July 26, 2012

Sharing Back-Offices in the Cloud: The Case of Environment America

  • Federation of environmental advocacy organizations across 29 states
  • Part of the Public Interest Network
  • 61 websites shared by one CMS

Environment America is a federation of state-based, citizen-funded environmental advocacy organizations that works closely with its sister organization, the Environment America Research and Policy Center. Each of these organizations is a separately run, independently registered nonprofit. The federation maintains an EA organizing arm and an EA Research and Policy Center education arm in 29 states. Each maintains a website with a mix of contentsome specific to that particular organization, and some shared across all the organizations. Theres also a centralized recruitment website where people can look for work with the federation.

Thats 61 websites in all. Since each has the same look and feel, and a lot of the same content, there was also a lot of duplication of resources, said Jesse Littlewood, Director of the Web Presence Department of the Public Interest Network, a network of environmental groups to which EA belongs.

Previously, each EA had a website of its own, he said. In effect, each site was its own silo technologically speaking, with its own code and databaseit was all very standalone. That model was proving less than optimal, and as the federation grew, it was becoming prohibitively costly.

We were spending more of our members dollars on that setup than we thought was prudent, Jesse said. We wanted to move to a more cost-effective system, and a key killer app for us was putting all these sites into one system, hiring one vendor to maintain them with one database, but keeping each site unique so they could all update their own content.

EA found its solution in the Cloud. The organizations pooled their resources and sought a vendor to host and customize a system that would allow each to manage its own content while allowing updates to the entire network of sites to be made from the top down. Working on behalf of EA, Jesse led the project. We did a combination of the technology overhaul for all the tech that goes into hosting these sites, plus a redesign for the look and feel, he said. The way we had to approach it was, what tech are we going to use?

Of the major Content Management Systems, only a few offered the right combination of features and the support of a vendor ecosystem. The team worked with the EA member organizations to create a set of review criteria to evaluate systems, and got their buy-in on the project in the process. We needed them to agree on the process, Jesse said. Getting buy-in is one of the first steps in these shared back-office projects.

As the team narrowed down its list of viable vendors by cost, cultural fit and technical ability, it asked them to share examples of clients running similarly structured websites. Jesse said they found more examples built in the Drupal open source CMS than any other system. Ultimately, they chose a Drupal vendor that worked with a number of colleges and universitieswhich have faculty departments with a similar mix of shared and unique contentand a host that works exclusively with Drupal sites.

They were totally up for the challenge and able to meet our price range, and they also had a strong vendor ecosystem that we could rely on to meet our requirements of cost, cultural fit and technical ability, he said. And they had a strong hosting and support ecosystem. We wanted it optimized toward being lean, efficient and as easy-to-maintain as one central website. If we update our Drupal code, any of those EA sites should be updated, but they each should have their own content and content authors.

The team met weekly with the vendor as the web structure was being built, and launched the sites with an Alpha release that didnt include the website redesign but allowed the various EA organizations to test the structure.

That was very helpful, to have that to kick around and show to the EA groups and make sure it was meeting their expectations, Jesse said. The Beta release came closer to having the new design installed.

In February, the final release went live, just seven months after the project begana very rapid build-out for a pretty complicated website, he said.

None of Environment Americas other systems are currently integrated with the website. Jesse said it was more cost effective to keep them separate, and the benefits of integrating werent clearat least, not yet. One of the things thats nice about an open source solution is you can come back and build that stuff in later, he said. The key features we needed to have as part of the system were access- and security-relatedsay, that we could give an intern the ability to post blog posts at EA Massachusetts without giving him access to the federal systemand that allowed us to make universal changes to design, with two separate designs for the 501(c)3 and 501(c)4 organizations. Each needed to be at its own domain name.

The Public Interest Networks internal design group handles design work for the sites, and each EA group handles its own content.

It really comes down to stretching our member dollars as far as they can possibly go, Jesse said. We want to devote the vast majority of the money given to us toward our program work, so its definitely efficient and cheap to do this model. Its also very stable. At our scale we were able to hire vendors at a pretty competitive priceif, God forbid, I get hit by the bus, the vendors can keep this up and running without me. Now, as we find more effective ways of communicating with members and the public, we can make those changes, and if we want to redesign our websites, we only have to do that once.

Overall, the implementation was successful, though the multi-structured approach means you take a little hit on flexibility, he said. For example, if EA Ohio wants a specific feature thats different from the rest of the sites, its more challenging to make happen.

Its a more complex animal than a typical Drupal website, Jesse said. In the open source world, especially websites, people like to add new features and widgets to the community. Theres lot of features and widgets out there, and because of our setup, we cant necessarily pick something off the shelf and use it.

Every decision we make about using features takes a little longerwere more cautious, and its harder to be on the bleeding edge of whatever the hottest new trend in web technology is. And thats a fair trade off. We dont want to be chasing whatever that is as much as we want to build really solid, well-built websites.

Editor’s note: This case study is part of an NTEN research series on Nonprofit Shared Back-Offices in the Cloud, which was conducted in June, 2012, and prepared by Idealware. You canread the overview article for this study here, and find the other case studies in this seriesin our case-study section.

Chris Bernard