Heather Gardner-Madras's blog

Sproutbuilder Update and Alternatives

Last month nifty WYSIWYG online flash widget maker Sproutbuilder announced its plan to move to all pay accounts by March and like a lot of organizations I was pretty concerned about what this meant for my nonprofit clients. Assurances that Sprout Inc. is committed to the sector turned into the news that there would be limited free accounts and some discount for official organizations. Last week a modified pricing structure was announced and some solid information about what is available for nonprofits became available.

The short story is that verified nonprofits can create up to 5 widgets (sprouts) with 100MB Storage and 10GB bandwidth available with a free account. Other pricing tiers will be half price or $30/mo for 5-15 sprouts and $150/mo for 15-30.

While this is decidedly good news, I did feel the need in the interim to see what alternatives exist and if any are worth exploring in more depth. The caveats about any free application or software service still apply of course and the original Idealware post on these developments by Michelle Murrain is well worth reading.

At first it looks like there are more options and decisions to make than on a new cell phone plan. But when I narrowed down the field with the following criteria some likely candidates emerged.
  1. Offers a free version and looks to remain so
  2. Interface to build widgets doesn't require HTML, javascript or programming knowledge
  3. Interface is relatively easy to use
  4. Ability to have many types of content on several pages or tabs - photos, video, feeds, text areas
  5. Ability to customize formatting and style elements, background, text etc.

Alternatives I plan to check out in more depth include Wix, PopFly (from Microsoft) and iWidgets. I have just done a little preliminary investigation and playing around at this point, but here are my notes on each and a longer list of the other options I found.

Wix: http://www.wix.com/
Probably the closest match to Sproutbuilder's ease of use and functionality but definitely geared more towards the MySpace style and audience. This shows in the widget building interface making it a bit jumbled and not that efficient for building tasks. They do have some nice add in elements like Google maps and a contact form. Free version includes a self-promotional footer when the widget is embedded.

Popfly : http://www.popfly.com/
I haven't made it far into actually producing a widget yet because it requires Microsoft Silverlight browser plug in to be installed on my computer and I am not sure I want to make that kind of commitment yet to something I may never use. The orientation here is on flash games and mash-ups, but it does seem possible to create content+feed type widgets as well. I would love to hear from anyone that has tried or is using this since the idea of easy-to-make, shareable game widgets seems appealing for some nonprofits.

iWidget: http://www.iwidgets.com/
Advertising is added to widgets that don't contain any of their own, so the fit for the nonprofit community isn't great. The interface required an initial set up that included URL links to images hosted elsewhere, which might be a slight technology barrier but the actual content addition and customization interface seems solid.

The others
Widgetbox: http://www.widgetbox.com/
Seems powerful but requires pretty solid coding knowledge it looks like.

Yahoo Widgets: http://widgets.yahoo.com/widgets/widget-maker
Also a probably a pretty powerful tool for those with tech chops.

Blist Widgets: http://www.blist.com/what-is-blist/blist-widgets
Pretty sweet looking excel spreadsheet type data display widgets with interactive possiblities but limited to data input/output as far as I can tell.

Dapper widgets: http://www.dapper.net
Offers the ability to generate a wide variety of output types (google gadgets for example) from data collected from a web site - static or RSS feed and might be worth another look.

KickApps: http://www.kickapps.com/widgets
Seems like widget creation is part of a larger package that requires a $100 minimum fee.

Clearspring: http://www.clearspring.com/services/widgetmedia
A forerunner in the widget field but it doesn't look like they have any free or nonprofit plans available.

These notes were the result of a very quick look around and I would be happy for any additions or corrections to my brief survey and initial thoughts. There are a lot of neat services out there and I know I didn't find all of them or look at all of the functionalities they offer. None of the ones I summarized seems to have the same combination of ease of use and power found in Sproutbuilder though, so for now their 5 widgets for free plan still looks like a good starting place for nonprofits wanting to create their first widgets.

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.

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.

Making a case for upgrading to WordPress 2.7

One of the lesser joys of using open source & free software has been the need to do important security and core feature upgrades manually and sometimes frequently. Although I have been a long time fan of WordPress as a super simple CMS for small sites that need dead easy administration for non-tech types, I have not loved the continual updates it requires. I will admit that this has been known to make me crabby in the past and perhaps not as diligent about keeping all my sites up to date as I should be.

Well, WordPress just released another major upgrade - 2.7 (Coltrain), but this one is clearly worth doing and doing right now. Especially since, from here on out, they are automating the upgrade process and making it available from within the administrative interface. Woo Hoo!

If you are using Word Press and need to upgrade here are a few good reasons to bite the bullet and do it now. These are primarily from the perspective of using WordPress as a lightweight CMS and not as oriented to hardcore blogging, where there are also significant improvements, especially with comment management.

The value adds:

Last manual update ever (almost). As mentioned - they have pretty much automated the upgrade process for future releases. If you have gotten fancy and tweaked core files you will need to save your changes and incorporate them of course but for most users this will make it possible for non technical folks to keep their systems up to date without as much help.

One of my favorite improvements is the integrated plug in browser and installer. This little feature not only lets you see if a plug in exists for what you are trying to do but lets you know if its compatible and automates updates, meaning no more need to download, unzip and FTP. Its very nice, but maybe a bit dangerous since they have made it way too easy to load up your site with a ton of bells and whistles.

Themes also now provide alerts when updates are available but as of yet, no automated one click install.

Most secure version yet. Current WordPress users might remember the onslaught of hacking that occurred last spring and hopefully already had upgraded to at least 2.5 and avoided the pain those of us that had to dig out of a hack experienced. Although more security was introduced with 2.5 and subsequent releases, every new version protects you from more known vulnerabilities, so having the latest is always a good idea.

New and actually improved interface. Through a community wide effort WordPress enlisted some top talent to make the administrative experience so much smoother and shinier and more usable to boot.

The vertical navigation might take a few minutes to get used to but it does make a lot more sense. Another neato but also practical feature is the ability to choose what tools and content display on each administrative screen - if you don't care about the latest theme news you can hide that feed and you won't have to scroll past it anymore.

Faster, easier, writing and editing. Quick edit and bulk editing for pages and posts is really useful for larger sites and much faster than loading individual post editing screen for simple changes to the non-content areas. I'm still waiting for a faster method of ordering pages but this is a big step in the right direction.

And the behind the scenes speed enhancements they have included are a major bonus for those of us on shared bandwidth. The fancy 2.5 "new and improved" editor was a bit buggy and heavy to load but 2.7 seems to have smoothed things out.

The more robust media manager is another nice addition for anyone that wants to offer PDF and zip files for download on their site without the hassle of FTP'ing files to the server.

The downsides.

Lack of plug in or theme compatibility. While I could see clearly that this particular upgrade was a huge step forward and well worth it, I almost decided to wait on one site because it would mean losing a particular plug in what was not compatible. And looking up the author it was clear he wouldn't have time to update it in the near future. In the end I made the leap and will just have to wait for some of my favorite add-ons to catch up. If you use a specific plug in that is very important to your overall site functionality or your theme is heavily customized and you have hacked core files, this can be a tough call.

The good news is that the WordPress community is pretty intent on promoting core improvements to help theme and plug in developers make their work compatible and create new options more easily.

You have already put off upgrades for too long. If you are on an older version of WordPress getting to 2.7 may be a bumpy ride. For anyone using WordPress versions below 2.5 there can be some headaches in making the leap - often around the changes to the way the database works in the newer versions. Making the switch through a series of progressive updates can start to look like shoving a square peg in a round hole. It might be possible to export your existing content and import it into a fresh install of 2.7 but you might lose some information along the way.

Upgrades from later versions (2.5 + 2.6) have been fairly painless but as always, backup before you start making changes, turn off all your plug ins and follow the instructions. I look forward to a pain free upgrade future, let's hope it happens.

My Top 10 Super Handy Links

Inspired by Eric Leland's post Wonderful Tools for Web Developers, here are some of the links I use all the time and keep close to the top of my bookmarks. If you work on a web or communications team I think you will find them useful too. If you have a favorite free online tool you can't live without, share it in the comments.

Need to know if you are the only one that can't get to a web site? http://downforeveryoneorjustme.com/

Free tool to check out how your site looks on a variety of browsers and platforms (Full disclosure: I use browswercam.com now)

Really cool way to preview screen fonts and compare how they will look online

How do you figure out what that font is on a graphic someone found deep in the archives?

Check your writing against several readability scoring methods and get suggestions on making it more reader friendly.

Just a simple word count tool - nothing fancy, but handy

Lorem Ipsum Generator - when you need some greeking fast

Its always good to know if your code will pass HTML muster

And your if your fancy new styles are legit according to the CSS validator

One more for fun:
For all your twitter and social networking needs - nifty copy-paste symbols

Take the pain out of WYSIWYG

Many website content management systems use something called WYSIWYG (“What you see is what you get”) editors to make entering and formatting content easier for non technical administrators. While these embedded editors can save time and allow organizations to distribute the workload of maintaining the site, there tend to be some points of pain involved for people that expect them to work just like Microsoft Word, which they are built to resemble.

But under the hood they are very different and are creating HTML code for the web. And to make things even more confusing sometimes WYSIWYG editing screens are different than what you actually get when you save your page. Finding out how to get what you really want just takes practice with working your own system, so I have included some handy formatting to explore below.

While each set up may be unique, all WYSIWYG-using administrators can take advantage of a couple basic tips and by learning what the different buttons do on their system.

The Tips

Do Not paste directly from Microsoft Word
This is the single biggest piece of advice for avoiding pain and misery when dealing with a WYSIWYG editor in any system. Even though some will have "Paste from Word" buttons its still way safer to write in the WYSIWYG itself or paste plain text and format with the options available. Headings, text color, paragraphs, bulleted lists and spacing can all become a real nightmare to troubleshoot once Word styling sneaks into the WYSIWYG and if you are fighting with the same formatting over and over its probably best to start fresh rather than try to fix the content.

Why? Microsoft programs use their own logic and styles and they use a LOT of them. Sometimes the behind the scenes code conflicts with the styles set up in your system, sometime they override them and in any case it gets unpredictable and you end up with lots of unnecessary code that slows down your page loading time.

There are a couple ways to get around this unpleasant fact of life.
  • The tried and true: copy from Word, pasting to Notepad or other plain text only editor, copying from Notepad and pasting to the CMS.
  • Save a plain text version: Save the document as plaint text in Word and select "Allow Character Substitution" to remove curly quotes and other symbols that may not be translated into HTML correctly when pasted. You will need to reopen this which is safer again with Notepad.
  • Just write in the WYSIWYG: If you can it might actually end up saving you some time. You can always copy and paste it into a Word doc later.

Make a Practice page and a Style Guide to get the basics down.
One of the best time investments for web editors is getting to know their tools. Training with real content can be incredibly valuable since you will find out what your real world needs are likely to be.

In addition though, I like to have a practice page and/or style guide which is not public so that administrators can get familiar with the editor and know what things will look like so they can use them easily. Often this page contains regularly needed formatting pieces that can be copied and pasted into a new page as a template. I have a template I use regularly that includes most common HTML styles that you can copy and paste into a private page on your site to get started.

Here are a few things I encourage new website administrators to do to make their life easier in the long run. Play around and add the types of content you use the most. Watch out though since once you start finding out how to do new things this can be a lot of fun and get addictive.

Learn what the Heading and other styles look like and when to use each - You should try to use them consistently across your site. There should be some sort of systematic approach based on hierarchy for the best reader experience.

If your web developer has provided CSS styles to use (available from a drop down in the tool bar) use them. They were designed specifically to match your site's design.

Learn how your editor handles line breaks and paragraphs - Different systems do different things and you need to know what to expect when you hit the return key. Does it place a double space (paragraph) or single line break ?

If the return key gives a double space or paragraph and you only want one return, try clicking shift return to just move down one line (creating a single line break in many systems).

You can also try placing the cursor on the second line of the space and hitting delete.

Play around with this until you are able to get consistent results and post the information somewhere for others that are new to the system. Develop a convention for spacing between items so its easy to know what to use.

Learn how to work with images - If your WYSIWYG editor has a button to place images, learn how to use it when you don't need it right away. If you aren't familiar with HTML it might take a little while to learn how to get the most out of it.

Ideally you should learn how to control placement and alignment (right or left), spacing with text and develop a plan for how to incorporate images into a page in a way that is compatible with your overall site design such as a standard image size.

Of course a basic understanding of how to save high quality web images in appropriate sizes and formats is a good idea too. There are various resources on the web for learning how to do this but I wanted to put out a couple of all to common mistakes that can make placing images in your WYSIWYG editor not work well.

  • Make sure you have the right file type - the web can only display jpg, gif or png images and your editor may only accept the first two which are more common.
  • Don't upload a full size digital camera image and shrink it down in the WYSIWYG. Not only will this make your web page take forever to load and will look fuzzy if it works, but trying to add very large images often strains or breaks the system. For this reason most CMS systems usually have restrictions on size - both dimensions (width and height) and file size. Make a note of yours on your practice page if its not readily apparent. Resize your images to the correct final size with graphics software before adding to your page.
Learn how to work with links - Each system has a different way of doing this and it can be different for linking to other pages on the site or to some other web site. Use your practice page to try adding all of the types of links you might need and keep notes there for others if it is not intuitive or takes several steps.

Long story short, you will get the most out of the convenience of a WYSIWYG editor in any system if you take a couple of hours to learn its particular ins and outs. By creating your own workflow and cheat sheet you will avoid a ton of ongoing aggravation. Then, you can use the time and energy recovered to stress out about writing the content itself.

Quick and Dirty Form Builders

This post isn't about Twitter but it did begin with a tweet. I follow lots of nonprofit techies on twitter and am always learning about new applications and software through my colleagues. So when Beth Kanter (if you aren't following her on twitter, you should) asked about formspring.com I checked it out. I hadn't heard of it before, but it got me thinking about the wealth of fast and simple options now available for nonprofits and how making even simple data collection forms used to require contacting some technical volunteer or programmer.

In response to a request for experiences with formspring, Beth received several responses and summed them up concisely in less than 140 characters.

"Seems like folks are using wufoo and google docs for forms - some have used formspring and say it is easy "

So if you just need a short form to collect some basic information these are a few flexible and not too difficult choices. Keep in mind that this is by no means a complete or even necessarily the best in class list. There are of course tons of form creation options out there - just google "easy forms for web site" to see what I mean. If you are looking specifically to do surveys the possibilities continue to expand.

This is just a brief look at the 3 that were mentioned in Beth's tweet and where to find CMS specific options for those using some common open source content management systems. I'd love to hear more about what organizations are using to quick build simple data collection forms on the fly and why.

Simple stand alone forms are useful for things like:
  • contact forms
  • volunteer or job applications
  • surveys
  • supporter story or feedback submissions
  • temporary campaign petitions & sign-ups
  • even event rsvp and registrations
Here is the quick overview:

Seems super easy to use and has a nice set of options on how you want to receive submission information. They offer SSL submission and even payment integration. Their pricing plan offers 3 free forms with up to 15 fields and 50 saved submissions. If you choose a paid plan, you also get storage space for form user uploads and CAPTCHA to prevent spam entries.

This is the one my friends use and it seems to have been around long enough to have established a pretty good reputation. Their gallery can be a great place for ideas and templates to get you started. You have a paid option for SSL secure forms, paypal integration and spam prevention seems to come with the basic free package as well. The pricing plan offers 3 forms for free with up to 10 fields and 100 submissions per month. Paid accounts also include file storage for user uploads.

google docs based forms (more on how to create)
If your organization already has a google apps account and uses spreadsheets this might be the way to go. It's not quite as simple for the novice but very popular and powerful.

I first found out about this Google feature through a site that went up within a few hours after McCain called for postponing the first debate. Originally it was just a plain google doc based form used as a petition in that first day. Eventually the Demand the Debates site was converted to a more traditional and robust site but the original got quite a response and displayed the speed at which you can deploy a quick campaign with simple tools.

Most content management systems either include contact forms or have installable modules that offer them that are easy to integrate with your site. I wanted to provide a few places to look for easy form creation plug ins if you use one of the following systems, even if you aren't a developer.

I've used webform + captcha modules with good results and it was fairly painless to get set up. Customization seems practically unlimited and I will probably use this combination again when the information collected should be kept separate from the main site.

I tried this one out because it was highly rated on drupalmodules.com which is a great resource for sifting through all the modules available from the robust Drupal community.

The only form builder I have used in Joomla is perForms and it works pretty well with some convenient reporting features although set up is a bit less than intuitive, its not too difficult. Unfortunately it doesn't seem to be maintained for the newer versions of Joomla.

For more up to date options, I am sure you can find something that works for your site in their great extensions library.

I've enjoyed using Contact Form 7 on my WordPress sites but there are lots of good options out there. My friend Rowan at Free Flow Data raves about CForms as the pick of the litter with enough powerful features to even be used to create a mini-CRM.

Many of the plug ins labeled as contact forms can do much more - find them in the plug in directory.

And finally a couple of things to keep in mind when using any of these quick and dirty tools to build the forms of your dreams.
  • Data accessiblity - how reusable is the data and how easy is it to integrate with your CRM and other systems? Most of the above feature CSV downloads of form data.
  • SPAM prevention and filtering - is CAPTCHA or other spam prevention available?
  • Security - Make double sure you know and are taking all the necessary precautions when dealing with personal information and money from your supporters.
Many thanks to Beth Kanter for the inspiration to put this list together.

Ask Idealware: eAdvocacy Alternatives to Kintera?

Lenny asks: We're an all volunteer 501c4 that has been using Kintera. They're asking a great deal of money for continuing to use Kintera. We would greatly appreciate suggestions of other service providers. We talked to Democracy in Action but they only help c3's

We do action alerts on state and local issues that enables our readers
to send email to officials like the Governor, state legislators, city councils, and county commissions. We can segment the list and target specific geographic regions, and we're able to provide copy for the readers to send as well.

Heather Gardner-Madras, of gardner madras | strategic creative says:

When Laura asked me about fielding this question I was eager to update my knowledge about what is available in this space, having worked on building such tools back in the day. So I contacted some of the smartest people I know in this arena including Rowan Price and the rest of Free Flow Data, TJ Griffin of Jackson River LLC and Jon Stahl at One Northwest. Unfortunately what I found out just verified what I already knew - your options for email advocacy are pretty limited right now.

Apart from Kintera there are really only 2 other major players that offer the email your representative feature complete with district look up and contact information: CapWiz (which is now Capwiz·XC and owned by Roll Call) and Convio, which is not likely to be less expensive. And although Democracy in Action is exclusively C3, they do have a for profit sister company Wired for Change that works with C4s. However I am not sure you can find the eAdvocacy tools you are looking for through that company.

If you don't need automated user districting and know the email addresses of your advocacy targets, CitizenSpeak might also be worth a look. CitizenSpeak started as, and still maintains, a simple system to create targeted email campaigns, but they recently rebuilt their platform as a Drupal module which opens doors to integrating this with the Drupal CMS. Since its a free open source service you won't find the power and features available from CapWiz and Convio, of course, but it seems to be a solid open source option for smaller organizations mounting targeted campaigns.

These are the main choices that I am aware of but of course I might have overlooked something great. So if readers know of a good option I missed, please leave it in the comments.

There are a couple reasons worth mentioning for this drop off in "Write your Representative" email tools and vendors:
1. Its not economically strategic for vendors to build and maintain email advocacy tools.
In addition to the normal software development costs, the expense and difficulty of maintaining accurate and usable legislative target databases can become prohibitive.

2. The rise and proliferation of Webforms as the only means of online contact for elected officials.
Add to the expense of maintaining up to date contact information the more recent hurdle of cracking the ever growing and mutating number of webforms that legislators now require for contact and the market seems even less profitable.

3. There are growing doubts about whether email blasts to congress are effective.
Many nonprofits have cut back on eAdvocacy due to the reduced effectiveness of this approach in bringing about real policy change. The sheer volume of email congress receives has increased to the point where as Colin Delany says on ePolitics "Hill offices largely ignore them and will often treat thousands of identical messages as essentially a single message ..." At a state level and for custom targets like corporation heads email advocacy can still be effective, but this is obviously a much smaller market for vendors.
So the upshot is that in moving away from Kintera and assessing other tool options, this might be an ideal time to investigate other means of mobilizing your supporters and trying new routes for advocacy as well.

The Ask Idealware posts take on some of the questions that you send us at ask@idealware.org. Have other great options? Disagree with our answer? Help us out by entering your own answer as a comment below.

Its 10 am, do you know where your organization's log ins are?

I'll tell you where they shouldn't be - living in the heads and on the hard drives and post it notes of various disconnected staffers.

If you are from a large organization with crackerjack IT personnel or have the capacity to create permission based information access on an intranet or internal file system, then this post probably isn't for you. You can take the time you would spend reading it to have a snack or maybe make sure everyone's log in information is up to date.

Lots of small and even medium sized organizations, however, tend to grow their software and online systems organically. Often this includes utilizing multiple contractors or volunteers - and this can lead to information organization breakdown. This is especially true if the majority of the staffers aren't too technically oriented and responsibilities are widely spread out.

As a consultant for these types of organizations, often one of the first tasks I face is hunting down and listing out all the various pieces of a group's online efforts. Then it becomes a matter of trying to see what they have in there and how things are set up. But who has the log in to your Google analytics? Or to the photo gallery management database? Sometimes I receive a repeatedly forwarded email, which serves as the only record of the account.

I realize this post is going to trigger serious security concerns for some IT managers and that some passwords are so sensitive they should not be written down. However, I still see far more danger in the confusion that regularly exists in a lot of nonprofits and which leads to things like the reckless forwarding of PayPal account information in an email. Not all organizations can realistically implement and track the ideal security and protocols that experts recommend, but not having any system at all is in my mind far worse. So I still recommend naming a known responsible party that is the keeper of "the list" and setting one up. If a password is super critical you can always put "Ask Bob for password" in that field and still have a better grasp on where to find your information.

What to round up
Every organization with a web site should have a master list or system with main account and log in for each web site, software or tool you use. Who should create and maintain this differs from organization to organization, but someone should have this information at their finger tips, whether that is a senior staff member or the Executive Director.

If you have the time and capacity to do more, you can tier your log in information based on security concerns and set up a distribution policy related to each tier.

You can also expand this idea to internal programs and systems, but in terms of online activities you might need quick and easy access to accounts like these:
  • Server/Hosting - customer service
  • FTP/file transfer
  • Email - both Bulk Sender and Internal
  • Web Site - CMS system
  • Online Donations
  • CRM
  • Advocacy tools
  • Additional Tools Like Surveys, Learning Management Systems etc.
  • Database Management
  • Google Account - Analytics, Maps, And Apps
  • Other Web Statistics/Analytics
  • Media & Social Network Sites (Flickr, You Tube, Facebook, Myspace)
  • Blogs
  • Conference Calling and Presentation Software sites
  • You Get The Idea...
How to corral all the information?

Create a simple locked (offline) spreadsheet: I find that for many groups all that is really possible or needed is a secure spreadsheet that organizes and shows a list of the relevant information. To give you an idea of what this might look like, I have provided an example spreadsheet of what I have found useful that you can use as a template.

Since this information is sensitive I recommend that it be locked with a password that is easy to remember internally but not likely to be guessed by anyone else. One of my clients uses the first letters of each word in their tagline, for example. And obviously access to this file should be controlled and only given to appropriate and trusted people. Some organizations only keep this in printed form in a locked location for extra security.

Use a password keeper program - This method can be easier and more secure but will take a little more effort and organization to get set up. Using the program features and keychains that come with your operating system is not what I am talking about here - there are free and low cost professional programs available that are meant for this very task that are far safer and more suitable.

Although I haven't tried it personally the KeePass program seems to be the most widely recommended. If you have a program you use that you love (or hate) please leave it in the comments and share your thoughts.

KeePass is a free open source password manager, where you can put all your passwords in one database, which is locked with one master key or a key file.

You can find a handy guide on setting this up from LifeHacker:

For more program options and information there are great ideas and tips at TechSoup forums on this topic:

I still recommend starting off by compiling the list above (with or without actual passwords) until you are sure you know what all needs a log in because its such a great way to get an overview of your activities and spot redundancy.

Some thoughts on wrangling
  • The organization should designate the official log in to be used when the account name is visible or used as a profile
  • Each staff user should have their own log in when possible for admin tasks and not share or use the account administrators main password
    • Helps with security when you experience turn over
    • Help them keep track by providing staffers with your template to use
  • Its also handy to set up user/pass convention for organization log ins
  • Designate the keeper(s) of the main login sheet or system and make sure everyone knows who that is.
  • Update the info on your sheet or program whenever it changes
  • Have a system to circulate the appropriate log in information to everyone that needs it
Whatever method you choose, just getting started is worth it. Getting a grip on your logins yields an overview of what you are doing, can point out where internal communications blockages occur and can improve efficiency and satisfaction for the people that manage your online efforts.

Especially if you are about to undertake a redesign or change your site software its a good time to gather in all your logins and passwords. Doing so can serve as a neat little auditing list - some of the tools you already have access to might even surprise you.

And your consultants will thank you.

One Good Voter Registration Widget

In America right now it's impossible to get away from news about the upcoming election.

There are lots of reasons for that, but everyone agrees that it is a really big deal. And it's gotten me to thinking about democratic participation and voter registration. We all know the old saw "If you didn't vote, you can't gripe" (or words to that effect) and although its not enforceable, I tend to subscribe to the theory. A quick peek at recent government data shows about 1/3 of citizens aren't registered to vote. That's a lot of people, and some of them may be your supporters.

No matter what side of the issues you support or whether or not your organization does advocacy, I believe that supporting voter registration online can be a great opportunity for any organization. Thanks to the high stakes this year, youth engagement and some sweet technology, voter registration is even kind of sexy. Think of it as fresh timely content, a chance to engage your supporters in a new way or just a way to provide a helpful tool for site visitors, who will leave you their name and emails as a thank you.

If you are saying, that all sounds great but we're too busy, we don't have high-end tech staff or what will it cost me? I have good news.

Years ago I worked on the design and development of an online voter registration widget for Rock the Vote - and I have to say I thought it was pretty neat. So I took a look around the web to see what's available these days. It quickly became obvious that in this election year RTV/Credo (used to be Working Assets) has gone all out and is the now indisputable king of all voter registration widgets. And that's ok, because the widget is free, easy and brand-able to boot.

What it is - a piece of code you can add to your site to allow voters in any state to fill out their registration form, print it and mail it in. Right on your site. And you get to ask your own questions and collect contact information. Read more about how it works in a great summary at e.politics.

Sign up and grab a widget here: http://registertovoteonline.org/site/signup/

You don't have to spend a lot of time setting it up (I did one in 10 minutes including sign up, custom logo and custom questions). And if you can copy and paste and have access to your HTML you are ready to go. The admin includes some nice tracking info (for list building and thank you's) and options to make this play nice with any web site.

Adding the widget link on your site doesn't have to mean starting a major voter registration campaign - although it could if that fits with what you do. More like a quick and easy home page sidebar feature showing your awareness and good citizenship as an American based organization.

One last thought - Are all the US citizens on your staff registered? Might be a good time to find out and maybe even kick-start your widget with some familiar names.
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