January 2009

Help for the Helpers

If you're in a job that involves supporting technology in any fashion, from web designer to CIO, then the odds are that you do help desk. Formally or not, people come to you with the questions, the "how do I attach a file to my email?", the "what can I do? My screen is frozen", the "I saved my document but I don't know where". Rank doesn't spare you; openly admitting that you can do anything well with computers is equivalent to lifetime membership in the tech support club.

A full time tech support job is, for the most part, an extended roller coaster ride with more down slopes than up. People who are drawn to this work are generally sharp, eager to assist, and take pride in their ability to debug. The down side is that, day after day, it's grueling. There's always a percentage of people who would just as soon smash the machine and go back to their trusty Selectrics. They aren't always happy or polite with the friendly tech who comes to help them.

But the most debilitating aspect of the work is that support techs don't manage their workload. It's randomly and recklessly assigned by the varying needs of their co-workers and the stability of their systems. They never know when they're going to walk in the office to find the donor database is crashed, or the internet line is down. The emails come in, the phone rings, and, to the people calling, everything is a crisis. Or it certainly seems that way. The end result is that career support techs often develop a sense of powerlessness in their work, and the longer it goes on, the less able they are to take proactive action and control of their jobs.

So here are two complimentary actions that can be taken to brighten the life and lighten the load of the support tech.

1. Deploy a trouble ticket system. And make sure that it meets these specifications:

  • Incredibly easy for staff to use. Web-based, linked from their desktop, with, ideally, three fields: Name, priority and problem. The software has to be able to grab additional information automatically, such as the time that the ticket was submitted, and, optimally, the user's department, location and title, but the key point is that people won't use the system if the system is too annoying to use.

  • Every update is automatically emailed to the user and the tech. This is critical. What an automated trouble ticket does best is to inform the customer that their issues are being addressed. Without this communication in place, what stands out in user's minds are the tickets that haven't been resolved. Confirmations of the fixes, sent as they occur, validate the high rate of responsiveness that most help desks maintain.

  • Be clear that the scope of the problem will influence the response time. Fixes that require spending or input from multiple parties are not slam dunks. This communication might warrant additional checkboxes on the submission form for "requires budget" or "requires additional approvals", but formalizing this information helps the customer know that their issue hasn't just been dropped by the tech.

  • Have a default technical staff view that puts open tickets on top. In environments where the telephone is the primary support funnel, things get forgotten, no matter how good and organized the tech is.

There's more to it - good ticket systems feed into, and include links to additional support resources. And they don't replace the telephone - IT has to be readily available. But there should be an understanding that users follow up phone calls with tickets. These are the key strategies that help the seemingly unmanageable stream of support calls fall in line.

2. Allow the support staff to breathe. There has to be an understanding, primarily understood by the support tech, but reinforced by his or her manager, teammates and staff, that only emergencies demand emergency response times. In fact, treating every call as an equally important, must be fixed immediately situation is a strategy for failure. Support Techs need to do effective triage, and put aside time to analyze and act proactively to solve user problems. If they deal with the same questions over and over, they have to write and publish the solutions. If the calls indicate a common problem that can be solved with a better application or an upgrade, they need to be able to step back and assess that. Smart managers will enforce this measured approach. At first, it will go against the grain of service-oriented staff, but it's a must, because the measured response begets the more comprehensive solution to any problem.

A Look at Social Media Activity

We have a Business Week diagram in our Considering Social Media for Your Organization seminar that everyone keeps asking me for - so here it is. The data shouldn't be considered gospel (I'm pretty sure it's the same Forrester data everyone uses for this, so it's from 2006, and only describes "online consumers", whatever that might mean) but it provides a really useful talking aid for thinking about what folks are doing with social media across age ranges.

The difference between younger and older folks is just amazing, for instance. As per this data, 60-70% of folks over 50 weren't doing anything with social media, including reading it. But 70% of folks 18-21 years old - an incredibly high number to be doing anything -were using social networking sites. 30% of folks 22-26 years old were *creating* content online, as opposed to less than 7% of folks over 50.

View in an actually legible format, on the Business Week site.

Should you use a volunteer or intern to do your social media?

Lately I have been doing some research about options for communications for Idealware and its become apparent that most organizations are hedging their bets with social media and cautiously dipping toes (sometimes more) into outreach on sites like My Space and Facebook. Everyone seems to agree on the potential of this area but its tricky to devote resources into getting involved in new arenas when resources are stretched tight as it is and desperately needed elsewhere.

One of the recurrent suggestions I keep hearing is to get a youngster (from teen to 30) that has a native understanding of MySpace, Facebook and Twitter to help you out - like an intern or volunteer. Seems like a good idea to me, that keeps the organization up to date, open to new opportunities and avoids a painful (and expensive) learning curve for staff that are already a bit overwhelmed managing "older" technologies like the Web site CMS and CRM software.

So on the one hand, it seems like a great way to explore social media without a big investment in fledgling area that is not yet proven to really be effective. But on the other, something about hearing it over and over made me slightly queasy. Indulging in a little navel gazing I realized that it sounded an awful lot like what organizations were saying and doing about getting on the Web in the first place. "Our board member's son is a whiz with that internet stuff and he can make us a Web site for free!"

Don't get me wrong - a lot of talented and generous folks created Web sites for organizations that otherwise would not have been able to get online. And it was a good thing. But look at how we are now - most organizations would not dream of leaving such an important piece of their communications solely in the hands of an intern or volunteer based on their youth and tech skills.

Of course the land of social media is also a horse of an entirely different color. In general, it's much more modular and less rigid, so it can evolve more gracefully than Web sites did in the past, reducing the risk involved. And organizations seem to consider it a supplemental outreach channel at best - but then weren't Web sites once seen that way too?

So I still think enlisting young supporters is always a good idea and that playing to their strengths and knowledge of the new outreach channels just makes sense. And that this type of communication is much more modular and can evolve more gracefully than Web sites did in the past - so the risk is not that great either.

But all of this just has me wondering if organizations will be saying something like "Oh, our [insert social media tool here] is so bad - it was done by a volunteer kid for us years ago - can you fix it?" at some point in the future. Will social media become so important that current experimental forays will come to haunt their organizations? I really don't know.

What do you think? Will organizations regret not making a serious investment in this part of their communications now or will they be glad that they were smart enough to take advantage of the skills and smarts of low budget resources while getting under way? What started as a little brain tickle has piqued my curiosity and I would love to hear your thoughts and ideas on the subject.

Avoiding technology project failure

Usually, we’re all so focused on the good stuff we want to do, it’s hard to step back and consider when and why Information Technology projects go wrong. While success rates vary by project size, company size, project nature and so on, technology researchers at Gartner still figure that about half of corporate technology initiatives fail. Pretty scary, if you aren’t familiar with these statistics.

Luckily, there are folks like Michael Krigsman who pay attention. Michael writes the ZDNet blog on “IT Project Failures,” and you can follow it at http://blogs.zdnet.com/projectfailures.

Michael and Lisbeth Shaw, friends of mine from Boston, founded Asuret (asuret.com) to provide tools and consulting services to increase technology project success rates. With fellow zdnet blogger Paul Greenberg, Michael recently organized a virtual town meeting of technology strategists which I was fortunate enough to take part in. (Check out Paul Greenberg’s book and articles on CRM--customer/contact relationship management--at http://blogs.zdnet.com/crm/ and http://the56group.typepad.com/)

The experience of those in the discussion confirmed Paul’s statistics about corporate CRM projects. The big theme, cultural and collaboration issues predominate over direct technical or formal project management issues as sources of CRM project failure. Implementation of a new system may succeed on its own terms and still fail when users vote with their feet and fail to embrace it. They keep using their private Excel spreadsheets or personal email lists instead of new systems. This is important to think about when day in and day out, we may instead worry about the pace of technology innovation, how hard it is to get the latest and greatest things to work as expected and so on. These are all true, yet its the social and cultural factors which have the highest risk.

Insufficiently involving users from the beginning appears, both in statistics and in experience on the call, as a critical factor when a technically successful project still winds up abandoned or drastically recast. If not involved from the beginning, users won’t bother later on. While this may seem a truism, in my own experience, you may think you are involving users at the right level and to the right degree only to discover months later that you need to go back.

Smaller projects and organizations have limited budgets and limited staff time for concentrated planning. The danger here, which apparently affects large technology projects just as much, is that management focuses on choosing features and functions and selecting a vendor ahead of an effective, well understood, and widely accepted strategy.

Those that know me, know I like to consider where for profit and nonprofit technology planning issues converge and can benefit from each other and where they diverge. In the nonprofit world, we may see technology implementations responding to tight grant funding cycles and too quickly focusing in on formal RFP processes. These pressures may be the particular reason behind inadequate work on culture and strategy despite nonprofit emphasis on them in general.

The Asuret town hall provided a great opportunity to step back and consider these issues with folks from around the country working on pretty diverse projects. To follow the discussion on your own, check out the blogs mentioned above and resources on the Asuret site, which I hope to comment on in a follow up article.

Do You Implement CMSs? Get Listed in Our Directory!

Do you implement content management systems for nonprofits, or help advise them on what CMS to use? Make sure you're listed in the Service Providers Directory in our upcoming report WordPress, Joomla, Drupal, and Plone: Comparing Open Source CMSs for Nonprofits

This report will build on the strong traffic and reputation Idealware already has in open source content management system area. Our article comparing Joomla!, Drupal, and Plone gets more than 2000 unique page views per month, and is in the top four Google search results for any combination of the three platform names! The team, led by Michelle Murrain, will rigorously research the features that are important to nonprofits in Content Management Systems, do a feature by feature comparison of the systems, and then summarize the findings into an easy-to-understand report.

So what is the CMS Service Provider Directory, and how will it help you? All companies, organizations or individuals that advise on or implement Content Management Systems for nonprofit organizations will be listed by region and technology focus in the report. Want to reach tens of thousands of nonprofit staff members who are researching potential content management systems? Basic listings start at just $45. Or want to make more of a splash? Purchase a half-page advertisement!

There's more about the report, directory, pricing, and other advertising opportunities on the website. Katie Guernsey's leading the charge on this for us - you can reach her at katie@idealware.org if you have questions.

And please, pass on the word. I really think this is going to be a great way for nonprofits to find consultants, and vice versa... but only if we can spread the word pretty widely, especially to the smaller firms and independent consultants who are often hard to reach.

The Dangers of Online Services

This week was a bad week for online blogging services. First the blogging service JournalSpace, with hundreds of users, just, well, died, because they didn't have a proper backup. Today, the blogging service SoapBlox, which was used by many progressive political bloggers, such as Pam's House Blend, was hacked, and it is currently unclear how many sites have survived, and what will happen to them.

These are two fairly small, fairly low-profile services (although SoapBlox is considered an extremely important part of the progressive blogosphere.) They hosted a small percentage of the blogs out there (in comparison to, say, TypePad or Blogger.) However, this is, of course, devastating to those who had their blogs there.

Lessons to learn:
  • Always have your own backup of your data/content
  • Remember when setting up a website or blog that if you use a service, the data is not in your hands, but in someone elses
  • Always have a disaster recovery plan

Buying Email Addresses for Your Direct Mail Recipients

I've heard of the idea of email appending - the idea of sending your direct mail list off to a vendor in order to buy email addresses for them. It's intriguing, but as it doesn't seem like many people know about it, I wondered how useful and widespread a practice it is. So I did what I often do when I'm wondering about something in this vein: I sent my question to the smart and friendly folks on the Progressive Exchange discussion list.

And I got a lot of terrific answers! Email appending is certainly something that nonprofits are doing, and finding generally worth doing and a good bang for the buck. Here's a summary of what learned.

Folks mentioned that it can be a useful technique particularly to get a big chunk of names at once, although it's not a perfect technique - matches are not always correct, for instance (i.e. an email address may be for a different person), and depending on precisely what the vendor's doing, it may not really be an opt-in process for the matched people (several recommended starting with an email that allows them to opt-in, or at least easily opt out).

Nonprofit staff are generally seeing match rates of 10-15%, or as high as 20% for a list that's never been matched that contains mostly younger donors (just for references, all the match rates sent to me by vendors were considerably higher than those sent by nonprofit staff). Prices vary widely, from maybe $0.12 - $0.60 per matched name, depending on the size of the starting file ($0.12 would be for millions of names) and how precisely a match is defined (some, for instance only count deliverable addresses or those who opt-in for the list, while other count all addresses). Often, there's a minimum of a couple of thousand dollars.

The performance of the matched list obviously depends on the quality of the list you start with. In general people seemed to find performance okay - not amazing, but not bottom of the barrel.

In terms of vendors, FreshAddress was mentioned by a number of people as a good provider of match services. Also mentioned: TowerData, Astro Data Services.

Thanks as always to everyone on the Progressive Exchange list for their wisdom! Particular thanks to Mikaela King at the CDR Fundraising Group who spent a bunch of time with me on the phone explaining the ins and outs.

Find Inspiration in your Email List

End of year campaigns are finally wrapped up, with their frantic pace of getting the creative in the system on a tight deadline and segmenting like there is no tomorrow. Now you have turned to intensely pouring through all of the open, click through and conversion rates and guaging the success of your appeals. It's one of the more stressful times for communications officers in many of the organizations I know. I hope that everyone can take a breath and take a minute to relax - you've earned it.

With all the hubbub, it's easy to lose site of the real people your email list names represent. These are people that have signed up to hear from your organization because they care about your work and want to support you. So once you have a chance to catch your breath you might want to reconnect with them and get inspired about your outreach all over again.

Here is a little experiment you might want to try with your email or donor list to reconnect.

Take 1 hour a quarter (or even once a month) to check in on who is signing up for your emails or donating to your organization.

Pick 10 (or 20 or 50 if you are fast and efficient) names at random from your supporter list and quickly review their records.

  • What do you know about them?
  • Where do they live, how long have they been with you?
  • Notice any trends or similarities?
  • Any surprises?
  • Take a couple minutes and use your imagination to think about who they are, why they signed up and what they were hoping to get from your organization.

The point of this little exercise is not to find hard data or facts to plan your next campaign around, but to get into the mindset of connecting with your email names as real people.

Taking a look at who is on your list and seeing the names and locations is a great reminder that your list is made up of actual people and it helps to keep this at the forefront of your communications.

Doing this once can reignite your connection to your list members, doing it regularly can provide more insight into why people have signed up and can help you write emails that are more authentic and relevant to the recipients.

Part Two:
If you really want to get some information, take another hour or so and write a handful of random supporters a personal email thanking them for their support and asking what they think of the emails they receive from your organization. Although you don't want to judge too much based on such a small sample, you can bet that if you hear the same complaint or compliment repeatedly its worth thinking about and maybe investigating further.

You might want to include a couple of specific items like the following:
  • Why did you sign up for our email - what were you hoping to receive?
  • Do you read our emails regularly?
  • What is your favorite part of them
  • What is your least favorite thing about our emails?
  • Do you receive too many or too few emails from us?
  • What would you like to see more of?
  • Offer them a link or piece of information that they might find useful - a new article on the web or fact that you have a facebook group for instance.
Everyone likes to be acknowledged and asked their opinion, and the personal touch can mean a lot. At worst you may hear some criticism of your communications, or reach someone with a personal issue with your organization. Thank them and tell them that you are noting this and help solve any issues you can (direct someone that was charged twice by accident to your membership department for instance). In any case you will enhance your brand, spread goodwill and create a deeper engagement with at least one of your constituents. Plus you never know what good things they may want to tell you that they never would have taken the time to say on a survey or web form.

Why do this?

It just takes a small effort to show respect: By taking an hour to reach out and respond, you will have shown your supporter that you are paying attention to the needs of your audience and made them feel special. Since this is a casual effort you control the volume and flow of feedback so it doesn't have to become a giant undertaking or time suck.

New input leads to new ideas: You might also find that its a good way to generate new ideas for segmentation, campaigns and ways to personalize your merge fields in the future. And I believe that having a few personal interactions with some of your list members will change the way you approach your broader communications as well.

Feel good about what you do: Having people give you their email address and invite you to their inbox is a sign that they are on your side and want to be a part of what you do. And if they give you their clicks or money they are showing just how good they feel about being connected with you. That is really pretty amazing and pretty cool if you think about it.

Again, this isn't about accurate statistics about your list, although of course you should make time to review and understand your big picture data too. This is just an exercise to inspire you about your email audience - people just like you that care about your work and your mission. Seeing that you have people in your corner that care about your cause can give you a boost of much needed energy for your next email effort and all the work that comes with doing it well.

Gaming For A Cause

A common goal of modern websites is to provide opportunities to engage. Rather than simply reading and watching, we want to encourage folks to give us feedback, to subscribe, to volunteer, to sign up for an event, to donate or purchase something, to collaborate. I particularly like working on the content challenge - what compelling words and visuals will grab your attention? What will help you understand our goals, and to adopt them as your goals too?

Its challenging to produce a concise, compelling story to illustrate what are often complex problems with various interrelated challenges. It's one thing to produce a short story about a kid in the foster care system who "made it", and quite another to illustrate the complex and maddening government process this same kid had to navigate year after year.

Can games help? A number of organizations have tried. And the strategy would seem to make sense - a recent Pew study finds that more than half of American adults play video games, including a third of those over 65. An interesting example is the ReDistricting Game, which invites people to engage in many of the same decisions elected officials make when determining congressional districts. Another is Escape from Woomera, a game that reconstructs Australian immigration detention centers, and invites players to explore and attempt to break out of these facilities. The Planet Green Game, a collaboration between Starbucks and Global Green USA, challenges players to green a virtual town. Virtual worlds, such as Second Life, allow players to define themselves anew and build communities - nonprofits from TechSoup to NPR engage large constituencies this way.

Games allow the producer to define the rules for engagement tightly coupled with a visual story, helping to direct participants to make various choices that illustrate critical consequences of our actions in real life.

Developing game applications on a small nonprofit budget is challenging, but can be doable. NTEN sponsored a session on video games for social change in 2007 to in part address this point. I am interested to learn more about afforable strategies for nonprofits to use gaming as an engagement strategy.

New Years Resolution Idea - Clean Data

As I've been considering my own New Years Resolutions, I started thinking about what one client was thinking about for 2009. I was asked to put together my thoughts for a data maintenance ‘ritual’ for their new Salesforce system to ensure that they keep their data clean. Fantastic!! It's no new news that working out and eating healthy help you function in life better; similarly, it's old news that clean data helps your organization operate more effectively. Nevertheless, the beginning of the year serves as a new reminder to get in shape. I thought I'd share my quick list culled from various sources here. Would love any other suggestions.


  • Back-up database. Set up an automated backup to be generated that can be download weekly.
  • Duplicate check. Check “Demand Tools” reports regularly to check for duplicates and other redundant data.
  • Scan for junk leads. Doing regular scans for junk Lead records that are filled with gibberish values from sources like online forms.
  • Check For & Tackle Incomplete Records. While most CRMs can validate or require certain data fields, it’s not always easy to ensure a value for every field at the time when a record is generated. For example, if staff import a list of event attendees with only name, title and phone numbers, it has very little value if it needs to be used in an email or direct mail campaign. While appending missing data is may require a lot of manual effort which will feel time consuming, it is a necessary evil to ensure that you have ‘actionable’ data.
  • Returned mail. Update contact records when mail is returned. [Determine policy…what happens? Alert to owner? Purge? Phone call?]


  • Run executive reports weekly/monthly. Use key organizational reports to spot poor data (as well as poor performance). Data that doesn’t match expectations are either an indicator of poor data management or poor performance by the individual.
  • Scan communications lists. Review lists (reports) that School Volunteers will use for communications (email, invitation lists, etc.). Is there missing data? Is data in the right format?
  • Run exceptions reports monthly. Run reports run monthly to find records with incorrect picklist values.


  • Post email cleaning. Use tools in VerticalResponse to identify Returned Mail or Bounced emails so that bad lead records can be updated/purged.
  • Delete or archive old data. Organizations merge, get acquired or shut down, contacts change addresses, change jobs, move within an organization …CRM data does expire. This is an area which is not easily automated and requires investment of time and energy. The more regularly you check for expired data, the healthier your data will be. According to one source, a database unchecked for an entire year can see as much as 30% expired data.
  • Data enrichment. Regularly ask what additional data in each record would help staff do more and have better insight. Adding political campaign contributions? Adding annual revenues of Community Based Organizations or Foundations?