Tag: case study

Many people may not make the connection between technology and food/agriculture, but when we merge the two together, we can transform the way we connect with, produce, and consume the foods that end up on our plates. And my team at the Bainum Family Foundation’s Food Security Initiative had a small taste of this potential when we created an online platform called the Food Learning Locator, which we just relaunched in March.

The Food Learning Locator originally went live in September 2017, shortly after I joined the team. The intention of the tool was to address a large information gap. No one (our foundation and our partners included) seemed to understand the full scope and types of food-related education and job training opportunities available in the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area. As we began to collect the data, we quickly realized a greater need. We weren’t the only ones unaware of so many opportunities around us. Our community was missing out on them as well. This spurred the idea to create an easy online tool to help people find and participate in food-education and job-training programs, many of which are offered by nonprofits and other community organizations that have limited resources and time to market their programs.

After the site’s beta launch, we learned from our partners that we could add even greater value by improving the Food Learning Locator’s UX and UI. I then took the lead on getting feedback on the site, and we used it as the backbone of an eight-month web development process to add to and improve the data structure, add an administrative portal for organizations on the map, and find ways to measure the use of the tool.

But what all was involved with each of those steps? Let me share our experience with you.

User research

Since this tool had the potential to benefit many audiences (i.e., community members, advocates, funders, and program providers), we encountered a major challenge — how to create a tool that addresses numerous needs and interests. For such a wide-reaching site, we realized we had to meet people where they were to get the necessary feedback.

We sought feedback from as many people as possible, hosting a focus group with community members and one-on-one feedback sessions with healthcare providers and program providers to accommodate everyone’s schedules. We also attended community events and conferences to market the site and ask for thoughts and suggestions. With this invaluable feedback, we were able to both identify and carry out the next steps for improving the Food Learning Locator. For example, we completely changed the UI from having food-education and job-training programs on the same map to splitting those categories into two maps and we added new data points to further improve user experience.

Updates to data structure

Our challenge was to create a tool that encompassed the key program offerings we knew about in 2017 but to also structure them in a way that allowed new data points and content areas to be added over time. The food-education and job-training space is constantly evolving and adapting, so developing an agile tool was key to its long-term success.

The web developers we worked with were incredibly helpful in structuring the back end of the site to allow us to easily add new data filters or content areas requested by community members (e.g., program cost and registration information). We also made sure to structure the front-end map and back-end Program Manager Portal so that it could be easily used as a template for other cities or regions that may eventually be interested in bringing this tool to their communities.

Development of the Program Manager Portal

With the data structure refined and the UI designed, we developed a Program Manager Portal for program providers to dynamically update, add, or remove organizational and programmatic data. The addition of the portal was a huge improvement over the beta version of the site, where update requests had to be submitted via SurveyMonkey and then manually changed by the Food Learning Locator team on a semiannual basis. This portal simplified the data-maintenance process, which was particularly helpful given how quickly the site has been expanding since its launch. Since February, we’ve added more than 10 new organizations to the Food Learning Locator, bringing the total to more than ten organizations in Washington, D.C., Maryland, and Virginia. Across these organizations, there are nearly 90 food education programs and more than 30 job training programs — all displayed and searchable on our now easy-to-use site.

The portal still has room for improvement but having it has helped both our team and program managers maintain accurate information, consequently creating a more reliable source of information for community members interested in the food space.

Data collection

Like most websites, we’re able to easily track site traffic and other metrics using Google Analytics. However, this tool doesn’t help us measure in-person user outcomes of the Food Learning Locator (i.e., the number of users attending programs they found via the map or the number of new collaborations or partnerships among program providers.)

We’re still in the early stages of determining the best method of tracking these connections, as they play a large role in evaluating the success of the tool. For now, we’re relying on qualitative feedback from site users — whether directly (online or in-person) or through program providers or community advocates — to understand budding connections from the tool. We’re looking into how we can track referrals among program providers, but that’s likely something we’ll have to implement down the road. For now, we’re relying on qualitative feedback and testimonials to assess that success metric.

Key Lesson

So, technology and food/agriculture — not so separate after all now, right? While I myself am new to merging program needs and technological tools (at least on this scale), I see endless possibilities for so many fields to leverage online platforms to create real, lasting offline connections and impact. And my hope is that the Food Learning Locator will cultivate and strengthen our local food-interested community and will eventually expand beyond. With tech, the sky is truly the limit.

A special thank you to the web development team at Alley Interactive and the Food Learning Locator team — Andrew Curtis, Laura Hepp, Katie Jones, Ann Egan, and Morgan Maloney — for helping to develop this tool.

Rebranding: It’s no joke. For anyone working in communications, the idea of a rebrand is a dream. Ok, well, maybe for some. For me, it was huge. I was excited about my organization changing its name after 35 years, because I knew a better name and sharper logo would help me better explain our work. Our new name and logo does just that.

And more selfishly, I was thrilled for the opportunity to manage a website rebuild, design new collateral, and get into the weeds in places where I’d only scraped the surface before.

Before I could dig into the fun stuff, I had to get our house in order. We hadn’t had a major website refresh since late 2014, and while our site was technically up to snuff, we were up against a harsh reality: with consistent, year-over-year growth of about 25%, other measures of success were not also rising, most notably transactions.

Using data to drive decisions

I started by looking at Google Analytics, Optimizely, and Crazy Egg. How are users navigating our site? Where and why are they dropping off? And importantly, what is it that makes them sign our petitions, join our email lists, and ultimately open their wallets to power the work we do in 56 countries?

The great thing about sites like Optimizely and Crazy Egg is that the data is straightforward. Either people clicked on a headline or they didn’t. We found that users read more of a story when there was a big image at the top, not when we put an image a few paragraphs down into the story. And while we clocked great traffic to our disability rights and country pages, we couldn’t harness those streams of traffic for action.

It’s important for charities like ours to dig down and see where we’re doing a good job of encouraging our users to take an action. Analyzing where and when they donated was key, because if we can crack that nut, we can amp it up a notch.

Yet the more we dug, the more we realized that we had a disconnect. We could see donations coming in, we could count more petition signatures, but because our Google Analytics account had some major disconnects (for reasons unknown to our team), we were unable to see the big picture and answer those important questions about UX (user experience).

Finding consultants

Like any other organization going through a rebrand with a comms team of two, I searched high and low for a consultant and outside contractors. Funnily enough, it was at the 2017 Nonprofit Technology Conference that I met some Google Analytics gurus from an exhibitor there, Forum One. Since then, they’ve managed to clean up the account and installed E-Commerce, which accurately tracks document downloads, petition signatures, and donations, and populates a pretty dashboard on Google Studio that shows us the data above the weeds.

Then came the fun part: the website rebuild. We considered a few different options for our CMS, but ultimately stuck with NationBuilder, our current system (though some of our colleagues abroad ended up choosing another platform), since it has worked well for us as a user-friendly site that looks good, doesn’t break the bank, and helps us manage our growing database of online friends.

After an RFP process, we opted to continue working with our trusty developers from Liberal Art. We’ve been happy with their work over the years and knew that they would deliver a clean, modern site.

Building and testing

Three months before the launch, we started going back and forth on wireframe designs, what the footer should include, how we want users to consume our news, where we should put that big orange donate button, and so on.

I got into the weeds again on things like colors. WebAIM’s Color Contrast Checker was one of my best friends throughout the process. Humanity & Inclusion works alongside with people with disabilities and other vulnerable groups, so the site had to be built around accessibility. The Color Contrast Checker helps ensure that people with low vision can read our headlines based on Website Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG).

After weeks of testing and ensuring a mobile-friendly site, the site was ready to launch! Our brand launch date in January came and went. Our team shared the news of our new name and more-accessible logo (it even won an award!) over email, across social, and beyond. Our donors, supporters, friends on social, and other friends we met along the way all seem to approve of the change and some have even used the word “love” about our new name and website.

For the most part, everything we had planned in advance throughout the rebranding process went off without a hitch. Of course, there were a few minor glitches along the way and some limitations when building the site, but this wasn’t surprising and we were able to adjust.

Managing post-launch

For weeks, I planned on sharing the big news on social with a countdown GIF (“5, 4, 3, 2, 1…here it is” sort of thing) and it failed miserably. It barely had any likes or retweets and the shares compared to other posts were just sad. In fact, the simple post we shared on a Facebook event had way more likes and shares than that silly GIF that I spent time designing. Who knew? Overall, the post the prompted the most engagement was our Be a Lifeline campaign video.

So what happens after a rebrand? People start flocking to your site to click on that big orange donate button so they can make a tax-deductible gift. Ok, so that’s not quite how it works, but you will spend the first few days tightening loose ends and ironing out wrinkles—because there will always be a few wrinkles once everything goes live. And there will be things you decide to change just based on UX.

Since the launch, we’ve already made a few minor changes like making headlines clickable based on data from heat mapping. And over the following weeks and months, I’ll continue testing as much as I possibly can to see what’s working and what’s failing miserably. I’m sure there will be a few surprises but that’s what makes digital communications work so much fun.

One of the many updates we had to make was on our Google AdWords Grant account. That was easy. What wasn’t easy was Google changing their rules around the same time that we launched. I’m still on that learning curve.

Last thoughts

A bit of advice: don’t go it alone. We worked closely with our colleagues in other Humanity & Inclusion offices, especially those in Canada, the UK, and Belgium, to ensure that before, on, and after launch day, we were drumming a strong, unified beat. I also leaned on friends from NTEN. Fellow NTENners who’ve been in the weeds of a rebrand before helped me navigate updates on our social accounts (tip: contact Facebook about your name and URL change weeks in advance!), testing the website for accessibility, and more.

Like I said, rebranding is no joke. But with a plan in place and support from colleagues, friends, and contractors, it can be incredibly rewarding.

In 2017, NTEN revised our Vision and Mission to read as follows:

We envision a more just and engaged world where all nonprofits use technology skillfully and confidently to meet community needs and fulfill their missions.

We support organizations by convening the nonprofit community, offering professional credentials and training, and facilitating an open exchange of ideas.

One critical piece that we added was the word “just.” As a capacity-building organization, we want to be clear that our work is not only to teach and build skills for nonprofit staff. It is to teach and build skills so that nonprofit staff are better able to effectively, efficiently, and rapidly make real change and meet their missions. We want a better world and we know that nonprofits are out there helping reach it, but they need our help to do the best they can. And we know that access to technology tools and the internet, and the skills to use them to reach goals, is a social justice issue.

In tandem with updating our Vision and Mission, we also created a new set of Values. NTEN staff and board (and, we hope, community) have worked to build systems and processes that regularly ask if we are working in line with our Values. We found, though, that the values listed on the website were no longer serving our goals or our community, and we were regularly redefining what they meant to keep them relevant. The new Values were created with contributions by all staff and were immediately put into place helping guide decisions and influence our work.

This foundational work was important for NTEN to prioritize. It did not, however, fully address all areas of commitment. Since I joined NTEN, we have had definitions and shared understanding around our commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion especially as presented publicly with our scholarships, speaker guidelines, and other recruitment and selection criteria for contributors. But without more explicit and public comments on those topics, staff were consistently challenged to justify or explain decisions that felt good internally but lacked policy and public understanding.

So, in 2017, we also started this very important work around diversity, equity, and inclusion. And, in line with our Values, we want to hold ourselves accountable to you, our community, and both document our process and ask you to join us on this journey.

How we worked

We expected this work to engage all staff, but also knew that like all of our other projects, teams, and committees, we needed to have a smaller group of staff serve as the core project team who would meet more regularly, carry the work forward, and bring in the rest of the staff (and board and community) as appropriate. Our team included staff from across the organization: Ash, Bethany, Erin, Leana, Pattie, and me. It was important to me that this work be clearly prioritized by all staff and to set that tone as the CEO, I wanted to be part of the work.

As a first step in the process, we created a list of scenarios that had prompted this work and to root us in real examples from our community to guide our expectations. Those use cases included: being able to publicly communicate clear information when providing scholarships, especially those that are reserved as “diversity scholarships;” recruiting and identifying authors and other contributors; and our practices of engaging the community.

In hand with this first grounding step, we also recognized and admitted to ourselves that moving forward with this work would mean we would make mistakes, big and small, but that our commitment to the work and to moving forward was more important than a fear of failure.

We reviewed public statements and policies from other nonprofits and associations and talked to organizations about the process they used to start and continue all kinds of equity work. Recognizing the budgetary and capacity restraints we had, we decided to prioritize this work without using outside consultants and with an emphasis on establishing foundations for continued work. We would not complete this work in 2017 or truly ever. But we needed to start in earnest.

The committee met every other week and we regularly brought updates, ideas for feedback, and draft language to the rest of the staff in all-staff meetings. The NTEN board has two in-person meetings each year, and draft content as well as information about the goals and continued work was brought to the board in their November retreat. The board discussion resulted in two board members volunteering to join the staff committee as advisors in the short term and to continue on in that role. We also engaged NTEN’s various committees, volunteer organizers, faculty, and board committee for more diverse feedback and engagement.

What we are sharing today

What we have now feels both like a significant piece of work and only a small movement in the direction we want to go. As I said, this was, in our opinion, the final foundational piece we needed as an organization so our Vision, Mission, and Values could work in concert with a clear and public commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion. To operationalize this commitment, we also created policy statements to guide our decisions and make clear our intentions with working with various groups in our community.

We do not believe in empty statements. This Commitment is made public so that we can hold ourselves accountable and so you, our community, can join us in that accountability and we can continue to improve. To support that continuous improvement, the committee will continue to meet. We have more on our work plan and will continue to bring that work to the rest of the staff, to the board, and to you as our community. We hope that you will also contribute to our committee agenda. If there are issues, ideas, experiences, or anything else that you’d like to discuss with us or have us discuss, we would love to prioritize your suggestions. You do not have to join the meeting but you can reach any of us at any time with your comments or you can submit anonymous feedback by using this online form.

Thank you to everyone who has contributed to this work: all of the NTEN staff, board members, committee members, faculty, organizers, and other advisors. And thank you to our community for leading us, guiding us, and holding us to meet our own expectations and yours.

We will not transform into the organization we envision overnight. But we believe this journey is critically important. We will continue to move forward so we can better be part of the world we want to see and meet our own vision of a more just and engaged world.

What’s next?

Now that we have our articulated Commitment and the associated policies in place, we have identified the next work we want to do and also anticipate work emerging that we have not thought of. As we make our work more public and start actively seeking input and feedback, we know that the community may also identify work that we need to prioritize.

On our near-term agenda for the committee already is the creation of guides and questions that staff and committees can use to make the Commitment and the policies more tactical and practical for everyday decision making and integration into regular processes, including recruiting and selecting content contributors (authors, speakers, etc.). We will similarly review and refine the NTC session submission process and guidelines so that when session submissions for the 2019 Nonprofit Technology Conference open this summer, you will see the impact of this Commitment helping steer a more inclusive and equitable process that includes even more diverse voices.

We welcome your feedback, ideas, input, and examples from your work—anything that can keep us moving in the right direction.

(Summarized from a presentation for the 2014 TechNow Conference; original presentation by Krissy DeShetler, Family House and Frank Schlatterer, JenLor Integrations)

In 2013 Family House underwent a major overhaul of their IT infrastructure. In this article I’ll give a basic overview of the before and after, and the process that it took to get there.

About Family House

Family House, located in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, provides housing for patients and caregivers who travel to Pittsburgh for medical care. At the time of this project Family House was operating 4 houses with a total of 160 guest rooms as well as an administrative office. Family House was serving 15,000 guests each year with an operating budget of $4.4 million and a staff of 60 (20 full-time and 40 part-time).

The challenge

Several elements of our IT infrastructure were beginning to crumble and needed some major attention in order to make them more efficient. We needed our technology to be a useful tool instead of a hindrance to our staff.

The major hurdles included:

  • End of life for two servers: two physical servers that had manufacturer warranties that would expire in May and September 2014.
  • Workstations out of warranty: 23 workstations, 8 of which had expired manufacturer warranties and another 8 would be expiring before September 2014.
  • Inconsistent software: 3 versions of Microsoft Office being used throughout the organization.
  • Time consuming backup system: A tape backup system that required a staff member to change the tape daily and take the tape home with them in case it was needed for disaster recovery, plus the backup did not cover the entire system.
  • Divided WiFi: 20 residential grade WiFi access points that were each independent with no central monitoring.
  • Unmanaged email: A majority of our part-time staff members were using personal email accounts for work related communication.
  • Our idea of “remote access” was to email files to ourselves or carry around flash drives so that we could work from home.
Our old network layout. Select to enlarge.

A brief note about the “situation” Family House found itself in: We did have an outside IT company that managed our system. A technician was onsite twice a month and would handle upgrades, troubleshooting, etc. This IT company did recommend needed upgrades for software and hardware, but they were not persistent enough (in my opinion). The proposals were often the first thing to get cut from upcoming budgets because “Everything is working; why should we spend money on it?” The workarounds, inconsistencies and lost time for staff because of inefficient systems didn’t speak loud enough when it came to the annual budget.

This is a very common position that nonprofits find themselves in. Many nonprofits operate like this until it is too late and then decisions are made in a panic instead of having time to process and make the best decision for the needs of the organization.

Finding a solution

With the list of challenges mentioned above, we set out with a small committee of staff and board members and presented a Request for Proposals (RFP) to three IT companies. Going into the RFP process, most of us expected that we would end up with three proposals that included some combination of onsite servers, Office 365, new workstations, etc. That was the case with two of the proposals, but the third proposal presented an option that we had not really considered: a cloud based, virtual server setup. After a long RFP process of meetings, walkthroughs, and reference checks, we ended up selecting JenLor Integrations and their proposal of a cloud-based infrastructure.

The details

Referring to the challenges listed earlier, here is what the cloud based solution provided:

  • Physical, on-site servers were replaced with rented server space at a data center. This eliminated several thousand dollars in upfront costs for purchasing hardware. Instead, we pay a monthly fee based on the amount of space that we have allocated in the data center. This provides flexibility—as our space needs change, we can add more space without the concern of running out of space in a physical server.
  • Traditional desktop computer workstations were replaced with thin clients. The thin clients are much less expensive and do not require a traditional operating system.
  • Using the resources of TechSoup, we upgraded to Office 2013. This transition was not nearly as stressful on our staff as learning Office 365 would have been.
  • The tape backup system was replaced with a monitored and managed cloud backup.
  • The WiFi system was upgraded to a managed Cisco Meraki system.
  • A portion of the cloud server was setup as a Microsoft Exchange server. By using TechSoup we were able to purchase enough licenses for all of our staff to have a Family House email account.
  • Access to the cloud server is through a remote desktop connection. That makes the user experience the same whether they are sitting in their office or in a coffee shop.
The new network layout. Select to enlarge.

The cost

In comparing the three RFPs, the cloud-based solution from JenLor was a cost savings of over $100,000 in the first year. The majority of the cost savings was related to the need for very little hardware. Our expenses for the initial setup and first year of support and maintenance were approximately $88,000.

In the process of deciding on a solution we were also extremely fortunate to have the opportunity to present our project to a local foundation. The foundation provided a grant that covered the setup and first year of support and maintenance.

Things to consider

If you are looking to make the transition to a cloud-based setup:

  • Internet is crucial. JenLor highly recommended that we invest in a redundant ISP. That was not something that we kept in the budget because we operate multiple locations. If our internet is out at one location, thanks to the ease of the remote connection, we can easily work from an alternate location. However, if your organization only has one location, a redundant ISP should be a big consideration.
  • Streaming video can be slow. When I am sitting in my office in Pittsburgh and open a web browser, I am connecting from Pittsburgh to the data center in Kansas City and then back to Pittsburgh. That is a long “distance” for data to travel and that is often most evident with streaming video.

Five months after we made the transition to the cloud we experienced a flood at our administrative office. A small hot water tank in the second-floor kitchen burst and leaked through to the first floor. The former IT closet was directly below the kitchen. If our server had been onsite it would have been destroyed. With the cloud system the only thing that needed to be replaced was our firewall. We were back up and running by noon on Monday (the flood occurred on Sunday). Also, the flood only affected the administrative office; our other locations were never affected.

It has been over four years since Family House took a leap into the cloud and virtual server setup and I can say without a doubt that we have a more efficient, user-friendly, cost-effective, and reliable IT infrastructure than we did when we started the process.

In my work with nonprofit organizations I often meet hesitation when I bring up the idea of a rebrand.

Those who are reluctant to consider a rebrand often cite two specific reasons:

  1. The organization’s visual identity and messaging is known in the community and they are afraid that people will no longer know who they are if they change it.
  2. They fear that by rebranding their organization, they are losing touch with who they are.

As long as you are staying true to your organization’s why, a rebrand can help with fundraising, recruitment and overall growth.

“Brands are like living things — they are born and they can die, but as long as they are carefully nurtured they will flourish and have a place in the consumer’s life. In order to have longevity, it is essential for brands to evolve.” — James Boulton, Creative Director of Claessens International

So how will a rebrand help my organization?

It is hard to get attention in an oversaturated market where everyone is competing for the same funding and using the same platforms (social media, website, email, print). Your nonprofit’s brand needs to be unique and professional to help you stand out amongst the noise.

In 2014, Big Duck and the FDR Group conducted an online survey with 351 nonprofit decision-makers to find out more about The Rebrand Effect.

They found that rebranding has a direct and significant impact on these organizations.

  • Increased revenue (from individual and corporate donors, as well as foundation and government grants)
  • Increased audience participation
  • Improved internal capacity (better board member recruitment, more efficiency in creating materials, confidence in staff to communicate, etc.)
  • Increased media attention

Is a rebrand right for my organization?

It is inevitable that at some point during your organization’s lifetime, you will need to rethink your brand. If any of the below apply, you might want to plan for a rebrand in the near future.

  • Your brand is scattered or inconsistent.
  • Your audience has changed.
  • Your services or offerings have changed.
  • Your existing brand is missing the mark.

Case study: Micah’s Caring Initiative

At the inaugural Make a Mark event in 2015, we accepted a local nonprofit, Micah’s Caring Initiative. MCI is the umbrella organization for five different outreach programs at St. Michael Lutheran Church in Blacksburg, VA. These programs include Micah’s Backpack (school-year weekend feeding program for children), Micah’s Mobile Backpack (summer weekend feeding program for children), Micah’s Garden (community garden program), Micah’s Closet (clothing donation program) and Micah’s Soup for Seniors (soup kitchen program for the elderly).

Jennie Hodge, former Director with MCI, applied for Make a Mark because, while the individual programs were recognizable, the community didn’t understand the connection between these programs. She was looking for a logo that could unify MCI and all of the programs.

“I knew I didn’t have the capability on my own [to design] so I wanted to partner with folks that have that skill. I knew it would make telling the story of Micah’s more effective and more beautiful.” — Jennie Hodge

When Jennie first met with us, she was not looking for an overhaul of her existing programs. She was hesitant at first because the original logos had been created by volunteers sharing their time with the organization.

However, Robin Dowdy, professional graphic designer, convinced her of the impact of a rebrand. According to Jennie, “Robin absorbed everything. The [new logos] had echoes of the originals and were transformed to look fresher and more unified.”

Robin and our team worked with the existing visual presence and the spirit of the organization. They created logos for each of their programs to unify the brand, keeping in the mind the core values of Micah’s Caring Initiative and connecting it all back to the tree of life and growth.

“I never would have imagined something could look so beautiful to help tell the story of what we do.” — Jennie Hodge

Micah’s Caring Initiative logos, before (left) and after (right). Select to enlarge.

Following Make a Mark, Jennie and her crew took the new branding and ran with it, working to create landing pages for each program. “It definitely helped us to tell a more uniformed story, and to tell a better story,” said  Jennie.

After this brand refresh, MCI was able to increase funding, clarify their image, align their visual communication, increase awareness of their efforts and set them apart from the rest.

Ok, I’m willing to rebrand. Now what?

Make sure that before you start the rebrand process you have buy-in and alignment from your staff, board members, volunteers and other stakeholders.

During this initial period, you will want to revisit the why for your organization. This might be your audience or the problem that you’re solving, but this is something that will remain unchanged. As long as you know your why and are willing to work with whoever is doing your rebrand, you’re on a clear path toward a quality brand.

Things that you will be looking at with a rebrand might include the following:

  • Organization’s name
  • Logo
  • Tagline/slogan
  • Fonts
  • Color scheme
  • Imagery
  • Key messaging

Some organizations want to try to pull together their visual identity on their own, but something as important as your organization’s brand should be left up to those with the training, talent and desire to help your organization. Many branding experts are willing to work pro-bono, and at Make a Mark, we take on several rebrand projects each year. But if you do need to spend some money, it is well worth the investment.

Sarah Obenauer is also leading an online course for NTEN on branding fundamentals for nonprofits, in early November.

In 2016-2017, a Washington, DC–based nonprofit with a staff of about 40 and a 3.5 million-dollar budget undertook a redesign process to convert a ColdFusion website into a content management system with a custom mobile-responsive theme.

To make sure the finished results worked, the website team made strong efforts in:

  1. understanding the overall needs of the website,
  2. involving staff in specifying their own needs,
  3. determining content types,
  4. thinking in terms of lists,
  5. testing against assumptions,
  6. creating reporting mechanisms, and
  7. wireframing/building/testing/refining,

Feedback loops were built in to the ongoing process in order to course correct and gain early constructive criticism from internal stakeholders.

Tip #1: Understand overall needs

The team tasked with pre-planning the redesign process undertook a review of existing web pages and reached consensus that content belonged under different lenses, programs, campaigns, and actions.

The team identified the organization’s theory of change, current audience, new website objectives, comparables, desired functions, specified revenue models, and desired budget and timeline, and circulated this information via an RFP.

Example A. Website RFP Top 10 List

Better storytelling -> Optimized content -> Engages more people -> More social change -> Greater financial support -> Fulfills our mission.

Top 10 must-have list (goals for the site):

  1. Increased email sign ups, social engagement, and activists
  2. New donors: the website needs to encourage people to sign up as donors with attractive donation pages
  3. Stay on budget. We are open to creative work share solutions
  4. Clarity and Simplicity: needs to give visitors a clear sense of Green America’s work
  5. Attractiveness: A clean look, beautiful storytelling, and responsive design
  6. Flexibility: we do lots of stuff. Our ability to adapt has always been our secret weapon. Our website needs to be flexible to handle our diverse content and programs
  7. Ease of Use on the backend: we will have many editors with various technical expertise (the ability to update the website frequently is essential)
  8. Integration of all our channels and platforms: Daughter Sites, Blogs, Social, Digital Publications, Apps, SALSA (action CRM), Raiser’s Edge (fundraising CRM), Charity Engine (donation pages)
  9. Authentic product/sponsorship placement
  10. Visual Story: Telling our stories in a visually compelling manner to better engage audiences and increase shares of our materials

Takeaway #1: What to do

During pre-planning, convene individuals across different teams to construct a shared model for content. Aim for transparency around budget, timeline, and requirements for the website.

Tip #2: Involve staff in identifying their own needs

By mapping out content across major areas, staff better clarified their understanding of how content fit into lenses, programs, and/or campaigns. A pilot content management system allowed staff to test their assumptions against real data.

Example B. Early model of content hierarchy and structure

Team members continuously articulated how content fit into the proposed data architecture. For example:

Lens Program Campaign Focus Area Action Issue Topic
Food GMO Inside

Good Food for people and planet


No GE Wheat


Say no to GMOs


Factory Farms


Tell congress to stop trading our food stystems.

Tell congress to reject TPP

Tell Kraft to Remove GMOs from Miracle Whip

Tell Starbucks to go organic

Let Mars know you say no to GMOs

Tell American What Growers Association no GE Wheat

Soil not Oil

GMOs a case for Precaution
Don’t have a Cow

21 foods to always buy organic

An external design firm worked with staff to sketch out user personas, delve into content relationships, formalize roles and permissions, and determine the initial menu.

Example C. Sample site map content

Food Climate Labor Finance
Fight GMOs Fight Dirty Energy Ending Child Labor Save for Yourself and a Better World (banking)
Beyond Organic Invest in Clean Energy Ending Smartphone Sweatshops Divest from Fossil Fuels, Invest in Clean Energy
Fair Labor Better Paper Ending Sweatshops in Supply Chains

Finding Fair Alternatives

Green your Money/ Finances (investing)
Take Action:____ Take Action:____ Take Action:____ Take Action:____

Takeaway #2: What to do

Allow multiple opportunities for individuals to voice concerns, update assumptions, and validate the model against live data.

Tip #3: Determine content types

Content types evolved whenever staff identified a long bulleted list of the same type of content. For example, blog posts, media mentions, events, staff listings, job descriptions, magazines, press releases, and business listings all converted to “content types.”

Required fields emerged from discussions about content types. For example:

  • Media Mention = Title, Website link, Image, Byline, Body text
  • Business listing = Organization Name, Categories, Website link, Image, Address, City, State, Zip, Body text

Example D. Sample content type for a blog post

This is an example of blog fields:

Field About the Field
Blog Post Type Multiple choice, multiple answer, choose from categories)
Body Long formatted text
Display Image Image upload allowing for pngs, jpgs, or gifs
Business Network Recommendations References a list of all available businesses in a related directory
Relevant Lens Multiple choice, multiple answer, choose from a list of available lenses
Relevant Program Multiple choice, multiple answer, choose from a list of available programs
Relevant Campaign Multiple choice, multiple answer, choose from a list of available campaigns
Tags Free tags in keyword style

Certain fields existed across content types. For example, the “Relevant Lens” field attached to campaigns, programs, actions, victories, and press releases.

Takeaway #3: What to do

Create fields for each type of content. Identify fields to repurpose across content types.

Tip #4: Think in terms of lists: referencing entities and normalizing data

Certain fields became standardized and used across multiple content types. For example, almost all content types require an image field, so content types used a “Display Image” field.

As another example, blog posts, media mentions, programs, campaigns, and actions all used the same “Relevant Lens” field to reference available lenses.

As a final example, blog posts, articles, and green living pieces used the same “Relevant Program” and “Relevant Campaign” fields as reference fields. The list of all available programs or campaigns continuously updates upon the addition of new programs or new campaigns.

The idea of “entity referencing” allows users to continually grow and easily make changes, because any list of referenced content is always “up-to-date.”

Normalizing means an edit to a specific piece of content perpetuates through all instances where that piece displays. By using normalization, categorization of items, and entity referencing, it became easier and easier for any privileged user to make changes sitewide.

Example E. Data normalization samples

5 Most Recent Blog Posts: On a blog post, a list of the 5 most recent blog posts displays on the bottom of every page, in descending chronological order (most recent first). Any new blog post auto-adds to the list. Any edit to the title updates in all instances.

Fruit List: A fruit list begins with apples, oranges, blueberries, and bananas. Additions like blackberries, peaches, plums, nectarines, mangoes, strawberries, and papayas automatically display on the “Fruit List.”

Fruit List Categories: Categorizations on fruit include “Citrus” or “Berries.” Additions such as “Stonefruit” automatically update, such that a categorized list might read:

  • Berries: blackberries, blueberries, strawberries
  • Citrus: lemons, limes, oranges
  • Stonefruit: nectarines, peaches, plums
  • Tropical: mangoes, papayas
  • Not Yet Categorized: apples, bananas, starfruit

Takeaway #4: What to Do

If an “edit” button makes sense next to every item in a list, convert that list to a content type: most useful for items such as blog posts, press releases, events, staff listings, directory listings, and similar content.

Tip #5: Test against assumptions

During the buildout, question if the articulated data structure matches staff needs. By taking time to find and correct incomplete/faulty assumptions about content relationships, all stakeholders better understand the final product.

As an example, a “Magazine Issue” offers the ability to choose from a list of available “magazine articles” in order to display “featured articles.” A “Lens” offers a display of “relevant pieces.” In one case, our team mistakenly focused on “parent” relationships for content, and based on feedback, turned that into focusing on “child” relationships.

Example F. Choosing relevant pieces on a lens

A “Climate” lens shows a green living piece “Cut Your Carbon at Home” and a blog post “Add Socially Responsible Investments to Your Workplace’s Retirement Plan.” On any lens, the “entity reference” field helps specify relevant pieces, in their desired display order.

Takeaway #5: What to Do

Course correction takes time. Identify, test, review, and go back to the drawing board based on feedback from editorial and program staff. Large projects require flexibility to address initial incorrect assumptions.

Tip #6: Create reporting mechanisms

Reports help staff understand the website content better. Report-building benefits when customized to the specific type of user requesting that report. Early beta versions help identify gaps and allow the user to continuously access, understand, and download available data in order to make suggestions.

In an iterative buildout, the technology team benefits from early feedback. Conversely, an administrator or executive reviewing a prototype report better understands what is available to them and makes more informed requests about new fields and filters.

Technology teams who engage with end users by requesting, correcting, and fine-tuning build more relevant and useful reports.

Example G. Sample administrative reports

  • Recently Updated: a list of all recently created or updated content
  • All Green Living Pieces: a list of tips on green living
  • All Press Releases: a list of all generated press releases
  • All Blog Posts: a list of all blog posts
  • All Lenses: a list of all major areas of work
  • All Programs: a list of all available programs, sorted by lens
  • All Campaigns: a list of all available campaigns, sorted by program and lens
  • All Victories: a list of success stories
  • All Staff: a list of all people who are staff members, consultants, and interns

Takeaway #6: What to Do

Reports help users understand the existing information. Create a new report for each content type and fine-tune as needed.

Tip #7: Wireframe, build, test, and refine

Prepare to be exhilarated, challenged, rewarded, and exhausted by the minimum viable product process. Technologists build digital tools twice: once in the mind, and second in reality. Prototypes help with the process of getting feedback across internal stakeholders. Drawings, mockups, and paper versions all assist teammates in understanding the proposed redesign architecture.

Build in a refinement period into the website redesign schedule so there is time to clarify and details that weren’t addressed the first time around.

Example H. Mindmap about Homepage

Mindmap about Homepage includes a Box called Enter, with arrows coming out that display Lenses: Food Lens, Finance Lens, Climate Lens, and Labor Lens. Other arrows go to five other sections. 1: Current Program Highlights, which leads to Relevant Programs and Relevant Campaigns. 2: Current Campaign Highlights, which leads to Relevant Campaigns and Relevant Actions. Relevant actions continues to Salsa Action (third party). 3: Current Action Highlights, which leads to Relevant Actions and All Pieces. 4: Piece Highlights, which leads to All Pieces and Focus Areas. 5: Sign up for E-news. 6: Donate (third party embed)

Image: Member Landing Mockup

This is a Balsamiq-generated mockup image to help the team understand different pieces for the member landing. It includes a main block with three tabs called My Biz Listing, My Coupons, and My Ads. There is a second block underneath called Members-Only Documents. On the left sidebar is a list of Announcements. Inside the My Biz Listing tab is four bolded field labels and text as follows: 1st line - Title: My Green Business Listing. 2nd line - Date Updated: 2017 January 7, Description. 3rd line - Description: lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipisicing elit, sed do ejusmod tempor incididunt ut labore et dolore magna aliqua. 4th line - Categories: Children, Pets, Clothing. 5th line: (edit this listing).

Takeaway #7: What to Do

Tools such as Balsamiq, LucidChart, and Invision assist stakeholders in gaining clarity around mental models: use them liberally. Your platform never really reaches completion, so build in time post-launch to continuously improve.


Technology professionals create effective tools to champion positive social, environmental, economic, and political change. By integrating feedback loops early and often, these tools spread the message, educate the populace, gain support for the cause, and make a positive difference.

Three years ago, Habitat for Humanity decided to test the power of technology to increase resident engagement in neighborhoods we serve. With a grant from the Fund for Shared Insight, we launched a pilot project with 12 Habitat organizations across the country to determine whether using feedback loops increases participation by community residents in choosing strategies and projects to promote their “community voice” and aspirational goals.

At Habitat, adapting a feedback loop methodology from Feedback Labs—a systematized approach to collecting and analyzing data and sharing back findings with community residents—has produced clear outcomes and made the case for scaling up this initiative.

To start, we interviewed Habitat staff to see if the residents they partner with prefer online, mobile, paper, or some other medium of engagement. Then we created a multi-medium method for data collection and the ability to share real-time feedback to hear directly from the community, so local Habitat organizations could discuss and strategize on their next steps.

The end result has been a widening of communication channels for our nonprofit headquarters to hear directly from feet-on-the-street community activists.

What our feedback loops told us about engaging our community


The less burden on people taking surveys, the better.

One Habitat staff member noticed many people in her neighborhood had challenges with the online survey. When she realized this, she stopped asking them to take the survey online and took it to them face-to-face. While academics might cite how many changes this shifting approach would make to the data, from a community organizer’s stance, the move created a better sense of trust with neighbors.

Meet people where they’re meeting.

Some local organizations didn’t know why their survey response rate was low. But when they decided to go out in the community, response rates went up. Also, once the community members got involved with Habitat, they stepped up their civic engagement in general. In Central Berkshire, Massachusetts, for example, residents who became active with Habitat and housing issues later took leadership roles in local transportation initiatives.

Make it fun.

In Dupage, Illinois, the local Habitat used the community’s BBQ and Resource Fair as an occasion to share results and hear feedback from local residents.

Make it personal.

People conducting surveys can be misinterpreted as dry. With feedback loops, we used our strength in housing and community outreach to connect neighbors, sometimes resulting in life-changing experiences.

Take Demita in Springfield, Missouri. Demita and other community leaders agreed to host a neighborhood event to clean alleys and to inspire homeowners to spruce up their yards. A few days before their “Rally in the Alley” day, Demita decided to introduce herself to residents along her alley and generate face-to-face enthusiasm for the event.

At one door, she met Kathy, a homeowner whose tailored front yard held potted plants and lawn art but whose backyard was overrun with waist-high grass. Kathy explained that she had been feeling hopeless since her lawn mower broke, and caring for her disabled husband left her no time to do anything about it. When Demita told others of Kathy’s plight, the next door neighbor came over and cut the lawn right away. It was Kathy’s first time meeting him, and in expressing thanks, she said, “This is the nicest thing anybody has ever done for me.”

For Demita, this new relationship alone made the community building effort a success.

Don’t let the medium control the conversation.

It’s easier to pick a sustainable technology that already supports human behavior rather than forcing human behavior to adapt to technology. Feedback from the pilot sites showed that some people found the online survey technology to be too prescriptive while others preferred it.

Also, there are residents in some neighborhoods who do not use smartphones and have no Wi-Fi at all. Low-tech methods should be considered as legitimate for immediate response feedback.

In each of the pilot communities, Habitat saw improvement in community involvement and resident engagement. Sometimes this manifested as a statistical increase in attendance at meetings and participation in projects. For example, in Greater Lowell, Massachusetts, only 29 resident leaders had partnered in neighborhood efforts before the pilot. Since October 2016, the number has grown to 56 participating in the first community conversation and 62 in the second—an impressive increase of 70%, or 39 residents, participating in both.

Over the past 40 years, Habitat for Humanity has worked with people around the globe to help families achieve the strength, stability and self-reliance they need to build better lives for themselves. The most important element of our mission is the partnership between Habitat and the homeowner, and we continuously seek to keep homeowners and their input at the center of what we do.

Each of the 12 feedback loop pilot projects shows a positive reflection of outreach in Habitat organizations nationwide, where our mission is guided by the aspirations of the communities we serve. Using feedback loops helps us energize communities and chart our progress in sustaining and advancing Habitat’s mission in partnership with donors, volunteers, and homeowners.

Collecting shared metrics has strengthened the evaluation of community engagement and helped us to continuously refine programs, projects, or systems. Our next step is to explore the growth and sustainability of feedback loops, which can change the dynamic between community residents and the people and agencies that partner with them.

We are all looking for ways to save money and to use our (often) limited resources to most effectively serve our mission. We often find that our mission doesn’t wait for the technology resources we use to catch up to the innovative ideas that we fundraisers have, so we come up with these ad hoc solutions. The next thing you know, you have more fundraising platforms and vendors than you know what to do with because there isn’t one platform that does everything well. Then you look at your expenses and go “ugh.”

The following is not an endorsement or a knock against any of the platforms mentioned: each one has served a need. Rather, it’s to share with you a case study of sorts: the changes we have made and continue to make to keep up with the evolving needs of our events, our participants, and our donors.

Where we started

When I came to Covenant House in 2013, our peer-to-peer fundraising program was still very new. We had only been doing peer-to-peer fundraising events for two years and we were growing at a sometimes intimidatingly fast rate.

Because each of our peer-to-peer and event initiatives has a specific set of technology needs and there were no event staff with technical expertise, we were using three different fundraising platforms. Two of these were one-stop shops, First Giving and Event Journal, which required very little work from staff but were limited in what they could provide in customized reporting. The third fundraising platform, Blackbaud’s TeamRaiser, was managed by one staff member and a vendor, because the customizations were seemingly endless.

Then, we decided to revamp our DIY program and needed a more robust platform that allowed for customization and provided more complex reporting, so we partnered with DonorDrive. Then we were required to use a specific fundraising platform (Crowdrise) by our charity endurance partner and all of a sudden we had 5 fundraising platforms, leading to more expense and more duplication of work.

How we consolidated our fundraising platforms

Our program was (and is still) growing and so is our team. We now have several people on our team with various levels of technical knowledge. We took the time to look at our programs, our expenses, and our staff knowledge in the context of trying to get our communications and digital properties to look like they are all part of the same family.

After many conversations and frustrations regarding the lack of customized reporting for our charity endurance program, we decided that we could create an affiliate site on DonorDrive. We also recently learned that we are no longer required to use Crowdrise, allowing us to consolidate the program’s tech needs.

The big win came with the evaluation of alternatives for Event Journal. The event and its technology needs have changed over the past couple of years, so we were keeping our eyes open for a platform that could provide more robust reporting as well as assist in overall project management. We were introduced to Greater Giving and after several demos and more conversations, we decided to move forward to transition our traditional events. We are still in the early stages of this transition, but it has already allowed for more customization, includes features for which we previously had to use additional software, and has provided more resources.

What’s next for our organization

All of these changes added up to $15,000 in savings, noted within one fiscal quarter for the organization. It also made it easier to ensure our digital event fundraising platforms have consistent messaging and branding to best promote our mission.

We continue to evaluate our platforms and related costs and we like to learn about new products. It’s good to know what is out there. It may not meet a need right now, but with the ever-evolving landscape nonprofit fundraising, one never knows.
How do you decide which platforms to keep or how many to use? What are your tech wins and challenges? Join the discussion and share your experience!

Organizations of all missions and sizes participate in NTEN Labs, one-day capacity building workshops, throughout the year to share their tech challenges, successes, and dreams with their peers. We asked Paula Jones, from N.C. Center for Nonprofits, to answer a few of our questions and share her organization’s relationship to nonprofit technology.


What is your organization, and why does it exist?
The N.C. Center for Nonprofits serves as an information center on effective practices in nonprofit organizations, a statewide network for nonprofit board and staff members, and an advocate for the nonprofit sector as a whole. Our mission is to enrich North Carolina’s communities and economy through a strong nonprofit sector and nonprofit voice.

How would you describe the current role of technology at your organization?
Technology is woven into the work we do every day to help nonprofits. From our telephone system to our website, we rely heavily on technology to serve nonprofits, from the North Carolina coast to the mountains.

What has been your biggest tech challenge at your organization?
For many years, our biggest tech challenge was not having a reliable system to store, view, and analyze data. We had multiple systems (and silos) that caused inefficiencies and duplication of data entry. We have since taken an integrated approach that has made a tremendous difference in our ability to respond to Members and report to our staff, board, and funders on our work.

What is on your organizational wish list?
A robust, mobile-friendly website that allows our constituents to easily access resources they need to achieve their missions. Previously, we didn’t have a significant amount of mobile traffic to warrant the upgrade, but given the increases we’ve seen this year, we know that this needs to be a priority for us.

Do you have any nonprofit tech New Year’s Resolutions for 2016?
To continue to look to data to help us make good organizational decisions.

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Organizations of all missions and sizes participate in NTEN Labs, one-day capacity building workshops, throughout the year to share their tech challenges, successes, and dreams with their peers. We asked Birgit Pauli-Haack, from NPTechProjects, to answer a few of our questions and share her organization’s relationship to nonprofit technology.

What is your organization, and why does it exist?

The organization is called NPTechProjects. It exists to help nonprofit leaders, staff, and volunteers transition to a strategic approach to technology in order to further their collective mission and impact. The challenges in the 21st Century are too complicated and too complex to ignore the last 10 years in technology available to manage and overcome those challenges.

There is not enough assistance available in our area to help nonprofit leaders to incorporate a data-driven mindset—not only for grant application and reporting, but in their day-to-day operation, marketing, and donor relationship cultivation.

We have been working on this since I came back from the first Leading Change Summit in September 2014, where I was working on Impact Circles for the LCS’  Ideas Accelerator. After more conversation with nonprofit executive directors (EDs) and board members, we expanded on the idea to create an agile organization to provide project management expertise and coaching to their leadership. We cover the full lifecycle of projects:

  • Concept and research in the problems to solve
  • Requirements gathering, software, and tools selection process
  • Review of inner-organizational processes
  • Implementation planning and execution
  • Training standards and follow-up

Impact Circles—ED round-tables on strategic use of technology—are now a part of the larger framework. Our organization currently is in start-up mode; we are putting the final touches on our first outreach to local and regional organizations as well as foundations.

How would you describe the current role of technology at your organization?

I research viable open-source products and the role they play in their communities, like CiviCRM or WordPress. My background is web and application development, specifically application integration via external APIs—a way to for systems to “talk to each other” on the back end. Our business has been web development & design, mobile development, and digital marketing. Testing Tools and APIs excites me.

As a co-organizer of our local 501TechClub, I bridge the gaps between nonprofit leadership and organizations like NTEN & Techsoup. I have been a Regional Ambassador for Techsoup’s global Netsquared program since early 2015

Tell us a story: good, bad, or ugly

In 2015, even the talk about spam can be considered spam. The problems solved by many organizations still seem to be disrupting operations for some. For instance, we know of one chapter organization, which communicates heavily with chapter leadership and various interest groups about advocacy. Chapter leaders turn over once every two years by design. Operational emails with up to 1,200 recipients are a normal occurrence at that organization, which is a highly ‘spam-suspicious’ activity. Mailman listserv messages are considered spam by some ISPs, no matter what. Several times a year, this one organization has found their domain name and email server IP address on various Internet service providers’ spammer ‘black lists’ for a period of a couple of days at a time. In total, they maintained 84 email addresses and 27 groups with their own domain names.They outgrew their hosting companies email server and listserv offerings, but they didn’t know where to turn to as they didn’t have any funds for full-blown enterprise-level email provider.  

We talked several times about this issue, and I always came back to suggesting Google Apps for this kind of operation. The organization wasn’t a 501(c)(3) organization, however,so they didn’t qualify for Google for Nonprofits, and the idea was shut down, as $5 per user seem to be way outside their budget. I did some research, conducted some tests with other Google Apps work accounts, and looked more closely at the organization’s current set-up. It turned out that only three of the used email addresses were actually email address with inboxes. The rest were set-up as email aliases, forwarding emails to people’s private email addresses. With Google Apps for Work, you can have 30 nicknames, as Google calls aliases, Google Groups are free anyway. We created a spreadsheet for the migration and training videos on how to handle groups subscriptions, as well as how to set up filters for email forwarding on Google. And for $15 dollars a month, they eliminated the talk about spam around the organization.

What has been your biggest tech challenge at your organization?

My soft answer: I generally subscribe to a theory that when technology seems to be failing, oftentimes technology is not the problem. While it may be a good sector to blame because everyone can certainly relate, most often the underlying issue is resistance to change and the omission of leadership buy-in.

My direct answer: We need to keep our humanity when we design automated systems. The biggest challenge is to listen in order to build pathways for responses—not on an individual basis at a cocktail party, but at scale.

Example: As a data-driven organization, the biggest challenge for us has been to ask the right questions and find the answers within the vast amount of data that are already available within an organization. The data might be unstructured and unavailable in one single source, which makes the nerd in me shudder. It doesn’t mean, however, the data are not there. Based on what we know about that donor, supporter, or volunteer, we must find the right technology to tailor the content of our emails, on our website, and via the social webs toward the appropriate person. It’s not always a tech challenge, per se. Rather, building interpersonal relationships at scale is actually the biggest challenge we have.

What is on your organizational wish list?

To raise enough funding for resources to increase the organizational and technological capacities of 100 organizations over the next three years.

Do you have any nonprofit tech New Year’s Resolutions for 2016?

Apart from launching NPTechProjects, I will create more opportunities for nonprofits to collaborate and pool resources. I will provide remote hands-on instruction for nonprofit board members for their daily technology needs to get them past their aol.com or yahoo.com email. And I really want to improve digital storytelling; we all are just scratching the surface of this interesting concept. Let’s get ready for the wave of peer-to-peer fundraising, when we as nonprofits need to rely on our supporters to carry our mission to their friends…  and friends of friends.

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