Emerging tech for nonprofits

Recently, my friends at Washington Trails Association asked me to think about what emerging tech is likely to be relevant for them and for nonprofits generally over the next few years. Here’s an adapted version of what I wrote for them.

This is in no way a comprehensive list — if you’re reading this, I’d love to hear more about what you’re looking at and thinking about!

Customer Journeys

This is not exactly “emerging tech” — it’s more like “tech that is here now but most nonprofits aren’t fully using yet.” Here’s a general background piece from my colleagues at Salesforce. An email drip campaign (e.g. a “welcome series” for new members) is a simple example of a customer journey, and the concept can be elaborated from there.

Many (but not all) bulk email tools can do at least simple marketing journeys, including two from Salesforce: Pardot and Marketing Cloud. Marketing Cloud can is a really powerful tool for building customer journeys, including ones that use both email and SMS, which is pretty neat. Pardot is a bit simpler, and while Salesforce brands it as a “B2B” email tool, my friends at Cloud For Good explain why you shouldn’t be misled by this; it’s actually pretty amazing for nonprofits. And here’s a nice example of how we’re using it for employee onboarding here at Salesforce.org.

I think there is a ton of opportunity for any nonprofit that is trying to raise money, organize a community, or deliver services to explore how to apply customer journey concepts to their work, and that there will be tremendous rewards in both dollars and engagement from plucking the low-hanging fruit. Assuming you already have a decent CRM system that integrates with a bulk email system (and if you don’t — what are you waiting for?), this mostly requires staff time for planning and writing the journeys.

Machine learning

Robots, drones and driverless cars are all over the headlines these days, and there’s lots of distractions and noise, but machine learning is a real thing and we are investing a TON into this at Salesforce right now.

Right now, machine learning requires a fair amount of often-expensive expertise, but what I think we’ll see over the next few years is that companies like Salesforce will “democratize” machine learning techniques by building them into our existing products so that it is easy for non-technical folks to put them to work on their specific business problems. We’ve been starting to roll out the first few machine learning features and there will be a LOT more to come.

Where this will all lead for nonprofit CRM users is still unclear (and the subject of active conversation internally), but I think we can see a few classes of techniques that will be ripe for application:

  • Recommendation systems. Think “Netflix for hiking” or “If you did this, you’ll probably like that.” If you have rich data about what people have already done, then you can start using stats to predict that they might want to do next.
  • Predictive lead scoring. Salesforce is just starting to roll some of this out, but the idea is to use your data to figure out which of your “leads” are “hot prospects” worth spending time on. It is easy to imagine this eventually becoming something that could help you figure out which members to call to try to upgrade to major donor status, or which volunteers are most likely to go from “sign a petition” to “show up for a meeting.”

Bigger picture: we are just starting to figure out how to apply these advanced statistical techniques to nonprofit business problems, and I’m certain that we’re going to see some really interesting stuff emerging from Salesforce and elsewhere over the next 5 years.

If you want to pe deeper here, my data science colleague recommends this blog series: https://medium.com/@ageitgey/machine-learning-is-fun-80ea3ec3c471

It really opened my mind to understanding the techniques and the possibilities. There is a little bit of code, but I just skip over those parts. 😉

Network theory + organizing



This is the cutting edge of advocacy campaigning theory, IMO. Basically the question is: how do we create campaigns that are platforms for people to self-organize and be creative, while providing scaffolding and structure to channel the energy in productive directions and be successful?

Nonprofits have an opportunity to ask themselves

  • What are the opportunities for us to connect users to each other to “do stuff” (advocacy or non-advocacy related)?
  • How do we create a shared vision and common language and then empower network participants to work creatively towards a goal?
  • How do we flow resources to the leaders that emerge out of the network?

One-click giving

Relatively minor, but I saw in the news today that Amazon’s patent on “1-click” is expiring soon, and I think that means we’ll see some really interesting evolution in online giving experiences as more platforms can implement this technically-simple but great-for-UX feature.

When we combine one-click giving with emerging payment networks like Stripe, Apple Pay and others that can remember your credit card information across a broad range of merchants, I think we are on the cusp of a revolution in online giving experiences. The nonprofits that figure this out first are going to see huge jumps in donor engagement.

Alright, that’s what I’ve got. What are you seeing on the horizon?

Essential Firefox Add-ons for Privacy + Security

Here are my must-have Firefox extensions. Most are aimed at blocking ads, minimizing tracking and making the web faster. If you don’t have these installed, give them a try: you’ll be amazed how much faster the web is.

Google Redirects Fixer: why let Google track every search result you click?

HTTPS Everywhere: force secure connections to many popular sites

LastPass: makes it easy to use a unique, secure password for every site — and not have to remember them.

NoScript: prevent sites from running unneeded javascript (warning: probably only suitable for experienced users)

Privacy Badger: block third-party tracking cookies and scripts. Great for both speed and privacy.

Self-Destructing Cookies: only accept cookies from site I trust.

uBlock Origin: block ads.

What tech skills should mission-driven nonprofits expect all of their employees to master?

What tech skills should mission-driven nonprofits expect all of their employees to master?

The-IT-Crowd-006I’m not talking about what we should expect the “digital” people to know — or the IT staff. These folks are always going to require a deeper set of particular skills that are going to vary greatly depending on their role and the particular organization. I’m asking a bigger and more abstract question: what skills should we expect of everyone who works in an organization trying to make change in the world — from the CEO to the administrative assistants, and everyone in between.

Is it simply enough to expect “proficiency with Word, Excel and Outlook?” Or, in 2014, should we be expecting more?

I think we can and should expect more.

Let’s start by unpacking the notion of “proficiency” with “basic office productivity software.”  There’s more here than meets the eye. Here’s my list of tasks I’d expect someone who has solid “intermediate proficiency” with the basic tools that are essential to modern mission-driven work to be able to perform.

1. Format a document with style-based formatting, both in a word processor and in a website content management system
2. Create, share and organize online documents and spreadsheets.
3. Use “tracked changes” or similar document revision features to collaborate on a document with others
4. Perform a basic mail merge from a spreadsheet, and be able to translate basic mail merge concepts to online tools such as broadcast email systems
5. Compose and send a lightly-branded broadcast email message that looks good on a mobile phone
6. Sort and filter a list in a spreadsheet
7. Use common spreadsheet formulas to analyze data like SUM, AVERAGE, MEDIAN
8. Create a simple chart or graph that follows most of Edward Tufte’s rules of good information design
9. Crop and resize an image for use on the web or in an email
10. Create a lightly formatted but professional-looking set of presentation slides that are compliant with an organization’s brand guidelines
11. Set up and use an LCD projector
12. Host and deliver a presentation online through webinar or online meeting software.
13. Use text/video chat software like Skype, Google Hangouts, etc. for real-time communication with colleagues
14. Manage one’s calendar online
15. Book appointments with colleagues and partners electronically
16. Use a password manager to generate and use secure passwords for online services
17. Build a simple online survey and interpret the results
18. Create rules or filters in an email client to organize your inbox
19. Track tasks with a team using tools like Trello, Asana, Basecamp or Evernote
20. Export a list of names or other data from one system in CSV format and upload the list into another system
21. Create and manage an email discussion list
22. Look up and edit contact information for constituents in a CRM database system
23. Bonus: design the agenda for and facilitate an effective small group meeting

Bet you weren’t expecting 23 items. (Hey, did I leave anything important out? Leave a comment!)

Seriously: imagine how much more efficient and effective our organizations would be if we could count on all of our colleagues and allies to have mastered these basic skills.

I’m not naive; this is a high bar. Is the solution then to raise our hiring standards? Maybe. When I’m hiring folks, I certainly attempt to gauge how solid their technology skills are. But I realize that there are a lot of smart, bright and capable folks out there who couldn’t tick all of these boxes. That’s OK. College is supposed to teach you to read, write and think — it’s not supposed to be vocational education.

This means that employers need to be ready to train their people in the practical skills they need to excel in the workplace. Part of the job of any social mission organization is to bring in smart, bright and capable people and help them grow. This takes a strong organizational commitment to making those investments — and a strong organizational culture of peer learning. And you can be sure I am looking to hire people who are motivated and ready to learn (and to teach!).

Folks who are already in the social change workforce: you should see mastering as many of these skills as possible as an essential part of your job. These are the building blocks of 21st century social mission work.

Update 7/4/2014: edited slightly to incorporate great feedback from commenters below and on social media. Thanks, keep the feedback coming!

Minor updates on 8/16/2016. Thanks Natalee Hill!

Transformation, not technology

It occurred to me yesterday that the real challenge we[1] face is not the question of “how do we apply technology tools to organizations?” but more “how do we help organizations & people transform themselves so that they are more able to harness the power of technology?”

[1] “we” = those of us standing astride the worlds of technology and social change.

Sympa tip: changing domains

As many of my readers likely know by now, my organization ONE/Northwest has just rebranded itself as Groundwire.  Obviously, our domain name changed, and with it our email addresses.  One of the many “switchover” tasks we faced was the challenge of updating our email addresses on the many Sympa-powered email lists we host.

The obvious solution is to have each user log in one-by-one and change their email address in the Sympa web UI.  This has two major disadvantages, though:

1) It’s a real pain for 2o+ users to log in and update their addresses

2) That would only affect list subscriptions, not list configurations such as owners and moderators, because Sympa doesn’t yet stores this configuration info in its database; it’s still stored in a text-based config file on the filesystem.  Ugh.

So, in the end, a twofold approach was necessary.  Here’s what I did.

Updating list subscribers in Sympa’s MySQL database

I used SQLyog, a popular Windows-based GUI front-end to MySQL.  (You could also use PHPmyadmin on your server to provide a web interface.)  I did the following queries to update onenw.org to groundwire.org in all user emails.

update user_table set user_email = replace(user_email, 'onenw.org', 'groundwire.org');
update subscriber_table set user_subscriber = replace(user_subscriber, 'onenw.org', 'groundwire.org');
update admin_table set user_admin = replace(user_admin, 'onenw.org', 'groundwire.org');

Updating list owners/moderators in Sympa’s filesystem-based config files

Sympa stores list owners and moderators in a plain-text file on the filesystem.  Here’s how I mass-updated it.

On the server command line, I navigated to sympa’s expl folder at /home/sympa/expl.  This directory contains one subdirectory for each list, and each list contains a “config” file.

I executed the command:

find . -name config | xargs perl -p -ie 's/onenw\.org/groundwire\.org/g'

This took a couple of minutes to iterate over a little more than 1000 lists.  Not blazing fast, but not too horrible.

I think a great feature addition to Sympa would be a script that would take either one email or one domain as an input, and execute these commands in parallel.

WalkScore hits the New York Times

Congrats to the WalkScore team for being featured in today’s Sunday New York Times!

Founded in July 2007 by Mike Mathieu, the chairman of Front Seat Management in Seattle, WalkScore works with Google
Maps and census data. Type in a street address on the site, and within
seconds a list and map appear showing the nearest grocery stores,
restaurants, gyms, schools and more — all for free.

The site works for any address within the United States, Canada, and even Britain.
It also uses a formula to assign point values to locations within a
mile of the given address. These points yield a final score from 1 to
100 for the address’s overall “walkability.”