Laura Quinn's blog

Why needs your help needs your help to survive. Do you need more reasons to go donate now? Here's one.

Five years ago, I was a website consultant to nonprofits. I had an idea -- hey, someone should do reviews and information about nonprofit software that all organizations can benefit from! -- and I talked to a bunch of people to see if the idea had legs.

One of the people I spoke with was Ami Dar, the Executive Director of Idealist. I don't even know how I connected with him -- did I cold call him? He's exactly the type of person who's genuinely nice enough and helpful enough to take a call from a miscellaneous person with questions.

He had a lot of useful thoughts and insights about the idea that was to become Idealware, but he said one thing in particular that I've never forgotten, and has proven true over and over. He said (and I'm paraphrasing here): "The more you try to support all nonprofits, everywhere, the less likely you are to get funding."

It's completely counter-intuitive, but true. I think it's the same phenomenon as the Bystander Effect -- the idea that someone is less likely to help someone in trouble if there's a bunch of people also there. Nonprofits like Idealist help so many people that it never seems to a donor as specific or pressing a thing to support as other causes. It's easy to understand -- for instance, your local job fair clinic in Boston is right there, and you know it doesn't have a big pool of donors. If you live in Kentucky, it's easy to see why you should support a site targeted to help people in rural areas find jobs.

But this reasoning is faulty when it comes to critical organizations like Idealist. They provide job fair clinics in Boston... and dozens of other locations. They help people in rural area find jobs... along with hundreds of thousands of others. They're one of the pieces of infrastructure by which the nonprofit sector works, and just like any organization, if they can't get support, they go under.

Which is in danger of happening now. One of their principle income sources was from job listings, and job listings, as you can imagine, are not what they used to be.

Do you want Idealist to survive? Would you be bummed if they were gone? Then don't wait for other people to support them. Go donate yourself.

Introducing the Field Guide to Software for Nonprofits

We're excited to announce the launch of our very first book -- the Idealware Field Guide to Software for Nonprofits: Fundraising, Communications, and Outreach. I'm really proud of it -- it's 84 pages summarizing what we've learned about software over the last four years, as a quick reference as to what software exists and what might make sense for you based on your needs and level of tech savvy. And then it gives a quick summary of what you might pay, what you can get, and some of the key vendors for each of 34 types of software.

Basically, it's like a neutron star of nonprofit software information. Concise but incredibly packed with info. I've had a printed copy on my desk for almost a month now, and let me tell you: I refer to it almost every day to look up something... and I co-wrote the thing.

It's a real paperbook book. Buy it from Lulu for $19.95 and it will be shipped to your door.

Four ways to send a SMS (a mobile text)

We're hard at work on a lot of work in regard to mobile texting and and mobile apps (funded in part by the Research Fund... and all of you who donated to it! Thanks you!). I've learned a lot, but among them: the world of SMS (meaning "Short Message Service", the official name for a text message) is a darn complicated one.

As we at Idealware like to break things down, we've broken down the ways to send a text into four categories.
  • SMS as email. It's usually possible to send people a text message simply by emailing it to an email address consisting of their phone number and then their provider's domain (i.e. This is not actually officially supported, and can lead to problems when doing it in quantity, but can be an easy method for a few quick (or internal) texts. You also have the problem of collecting providers and provider domains, which is a kind of unusual thing to ask supporters for. But it's free.
  • Connecting your phone to your computer. There are software packages -- like Frontline SMS or Microsoft SMS -- which allow you to literally hook your cell phone to your computer and send a bunch of messages out through your own cell phone. This is more common (for reasons we're still investigating) in third world countries than in the US. The software is inexpensive.
  • SMS via programmatic services. If you have a programmer, you can use services like Click-a-Tell that allow you to send messages by communicating via API. For instance, Click-a-Tell is often used in conjunction with Drupal for either one way broadcast texting, or more sophisticated processes like letting people sign up via texting, or providing dynamic info (like the weather). Click-a-Tell is priced by the message, averaging about $0.04/ message. There's also open source software like Kannel and Gammu which we think falls into this category.
  • SMS in a box. Finally, there are vendors like Mobile Commons and Distributive Networks who provide you a nice packaged service, and an interface, very much like a broadcast email interface, that lets non-technical people easily set up texting streams -- to let people signup via text, broadcast texts, setup complex two-way interactions, or donate. We're investigating pricing, but they're not cheap. Perhaps starting at $200- $500/month?
So as you can tell, we've still got a ways to go on our research -- would love to hear your thoughts (either via comment below, or via email) if you can fill in any of our blanks or if you think we've gotten this wrong.

The Joy of Google Ads

Not enough people are taking advantage of Google Ads, in my opinion. They're a really useful tool -- affordable enough for most nonprofits, and in fact free to qualified ones.

How do they work? You create a short text ad, choose the keywords and geographic area you’d like to reach, and Google posts your ad next to searches for them. So for instance, I could choose to show my ad if people from Virginia search with a phrase that includes "food pantry". The cost depends on the popularity of the keywords you choose, but often starts at just a few cents per each user who clicks through to your site—and you can cap the amount you spend per day. Google provides easy-to-use tools to track your results and optimize campaigns, making it straightforward to manage. There's lots more information on their website.

Nonprofits who use Google Ads often get substantial results, making them a high bang-for-the-buck way to reach new constituents. Even better, qualifying nonprofits can get up to $10,000 per month in free Google AdWords advertising through the Google Grants program. The majority of nonprofits are approved (though it appears that those that are religiously or politically affiliated are less likely to be approved). And the application is easy, less than an hour to complete even including getting up to speed on how to write an ad (the application includes a sample of the type ad you would run). So it's worthwhile for almost every nonprofit to apply. The Google Grants site has all the information you'll need.

Avoiding Technology Ice Dunes

This may be a metaphor that doesn't mean a lot to you southern and California people, but Idealware's based in Portland, Maine, and up here we give a fair amount of thought to snow. I was shoveling out the driveway from our first big snow of the season (maybe 6") yesterday, and while I did it, I was giving a fair amount of thought between the overlap in shoveling and technology planning. Bear with me here.

While you're shoveling out your driveway, you plan how much room you'll leave for the cars. Maybe you're feeling lazy, and you shovel out a passageway with just an inch or two to spare. Or maybe it's an easy shoveling job, and you shovel out generous room to turn in from both sides of the street.

It doesn't feel like a decision of much importance, until you've lived somewhere where it's below freezing most of the winter. Here, you build some serious snow dunes with what you've removed from the driveway. And soon those dunes thaw a little, freeze a little, and there's a little rain, and a little more snow on top of them... and within a few days your casually shoveled banks of snow become impenetrable blocks of ice. Which may well be with you until spring, unless you have an unseasonable thaw or invest a lot of backbreaking labor.

Okay, so here's where the metaphor comes in. There's a lot of technology decisions that we as nonprofits approach just as casually. But just as often, our decisions can be with us for much longer than we thought they would. You decide to just throw up a temporary website without a lot of thought to the structure... but then between one thing and another, you're still using it two years later. You decide to use a particular piece of software mostly because you need something in a hurry, but then your staff is used to it, knows how to use it, and doesn't want to change.

Change is hard, whether it's chipping through the ice to widen your driveway, or trying to move off something you've been using for a while. It's worth giving a little extra thought when you're making those "temporary" decisions, to consider whether they're likely to make your life a misery if you need to try to maneuver though between the barricades they've imposed for much longer than you planned.

Help put us over the top for the Research Fund!

We're getting really, really close! As of 1:45 this afternoon, we have $14,380 towards our goal of $15,000 for the Idealware Research Fund!

Only $620 to hit the goal. Can you help us hit $15,000?

Any amount can help us transform nonprofits' work --allowing shelters to help more people, advocacy and arts organizations to reach a wider audience, and environmental groups to make more of a difference.

Can you donate now?

We can't say thanks enough to all our donors, but especially the consulting firms who made this possible with their generous donations. A huge thank you to Phase 2 Technologies, who came through with a thrilling last minute $1000 donation. And we wouldn't be anywhere near this close without the help of the firms that donated at the $500 level: Beaconfire Consulting, Exponent Partners, Database Designs Associates, and Rad Campaign.

Thanks to them and all of you guys, we're so close I can taste it!

Help your local museum, food pantry, and the environment all at once

We've just launched a campaign I'm really excited about: The Idealware Research Fund.

Almost all nonprofits struggle to keep up effectively with new software tools and tactics. Many have no one with technology experience on staff, and no one to ask for reliable software information. That's where Idealware comes in!

By helping us to seed the Idealware Research Fund, you can provide them with information about the software choices that can transform their work—increasing the effectiveness and efficiency of vast numbers of nonprofits working on critical issues, from decreasing illiteracy rates, helping abused animals, fighting global warming, and so much more.

Help us raise $15,000 by Dec 31 by making a tax-deductible gift to the Idealware Research Fund today.

The Idealware Research Fund will give us the flexibility to create the new, high-quality research that will most help nonprofits. By supporting the Fund, you will allow us to build on our base of more than four years and hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of software research to provide the new resources that nonprofits need most, like on social media tools, mobile text messaging, constituent databases, and more.

Please help provide nonprofits the software information they need to effectively tackle their missions by making a gift to the Idealware Research Fund.

And, most importantly, thank you for your continued support of Idealware!

Should You Just Spend the Time Calling Donors Instead?

For a lot of more traditional fundraisers and nonprofit managers, communicating via the internet is a kind of scary idea. It's hard to believe in the economy of scale that communication technologies can provide and to believe that sending broadcast emails or creating a Facebook page, for instance, can ever be helpful in developing the type of personal connections that nonprofits rely on.

In my line of work though, I just as often run into nonprofit technology staff and consultants who I think have an *over-reliance* on technology. Technology is the hammer for which many things becomes the nail. Want to communicate with donors? Let's do email! Facebook! A blog! We need to use these online tools to start a conversation! Those things absolutely can be useful, but it's important to prioritize them against other things you might do.

For instance, you could spend that time simply calling donors and constituents at random, to thank them, or to ask them a quick set of questions (how did they like the services they used? what do you do well? not so well?). If you've never done this, it can be pretty magical. Often people are amazed that you've called, happy to talk, and have useful insights. It gives you a great sense as to who your constituents actually are and what they care about. And not coincidentally, my experience is that it fosters great new connections. People want to volunteer, wanted to ask you something, and, not coincidentally, donate at considerably higher rates after. Nothing starts a conversation like, well, an actual conversation.

I think this is a really useful bar to measure online communication techniques against. Should I send that email, create that Facebook page, write that blog, or would it be more effective to just spend that time calling donors?

Emails often pass that threshold - for instance, we spend about two hours a month sending out our eNews. It's pretty clear to me that the number of people that we reach and affect (and inspire to help us) by sending out resources beats the number of people we could connect with by phone. But Facebook? The jury's still out for me on that one (though just trying it out is mission related for us - so we have the luxury of investing for other reasons).

And blogs? A tough call, based on the goals you're trying to achieve. A blog can help you reach out to more people, have conversations that you hadn't considered, and show you as an expert to the press and your sector. But it's so time consuming for your staff people (assuming it's actually a staff blog). Would you gain more by spending that couple of hours a week calling donors? Perhaps. It's worth considering.

Event and Auction Management Software - for your review

Here's another blurb we're working on for our Field Guide to Software for Nonprofits - this one on software to manage the LOGISTICS (not just the registration, which is a different topic) of events. We'd love your comments on this, if you have them - we're not sure if we've found all the appropriate software that might apply here. Special thanks to Heather Mason of A Caspian Production for contributing her event management expertise - though any errors are ours, as she hasn't reviewed it!

A large event has a lot of logistics to manage – will you have sponsors? What’s the budget? Where will people sit? What rooms will be used for what? Some Donor Management Systems, Constituent Relationship Management Systems, or member/ association management software can help with these details. If your event involves organizing volunteers, some volunteer management systems can provide useful functionality to manage who will be doing what and when. While it can be useful to have event management functionality integrated with other constituent management functions, the feature set provided by these types of tools is often not as sophisticated as is offered in stand alone packages.

More sophisticated Online Event Registration packages also frequently have event management capabilities – for instance, to assign seats or do some basic management of agendas and rooms. If you’re primarily trying to manage attendee details (for instance, session preferences, seat assignment, or meal preferences), having this functionality combined with the tool you’re using to do online registration makes a lot of sense.

As your events become more complex, keep in mind that no software will actually plan all the details for you – if your logistics become more complicated than what you can easily manage in Excel, it might well make sense to hire an experienced event planner and use whatever software they recommend. However, there are a number of packages - like StarCite and eTouches – that are designed help you to track complex logistics, speakers, rooms and budgets, as well as manage all your attendee registration details for huge events and conferences.

Live and silent auctions tend to have a particularly difficult set of information to track. You’ll need to track the items that you’re selling, their fair market value, the buyer, and the selling price – and be able to generate bills and receipts on site within minutes of the auction itself. Software packages like AuctionPay and ReadySetAuction provide tailored functionality specifically to meet these needs.

Strategies for Adapting to the Shifting Media Landscape

One World is putting on an interesting seminar in Washington coming up next week, on Thurs Oct. 15: New Communications Strategies for Nonprofits. A number of great speakers will talk about how your organization can effectively adapt your communications strategies to the challenges and opportunities presented by the shifting media landscape.

Suzanne Turner, President of Turner Strategies, will talk about how the media landscape has shifted and how nonprofits can adapt and position themselves to effectively communicate about their issues.

Colin Delany of, will talk about tools and tactics organizations can employ over both the short and long terms to leverage the explosion of influential voices online to create action in the real world.

Kira Marchenese, Director of Online Communications at Environmental Defense Fund, will share examples of how EDF is dealing with the challenges of the new media landscape.

This meeting will take place in Washington, DC. It costs $30 for staff OneWorld partner organizations and for others it costs $60 to participate in the meeting. Register at
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