Article Type: Case Studies

Shoes That Fit

  • 8 full-time staff and volunteers
  • Partners with 1,600 schools in 46 states to provide over 130,000 pairs of shoes to students

This case study was originally published along with a dozen others in our free e-book, Collected Voices: Data-Informed Nonprofits. You can download the e-book here.

NTEN: Thomas, tell us about your work at Shoes That Fit.

Thomas Pellegrino (TP): Shoes That Fit was founded in 1992 to provide children with much-needed new shoes so that they can go to school in comfort and with dignity, and focus on their studies rather than their circumstances. We have 8 full-time staff and an army of volunteers, and in 2013, we partnered with 1,600 schools in 46 states. That spring we helped over 130,000 students get a new pair of shoes. I’m the IT Support Technician and Salesforce Co-Administrator.

NTEN: In what ways is your organization improving when it comes to data? What are some specific pain points youve been trying to overcome?

TP: Shoes That Fit used an Access database since our inception. By the time I joined the team, it was so customized to suit our business model, no other product was so customized to our particular way of working.

We needed measure our impact by showing how many shoes weve given away over the years. We wanted an accurate tool that would track exactly where our donations were going. We also wanted to be able to display that to the public.

In August 2012, we made the move to Salesforce.

NTEN: Did you have data that helped you name the problem? If so, what did the data show?

TP: After implementing Salesforce in August 2012, we realized the person on staff handling data entry was spending 7 to 12 minutes on each gift (entering the donation into the system, processing the thank you letter, then closing the gift). If the staff member also scans the acknowledgment letter and attaches it to the donors record, my understanding is that this process can increase and take up to 20 minutes.

This data caused us to question our needs for certain kinds of data, and to discuss how to quicken the whole process of gift processing. I think this is a classic paradox: how do we raise funds and keep the lights on, while also running a streamlined program?

NTEN: What did you do to fix or improve the situation?

TP: On the subject of staff time: At the request of senior leadership, we now send weekly reports, instead of monthly ones, about how long staff spend on the data processing. As part of our Salesforce implementation, we also brought in an outside consultant. He suggested we do a cost analysis process to show how much that was costing us in time and resources.

As for the larger questions of tracking, reporting, and data integrity, we got a free trial of Geopointe, a program that integrates with Salesforce to help us to track and showcase all of the counties where our donations were being made. Its a testament to the power of peer groups like the Communities of Impact (COI) that I finally used this. My first link to the free trial had expired, and months went by before a COI video chat inspired me to reach out to Geopointe for a second link.

After experiencing the old process and using the free trial of Geopointe, the business case to investment in Geopointe would save time and solve other problems, such as address quality, reliability, automated updates, mapping, county accuracy, location, and geocoding, and it only cost us $210 a year for a single license compared to the weeks of time it took me to do the same thing with more uncertainty.

NTEN: What do you still need to work on?

TP: Like at many organizations, we still have some silos to address. It also cost a lot of time for me to justify the Geopointe expense.

NTEN: What went well? Do you have data to prove it?

TP: Considering we were using such a complicated system just a year and a half ago, it has been helpful to move everything over to Salesforce, to work with a consultant on that process, and to see my colleagues gain confidence in that system.

Being a part of the larger nonprofit tech community, including NTENs COI cohort, helped with all of this, too. Initially, our leadership was wary about COI because we were talking about data, a rather broad and ambiguous topic. Over time, my participation in the group through video chats and online threads proved more and more valuable because I was able to say to my organization, We are not alone. Other, bigger organizations struggle with the same things: mailing lists, how to ask the right questions, and gathering meaning from the data that you have.

Find out how a web redesign helped Maine Conservation Voters move from managing voting record information on paper to an easily accessible system built into their web architecture.

This case study was originally published along with a dozen others in our free e-book, Collected Voices: Data-Informed Nonprofits. You can download the e-book here.

NTEN: Gianna, tell us about your work at Maine Conservation Voters (MCV).

Gianna Short (GS): MCV plays a critical role in turning public support for conservation into new laws to protect our air, land, water, and wildlife. I’m the Data and Communications Coordinator so most of my work is done in front of the computer. However, there are only four of us on staff, along with a couple of consultants and interns, so I end up doing all kinds of other things. Our budget is under $400,000 per year.

NTEN: How are you working to make your data more publicly accessible?

GS: We’ve been publishing an Environmental Scorecard for the Maine State Legislature highlighting environmental bills and votes since 1986. This is valuable information in politics, and without fail, when an election is approaching, reporters and campaign managers call MCV to ask for a particular candidates score on environmental issues. We literally have been pulling old paper copies of the Scorecard off the shelf and tallying up scores for different sessions by hand, which is cumbersome to say the least.

Making this robust dataset more accessible is a new challenge, but also an exciting opportunity. We distribute our Environmental Scorecard to 13,000, but believe it could be useful to many more people. It’s great data that is unique to our organization. We have a different tax status than most environmental nonprofits which allows us to publish this kind of information and really sets us apart. You can learn so much about a legislator by examining these votes through the years.

NTEN: Why tackle this now?

GS: We’ve been redesigning our site over the past year, so I’ve worked with our web developer to build an easily accessible way to house all of that data directly into the website architecture. Our national partners at the League of Conservation Voters also recently relaunched their website with comprehensive voting records. We’re looking toward that as a model for our site.

NTEN: What did you do with the data to make this happen?

GS: Each legislator has several votes per year, and many serve several terms, in both houses, during multiple different time periods. It can get confusing. We had to determine the best type of relational setup to use in order to make the data searchable and coherent. Our web developer ended up creating a pretty ingenious system over the last few months. It’s both versatile and simple to use.

NTEN: How long did this take, how much has it cost, and how will you measure success?

GS: We started brainstorming the redesign in the summer of 2013. The new site will be finished in December with a total budget under $4,000.

So far, we have scorecard data since 2011 up on the site, and it seems to be working well. Now it’s just a matter of data entry for all the preceding years, and quadruple checking for accuracy.

One way well gauge success is by using Google Analytics to see who is using the site and how they are interacting with our content. People tend to find us when they use search engines to look for Maine legislators. If this type of visitor then clicks on a specific bill page and reads about an issue, thats a success. If the visitor then takes action by writing an email to her legislator about the issue, that’s a huge success.

NTEN: Who else from your organization was involved?

GS: Our web developer Lauren Meir and I basically did the whole project ourselves. MCV’s office culture is built on trust, so I have almost total autonomy over the web realm. This is wonderful and terrifying at the same time, and has been a great professional challenge for me. I am starting to do some hallway testing with the staff and board members now that the site is up.

NTEN: You’ve been working hard to create a more data-informed culture at MCV. What advice would you offer to others at small nonprofits like yours?

GS: Learn what other successful nonprofits are doing with data, and present that information in an inspiring way to your coworkers. Show your office what these other organizations are doing better, and then offer to take the lead on trying something new. With a little intra-sector competitive spirit, and the knowledge that what you want to introduce has been tried and tested by others already, people can get pretty excited about new ideas.

Academy of Hope

  • 25 staff, operating budget of $1.5 million
  • Data management might seem mundane, but there’s a strong connection between it and direct advocacy efforts.

Jordan Michelson shares his successes building building effective data management systems, and shows that they’re not only important to organizational staff. It helps other to advocate for your cause!

This case study was originally published along with a dozen others in our free e-book, Collected Voices: Data-Informed Nonprofits. You can download the e-book here.

NTEN: Jordan, give us a snapshot of your work at Academy of Hope (AoH).

Jordan Michelson (JM): AoH provides a variety of programs and services around Adult Basic Education to meet the needs of adult learners in Washington, DC. We have a staff of 25 and an operating budget of $1.5 million.

We reached a huge milestone this year with a total of 55 graduates for the school year, our largest graduating class in history. And next year we’re going to evolve in a new direction as we launch a charter school, which we got approval for this spring. We have one year to put all of the details together, which gives us an opportunity to examine our program across the board, look closely at our processes, and determine what needs adjustment.

Before I was hired, most data work was focused on reporting, and was being done by various program staff at all different levels. Initially I balanced classroom instruction, program coordination, and administrative support with a new focus specifically on data and outcomes coordination. The latter has been a new opportunity for AoH and for me.

NTEN: What are some of the challenges you face in this role?

JM: As my position straddles programs and administration, its been challenging for the rest of the organization to understand my position and responsibilities. The more time I spend on programmatic issues, the less time I have to focus on our data needs.

When I started this position I made a list of goals that included launching a dashboard to evaluate how our classes were meeting the needs of our learners because I’d like to see us move from data used solely for reporting purposes to making data-informed decisions about our programs. I haven’t been able to push that needle yet.

Being in the nonprofit world comes with a certain amount of feasibility-checks; I’m sure that everyone on staff wants the things I just mentioned, but it may not be feasible to divert time and energy away from all of our other needs. It’s a tough balance, and it’s especially hard when you come to realize that this really good thing you want to do just isn’t a priority right now. But it’s important to remain optimistic, and know that the work you are doing is making a positive contribution to the organization’s mission.

NTEN: And you had proof of that recently! Tell us about your data win.

JM: I’ve been trying to link data to our organization’s mission whenever possible. One opportunity to drive the point home was when a student leader came to us for some information. She wanted to petition the city council to win funding for students to get to and from school, and she had some basic questions: How many of our learners in our student body receive bus tokens? How many face other barriers getting to AoH due to transportation?

We were able to provide this information quickly because of our student contact log. It’s a simple Excel workbook that’s kept on a shared drive where we keep track of every time a student calls to let us know they need to miss class. One field on the log is reason for absence. We were able to quickly look over the data from the term and the year, and come up with quantifiable numbers about how many students were facing these types of barriers.

Logging phone calls is not glamorous work and it doesn’t take a data hero to do something like that, but filling that log in consistently and actually looking back at it has the potential to make a big impact. And Excel is a system that everybody is able to use.

jordan_michelson_-_celebratory_meme_creaNTEN: Thats great! How did you celebrate it?

JM: I emailed all staff with a note of encouragement and affirmation. I wanted to help people see that even though this seems like a pretty mundane task, there’s a connection between them taking the time to fill in the log and a direct advocacy effort that really means something to our learners and community. People were excited; one coworker even turned it into a meme involving the Star Trek character, Data.

NTEN: How will you continue to foster a culture of data moving forward?

JM: I’d love to send all-staff emails highlighting our data wins on a semi-regular basis. I haven’t figured out a system for doing that, but that’s a next step.

Another exciting opportunity is on the horizon. We’re participating in a best practices meeting with other adult education providers in the DC area. I am hopeful that this will include data best practices and be a natural space to broach the topic of organization-to-organization data sharing or at least start having the conversation about what were all measuring, and how.

Data Analysts for Social Good

  • Breaking down data silos.
  • You don’t have to be a data analyst, but you will need to know how to collect and understand data.
  • You don’t have to use the best tools right away. It’s alright to say “This is the best tool for now.”

Andrew Means launched Data Analysts for Social Good in his spare time to address a need – a better understanding of how to use data not just to maximize inputs, but to show the importance of data to support organizations functioning more efficiently and effectively.

This case study was originally published along with a dozen others in our free e-book, Collected Voices: Data-Informed Nonprofits. You can download the e-book here.

NTEN: Andrew, you’ve spoken with NTEN before about your experiences with data at the YMCA of Metro Chicago. Now you work at Groupon and spend a lot of your spare time launching Data Analysts for Social Good (DASG), which offers webinars, a LinkedIn group, and an annual conference. Why did you start DASG?

Andrew Means (AM): I saw no one talking about data well. Fundraising analysts, marketing analysts, program evaluation people…everyone was so siloed. We were all using the same skills, underlying tools and methods, but applying them to different parts of our organizations. Data shouldn’t be siloed to one team or one person who pulls lists. The real power of analytics and social science research is that you can address a number of questions using the same kinds of tools and skills. And most organizations don’t know where to begin. We have very little human capital around this in the nonprofit sector although this has grown immensely over the past couple of years. DataKind and others are doing phenomenal work connecting data scientists to nonprofits, but the long-term solution is to have the next generation of executive directors, nonprofit leaders, and people entering the sector really understand these tools from the get-go.

NTEN: How are you creating a data-informed culture as you grow DASG and prepare for your second annual Do Good Data conference?

AM: The hard thing about starting an organization is that you have no data to begin with, so you have to create your own. I’m enough of an analyst to know my data points are really weak. But I try to use data as much as possible to generate content. I put out a survey in the early stages of planning the second conference, asking potential attendees what they want to learn. Now, as I line up conference speakers, I can look at that survey to make sure I’m delivering.

Another example: Every two weeks or so I send an email out to my list. I track click-to-open rates to make sure I’m giving people what they want, and sending these at effective times of day on the best days of the week. I used to believe that I should send all emails at 5:00 a.m. so that they’d be in my subscribers inboxes first thing in the morning. But when I paid attention to the numbers, I started to see a bit of a jump in opens if I sent them in the early afternoon.

I use a lot of free tools: MailChimp for email, Eventbrite for RSVPs, Google Analytics, and Google Forms. They’re fine for now. Thats something not enough people really consider. Its OK to say I have what’s necessary. I don’t want to use it forever, but it works for now and I’m moving forward. It’s worth dipping your toes in the water.

NTEN: What else should people keep in mind as they dip their toes in?

AM: We live in a world that makes it possible to measure so much, from apps that track what we eat, to Fitbits that track where we go. How do we allow these things to inform us but not control us? With that in mind, I ask myself: Is my community growing? How many people can I reach through social media? When are the best times of day to do that? Did this email outperform the list average? Its not super formal; I’m letting the data inform me, but getting the email out is more important than succumbing to analysis paralysis.

NTEN: That said, you are looking to grow DASG strategically. How do you see yourself professionalizing this organization? Is that the goal?

AM: DASG started as a happy hour 18 months ago when I sent out a few tweets. I have been surprised by its success. It’s easy to get caught up just doing the work of running a growing organization; I forget to step back and look at, say, the Eventbrite data from the past year which can help me analyze which webinars performed best. I want to standardize my email practices and create standard surveys for all webinars. I got a tremendous response when I surveyed the people who came to our first conference. So it’s about taking the time to collect the data but also to reflect on it. And for me, that’s about rhythms: taking the time weekly or monthly to reflect and plan.

NTEN: If you hired an employee, what rhythm would you want them to be in? What would you ask them to regularly report to you?

AM: Right now email is big. I’d definitely ask for regular reports on:

  • Revenue, since we have to make sure this is sustaining itself
  • Attendance at webinars and events
  • List growth for both email and LinkedIn

Where people on both the email list and LinkedIn are coming from geographically. In 2014, I’d love to do more events outside Chicago. I need to see where we have the highest concentration of subscribers.

NTEN: Why is it so important to you to create spaces where people can come together and talk data with their peers?

AM: Everyone is talking about data, but not in ways that will benefit us in the long term. Of course there are some organizations I really respect. But too often, analytics are used to maximize our inputs, not our outcomes. We use data to raise more money, attract more donors, and send effective direct mail campaigns. I’m not seeing data applied as rigorously to help us think about actually being better organizations. We need to step back and think critically about what we exist to do.

What happens when nonprofits make a real commitment to collect healthy data about their programs and operations; manage it well; and make savvy, data-informed decisions? And what happens when you connect energized, smart, data-passionate nonprofit professionals for a year of learning and knowledge sharing?

In 2013, NTEN, Microsoft, and some of the brightest members of the nonprofit technology community set out to discover the answers. The 18 members of the Communities of Impact pilot program spent the year connecting through two in-person retreats, monthly calls with seasoned data practitioners from all sectors, and ongoing online discussions and resource sharing.

The best way we could find to capture the lessons, insights, and discoveries from this year of work is by compiling case studies from participants with resources and conversations that emerged during their work together. This is not a report, per se; it isn’t a guide or a handbook. Just as these participants plan to continue working on the ways their organizations collect and use data, we hope that this collection can serve you and your team in learning about what others are doing and where you may go next.



Please log in to download this report.

During my 7 year tenure at NTEN, I’ve had the pleasure of looking at a lot of data, and figuring out ways to use that data in strategic ways to drive the organization and our community forward.

In late spring of 2012, one thing that had been on my radar for awhile was an interesting correlation between our membership renewal rates and event registrations. Specifically, members who had registered for at least one NTEN event over the course of the year were 37% more likely to renew.

After presenting this finding to staff, my hypothesis was that if we were able to increase event attendance, we should see an increase to our struggling renewal rate. This seemed reasonable enough to everyone, so as an experiment we decided to try making all our summer programming free to members in order to increase attendance.

Going into the experiment, I already had a few reservations about our methodology and how exactly we were going to track the results, but momentum pushed us on with the thought that we could sort out those details once we had all the data in front of us. As they’d say on “How I Met Your Mother”, that was a problem for “Future NTEN”.

Jumping forward three months when it was time to actually analyze the data, it quickly became clear that our poor methodology and lack of planning had doomed us to a quagmire of inconclusive results, not to mention any lost staff time or webinar revenue. Of course, it wasn’t a complete loss as we did learn several valuable lessons in how not to design a data driven experiment.

Specifically, my top 5 takeaways from the experience are:

  1. Don’t change too many variables: While we did actually see a jump in attendance for those free events, we forgot to account for the fact that our event calendar that summer and the rest of the year was vastly different than any previous year, meaning there were already far too many variables in play for us to see what affect our “free events” change had actually had. There was also the issue that our renewal numbers are based on a full year of data, while this experiment only ran for 3 months, adding a further layer of difficulty to any analysis.
  2. Setup a control case: In addition to dealing with too many variables, we also had no way of telling what would have happened had we not made those events free. This meant that even if our results had shown a clear shift to support or disprove our hypothesis, there still would have been a question of whether that shift was a result of our experiment or just a random change that would have occurred regardless of what we had done.
  3. Plan out the full experiment ahead of time, including the analysis: We likely would have foreseen many of these issues had we made a plan for the exact data we’d be looking at after the experiment, and how that data was going to help us prove or disprove our hypothesis. Unfortunately by not doing this work up front, we instead ended up with a lot of cloudy data that just raised several new questions instead of answering the one we were asking.
  4. Start with small, easy to design experiments: This was by far the largest data driven experiment NTEN had tried to date, and our lack of experience clearly showed. Looking forward, our new plan has been to hone our skills with smaller, easier to design experiments, and build a foundation of experience that will eventually allow us to explore these larger and more comprehensive strategic questions.
  5. Double check your plan against the scientific method: As a physics major in college, the scientific method was well ingrained in me at that time. However, as this failed experiment plainly demonstrates, the 10+ intervening years have somewhat lessened it’s hold on me. Now while I’m not suggesting you incorporate strict double blind testing for every website A/B test you conduct going forward, it is still worth re-familiarizing yourself with the scientific method concepts in order to catch any major flaws in your experimental plan.

So with any luck, my next blog post on this topic will be about “Future NTEN’s” successes with data driven experiments, but in the meantime hopefully you can benefit from these lessons we learned the hard way.

Based in Seattle, Artist Trust supports and encourages artists working in all disciplines in order to enrich community life throughout the state of Washington. That can be difficult at times, since the state is large, with many remote areas. It’s not uncommon for artists in rural areas to have to drive long distances simply to access the Internet.

“We really needed to think about how we should be investing in technology to align with our strategic goal to reach people statewide from our small office in tech-savvy Seattle,” explained Margit Rankin, executive director.

Rankin and Associate Director Lila Hurwitz learned about the NTEN Nonprofit Tech Academy shortly after a staff restructuring, during which Hurwitz took on an increased oversight role for IT management, including acting as the liaison between the nonprofit and a newly contracted IT consultant.

Around the same time, Rankin had taken the helm of Artist Trust and received a grant to buy hardware and software. The nonprofit already had a lot of technology embedded in its day-to-day practices, she said. Its grant programs for artists are administered almost entirely online; it offers webinars and other virtual programs; and it uses The Raiser’s Edge for donor management. In addition, its comprehensive and highly-trafficked website is the most important way that constituents across the state learn about and take advantage of Artist Trust’s programs and services.

But no strategic technology plan yet existed to ensure that IT was in fact serving the organization’s overarching mission, goals, and programmatic needs. Rankin told staff, “Let’s make a plan before we just go and buy things.”

Both Rankin and Hurwitz found the Academy session on IT planning useful for understanding the key components of a technology plan. Hurwitz since has been working closely with the IT consultant, and the plan is now in its second draft. It doesn’t contain every element discussed during the Academy, Hurwitz noted, but it does cover hardware and software needs, which are critical right now as the organization heads into its budgeting process for the coming fiscal year.

Participating in the Academy has given Hurwitz confidence in her abilities to manage the planning process rather than relying completely on an external consultant. “For so long we relied on someone from the outside to know and do it all. The Academy helped me step up to the realization that we have to bring some of it in-house,” she said.

“We can’t afford to have someone on staff solely devoted to IT, so it was important for us to figure out what in-house skills we can develop and what can be appropriately outsourced to make sure we’re managing effectively,” Rankin added.

Both Rankin and Hurwitz are excited to present the draft technology plan to the board of directors. “We really are going to face significant investments and need to make decisions, and now we have a plan in place to be able to articulate those needs more effectively,” Rankin said.

Academy participation also helped Hurwitz make better use of social media. Following a tip she learned during one session that images tend to be shared more often than text or links alone, she posted an image on the Artist Trust Facebook page [www.facebook.com/ArtistTrust] with a quote from an artist. It reached nearly 18,000 people, up from an average of 3,500, with nearly 1,300 talking about it (the average had been 125).

Measuring the actual return on investment with social media still feels a bit elusive to both Rankin and Hurwitz. “I can’t tell you that these people gave $100 at our annual auction,” Rankin said, “but that post was a direct promotion of the event, and it did much better than we expected.” (The annual Benefit Art Auction exceeded the fundraising goal by $50,000 this year).

As a result of Hurwitz’ expanded role as technology liaison, staff feel better supported. And acting as a conduit between the organization and the consultant helps her stay abreast of tech-related issues and needs. Once each month, she meets with the consultant to review those issues and set priorities. Next on the agenda are discussions about a new server or cloud-based alternative, since Artist Trust and its 11 staff are outgrowing their current hardware.

Still, it’s challenging to make decisions about the best products available and getting staff trained on those that are ultimately selected. “It’s hard to wrangle all that’s out there,” Hurwitz said.

Keeping an eye on the bigger picture, however, helps. “Our strategic plan doesn’t say ‘Invest in technology’,” Rankin said. “Our strategic plan says we need to continue to reach artists in underserved areas of our state, and one of the ways we can do that is to use technology. That’s how we integrate and operationalize it.”

[This case study is part of a series documenting the challenges and successes of arts-related organizations learning to apply technology strategically and effectively to achieving their mission. The Nonprofit Tech Academy is an 8-week course hosted by NTEN. This case study and this organization’s participation in the NTA were generously supported by a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.]

Death With Dignity National Center (DWD) works to improve end-of-life options through carefully worded Death with Dignity laws. The Portland, Oregon, nonprofit established and defended landmark legislation in Oregon and Washington that now serves as a model for advocates and policymakers nationwide.

When DWD hired Melissa Barber full-time as electronic communications specialist in 2010, the plan was to launch a full-fledged electronic communications department to oversee several technology projects. Barber learned about the Nonprofit Tech Academy (NTA ) and brought the opportunity to her new boss, executive director Peg Sandeen. “The timing was fortuitous,” said Sandeen.

Prior to the Academy, DWD was “keeping the lights on” as far as technology adoption and reactive in its approach. “We were fairly proactive in the content of our messaging but less so in the technologies to deliver them,” said Sandeen.

At the time Barber joined DWD, the organization wanted to change its donor database, “the root of everything we do as a nonprofit,” said Sandeen. “The old system was outdated and ineffective for us, and we wanted to move to the cloud.”

DWD also wanted to move its website to the Drupal platform to have the capability to update the site without having to call its website consultant each time.

Most of the DWD staff and board members were sold on the idea of moving the database (and the website) but, “as at any organization, we have folks on a broad spectrum; some want change and some don’t,” said Sandeen. To encourage further buy-in, she formed a committee comprised of the individuals who would be most involved in the database transition and the heaviest users of the new system. The strategy was reinforced during the NTA , but it was one Barber had learned from experience at a previous employer, where getting buy-in for a technology project was a challenge. The committee was charged with determining needs and assessing available products, a practice influenced by Barber’s and Sandeen’s experience in the Academy.

“If folks are tasked to use a specific resource day to day they should be engaged in the decision about what to use,” said Sandeen. “If people are using X and swearing about it all day long, I don’t want to be the executive who says, ‘Tough, you have to use it.’ I want them to feel they have the resources they need to succeed even though we’re small.”

Engaging others worked. “People really got excited about the potential of a new database, and they became more aware of the limitations of the current system,” said Barber.

Resources from Idealware helped DWD get a feel for the pros and cons of different systems. The committee selected Salesforce and issued requests-for-proposals from consulting firms. Price quotes ranged from $5,000 to $50,000. The huge variability led DWD to shift their focus and undertake a ROI analysis of moving the website to Drupal first. As a result, “We decided the website should take precedence since it had a better ROI in the near term,” Barber said.

Although the database project was put on hold temporarily, the proposal process itself was immensely useful. It reinforced the need for a new system and the cost variance, which resulted from different approaches to preparing and handling data, served as a motivator of sorts. “The need to clean up our data had been a noodling problem, and now it has a dollar value attached to it,” said Sandeen. DWD will tackle the cleanup in-house, and “hopefully that will go a long way toward cost savings.”

The website transition to Drupal moved ahead and was completed in May 2012. “We’re already seeing the difference in cost and savings after the conversion,” said Barber. While there was an up-front cost associated with the transition, DWD has gone from paying $750 per month to its former web consultant and host to $12 per month to its new ISP.

Barber credits the NTA with pointing her toward resources and information about different products and their potential. Following the Academy, she kept in touch by email with other members of her cohort. She and Sandeen also attended NTEN’s Nonprofit Technology Conference, where they met with several members of their cohort in person as well as potential consultants.

In addition to the website transition and the database proposal, DWD has made other important changes. It transitioned to a new email system (Gmail) after looking at the ROI, and put a realistic, multi-year plan in place for upgrading office computers and for the electronic communications department more broadly.

“It’s not just things that are different; now we have a structure, a plan, in place,” said Sandeen. “Each department within the organization had a plan, and it was important for the electronic communications department to have one, too. The NTA helped me see what that would look like in order for the department to be an integral part of our mission.”

Ultimately the department’s plan will include milestones and metrics for program evaluation. It’s in the early stages of assessing what data will be helpful. “The next phase will be, Now that we understand what we can collect, let’s set some targets and goals,” explained Sandeen.

The NTA also helped Sandeen develop new ways of communicating with her board of directors. “I learned to talk about considering return on investment; it’s language I wouldn’t have used otherwise,” she said.

Both Sandeen and Barber believe DWD is closer to being an innovator when it comes to technology and that the org’s maturity level now is more service- and value-oriented. “You have to be ready and open to act,” said Sandeen. “We can get so busy doing day-to-day work related to our missions that technology projects can be difficult to find time for. You have to be ready to make a commitment, though, because doing that can take you places.”

[This case study is part of a series documenting the challenges and successes of small nonprofit organizations learning to apply technology to achieving their mission. The Nonprofit Tech Academy  is an 8-week course hosted by NTEN. This case study and this organization’s participation in the NTA were generously supported by a grant from Google.]

NTEN, whose mission is to help members strategically use technology to make the world a better, just, and equitable place, didn’t so much consciously move to the Cloud as come of age in it.

  • 11 total staff, 4 of them remote
  • $2.6M Operating Budget

The Nonprofit Technology Network (NTEN), whose mission is to help members strategically use technology to make the world a better, just, and equitable place, didn’t so much consciously move to the Cloud as come of age in it.

When IT Director Karl Hedstrom joined NTEN in 2006, a few employees had been working remotely, thanks to the Cloud. “Going forward we kept looking for those solutions because, with our size and capacity, the Cloud always managed to be the better option,” Hedstrom said. Today, roughly one-third of the 13-member full-time staff work outside NTEN’s Portland, OR, headquarters.

Employees, regardless of location, rely on a few key systems daily: Google Apps’ Gmail, Calendar, Drive and Hangouts. NTEN uses Avectra netFORUM for managing customer records, memberships and events, and, integrated with netFORUM, HighRoad Solution for e-marketing. The organization also uses LastPass Enterprise for password management and Dropbox, primarily as a backup system.

Cloud-enabled sharing and collaboration called for new policies and procedures for document management at NTEN. “Before the policy, staff sometimes had trouble finding the right document or the right version of a document,” Hedstrom noted. He saw how those types of seemingly minor issues could, on a larger org-wide scale, lead to lost productivity and duplicated efforts.

The resulting policy covers several critical areas: folder structure, file naming conventions and sharing policies. It works well, Hedstrom said, although there are (of course) hiccups. Shared access means anyone can move or delete files, deliberately or by mistake. And if a user doesn’t add new documents to the system, there’s no way for colleagues or IT staff to find them. Hedstrom and Brendan Blaine, IT systems manager, are exploring ways to improve administrator controls to prevent those issues.

Hedstrom and Blaine also are working on extending the Google Drive document management policy to Dropbox to ensure that when staff members sometimes use Dropbox instead of Drive for file sharing, the files are managed in a systematized way.

Selection criteria for new Cloud-based systems are few but fundamental: ease of use for staff and how well the product integrates with NTEN’s existing systems and processes. “A big part of the evaluation process is looking at how [a new system] will integrate with our database so that it’s seamless, so that we won’t have data siloes,” Hedstrom said.

Cost also is a factor when selecting new products, as is scalability, although that is typically implicit in Cloud-based applications. “With the Cloud, you can be ready for anything,” Blaine said, including preparedness for web traffic spikes, such as when NTEN opens registration for its annual Nonprofit Technology Conference (NTC). “We might have a couple of hundred people trying to register on the site at the same time. The scalability of Cloud systems generally soaks up that demand [without disruption].”

When new products and systems are implemented adopted, training takes place both in person — at twice-yearly staff meetings in Portland — and virtually. “We make liberal use of Google Hangouts,” Hedstrom said. “The screen share capability works well for remote (video) training.”

But the bigger issues related to training don’t go away with the Cloud. “No matter what, [for any technology], you have to take a step back to design and deliver appropriate training and follow up on that training [to identify further needs],” he added.

Google Hangouts’ remote desktop capability also facilitates troubleshooting. “Everyone hates sitting on the phone with tech support,” Blaine said, “so my being able to take control of an off-site staff member’s computer really cuts down on that type of frustration.”

Overall, maintenance of cloud-based systems is minimal. “Mostly we just contact the vendor,” Hedstrom said. “It takes a lot of the burden off staff so we can focus more on systems management and fine tuning policies to help staff do their work and the community get the most out of our website and programs.”

The Cloud, though, is not without drawbacks when it comes to a distributed team. “You’re beholden to Internet connectivity,” Blaine said. As staff size increases and people multitask and listen to music or watch videos, “you can start to get into that bandwidth crunch zone, where your changes aren’t pushed to the Cloud real-time” (which impacts employees working remotely). And, “as good as Google Hangout is, you still can’t replicate that in-person experience,” Blaine added.

For NTEN the downsides are worth the benefits. The Cloud has enabled NTEN to recruit and hire the best candidates regardless of location and to retain existing staff who relocate. “Without the Cloud, it would not be an option to have staff spread across the country,” Hedstrom said. It’s also made it possible to hire IT staff with different skill sets. Both Hedstrom and Blaine came to IT from the program side of nonprofit management and have less experience with hardware per se.

“Our roles are IT-focused now, but we haven’t lost that organizational-goal view,” Blaine said. “Instead of having my head buried in hardware and software weeds, I’m looking around to see where we’re making progress and where we’re not, and we can shape our systems to help funnel that progress [to meet our strategic goals].”

NTEN

  • 10,000+ members
  • 55,000+ total NTEN community participants

Everything Megan Keane does as the community engagement manager for NTEN is driven and supported by one simple principle: “It’s all about the people,” she said.

Keane joined NTEN in 2012 and has worked as a community manager in the nonprofit sector for several years. “It’s about making that personal connection and getting community members to talk to one another — online and off — and not just one-to-one, but one-to-many,” she said.

And though the Cloud helps foster a sense of community in a number of ways, it also “isn’t foolproof,” said Keane. “The Cloud is such a buzzword, but it’s a tool like everything else. You can’t use it without keeping those principles, and your mission, in mind. And,” she added, “the Cloud breaks; it is not always your friend.”

Since so much content on the web isn’t static, “you can have ongoing conversations,” Keane said. On the NTEN Connect Blog, for instance, community members can comment on posts, and experts from the nonprofit technology and NTEN membership community can contribute content and share best practices with others.

But even archived and less dynamic content still can foster engagement among community members. “Someone can stumble across an old conversation, and it’s still there as a resource. The person isn’t just finding an article or an archived webinar but there’s this whole conversation about the topic that people have been sharing. Even if it’s a few years old, often the principles are still relevant. Technology may change, but the principles and general strategies usually still apply.”

Keane also maintains an active NTEN presence on several social media platforms — Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and, increasingly, Google+ since NTEN’s G+ page is serving as a growing source of traffic to its website. “In terms of community engagement, I haven’t seen a lot of discussion happening there yet. But [because of the traffic], it’s something you can’t ignore as a channel. . . . Sometimes the tool kind of picks you rather than you picking the tool.”

Listening to your audience is crucial to community engagement, Keane noted. She uses Cloud-based Netvibes to monitor social analytics and as a feed reader of sorts to learn what community members are talking about on their own blogs and on social media. She uses the information to create a periodic member roundup post for the NTEN blog and also tweets about the post. “It’s a small way of giving individual members the spotlight, and people really appreciate it,” she said.

The practice jibes with Keane’s view of her role as that of curator. “With the sheer amount of information out there, giving the community an easy way to access it is important — pointing them to the cream of the crop, recaps, other meaningful content and conversations, both from NTEN and other organizations. I’m wading through it so they don’t have to,” she said.

Listening also helps Keane and NTEN stay responsive to member needs. “I look at what people are talking about. If they’re asking questions about mobile or responsive design, to give two recent examples, we might write an article for the blog or develop a webinar on those subjects.”

The Cloud also supports off-site events, such as NTEN’s annual Nonprofit Technology Conference (NTC), although Keane uses her go-to systems and tools somewhat differently in the conference ballroom than her NTEN office.

Twitter is big at the conference, both for participants and staff. “So many people use it (and the conference hashtag), and it becomes more customer-service oriented, Keane said. She and other staff tweet everything from last-minute room changes to reminders about sponsored breaks (i.e. free snacks).

Twitter is also a way for participants to share the conference experience with their own followers and colleagues who may not be attending. Or, as was the case at the most recent NTC, to alert NTEN staff of technical issues with myNTC, the conference platform for scheduling, discussions and other interactions. Upon seeing the tweets, staff promptly contacted the vendor, Zerista, and the issues were resolved.

Keane used Cloud-based Google Docs (Drive) with presenters on the conference panels she moderated, both during planning and for the presentation itself. And she used the NTEN blog, where she promoted award winners in “ready to go” posts she had written prior to the event. She used Facebook to post a few photos of conference highlights, with links to NTEN’s flickr photostream.

Although, or perhaps because, Keane relies heavily on the Cloud at events and for her day-to-day work, she appreciates the need for a plan B. “Especially at conferences with a lot of techies,” she joked, Internet access and sufficient bandwidth can quickly become an issue. (At NTC, NTEN asks participants not to access the Internet from more than one device at a time.)

When, just a few minutes before her NTC panel, Keane’s presentation in Google Drive wasn’t accessible, she was reminded of the importance of having a backup. Similarly, when presentation slides were not available to Online NTC viewers, Online NTC hosts at the conference tweeted the slide content so participants watching the live stream still had context for the sessions. When the myNTC platform wasn’t running smoothly, the hard-copy conference guides NTEN had prepared in advance came in handy.

Technical challenges aside, Keane takes advantage, and encourages members to take advantage, of opportunities to interact with colleagues in person, since connection — be it real-world or virtual — lies at the heart of community engagement. “You have to strike a balance; you don’t want to be at the conference in-person and then spend all your time online.