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Unleashing Innovation Case Studies: Residential Services, Inc. (RSI)

In 2012, Idealware worked with our friends at MAP for Nonprofits on Unleashing Innovation: Using Everyday Technology to Improve Nonprofit Services. Since then, the folks at MAP tested an approach to helping nonprofits identify viable opportunities for innovation. You can read all about the pilot program and read a number of case studies in MAP for Nonprofits' Unleashing Innovation: Lessons and Stories from a Pilot Program; we're reprinting a few of the case studies here because we think they're of interest to our audience. This is the first...

Residential Services, Inc. (RSI)

RSI entered the program having recently implemented several technology systems, including a new database. Through the Identifying Needs and Understanding Technology survey – which they chose to send to the entire organization - they realized that internet bandwidth issues were making it difficult to use the new technology. They responded immediately by systematically checking every location’s internet connection, troubleshooting problems, and upgrading network components where needed.

Survey Helps Organization Connect to Internal Tech Concerns

Reflecting on this later, the executive director was glad they had decided to extend the survey to the entire organization, rather than limit it to management and the technology steering group. The survey helped RSI leadership realize that employees – although expressing enthusiasm for adopting new technologies – had become frustrated with the rapid roll-out of recent changes.

As a result, RSI delayed the planned rollout of a new electronic medication administration record system in order to be more thoughtful about managing the change, and ensuring that infrastructure was ready to support the new technology. “We were seeing the signs of problems and frustrations among our staff,” said Executive Director Jon Nelson. “We put everything on hold while we implemented a plan to improve the equipment (modems, routers, firewalls) and work with the developer of the software to make needed improvements.”

Improving Integration of Systems

Through the pilot program, RSI identified that improving internal processes and systems like scheduling, time and attendance offered the most return on  investment. Data silos were leading to inefficiencies, and stood in the way of data analysis. As it turned out, employees were eager to try new tools. Within a month of RSI completing the pilot program, two locations were already piloting and evaluating two different timekeeping tools. Nelson explained, “If we had proposed a change to our timekeeping system from the top down instead of getting the idea from the people who use it, the change would have failed. The chance to learn and demonstrate responsiveness, as a result of this program, definitely built momentum for change.”

The scheduling and time and attendance project is moving ahead at RSI. They have been piloting multiple options at different RSI homes and have been working with a developer to fine tune a scheduling application. They also have broadened the scope of the project to look at software that would better integrate the scheduling and time and attendance data with other payroll data. In addition, they have been sharing questions and ideas with Community Involvement Programs, another participant in their cohort, looking for some common solutions. Holding the implementation of their new electronic medication administration record system, in response to employee concerns, allowed the organization to identify and implement a plan to improve the equipment (modems, routers, firewalls) and the software.

The bottom line is that RSI is using several ideas that came from the pilot program to improve the use of technology at RSI, in an informed, prioritized manner.

Idealware Crowdsourced Cartoon Caption Contest!

 

Thoughts on Voice Recognition Software (As Dictated to Voice Recognition Software)

If you haven't looked into voice recognition software in a while, it's worth taking another look at it. It's come a really long way. 
 
This entire blog post is dictated through my simple Android phone with Google's fault [default] voice recognition software. We've simply put in brackets just wear [where] the software made it pretty unclear what actually I was saying but other than that everything here, including the punctuation, has been dictated. 
 
I have a little bit of experience with it, maybe a couple of weeks, which has helped me with things like the punctuation but in general this is what you get these days when when you dictate something through voice recognition software. 
 
It is interesting to note, however, that even though I have a lot of experience writing, my tone when I dictate it becomes somewhat more informal. Its just hard to speak in the same way that one would write I'm [a] more traditional document.
 
[An additional note, now written in a more traditional way,  Google Chrome (the browser) supports voice dictation--it's a bit of a workaround to create a written document, but will get the job done. Google just announced that it will add voice dictation to Google Doc, which will add a super simple way to dictate.}
 

A Helpful Guide to Video Conferencing

Thinking about introducing video conferencing capabilities to your organization?
 
Legal Services Corporation (LSC) recently handed out a Technology Initiative Grant (TIG) to fund the installation of video conferencing equipment for Legal Assistance of Western New York (LawNY). LSC and LawNY were able to create this:  Building Bridges: An Introduction to Video Conferencing for the Legal Services Community, which acts as a quick guide to getting started with video conferencing. From figuring out if video conferencing is right for your organization to cost and installation, this introduction can help point you in the right direction. Although the guide was created with members of the legal services community in mind, the overall points made are relevant toward anyone thinking about getting started with video conferencing.
 
We especially liked the tips they gave on setting up your video conferencing space. Acoustics and lighting are important, but often overlooked, aspects that can make a substantial improvement on the quality of your conferences for not much additional cost.
 
Feel free to comment on the guide as an experienced video conference user or simply a curious buyer, LawNY will update the FAQs as necessary.
 
The process and sample project described in the guide are likely more thorough and expensive than what a smaller nonprofit might be considering. However, the information they have compiled is still relevant to anyone looking into video conferencing for their organization. You can also check out Cheap and Cheerful Video Conferencing and A Few Good Online Conferencing Tools to supplement what you’ve read here. 

This Just In...

We’re brimming with excitement around Idealware Global Headquarters lately, and wanted to share some of  the news behind it now that the ink is dry. We recently received a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to develop and perform research that contributes to a high-level understanding of how nonprofits in different mission areas are collecting, standardizing, aggregating, and sharing data about program results.
 
Ambitious topic? Yes.
 
We’re taking a broad-but-shallow look across the sector at large, with a number of goals in mind—including identifying where pockets of results data are beginning to be aggregated and shared, and which subsectors are just beginning to make strides in this area.
 
We also want to learn more about the general level of activity for results data-sharing and indicator-standardization across organizations, about shared information about intervention research and random controlled trials, and about the relevant software tools to track results data. In the process, we’re hoping to find out what organizations in each area are supporting results data infrastructure and innovation.  
 
It’s an exciting prospect for us, both because of the topic and because we’re thrilled to be partnered with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. We’re grateful for the opportunity.
 
The results of our research will manifest in a few different forms for the foundation and the public. We’ll share more about those deliverables when we’re closer—for now, we’re already deep into the work, and to help with the project, we’re staffing up with a research assistant position. Interested? Know someone who might be a good fit? Email Director of Research and Operations Elizabeth Pope at Elizabeth@idealware.org.
 
The Gates project isn’t the only thing we’re working on these days—we’ve got a number of new resources in store, some new personnel, and a bright few months ahead. We look forward to sharing it all with you, and appreciate your support of Idealware and all you do to make the world a better place through your own work with nonprofits.
 
 
 
 
 
 

    

Tools for Gantt Charts

When starting a major project—like implementing new software or hardware—it can be difficult to keep track of all the moving parts. From selecting the technology to hiring consultants to training or educating staff members on how to use a new system, there’s a lot on your plate.
 A sample Gantt chart.
One handy tool can help you figure out not only how the trains will run on time, but when they start--and who’s conducting them. A Gantt chart, named by their creator, Henry Gantt, is a graphic representation of a schedule in which activities are displayed in date-placed, horizontal bars expressing duration. That’s a pretty academic definition—I think of it more like a train yard. Each row in the chart is like a set of rails, which is a task, process, or other part of your project. The columns—which could be a week, a month, etc.—are like the train cars. And then you draw a bar, which is your train, to see how many cars are on each train for each process.
 
OK, maybe this train metaphor is running out of steam. But Gantt charts will not--they'll see you through your entire project, and there are a few different methods at your disposal to create them. Sure, you could try to draw it out on paper, but that’s not very 21st Century, and since this is a tech blog, I’m going to jump straight to the technology.
 
The cheapest solution is the DIY method: simply create your Gantt chart by hand in a spreadsheet, using Microsoft Excel or Google Drive. This can certainly work for many situations, as you either already have the software or can get it for free. You’re also not limited in how many charts or projects you have, or how you want to format the chart. On the other hand, if you’re not familiar with how to create a Gantt chart, this method won’t hold your hand, so there will be a bit of a learning curve.
 
If you prefer, there are a number of online tools you can use to create Gantt charts to be shared with or edited by other staff members working on the project. Most tools will offer a free trial, and pricing will likely depend on the number of users, how many projects you can create at one time, or how many resources you can manage. Below are a few lower-cost options you might consider:
 
Ganttic (http://www.ganttic.com/). Ganttic has a free version that allows charts with up to 10 resources, and paid plans start at $14/year/resource.
 
SmartSheet (http://www.smartsheet.com/product-tour/gantt-charts). SmartSheet’s pricing starts at $14/month, and higher tiers offer reporting, the ability to see how your staff members are allocated, and additional users.
 
TeamGantt (https://teamgantt.com/). TeamGantt’s pricing starts at $29/month for the Basic plan, with up to five users and 10 concurrent projects.
 
If your organization frequently needs to manage large projects, consider a project management system like Basecamp or Central Desktop. In addition to providing a central space for everyone working on the project to share and collaborate on documents, create a central calendar, and assign tasks to individuals, some also provide some form of Gantt chart tool, either included in the product or as an add-on. If your organization already uses a project management tool, it’s worth checking to see if it includes Gantt charts before seeking out another online tool.
 
So, there you have it, the Gantt Chart Express. If you haven’t used a Gantt chart before when planning a project, now you know how. And if you already have, then thanks for sticking around through the remedial course.
  

 

Working Upside-Down

Idealware has a long history of internship, and we've had some great interns come and go--a few have even stayed and become integral parts of the Idealware team. As is our tradition, we asked our current intern, Ethan, to introduce himself on our blog.

My title here at Idealware is “Ethan, Research and Fundraising intern.” At least, I think that was the position I applied for a few months ago. I know I’m new in the office but I’ve already edited my role to “Ethan, Learning Intern.” In one week as Idealware’s research and fundraising intern I think it’s safe to say I’ve increased my software knowledge 10 times over and done far more learning than both research and fundraising. Not only is this a testament to the incredible resources and staff here at Idealware, but also a reflection of my own software background.

When it was suggested I write this introductory blog post, I realized how much my view of the world has changed in just one short week here. Before Idealware, Java was still a good cup of coffee, a vendor was the guy you bought hot dogs from at a ballgame, and Salsa tasted great with tortilla chips. Back then I thought I knew remote data had something to do with the TV channels you watch (it doesn’t), and I was pretty sure a dashboard was a part of your car (not always).

I have never been a cutting edge technology guy. I rocked the flip phone for far too long and even my mom says I don’t update Facebook enough. However, I’m still part of a generation that has grown up learning through technology, not just about it. Smart phones, tablets, and even remote data are here and here to stay. I can’t think of a better way to make sure I’m up to speed than by spending my summer learning about it all and helping others to do the same. 

As an intern at Idealware I am surrounded by individuals who possess far more software knowledge than I could even dream exists. This puts me in an interesting position. I’m aware of how intimidating software can be to someone who doesn’t know much about it. And I’m also learning more about how accessible and versatile different types of software can be. Just like a nonprofit seeking to improve efficiency and effectiveness through software, I hope to become more tech-savvy and independent while helping Idealware as much as I can along the way. 

That is not to say it’s going to be easy. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither was the first super-computer (I assume). That being said, I can always look out the window here at beautiful Portland, Maine, and everything in the world that Idealware isn’t going to turn upside down, the buildings, the ocean, the clouds. Especially the clouds. (Did you know the Cloud is something else, too?)

 

Best of the Web: June 2014

The Idealware “Best of the Web” is a monthly roundup of the top nonprofit resources from the Idealware blog, our Facebook page, and our Twitter feed to help you make the right technology decisions. Please forward it along to anyone you think might benefit from it. 
 
The glossary of terms related to nonprofit data practices is ever-growing, and can be intimidating to the uninitiated. What do terms like impact, API, and big data mean for your nonprofit? Our own Laura Quinn breaks down what you need to know in this post for the newly relaunched Markets For Good blog. 
 
Although they are commonly seen as competitors in the CRM marketplace, Microsoft and Salesforce announced in late-May that they plan to join forces. Some say this change will primarily create better integration between Salesforce and Microsoft Office 365, which could mean a better experience for customers of both Cloud solutions. 
 
You may have thought about using infographics or viral images to give your stories a visual edge online, but those aren't the only ways to make your mission eye-catching. If you have compelling location data, and the right story to tie it to, maps can be an engaging component of a donation page, report, or call to action. This article covers the do's and don'ts.
 
Creating an official social media policy can help your staff be clear about expectations when they represent your organization online. Some would say it's a necessity, while others, like the author of this article, would argue that regular conversations and common sense get the job done more effectively. 
 
Your donation page may not get the kind of attention your home page does, but paying attention to details can give your donors a glimpse at your nonprofit's personality before they hit the donate button. From images to text, a donation page that represents your brand accurately and reflects your organization positively can influence donation amount and frequency. John Haydon tells us more.
 
Nonprofits with limited marketing budgets often wonder how much time they need to dedicate to a particular social media tool to get the maximum benefits for their effort. In this post, Heather Mansfield looks at different popular social media platforms, including blogs, Tumblr, and Facebook, and identifies the amount of time you should be putting into them each week.
 
The relationship nonprofits have with data has been on our minds lately, as it has for the folks at Data Analysts for Social Good. We sent our own Elizabeth Pope to the Do Good Data 2014 conference in Chicago to learn more from some of the brightest thinkers around the country. She returned with some recommendations on where nonprofits should look for more information on innovative data practices. 
 
What are the latest trends in social media? What new tools are on people's minds? What content is most engaging? Social Media Examiner summarizes its survey of marketers from multiple sectors through visual representations of the data. 
 
Although everyone has their own tastes and preferences, research says that certain music can make your brain work differently. For example, classical music is said to boost your creativity. What music should you choose to increase your productivity in the office? This hybrid infographic and flowchart will tell you what type tunes to pick based on the work you do.
 
Would you like to suggest a link for Best of the Web? Email it to info@idealware.org. 

What We Talk About When We Talk About Data

This piece by Idealware's Founder and Executive Director Laura Quinn originally appeared on the blog of Markets For Good, an effort by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Liquidnet to improve the system for generating, sharing, and acting upon data and information in the social sector. Click through to the original post to leave a comment and become part of the discussion. Previously, she wrote about changing the conversation about data between nonprofits and foundations. 

The world of nonprofit data is full of buzzwords and jargon that gets tossed around a lot, often indiscriminately. Some of those words have specific definitions that are subtly—and sometimes completely—different from how they’re being used, while others are vague to the extent that they become almost meaningless.

What do we mean when we talk about measuring “impact” or using “Big Data?” Both those words have clear definitions, but are often used ambiguously. And we often describe data as “unstructured,” or talk about a data tool having an “API”—an Application Programming Interface—as if those terms mean something specific and clear, when in reality both are vague enough to leave a wide range of possibilities about the intent behind their use.
 
If anything, the problem is getting worse with time, as if we all know we should be thinking about these big ideas and throw around important-sounding terms without knowing exactly what they mean. If definitions are used inconsistently, what one person hears is not necessarily the same thing the other person said. The fact is, there are already so many obstacles for nonprofits trying to use data more effectively that we don’t need another one—especially one as potentially damaging as a communication gap. It’s critical to know what terminology actually means when you use it, because it might mean something else to your audience.
 
I’ve come up with a list of “usual suspects,” words used incorrectly so often that they’ve almost lost their meaning. At this point I think we’re better off avoiding these terms and adopting new, more-specific ones, as I’ve outlined below.
 
Impact. People throw the word “impact” around all the time. Sometimes it’s a synonym for “results,” or “important outcomes.” Other times it means “something measurable,” or even more vaguely, “some important piece of information about programs that’s more than just how many people showed up.” But the word has an actual meaning—it’s the change you see when you do something, like an experiment or an intervention, over what you would have seen if you had not taken that action. 
 
“Impact” is quite straightforward to define. If you have a control group, the results you see over the results from the control group is your impact. It’s just incredibly difficult to measure in any meaningful way in the nonprofit world. Why? Because to measure any real impact, you have to take into account all the things that could have also had an effect and make sure that you’re not just measuring any of those things. 
At Idealware, we’ve replaced the word “impact” with the term “attributable impact.” While it’s somewhat redundant, the term by definition points out the importance of being able to actually know that your program was the primary cause of the change you want to see. It stresses the importance of being able to correctly attribute that impact to your program rather than measuring changes caused by other factors.
 
In fact, “impact” is often used in such a fuzzy way that I would say it’s no longer a useful term. You’re better off specifying exactly what you mean with a more specific term.
 
Big Data. This term is often used to mean “a lot of data,” but that was neither the original nor intended definition. In fact, “Big Data” is not synonymous at all with the idea of gathering a lot of data and mining it for information. For people who deal with data for a living, the term actually has a very specific meaning: “Data sets that are too large and complex to manipulate or interrogate with standard methods or tools,” according to Google.
 
In the corporate world, this refers to data that is hundreds of terabytes in size, or bigger, and interrelations so complex that new types of systems needed to be invented just a few years ago to store and query the data. A good example of this is the massive marketing efforts run by major retailers—think about the big online catalog companies and all the information they track about visitors to their sites, their purchases and interests, their social media interactions, the keywords and emails they respond to, their spending habits, and more. That’s a ton of data, with extremely complex relationships, stored all over the web.
It’s really unlikely that any nonprofit would use Big Data in the official sense of the definition, but it gets used a lot just the same to means different things, including:
  • More data than we’re used to dealing with
  • More data than can fit onto our computer or into our database
  • Data that’s not structured in a way to make it easy to analyze
  • Data we can mine for insights about our programs
  •  Data we can buy about particular individuals (such as their buying or donation habits)
  • Public data we could pull into our systems to add insight to our data
While people often use Big Data in any of these ways, it’s just not accurate, and it’s likely to confuse people who know the term’s true definition—or who just think it means one of the other things in the list.
 
Unstructured. A vendor might boast that its solution can even support “unstructured” data, or as a sector, we might seek to use “unstructured” data more rigorously—but what, exactly, does that mean? Technically, it doesn’t mean a thing. You could call data unstructured because it’s stored in a database in an unoptimal way, or you could be referring to the more scattered nature of Twitter or Facebook posts. A narrative in a word document is also unstructured, as are handwritten interview notes, or even a videotape of a TV interview. Without more information about the specific type of unstructured data that is desirable to managea, the term itself is meaningless.
 
API. Vendors, nonprofits, andfunders will often talk about the desirability of having APIs to access data. APIs, or Application Programming Interfaces, provide methods of automatically interacting with an application, including its data. Some software packages provide an enormously powerful set of APIs that allow you to pull data in or out in very flexible ways, which can transform your ability to connect up one database to another. 
 
But the term “API” itself refers to only a single procedure that allows you do one thing—it’s a strong and flexible collection of APIs that is useful. The confusion begins when people assume that having any API at all is the end goal when it comes to flexible data sharing, when in fact a single API is just the beginning. A vendor can say, with perfect truth, that a tool has an API when all it allows you to do is to retrieve the first name of a client when you submit a customer ID. It’s an API, but it’s not usefulcertainly not if that’s the only API the vendor offers. Similarly, creating useful APIs for a central metrics collection project is not as simple as adding on an obvious functionality. It’s actually a complex project to define precisely what APIs will be useful and why, how to design and architect them, and how to build them so that others will be able to actually use them effectively. The term “API” in of itself means virtually nothing without clarifying what the API does.
 
These are just a few terms to get the conversation started—I’m confident there are others, and as we become more and more data-centric as a sector, there are bound to be more. We need to close the communications gap before it gets too wide so that we can focus on the meaning of the data we’re gathering rather than the meaning of the words we use to talk about it.
 

Click through to leave a comment on the Markets for Good blog and add your voice to the conversation.

Do Good Data 2014

Last week, I traveled to the Data for Good conference in Chicago. This was the event's second year--its inaugural session was just in 2013. But there was no sophomore slump in sight. The conference drew over 300 folks from all over the country (and at least one Canadian!) to talk about data in the social sector. The opening keynote, by Amy Costello of Tiny Spark, was an honest discussion about how the social good sector needs to be held accountable through hard numbers. Amy's podcast is a must-listen for anyone interested in a tough look at this area. I had the great pleasure of moderating a panel on measuring your impact with some very smart people from the Cara Program, the Museum of Science and Industry, the YMCA of Chicago, Spark, and Chicago Public Libraries. We all agreed that nonprofits need better tools and strategies when it comes to measuring their impact, and were concerned that there's a lack of rigorous definition about what impact measurement even means. The conversation was really fascinating-- thanks to all who came!

I also attended a great case study session on the Chicago Benchmarking Collaborative and how it's helping to break down data silos within social service organizations. Over lunch, I chatted with some very interesting people and came away with the impression that Chicago is definitely one of the most vibrant cities in the country when it comes to innovation in the social good sector. John List's post-lunch keynote was another thought-provoking session-- he's an economist at the University of Chicago, and is involved with the Science of Philanthropy Initiative. SPI is doing pathbreaking work in evaluating fundraising pratices and determining whether the conventional wisdom really holds up to evidence-based scrutiny.

I got to sit in on a session about StriveTogether for only about a half-hour before I had to catch my plane home (which due to the hellish airport situation in Chicago, didn't wind up being until Tuesday morning after all!) but it seems like a really interesting project on continuous improvement for child and youth outcomes. I had to miss Tuesday's sessions, too-- next year, I'll block these dates out well in advance so that doesn't happen again.

I strongly recommend the Data for Good conference to anyone who's interested in this topic, whether you're in Chicagoland or not. Data Analysts for Social Good has just announced a membership program, which seems like a great opportunity to join a community of like-minded data practicioners in this sector. Kudos to Andrew Means and his team for putting together a wonderful conference and making it look easy.

 

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