophy + practice. They have a great page about eriding, and will be releasing a new white paper on the subject sometime soon. There is also a good website about E-Riding at http://www.eriders.net/ ... it's really too bad their blog has been dead all year!

ConsultantCommons Provides Free Nonprofit Technology Support

Jan 26 2006

Consultant-commonsA beta project from CompuMentor, Consultant Commons provides a platform to share and collaborate on resources around nonprofit technology consulting. I wish I could recommend this site, but it has a long way to go before it really works well. For now, at least, there are a few useful documents, but most of the stuff is geared toward nonprofit consultants.

Where Does Your Favorite Organization Fit?

Jan 23 2006

From Emily's World comes an updated rundown of the "digital divide" among nonprofits.

Where does your nonprofit fit?

1. This group has added a blog, rss feeds, and/or podcasts to their website. 2. This group has a well designed website. They are familiar with emerging technologies and are looking into ways to add them to their website. 3. This group has had a website for years. They are up to date with web design. They have heard about emerging technologies but do not understand them. 4. This group has a website, but there is still room for improvement. They have an updated website, but they are ready to redesign their site and add more content to it. They do not know anything about emerging technologies. 5. This group has a website but it lacks usability and has not been updated in years. 6. This group does not have a website. They do not know how a website can help their organization.

Now, what are you going to do about?

eRiders Are Taking Off, I Hope

Nov 18 2005

The concept of eRiders is deceptively simple: people with lots of tech skills don't need to be on the staff of every NGO or nonprofit, they can "ride" a circut of folks that they help. This idea is being presented at WSIS this week, and I think it is an incredibly powerful idea that will be used increasingly around the world.

TUNIS, Tunisia — One of the focuses of the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) process has been on the cross-cutting nature of technology, and how it can act as an enabler of other development objectives.

Civil society has always had a significant part to play in development objectives and achieving the . Except for a few notable examples though, civil society has not fully embraced technology in its development work.

In a workshop session on eRiders at WSIS, Toni Eliasz from Ungana-Afrika today presented a "replicable and low cost ICT capacity building and support model" uniquely suited to enabling technology within this under-resourced sector.

He presented eRiders as an ICT consultancy solution for small, mission-focused NGOs which can't afford a full-time technology support person.

eRiders are consultants that work with a group of development organisations concurrently. They are motivated by the development objectives of the organisations they work with, but their focus is on helping these organisations employ technology to achieve their missions.

Although eRiders perform a number of technical functions, one of their key functions is demystifying technology and making the concepts accessible.

Initially, an eRider\'s focus will be on smoothening normal operational activities within an organisation. As the relationship develops, the eRider will encourage a more strategic approach to technology, and new program delivery innovations may become available through technology. Internet & ICTs for Social Justice and Development News - APC

Open Source Software in the Developing World

Nov 17 2005

This report details how budget-strapped organizations working in the developing world are able to use open source software to accomplish computing task that would otherwise just be too expensive.

From the introduction:

The emphasis on openness in open source software has fostered the growth of a world-wide community of developers contributing to the evolution and improvement of various software programs for use in networked servers and desktop systems ranging from operating systems and web servers, to e-mail, word processing and spreadsheets. While such a diffused structure for software development may seem chaotic, this approach is being considered as a more democratic alternative to monolithic single vendor efforts.

Interest in OSS is Likely to Grow: While ICT priorities will vary among countries, as it increases as a component of a country s development strategy, understanding OSS dynamics should also have more importance. With some discussions becoming quite passionate, decision-makers will have questions about the potential that open source software may offer, where and how it should be used, along with its potential risks.

OSS is Different from Proprietary Software: With OSS, the programming code used to create software solutions is available for inspection, modification, re-use and distribution by others. It is often assumed that open source software is free of charge. While this can be the case, OSS can be purchased for a fee as well. The concept of free, in this context, emphasizes what can be done with the source code rather than its cost. Because of its collaborative nature, the open source model lends itself to allow participants to be both producers and consumers/users of the software.

OSS Arguments Range from the Technical to the Economic: The OSS topic incorporates the concepts of community, public good, non-commercialism, ecosystems, and issues of intellectual property, copyrights and patents. Underlying much of the discussion is that 'information' in general, and 'software' as a means of delivery is unlike other goods and services. Central to the discussion are the issues of when and if information should be owned versus shared, what is the value of software, and when is it considered a commodity.

(Via infoDev: http://www.infodev.org/content/library/detail/837)

Free Nonprofit Webhosting

Nov 17 2005

If you need a free place to host your website, make sure you check out AmbitiousLemon. They look very good at what they do; they at least have a very capable open source software setup on their server, with Ruby On Rails, PHP, Perl, Apache etc. :

We are not a company. Our aim is not profit. We are a handful of computer enthusiasts dedicated to building a free web hosting service where our emphasis is the community we host rather than our own financial gain. You have the talent, the content, and the desire to share it with the world. We are the means to that end.

If you are a nonprofit that needs discounted web design, then visit, nonprofitdesign.org (which I run, in addition to this site.)

The Evolution of the Library: a Tool of Development

Nov 12 2005

Soon we'll have far fewer excuses for not distributing the worlds most valuable information resources: libraries. What will it take for us to start reorganizing and exporting our libraries digitally for the sake of global education?

The good news is that, on several fronts, there are efforts underway to digitize published content on a massive scale. This will reduce distribution costs to virtually nothing. These efforts were begun recently by Google but are now being undertaken by Yahoo! and, perhaps more notably, Microsoft. The next step, however, is to get over the of this content, and there remain numerous obstacles to this goal.

Currently it is clear that the central obstacle is our regressive form of copyright law, which "protects" the ownership of information for deeply flawed reasons.

The summary effect of these copyright laws to prevent the free distribution of information.

If the railroad tycoons of an earlier U.S.A. hadn't been around to create the library system from the spoils of their industry, for example, the U.S.A. would have a major hole in its educational system. I think the same principle applies here: the capacity to educate the world exists, and the potential is real. What's holding things back is a flawed profit model that hordes information needlessly.

Get this: The principle of copyright law in the words of the University of Michigan's head librarian, a "balancing act between the limited rights of the author and the rights of the public." Those are strong words, and I think they are well said. On the occasion of being sued for scanning books with Google print, which has just launched a new search feature, this librarian wrote:

"We continue to be enthusiastic about our partnership with Google, and we are confident that this project complies with copyright law. The overarching purpose of copyright law is to promote progress in society. ... "[The digitizing of books] is a tremendously important public policy discussion. In the future, most research and learning is going to take place in a digital world. Material that does not exist in digital form will effectively disappear. We need to decide whether we are going to allow the development of new technology to be used as a tool to restrict the public's access to knowledge, or if we are going to ensure that people can find these works and that they will be preserved for future generations."

If digitizing books is becoming essential to preserving them, then we are getting that much closer to a world where the highest quality information (as opposed to the internet, which is a at best a chaotic database), is reproducible for free: what a wonderful thing. Now we just have to get over out 200-year-old copyright model and recognize a broader, public use for information. The library-building tycoons of the 19th century did it, so why can't we?

This line of thinking fits well into into the general digitization of books, which is becoming a reality, as is indicated by Microsoft's entrance this week into the book-scanning foray pioneered by Google earlier this year:

After Google redefined the search of printed books, and Yahoo entered the lists, Microsoft is now planning on launching its own book scanning project. Microsoft announced that it will partner with the Open Content Alliance, scanning public domain texts.

(via Research Buzz )

On a related note, there are several new technologies that are helping folks do interesting, though apparently not extremely useful things with their books, videos, cds and other real-world media. Perhapos these will play a role in the redistibution of the worlds information gold mines.

Library Thing, a new bit of software, for example, allows users to easily catalogue their books like so:

"Registration is simple - give it a username and a password. No other personal information is requested. Adding books is just as easy. So many people are using Library Thing (they recently accounced they had 1 million tags) now that a simple search on an author or title will most likely pull the book up, which can be added to your catalog with a single click. You can also input ISBNs if you like. Quickly add tags, a rating and a review if you like. It’s fast and easy to add books and metadata." (Found on:TechCrunch.)

There are some other sites that do similar things, and there are some related gadget features, like using your Apple iSight camera to scan barcodes and get your entire library in the time it would take to scan a few loads of groceries. As a personal process, this sounds a little gimmicky to me, and I doubt that there will really be a lasting impact to this line of thinking as a "product." Perhaps that's incorrect — I haven't tried it and I'm not much of a tagger in general.

But I do really like the idea of tagging books and sharing tag libraries — creating, essentially, evolutionary indexes to books that could help people make more sense of the things that they are reading. If people are sharing their tags about their books, then we could have massive, elaborate networks of metadata about our printed works in precisely the same way that so many people are now doing en masse with online content. (A la technorati and del.icio.us et al.)

What I'm imagining is a kind of deli.cio.us for libraries, in which patrons using the "card catalogue" are encouraged to add their own notes about books. This is not an unrealistic web app — you'd just build something into the existing library website. You link a few dozen websites (let the librarians sandardize it, they'll have a blast, and librarians will all be web developers in 15 years) and in short order you've got rich, evolving, user-contributed data about your stacks. So much the better for a world awash in data: could log in search my library, find a relevant book, then get rich suggestions about related books from the tags.

Hooray for Progressive Podcasting

Nov 12 2005

Podcasting is not complicated. It's just audio. The problem lies in finding something worth listening to.

I subscribe to about a dozen podcasts, most of them technology-related, though some are about education or the media. (Technology-anything is always easy to find on the internet, naturally, because that's where the experts live.) Soon we'll have high-quality podcasts about a much broader range of subjects, and I expect that many of them will be coming from much smaller, more independent producers. Keep an eye on the podcast directories such as the one hosted at www.apple.com/itunes/podcasts. For now, however, I must admit that — contrary to that maverick, grassroots image that hovers over podcasting — I listen to an awful lot of stuff from larger outlets like NPR and PBS. (I'm especially fond of On The Media from NPR. Bob Garfield just cracks me up.)

By the same token however, podcasts can help me tune into things on NPR that are well-produced, but have very limited distribution. I'm thinking of Christopher Lydon's Open Source, which is an excellent liberal call-in show produced by WGBH. Lydon is just sharp, and he certainly has a great deal of experience running a radio program. I'm listening now, offline, as I write. Their format embraces the use of the internet by actively soliciting comments and ideas through the web, and they do it worldwide, often including perspectives from the people that they are talking about. A nice package that I'd other wise miss out on if I weren't a subscriber.

Other podcasts, like those of the Bloggercon and Pop!tech conference series, attempt — in a wonderfully useful way — to reproduce and memorialize some of the ideas that get generated at these geek festivals. This has been an important way for me to have personally participated in conferences that I otherwise could not have afforded to attend (Pop!Tech was in Camden, Maine ... not an easy place to get to). Too bad the logistics of recording conferences are often fraught with recording problems. Audio is hard to do right. (Video, by the way, is a lot harder still, which makes me think that acceptably decent, small-scale videocasting is quite a ways off. Things change fast these days, though.)

Still other podcasts are the work of real individuals, working in idiosyncratic ways to create something that's often highly personal. Often these remind me of the mid-1990s' heyday of personal webpages ... which means they're important but sometimes ugly. Some are just bad and ulgy. This is what I hope changes as things mature, as we head toward a sweet spot of podcasting content produced by small teams of people who really care and understand what they're talking about. Further still, I hope that we'll be seeing more and more podcasts that address issues at the intersection of society and technology in a progressive, thoughtful way.

That's why I was so excited to find this in my RSS aggregator today, from Ethan Zuckerman:

Tim Zak, the head of Pittsburg Social Enterprise Accelerator, has teamed up with Doug Kaye of IT Conversations to produce a new podcast series called “Globeshakers”, which features social innovators from around the world. They’re off to a great start with interviews with Andrew Zolli (the curator of Pop!Tech), David Bornstein (an author and expert on social entrepreneurship)… and me.

Tim asked me to talk about my experiences with the Katrina Peoplefinder project and the larger issue of how the Open Source community responds to disasters. You can read more about the conversation, or just download and listen to it. Thanks, Tim, Doug and Peter Durand, for making this interview - and so many others - possible.


Online Resources for Evaluation Nonprofit Programs

Jul 29 2005

Evaluation is an important, albeit rarefied, science of promoting nonprofit organizations. Do you need to measure the effectiveness of a specific program — or your entire organization? Well, there's an entire discipline devoted to helping you do just that.

Unfortunately, as with most rarefied, important sciences, the "discipline" part tends to mean something more like "punishment," rather than "a codified mode of study." At any rate, doing a real, formal evaluation of a program is still better than wasting your time doing something that's useless, fruitless, a waste of energy or just a sham. So here's a buch of resources from the internet to help you get going for free. Thanks for this post go to Joyce B. Morris and David Colton, Ph.D., from the EvalTALK Listserv.

Evaluation Resources: The Program Manager's Guide to Evaluation

Taking Stock: A Practical Guide to Evaluating Your Own Programs

Understanding Evaluation: The Way to Better Prevention Programs

The 2002 User-Friendly Handbook for Project Evaluation

User-Friendly Handbook for Mixed Method Evaluations

Tools for Planning, Implementation, and Evaluation

"Also, there are some good, free resources on the Internet and from state and federal government agencies. For example, you can order "Introduction to Program Evaluation for Comprehensive Tobacco Control Programs" (2001) from the CDC (www.cdc.gov/tobacco). Don't be turned off by the reference to tobacco control as that is used for context. The "W.K. Kellogg Foundation Evaluation Handbook" can be ordered from the foundation or is available as a free download in pdf format ."

Databases with Purpose

Jul 25 2005

This post from Tech Soup is a good, brief introduction to the use of databases in your organization.

The author of this article (a nice techie from ONE/Northwest) finds that you should really call in the professional to get things set up — I would agree, but don't let that keep you from learning how to use it.

A database is an investment of time that can really pay off, especially if you have been managing your donor lists, inventory, etc. by hand. But that means you need to know how to use it.

Make sure to check the entire selection of articles about nonprofit databases at Tech Soup.

Here's a bit from the overview:

While it's no simple task, developing a basic Web site made up of pages of text and images is usually a job that can be taken on by the staff of a nonprofit organization, hopefully with a little help from a professional designer who can aid in the development of the site's look and feel. Implementing advanced features on your site, however, will most likely require a level of expertise that doesn't make sense for your organization to internalize. The goal of this article is to explain the benefits of database-driven Web pages as well as the possibilities and vocabulary involved to help you make informed decisions.

Branding Advocacy

Jul 11 2005

Here's an interesting article from an old Harvard Business School Working Knowledge series. It's about branding, which from my perspective is a very diffucult thing to incorporate in online communications.

Websites and emails, for example, need to reflect some kind of graphical relationship with the rest of your organization. But I think they should also reflect a "tone" of your organization and its role in the world.

This article deals with these concerns in a broader sense. Here's a bit:

One of the additional challenges nonprofit brands face is that they must appeal to a broader array of stakeholders. Nonprofit brands have a dual objective: to enhance fundraising and to ensure the implementation of the organization's mission. In addition, nonprofit organizations tend to be more decentralized, with little formal hierarchy. This can mean that implementing activities that protect the brand or attempting to update or modify the brand often meets with resistance internally. In some cases, highly decentralized organizations such as Medecins Sans Frontiers [also known as Doctors without Borders] depend on their brand to provide organization cohesion. The brand is the glue holding the components of the global organization together.

You can read the whole thing here: HBS Working Knowledge: Social Enterprise: The Tricky Business of Nonprofit Brands

What The Hell Is RSS?

May 5 2005

There's a good discussion going on now at TechSoup about how you can use technology to increase capacity of your nonprofit.

Their latest focus is on RSS, which is one of the more amazing technical innovations of modern communications. If you don't know what RSS is, you're not in the loop.

Most notably, you are missing two things. 1.) The ability to prrocess inhuman amounts of information on a regular basis. RSS is used by many sites to create "digests" of (a.k.a. "syndicate") their content. News sites, for example, offer these RSS "feeds" to sections of their newspaper.

It's a lot like having a TiVO for your favorite sites.

Once you subscribe to one, it appears in your RSS reader of choice. In the end, it's a lot like having a TiVO for your favorite sites — every time you sit down and you want to read, you have a list of updated articles in front of you. No wasting your life poking around the less glamorous parts of a newspaper page.

2.) If you have a website that is updated regularly, you can create a RSS feed so that others can subscribe to your page. This may seem a little superfluous if you don't even know what a RSS feed is. "Who would use it?" Plenty of folks will, especially over the next year or two. So start writing some engaging articles for your site.

Here's a bit from the Tech Soup conversation:

"If you're like most people who use the Internet, chances are you often come across new and interesting sites, but then completely forget to visit them again. Or likely you spend too much time visiting the same sites looking for new information, only to be disappointed. In addition, your e-mail inbox is probably flooded with messages you barely have time to read, including subscriptions to newsletters that tell you about new content available on still more Web sites. ... Wouldn't it be nice if there were an easy way to have all this information come to you and go to them in a way that was easy to manage, timely, and put the reader in control? "

Read the article (and check out TechSoup forums, which are among the best of their kind on the web.) TechSoup - Articles: Using the Internet - RSS for Nonprofits:

Let's Send More Emails!

May 3 2005

Here's a great resource for getting your email campaigns in a row: white papers from a consulting group that does email campaigns for a living. They're free; how nice.

Download them here: Return Path Solutions for Increased Email Delivery, Performance

For-Profit NTEN?

May 3 2005

It's rare that you see much criticism of nonprofit organizations. People are getting something done, after all, no matter what particulars you may take affront to their modus operandi.

But we should all be wary of the thought-stifling, fuzzy-feeling environment that lets fundamental missions go unexamined. And it's in that spirit I that I so much appreciate David Geilhufe's recent frustrations with the increasingly for-profit nature of N-TEN's national conference.

You can find his post here: Social Source Software: Where Have The Values Gone?

Email Works. It Even Has A Manifesto.

May 3 2005

If you are investing money in a website with a social justice purpose (do, please), you of course need to be thinking about getting people to your site.

Have you read The Gilbert Center's "Email Manifesto"? It is absolutely the best crystallization of the shape your online strategy should take: make your web presence personal + active. Specifically, spend some time and money on an email strategy. If you really have something that you want to get done with the web, you've got to digest this short essay.

"Stop obsessing about how many hits your web site gets and start counting how much email interaction you have with your stakeholders. Stop waiting for people to discover your web site, and start discovering their mailboxes."

Read it: Nonprofit Online News: The Gilbert Email Manifesto (GEM)</

A Bug's-Eye View

Apr 25 2005

From Digital Web Magazine (a reliable regular read), this article discusses the thought process behind designing a website. Written from the perspective of the web developer, it's also a good introduction for clients.

This is a good article for nonprofit-type folks who are thinking about getting a website.

Here's a bit:

"Interestingly enough, most of the sites I work on don't have the goal of making lots of money. Most of my sites are communication sites, so the goals become a little more complicated. I try to take what the client wants to do and put it in a few sentences of goals, like "cut down on phone calls about the posted schedules, let users know how to get a personal trainer, and present a sophisticated portfolio."

Read the article: Digital Web Magazine - Creating a Site Design Plan

Your Nonprofit Needs A Blog

Apr 22 2005

Mission-Driven nonprofits have, I think, the most to gain from blogging than any other organization or type of individual. If your organization has a site, I think you really should have a blog. There are a number of clear reasons. Seriously.

The reasons to maintain a blog are all about education — which is at the center of most nonprofits' agendas. How many ways can you raise awareness and make changes in people's lives? Blogs offer a number of advantages over newspapers, magazines and flyers as mediums: They are free to print, they are easy to update and they are easily targeted to your base of stakeholders.

Here's an extract from an article published for a 2004 seminar on blogging and Public Relations:

"In the past, you've most likely depended on good relations with traditional media, and some combination of website, e-mail, and printed or electronic publications. Printed magazines and newsletters are expensive to produce, and e-mailed items run the risk of being neither received nor read. A website by itself can't always be updated as quickly as you'd like, and none of these provide the immediacy or the conversational attributes of a blog." Read the article.

Yes, they are certainly cheaper than print — you already have the web space and need only pay for the time it takes to post. If you already have regular emails that you are sending out to a list of subscribers, then you already have the content. By posting them to the web, you can memorialize your communication, keeping your activities transparent and engaging others.

By posting something to the web you are making it public and, even if it is only your staff reading it at first, this can really have a strong mobilizing effect on your organization.

Blogs can also help you build your fundraising mission, but, more importantly, they can also become part of your mission — you can contribute directly to your goals by keeping a record of your creative, collaborative thoughts on the current state of things.

A single-subject blog will help push your organization's site to the top of the Google results, because search engines love pages that are frequently updated. People will begin to find your page more if you put more information on it — and they will be people who are already interested in your subject.

Blogs are truly flexible tools: you can set up multiple blogs to serve multiple purposes. Most notable, you can have a private, group blog for internal communication and a public blog (perhaps maintained by one person) on your website.

Blogs help organize the web: Do you have a ever-expanding folder full of favorites that would be great to share with others concerned about your mission? Post them as you find them (with little reviews to clue people in).

Examples of other nonprofit blogs:

http://www.citizensleague.net/ "The Citizens League promotes the public interest in Minnesota by involving citizens in identifying and framing critical public policy choices, forging recommendations and advocating their adoption."http://community.oceana.org/ "Organizes campaigns dedicated to restoring and protecting the world's oceans through policy advocacy, science, law and public education.

RTPNet Conference in NC, USA

Mar 30 2005

Registration is now open for the RTPnet Conference, North Carolina's only annual statewide conference that focuses specifically on nonprofit technology. The conference mission is to help nonprofits use technology more effectively. It's May 20th.

Conference subjects this year will focus on: Technology Volunteerism, Technology Infrastructure and Technology Innovation. More than 100 people are expected to attend the conference.

RTPnet is a volunteer-driven, 501 (c)(3) nonprofit corporation dedicated to helping North Carolina nonprofit organizations leverage Internet tools to promote and support their missions. RTPnet has hosted the conference for five straight years around the theme of "Bridging North Carolina's Human/Digital Divide."

RTPnet offers annual fee-based memberships to North Carolina nonprofits and community technology centers in the Southeast. Member benefits include Internet services and discounts to RTPnet-sponsored events.

Who should attend?

  • Nonprofit professionals
  • Technology providers
  • Government officials
  • School administrators and teachers
  • Anyone interested in technology issues affecting the nonprofit sector

Growing Your Nonprofit: and Alternative Model

Feb 25 2005

How do nonprofits grow? That's a much discussed — and much answered question. There are thousands of books, articles, consultants even entire schools devoted to the subject of growing your nonprofit.

But there's not much to growth if you don't have a similar rise in creating change. And growth doesn't necessarily make an organization stronger in the nonprofit world.

That's the idea of Jane Wei-Skillern, at least, and she has the research to back it up. Her investigation into several national nonprofits has led her to appreciate the "networked" model of development over one of scale. It's about who you know, basically — and not being afraid to actually stop doing some services that other organizations might do better if they had your help and guidance.

Here's a bit:

"Previous research with colleagues on growth suggested that growth does not necessarily translate into greater social value creation. Based on interviews and a survey done on nonprofit leaders, managers often cited a preference for growth by branching, i.e., replicating the organization from one site to another and maintaining central control and ownership of the new units.

"What Wei-Skillern and her research colleagues found, however, was that growth did not always lead to the benefits the organizations had anticipated. For example, many organizations anticipated that fundraising would be easier once they were larger. In fact, fundraising did not necessarily become easier with organizational growth, yet significant new costs were created as the organization needed to now manage and coordinate operations across multiple locations.


"[One sucessful but small organization] raised the capacity of the visually impaired charities by creating an umbrella organization with a unified agenda and creating a single voice on certain issues where it was critical. But organizations still had their own brands, did their own fundraising, and were run independently."

Here's the entire article

Stop Making Crappy Ads

Feb 4 2005

Stephen Pinker writes in his book How Minds Work that "the emotions are mechanisms that set the brains highest-level goals." This, it seems, is a good description of why small, mission-driven nonprofits exist despite the innumerable difficulties of keeping such an operation afloat. It's also an essential idea to consider when advertising your organization.

People are drawn to imagery and emotions that inspire them to work for a cause. If you have ever been saddled with the task of creating ads or promotional material for your organization, you would do well to keep these emotions — not facts about your job or accomplishments — at the front of your mind.

This concept is just one idea among many in an immensely useful e-book published a couple of years ago by Cause Communications called Why Bad Ads Happen to Good Causes. It should be in every nonprofit office (unless you have the luxury of an ad department to think about such things). It covers broad ideas like the above, but it also goes into detail about using layout and text to keep people reading and engaged in your message. And it has great reviews of nonprofit ads over the last 10 years. It is, in short, an eminently readable advertising textbook for nonprofits; check it out before your next ad deadline.


Jan 23 2005

NetCorps is now providing the "technology of list enhancement" for nonprofits in NC. I have't worked directly with them but they do good work (in Durham, NC and in Oregon). They have worked with folks at Volunteers for Youth that we are beginning a project with.

If you are interested in nonprofit technology, check out NetCorps LEAP — netcorps.org

From their site, about one of their services:

Membership lists of partnering groups are "enhanced" by appending demographic information, gathered from publicly available voter registration files, to each person's name on the list. This information includes age, ethnicity, gender, congressional and legislative district data, and how many times their members have voted in the last four elections. Strength Through Collaboration LEAP organizations have used their list enhancements internally to help with fund raising, anti-racism work, neighborhood organizing, and collaborative efforts. By bringing together justice-oriented organizations with different backgrounds, diverse approaches to organizing and an array of issue foci, LEAP serves as a platform for statewide collaborative efforts planned and implemented by partnering organizations.

Branding a Nonprofit

Jan 9 2005

If you like to think about branding (not a really pleasant idea, I think), you'd do well to visit the wealth of information at the PND Nonprofits By Design Column.

Read it: PND Nonprofits By Design

ONE/NW on Using Bloglines and del.icio.us

Dec 20 2004

There are some very sophisticated techniques emerging into the semi-mainstream this year. You may not have noticed, and you may not care. But if you can get the hang of it managing the blogosphere, there's a lot to be learned.

Rediscover your interests and your profession with the new tools of online networking: Blogs, tags and syndication.

Even if you don't have a blog and don't want to publish content, this stuff is for you. ONE/Northwest has a good tutorial on a couple of the most important tools.

Are you drowning in email that you don't have time to read? And do you also feel a gnawing sense that you're missing out on critical information? Welcome to the paradox of the "information age." While we can't help you stop the world from turning, in this article we'll introduce you to Bloglines and del.icio.us, two exciting new tools that can help you tame your inbox, find relevant information that you're missing, and share it more effectively with your colleagues and allies.

Check it out: Environmental technology, services, software for Northwest conservation groups - ONE/Northwest

Paul Farmer: A (Deserving) Nonprofit Celebrity

Feb 20 2004

Paul Farmer is an amazing member of the "nonprofit community," famous in his own circles of public health and international development. The Stanford Social Innovation Review, (an excellent magazine) has a lovely extended interview with him about his work and his perspective. If you have not read about his work, this is a good introduction.

What makes his vision so wonderful, I think, is his ability to keep the big picture right in front of him. He does not let his job come in the way of his purpose. As a public health practicioner, he says this means 2 things: 1.) Remaining a practitioner (and not becoming a more profitable, detached, consultant. ) and 2.) "doing what it takes" to make sure that health needs are being met in communities in need. For him this mean the "controversial" practice of monitoring patient's perscription drug use. By being more in the post-treatment phase of his patients lives, he has forced himself into a nontraditional role that works. The article touches briefly on this point, but it is captured much better in his book "Pathologies of Power: Health, Human Rights, and the New War on the Poor." If you have any interest in international health and development, this is a great read.

Here's a bit from the Stanford article:

In 1987, physician and anthropologist Paul Farmer founded Partners in Health to treat tuberculosis and other infectious diseases among Haiti's rural poor. Since that time, his organization has expanded to care and advocate for the world's poorest and sickest, in sites as diverse as Siberian prisons, Peruvian shantytowns, and Boston's inner-city neighborhoods. The organization has also clarified its broader goal: to address the inequity and injustice that underlie much of human suffering.

Read the Stanford Social Review interview with Paul Farmer: SSIR: Articles