Where I’ll Be At 15NTC

15ntc (1)The 2015 Nonprofit Technology Conference starts on March 3rd and marks my tenth year attending (out of the last eleven). Based on my prior experience, I’m looking forward to highly enriching and rewarding social event, hanging out with about 2500 of the nicest people I could ever hope to know, this year at the Austin (Texas) Convention center.

Huh! So we’re Convention Center-sized now. The challenge — which NTEN pulled off with over 2000 attendees last year — is to host that many people and still maintain an atmosphere of community. Last year, during the Ignite plenary, Susan Reed told a story that was breathtakingly personal and inspirational, displaying an impressive level of trust in the community. I wonder what we’ll see this year, just as I wonder if the sheer size of the facility might daunt us. But what I do know is that the NTEN staff set a tone that is remarkably open and welcoming, and they craft the event in ways that make it more difficult to avoiding meeting a ton of new people than it is to make the new friends. I will literally know hundreds of the people attending, but I fully expect to have at least 25 new friends by the time the Geek Games have subsided and we all head home.

So, where will I be?

Tuesday, 3/3, 7:00 pm: #NTCBeer

This seventh annual pre-conference social event that combines great people with good beer (and other beverages) will be held at The Cedar Door.  In addition to a good beer selection, we’ll have a private room with full bar and plenty of options for good food to eat.

We’ll see if we top the approximately 300 people that showed up in DC last year (with more turned away as the bar hit capacity). Note that, while #ntcbeer is a conference event, we don’t turn away friendly nptechies who just happen to be in town.

Thanks to NTEN for finding the location this year! If you plan on attending, please let us know on the #ntcbeer Facebook event page.

Wednesday, 3/4, 10:30 am: Software and Service Contracts – How to Negotiate Reasonable Terms in the Cloud Era

campbellpeter.img1_Rounding out my wonky trio of tech management topics (Project Management at 13NTC; Requests for Proposals at 14NTC), we’ll talk about the key things to challenge vendors on and the best tone to set in negotiations, with some new thinking on what needs to be addressed for hosted (cloud) systems. I blogged on the NTEN Blog about this session in greater detail, and you can register for it on the Sched page, assuming that you’ve signed up for MyNTC.

Thursday, 3/5, 6:00 pm: Access To Justice Get-together

gavel-145568_640Do you work in legal aid? Join us at an informal drinks and, possibly, dinner meetup at Banger’s Sausage House and Beer Garden. You can RSVP on NTEN’s social events calendar (Thursday tab, row 8)

 

Friday, 3/6, 10:30 AM: Crafting IT Policy to Improve Security and Manage BYOD

 invisible-man-154567_1280I’ll be joining Johan Hammerstrom, CEO of Community IT Innovators, in a session that discusses the latest security threats and offers tools and a framework for defending our orgs from them. We’ll start with a talk about securing information when it no longer lives behind a firewall, then move to new ideas about dealing with security breaches, then on to standard IT policies, including Bring Your Own Device (BYOD), assuming that’s still a topic of great interest. You can register for this session here.

 

Other than that, I’ll be all over the place and on Twitter. If you want to meet up, ping me there!

A Healthy Skepticism About Medicine Shouldn’t Deter You From Vaccines

We interrupt this blog for a public service announcement.

medical trust

 

Here’s what I get — the 21st century U.S. medical establishment is not all that trustworthy. HMO’s sometimes limit testing and doctors prescribe unnecessary drugs. I am not a doctor, or any kind of expert, but I have read enough doctors’ opinions to have a healthy skepticism that the number of ADHD and anti-depression prescriptions being written seriously outpaces the actual instances. I think they are over-medicating and misdiagnosing regularly.

True, funny story: one of my son’s school’s staff asked my wife what medications he was on. When she said “none”, they were visibly shocked. We don’t know whether this is because our kid is a complete exception to the rule, or because they assumed that he was drugged because he’s such a sweet-tempered kid, or both. But it is disturbing. This isn’t a special ed school. Kids should not be spending five days out of each week on drugs without very good reason.

So I think a skepticism regarding modern medicine is a healthy thing. I follow my doctor’s instructions, but I’m picky about who I choose to be my doctor. And I do ask questions. I’ve had doctors do things like recommend a month in bed when my back went out — the opposite of good advice — and another that left a stitch in my back and denied it — I had to see another doctor to get it out.

So, when it comes to vaccinating your kids, well, yes, pay attention. The number of vaccinations recommended today is about four times the number required in the mid-seventies. Get a pediatrician that you trust and work with them. There might be circumstances that justify varying the recommended schedule a little bit — the Doctor will have a much better perspective on that than you will. But here are two things that should be completely obvious to anyone who isn’t ridiculously self-deluded:

  1. The established, half-century old vaccines like the Measles, Mumps Rubella vaccine are extremely safe, and your children will be safer if they take them, as well as mine.
  2. This isn’t about laws and Government and family rights. This is about civilization and social contracts. We vaccinate our children because we live in a society, not a vacuum tube.

There’s a curve here that, at one end, has accepting anything a doctor says as fact; not far from that end, having a healthy skepticism; and, far on the other side, deciding that you are more of an expert than 1000 doctors with PHDs. It does take work, research, and thought to determine what is BS and what is real. But parents have an obligation to tackle those questions, to seek good counsel, and to not let paranoia be your guiding light. Because believing that you are protecting your child, or anyone else’s, by skipping the established vaccines, is pure paranoia and ridiculous ego. You owe it to your children to be more reasonable than that.

Graphic by me, CC No Attrib.

Inking The Deal: What We’ll Discuss at the #15NTC Contract Negotiation Session

This post originally appeared on the NTEN Blog on January 20th, 2015.

For this month’s Connect theme, a number of speakers are previewing the great breakout sessions they are preparing for the 2015 Nonprofit Technology Conference in Austin, TX March 4-6. Following is a preview of one of over 100 breakout sessions.

The 15NTC session, “Software and Service Contracts: How To Negotiate Reasonable Terms in the Cloud Era” is the third in my series of, “How wonky can we get?” information exchanges. At the 2013 Nonprofit Technology Conference in Minneapolis, I spoke on Project Management; and last year, in DC, on Requests for Proposals. While these topics aren’t quite as trendy as data visualization and the mobile web, they are focused on the job skills that allow us to do all of the cool stuff. As a nonprofit technology executive, I’ve bought and deployed a lot of systems. Sharing what I’ve learned along the way is the least I can give back to a great Community like NTEN. What are the things that have to be in place in order to successfully roll out software and systems?

  1. Good project management: in particular, the right methodology for the job
  2. A thorough selection process, one that doesn’t let the desire for a low-fixed bid trump the priority of selecting the right system or partner
  3. A contract with that vendor that fairly establishes the remedies should things with the vendor go wrong

I try and bring a few things to these sessions to make them memorable. In this case, the move from server rooms to cloud-based server farms has changed the dynamic of our customer/vendor relationships. Software contracts need to reflect that. In the cloud, we have new issues to negotiate, such as:

  1. What happens to customer data when a vendor goes out of business?
  2. Do our negotiated terms apply to subcontractors, when, say, the vendor’s service uses Amazon as a storage platform?
  3. Who is responsible when something breaks?

Mostly, I want to impress upon everyone that terms can be negotiated. In these days of shrink wrap software licenses, many nonprofits forget that we can protect ourselves from nasty terms. Here are some quick thoughts:

  1. Vendors should tie termination fees to strong service level agreements, or waive them altogether in cloud contracts, where they should merit your monthly payments by providing a  solid service
  2. Who benefits from automatic renewals? Should you sign a contract that renews automatically at the original term if the original term is three years or more?
  3. The jurisdiction that governs the remedies should be your home state or, at worst, theirs.  Beware: some vendors are fine about choosing obscure courts that they know will protect their interests

And, finally, I’ll offer a few tips on the negotiating process. Some co-workers of mine have expressed concerns that bickering over contract details can hurt the vendor relationship. Done right, the contract negotiation establishes a tone in the relationship that will last throughout the engagement, and it’s one of mutual respect and a commitment to confront key issues, rather than to avoid them.

So don’t be afraid to get wonky! Join me at the 15NTC for a session that might not be the sexiest you attend, but will provide you with the tools you need to protect your technology investments.

About the author:

By day, Peter Campbell is the CIO at Legal Services Corporation, America’s Partner for Equal Justice. At other times, he can be found blogging and talking about all things nptech at Techcafeteria or on Twitter.

Image credit: “The Land of Contracts” by David Anthony Colarusso

How I Spent My 2015 Technology Initiative Grants Conference

I’m back from our (Legal Services Corporation) 15th annual technology conference, which ran from January 14th through the 16th  in San Antonio, Texas.  It was a good one this year, with a great location, good food, great people – nearly 300 of them, which is quite a record for us. There were plenty of amazing sessions, kicked off by a fascinating keynote on international access to justice web app partnerships. Slides and videos will be up soon on LSC’s website. But I did want to share the slides from my sessions, which all seemed to go very well.  I did three:

Are You Agile

I kicked off the first morning doing a session on agile project management with Gwen Daniels of Illinois Legal Aid Online. My slides provided a basic overview of project management concepts, then Gwen did a live demo of how ILAO uses Jira and a SCRUM methodology to develop websites and applications. Having studied agile more than actually practicing it, I learned a lot from her.  The combined slides will be up on LSC’s site. I pulled my intro from this broader presentation that I did at the Nonprofit Technology Conference in 2013:

Shop Smart: How A Formal Procurement Process Can Safeguard Your Investments

On Thursday, I summarized everything I know about software and vendor selection, writing proposals, and negotiating contracts into this dense presentation on how to purchase major software systems.

Security Basics

And on Friday, usual suspect Steve Heye and I led a session on security, factoring all of the things that we think orgs should know in an era of frequent, major breaches and distributed data.

I’ll hit some of these same themes in March at the Nonprofit Technology Conference, where I’ll be speaking on contract negotiations (cloud and otherwise) and information policies (with Johan Hammerstrom of CommunityIT. See you there?

13 Lessons On Building Your Nonprofit Technology Culture

This article originally appeared on the Exponent Partners blog on December 19th, 2014. It was written by Kerry Vineburg, based on a phone interview with me.

EXPONENT PARTNERS SERIES: SMART PRACTICES

Is your nonprofit thinking about implementing a large database project like Salesforce? Nonprofit and technology veteran Peter Campbell, CIO at Legal Services Corporation, recently shared his valuable insights on how to prepare your team and culture for long-term success. His organization, the top funder of civil legal aid for low-income Americans in the country, is developing Salesforce as a data warehouse for their grantee information and document management. 

We asked Peter to tell us more about what practices he uses to help ensure a successful technology implementation. As you’ll see, it’s just as much about working with people! 

Embarking On Your Project

1. When beginning a technology project, agree on the problem you’re solving, that all staff can relate to. Organizational readiness is critical. I’ve worked at organizations that didn’t recognize that their casual approach to data management was a problem, and they weren’t looking for a solution. If your staff don’t understand why they need an application, then you’re in danger of installing something that won’t be utilized. When starting a new organizational project, I identify 2-3 core bullet points that will explain the goals of the project, and repeat them often. For example: “The new system will provide one-step access to all information and documents related to a grantee.” That’s the high-level goal. It should be something where the product users all agree, “Yes, I need that!”
2. When planning technology upgrades and projects, schedule the changes. Plan for gradual change. Early in my career, I had to deal with the Y2K bug and replace every system at a mid-sized law firm in a short period. It led me to this philosophy: replace only one major system each year. It’s a myth that people hate change — people hate disruption. Change is good, but needs to be managed at steady level. If you’re doing regular implementations every year, people can get used to that pace. If you do nothing for 3 years, then switch out everything: 1) you’re putting too much of a burden on your implementers to achieve everything at once and 2) you’re making too big of an imposition on staff. Suddenly, everything they know is gone and replaced.

Getting Buy-In

3. Gain full executive sponsorship. There’s a common misconception that a new system will just work for you once it’s installed. To fully realize the benefits of a CRM requires cultural change. Every level of the organization needs to buy into the project. You’ll need to harness a lot of attention and energy from your team to develop requirements, manage the project, learn the new system and adapt processes. Otherwise, you’ll invest in a big database implementation and only one or two people will use it.
The importance of a major system upgrade should be set by the executive director and/or board. Everyone should know that the system is a priority. At nonprofits, our executive directors are often better at fundraising than managing a business, and many are somewhat technophobic. They don’t need to be technology gurus, but they do need to understand what the technology should be doing for them, and to take ownership of those goals. The last thing that I want to hear from my boss is, “Here’s a budget — go do what you think is best.” Without their interest in my projects, I’m bound to fail.
4. If one buy-in approach needs help, try a combo. If you can’t convince your executive director or other leadership to be regular active participants, power users can sometimes help convince your team. I’m not recommending an either/or approach, there should be some of both, but power users can engage staff in cases where management isn’t setting clear expectations. For any project that impacts staff, I will invite key users to be on our evaluation team, help with product selection, and potentially be on our advisory committee during the project. For example, we have a grants department liaison, who is charged with getting the right people in the room when we need input from the staff that know much better than we do what the system should ultimately do for them.
5. Incorporate perspectives from around the table. In addition to power users, I also want feedback from “standard” users. Maybe they don’t love technology so much, and maybe they wouldn’t volunteer for this. But they have an important perspective: you need to understand their reactions and what they’re going to find difficult. As the IT director and CIO, I know important things about managing a project. The users know important things that I don’t. If we don’t have views from multiple sides of the table, the project will fail.

Working With Good People

6. Look for partners (vendors and consultants) who understand your mission, not just the technology. In the ideal situation, you want people who not only get database and programming work, but also really understand your mission and business priorities. I’m blessed to have developers on my team who not only understand grants management but are also sympathetic to what the people coming to them are trying to accomplish. When they get a request, they can prioritize with a good understanding of our organization’s requirements. They’re able to answer, “How can I make the most out of what this person needs with my available time?” while being skilled enough to capably choose between the technical options. Getting people that have a broader mindset than just technology is really important.
7. Vary your team and role strategy with your size. At nonprofits, we don’t usually have big internal teams. Someone becomes our accidental techie/database guru. Even large nonprofits are hurting for staff. It’s always been less “here’s the best practice and ideal way to staff this,” and more “let’s see what budget and people I have, and make it work as well as I can.” Not many nonprofits have developers on staff. Hiring can be challenging. It’s a popular skillset, and won’t be cheap. If you’re tiny, you probably won’t hire full-time, you’ll outsource to consultants. But if you have 30 people or more using the CRM, you might benefit from in-house expertise, even if it’s a half-time role.
If you already have developers on staff, that’s great. If they don’t have experience with, say, Salesforce, but they do know database design and a programming language or two, it’s not hard to pick up the concepts. You’re modeling a database, designing it, and then scripting on top of it in a similar language. They can probably adapt.
8. Practice good compensation and retention strategies for your technically savvy (and/or newly trained) staff. I’ve seen a trend over the past 10 years. A nonprofit decides to use a solution like Salesforce and they charge their accidental techie with the task of implementing. The accidental techie gets the implementation done, becomes a guru on it, trains all the users, and then because the organization is paying them an entry-level salary, they leave and go get a much higher paying job as a consultant! It’s a valuable skillset, so don’t be short-sighted about compensating them for what they do for you. You need to be careful and invest properly. Give them raises along with the skillset, to make sure they are fully motivated to stick with you.

Project Management

9. Avoid surprises with good communication. My rule of IT management now is: “No one should ever be surprised by anything I do.” From experience with good mentors, I learned important lessons about communication: if you’re going to make a change, communication is critical. Say it 3 times in 3 different mediums (in email, on the internet, on flyers on the wall on every floor!). Be sure staff know how the technology contributes to the well-being of the organization, rather than being a time-waster, so they are motivated to keep working with it. Communicate well.
10. If possible, hold out for the right team. I put off projects to have the right people in place, rather than hold tight to a project deadline with the wrong people in place. See above for how to find and keep the right people.

Training and Baking The Technology Into Your Culture

11. Don’t reinvent the wheel; take advantage of the ecosystem. It can be really common for staff not to reach out for help. They may feel like their job is to learn the technology on their own. They should know there are many resources available to them! For example, with Salesforce, I recommend making use of peer support in the community, the Power of Us Hub, and local user groups. When they do seasonal updates, they do a lot of webinars and are good about providing information about how the app is growing. Salesforce also offers training (the Salesforce Foundation discounts by half) and every consultant I’ve spoken with is capable of doing some customized training. I know that other technologies offer resources like this also. It also behooves anybody on staff to know the specific implementation that you’ve done.
12. Allocate a training budget. I always push to have a staff training budget. For my organization, we even hired for a role of training and implementation specialist. We wanted to have a person on staff whose full-time job was training and strategizing how users use software and how to involve them in the implementation process. This should be part of your budget. I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to have people in your organization who know how to train on your applications.
13. Engage staff and help them understand the big picture of the technology. It’s good to get your team working with the database early on in the process, learning what it’s capable of and what it looks like. Engage your users: get people involved in every step of the process, from selecting products to implementation to training and rollout. Make the product demos big group activities, so that everyone can envision how similar systems work and what they might do with the product beyond what they’re doing today. Beta-test your implementations, giving staff lots of opportunities to provide input. Take an Agile approach of regularly showing what you’re developing to the people who will be using it, and adjusting your development per their feedback.
With a committed team that understands your mission, great communication, well-allocated resources, and gradual change, your organization can lay the foundations for a successful solution that will actually be adopted!
Thanks to Peter Campbell for these great insights. Peter also blogs at techcafeteria.com
For even more strategies on ensuring that your culture is ready for your system, check out our free report Nonprofit Technology Adoption: Why It Matters and How to Be Successful.

– See more at: http://www.exponentpartners.com/building-your-nonprofit-technology-culture#sthash.QPFll78h.dpuf

Why I’m Intrigued By Google’s Inbox

Google Inbox logoHere we go again! Another communication/info management Google product that is likely doomed to extinction (much like recent social networks I’ve been blogging about), and I can’t help but find it significant and important, just as I did Google Wave, Google Buzz, and the much-loved Google Reader. I snagged an early invite to Google’s new “Inbox” front-end to GMail, and I’ve been agonizing over it for a few weeks now.  This app really appeals to me, but I’m totally on the fence about actually using it, for a few reasons:

  • This is either a product that will disappear in six months, or it’s what Gmail’s standard interface will evolve into.  It is absolutely an evolved version of recent trends, notably the auto-sorting tabs they added about a year ago.
  • The proposition is simple: if you let Google sort your mail for you, you will no longer have to organize your mail.

I’ve blogged before about how expensive an application email is to maintain, time-wise. We get tons of email (I average over a hundred messages a day between work and home), and every message needs to be managed (deleted, archived, labeled, dragged to a folder, etc.), unlike texts and social media, which you can glance at and either reply or ignore. The average email inbox is flooded with a wide assortment of information, some useless and offensive (“Meet Beautiful Russian Women”), some downright urgent (“Your Aunt is in the Hospital!”), and a range of stuff in-between. If you get 21 messages while you’re at an hour-long meeting, and the first of the 21 is time-sensitive and critical, it’s not likely the first one that you are going to read, as it has scrolled below the visible part of your screen. The handful of needles in the crowded haystack can be easily lost forever.

Here’s how Inbox tries to make your digital life easier and less accident-prone:

  • Inbox assumes (incorrectly) that every email has three basic responses: You want to deal with it soon (keep it in the inbox); you want to deal with it later (“snooze” it with a defined time to return to the inbox); or you want to archive it. They left out delete it, currently buried under a pop-up menu, which annoys me, because I believe that permanently deleting the 25% of my email that can be glanced at (or not even opened) and deleted is a cornerstone of my inbox management strategy. But, that nit aside, I really agree with this premise.
  • Messages fall in categories, and you can keep a lot of the incoming mail a click away from view, leaving the prime inbox real estate to the important messages. Inbox accomplishes this with “Bundles“. which are the equivalent to the presorted tabs in Classic GMail.  Your “Promotions”, Updates” and “Social” bundles (among other pre-defineds) group messages, as opposed to putting each incoming message on it’s own inbox line. I find the in-list behavior more intuitive than the tabs. You can create your own bundles and teach them to auto-sort — I immediately created one for Family, and added in the primary email addresses for my immediate loved ones.  We’ll see what it learns.
  • Mail doesn’t need to be labeled (you can still label messages, but it’s not nearly as simple a task as it is in GMail classic). This is the thing I’m wrestling with most — I use my labels.  I have tons of filters defined that pre-label messages as they come in, and my mailbox cleanup process labels what’s missed. I go to the labels often to narrow searches. I totally get that this might not be necessary — Google’s search might be good enough that my labeling efforts are actually more work than just searching the entire inbox each time. But I’m heavily invested in my process.
  • Highlights” act a bit like Google Now, popping up useful info like flight details and package tracking.

One important note: Inbox does nothing to alter or replace your Gmail application.  It’s an alternative interface. When you archive, delete or label a message in Inbox, it gets archived, deleted or labeled in GMail as well, but Gmail knows nothing about bundles and, therefore, doesn’t reflect them, and not one iota of GMail functionality changes when you start using Inbox.  You do start getting double notifications, and Inbox offered to turn off GMail notifications for me if I wanted to fix that. I turned Inbox down and I’m waiting for GMail to make a similar offer.  ;-)

So what Inbox boils down to is a streamlined, Get Things Done (GTD) frontend for GMail that removes email clutter, eases email management, and highlights the things that Google thinks are important. If you think Google can do that for you reasonably well, then it might make your email communication experience much saner. You might want to switch to it.  Worse that can happen is it goes away, in which case Gmail will still be there.

I have invites.  Leave a comment or ping me directly if you’d like one.

If you’re using Inbox already, tell me, has it largely replaced GMail’s frontend for you?  If so, why? If not, why not?

 

Should You Outsource Your IT Department?

This post was originally published on the MAP Techworks Blog in November of 2014. 

agreement-303221_640For a nonprofit that’s reached a size of 25 or more staff, a key question revolves around how to support technology that has grown from a few laptops and PCs to a full-blown network, with all of the maintenance and troubleshooting that such a beast requires. Should you hire internal IT staff or outsource to a more affordable vendor for that support? I’d say that the key question isn’t should you — that’s more a matter of finances and personal preferences. But what you outsource and how you go about it are critical factors.

The IT departments that I’ve worked on provided a range of services, which I’ve always broken down into two broad categories.  The first is the plumbing: computer maintenance, installation, database input, training, and tech support.  These functions can, with a few caveats, be successfully outsourced. The caveats:

  • You can’t just hire the outsourced IT firm and expect them to understand your needs after an initial meeting and walk-through.  They should be micro-managed for the first month or two.  Their inclination will be to offer a generic level of support that may or may not work for your application mix or your company culture. Orient them; set clear expectations and priorities; and check their work for a good while. If you don’t, your staff might immediately lose faith in them, setting up a situation where they don’t use the service you’re paying for and, when they do interact, do it begrudgingly.  The outsourced staff should be on your team, and you need to invest in onboarding them.
  • Everyone has to remember that it’s your network. Don’t give the outsourced service the keys to your kingdom.  You should keep copies of all passwords and they should understand that changing a system password without your prior knowledge, consent, and an updated password list is a fire-able offense.  And be ready to fire them — have a backup vendor lined up.

The other bucket is strategic tech planning. In-house infrastructure or cloud. Data management strategy. How tech integrates into a broader strategic plan and supports the mission.  How tech plays into the strategies of our partners, our clients, and our communities. These components can benefit from the advice of a good consultant, but are too integral to the work and culture of an organization to be handed off to outsiders wholesale.

Outsourcing your tech strategy can be a dangerous gamble.  If you have a great consultant who really cares about your mission, they can offer some good advice. But, in most cases, the consultants are more interested in pushing their tech strategy than developing one that works well with your organizational culture.  I find that my tech strategy is heavily informed by my understanding of my co-workers, their needs, and their ability to cope with change.  To get all that from outside of an organization requires exceptional insight.

Let me make that point another way — if you don’t have a tech strategist on your internal, executive team, you’re crippled from the start. These days, it’s as essential as having a development director and a finance person. Consultants can inform and vet your ideas, but you can’t outsource your tech strategy wholesale to them. It’s core to the functionality of any successful nonprofit.

The right outsourcer can be cost effective and meet needs. But be very thorough in your selection process and, again, do some serious onboarding, because your dissatisfaction will be tied completely to their lack of understanding of your business and your needs. There are a number of NP-specific vendors (Map for Nonprofits, former NPowers and others, like DC’s CommunityIT) that get us and are better choices, in general, than the commercial services.

Does Your Request For Proposal (RFP) Ask The Right Questions?

This post was originally published on the Community IT Innovators Blog in November of 2014.

foler-29373_640Requests for Proposals (RFPs) are a controversial topic in the nonprofit sector. While governmental and corporate organizations use them regularly as a tool to evaluate products and services, their use in our sector is haphazard. I spoke recently about the RFP process and how it could work for us at the 2014 Nonprofit Technology Conference. My slides from that talk are here, along with this blog post outlining my key arguments in favor of RFPs. But a recent conversation on NTEN’s DC community list really summed up the topic.

A member posted an RFP for CRM consulting and asked why he was getting scant responses from the vendors. I looked over the RFP, and saw that it requested a fixed bid quote for work that was not well defined. I popped back into the forum with some comments:

“This five page RFP contains about a tenth of the information that a decent consultant would need in order to propose a meaningful bid for the work. If you’ve received any such bids already, I would advise you to throw them out, because those bids are wild guesses, and you will either be paying more than you need to, or setting yourself up for a combative relationship with a vendor who is angry that the project is taking far more hours than they guessed that it would. Decent consultants are passing on the RFP because it lacks so much specificity. There are two ways you could address this problem:

  1. Significantly beef up the RFP. If I were to go this route, I might hire a consultant to help me write the RFP, because they can better communicate the requirements than I could.
  2. Stop asking for a fixed bid. Query their expertise in the areas that need it, and request ample examples of work they’ve done. Also, ask for their hourly fees by role. The RFP can provide a fairly high-level overview of the project, as you won’t be asking them to generate a meaningful estimate. Instead, do reference checks and ask specific questions about their billing in order to vet that they are honest and sensitive to nonprofit budgets.

Many consultants would pop in here and say “forget the RFP – let us come talk with you and get a sense of the project and we can go from there.” As a customer, not a consultant, I wouldn’t go for that. A good RFP, sent before any face to face meetings, can tell you a lot about the professionalism, insight and care that a company will bring to your project.  Rapport and relationship are also critical, but assessing those elements is the second step. (And when it comes to that step, insist that you are meeting the people who you would almost certainly be working with). An RFP response can also be attached to the contract to make sure that the vendor is obliged to live up to their claims.

I do fixed-bid quotes for phone systems and virtualization projects, where I can tell them exactly what the project would entail. I don’t for websites and software development, because not only do I not know what the ultimate product will look like or require, I shouldn’t – a lot of learning takes place during the project that will shape the requirements further. Once I’ve hired a good consultant, we can do a defined discovery phase that will allow them to provide a fixed quote — or reasonable range — for the rest of the work.  It’s a much better way to set up the relationship than by basing it in unrealistic projections.”

Subsequently, a consultant posted a reply suggesting that RFPs are a pain, and they should really just hire a consultant they like and see if it works out, perhaps after doing a small Request for Information (RFI) to learn more about the consultants available. I replied:

I did say that consultants will often dis the RFP process and say, “just hire us and see if it works out.”  It certainly is easier on the consultant. As Clint Eastwood would say, the question is, “do you feel lucky?” Because if you feel lucky, then you can just find a suitable-looking consultant and hope that they are ethical, not over-booked (and therefore liable to under-prioritize your project), experienced with the technology that they’re deploying, etc, and do a discovery phase that will cost you x thousands of dollars, and then find out if they are the right consultant for you. Or you can do an RFP, throw out the responses that clearly don’t match your requirements, throw out the ones that don’t seem interested or well-resourced enough to respond fully, and interview the two to four consultants that look like good matches. It’s more work up front than hiring someone and hoping they’ll work out, true, but, here’s what it gets you:

  1. Focused. Just writing the RFP gets you more in touch with the goals and requirements for the project.
  2. Informed. The RFP review and interviews are a chance for the project team to explore the project possibilities with various experts.
  3. Confident. Without investing thousands of dollars into a “vendor test,” you will know who has the right experience and a compatible approach. For me, it’s often less about the skill and experience than the approach (e.g., we want a collaborative partner that would teach as they go, rather than experts to outsource the work to).
  4. Accountable. The RFP can be a contractual document, so if the vendor lied about what they can do, they can be held responsible for that lie. And, not all consultants lie, but some do. I’ve caught them at it.  ;-)
  5. Documented. In the future, after you’ve left the organization, your successors might wonder why you selected the partner that you did. The RFP process leaves a knowledge management trail for key organizational decision making.

And finally, RFI vs RFP is a question of scale.  For smaller projects, without much associated risk, RFI. The investment in doing a full RFP does have to be justified by the cost and complexity of the project. For big projects, doing an RFI in order to identify who you want to include in an RFP can be helpful.

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Community IT Innovators are a DC consulting and outsourcing firm located in Washington, DC.  Their blog is a great source of good tech advice, with similar themes (but more expert advice, less over-indulgent opinion) as mine.

How Easy Is It For You To Manage, Analyze And Present Data?

apple-256262_640I ask because my articles are up, including my big piece from NTEN’s Collected Voices: Data-Informed Nonprofits on Architecting Healthy Data Management Systems. I’m happy to have this one available in a standalone, web-searchable format, because I think it’s a bit of a  signature work.  I consider data systems architecture to be my main talent; the most significant work that I’ve done in my career.

  • I integrated eleven databases at the law firm of Lillick & Charles in the late 90’s, using Outlook as a portal to Intranet, CRM, documents and voicemail. We had single-entry of all client and matter data that then, through SQL Server triggers, was pushed to the other databases that shared the data.  This is what I call the “holy grail” of data ,entered once by the person who cares most about it, distributed to the systems that use it, and then easily accessible by staff. No misspelled names or redundant data entry chores.
  • In the early 2000’s, at Goodwill, I developed a retail data management system on open source (MySQL and PHP, primarily) that put drill-down reporting in a web browser, updated by 6:00 am every morning with the latest sales and production data.  We were able to use this data in ways that were revolutionary for a budget-challenged Goodwill, and we saw impressive financial results.

The article lays out the approach I’m taking at Legal Services Corporation to integrate all of our grantee data into a “data portal”, built on Salesforce and Box. It’s written with the challenges that nonprofits face front and center: how to do this on a budget, and how to do it without a team of developers on staff.

At a time when, more and more, our funding depends on our ability to demonstrate our effectiveness, we need the data to be reliable, available and presentable.  This is my primer on how you get there from the IT viewpoint.

I also put up four articles from Idealware.  These are all older (2007 to 2009), they’re all still pretty relevant, although some of you might debate me on the RSS article:

This leaves only one significant piece of my nptech writing missing on the blog, and that’s my chapter in NTEN’s “Managing Technology To Meet Your Mission” book about Strategic Planning. Sorry, you gotta buy that one. However, a Powerpoint that I based on my chapter is here.

Architecting Healthy Data Management Systems

This article was originally published in the NTEN eBook “Collected Voices: Data-Informed Nonprofits” in January of 2014.

tape-403593_640Introduction

The reasons why we want to make data-driven decisions are clear.  The challenge, in our cash-strapped, resource-shy environments is to install, configure and manage the systems that will allow us to easily and efficiently analyze, report on and visualize the data.  This article will offer some insight into how that can be done, while being ever mindful that the money and time to invest is hard to come by.  But we’ll also point out where those investments can pay off in more ways than just the critical one: the ability to justify our mission-effectiveness.

Right off the bat, acknowledge that it might be a long-term project to get there.  But, acknowledge as well, that you are already collecting all sorts of data, and there is a lot more data available that can put your work in context.  The challenge is to implement new systems without wasting earlier investments, and to funnel data to a central repository for reporting, as opposed to re-entering it all into a redundant system.  Done correctly, this project should result in greater efficiency once it’s completed.

Consider these goals:

  • An integrated data management and reporting system that can easily output metrics in the formats that constituents and funders desire;
  • A streamlined process for managing data that increases the validity of the data entered while reducing the amount of data entry; and
  • A broader, shared understanding of the effectiveness of our strategic plans.

Here are the steps you can take to accomplish these goals.

Taking Inventory

The first step in building the system involves ferreting out all of the systems that you store data in today.  These will likely be applications, like case or client management systems, finance databases, human resources systems and constituent relationship management (CRM) systems.  It will also include Access databases, Excel spreadsheets, Word documents, email, and, of course, paper.  In most organizations (and this isn’t limited to nonprofits), data isn’t centrally managed.  It’s stored by application and/or department, and by individuals.

The challenge is to identify the data that you need to report on, wherever it might be hidden, and catalogue it. Write down what it is, where it is, what format it is in, and who maintains it.  Catalogue your information security: what content is subject to limited availability within the company (e.g., HR data and HIPAA-related information)? What can be seen organization-wide? What can be seen by the public?

Traditionally, companies have defaulted to securing data by department. While this offers a high-level of security, it can stifle collaboration and result in data sprawl, as copies of secured documents are printed and emailed to those who need to see the information, but don’t have access. Consider a data strategy that keeps most things public (within the organization), and only secures documents when there is clear reason to do so.

You’ll likely find a fair amount of redundant data.  This, in particular, should be catalogued.  For example, say that you work at a social services organization.  When a new client comes on, they’re entered into the case management system, the CRM, a learning management system, and a security system database, because you’ve given them some kind of access card. Key to our data management strategy is to identify redundant data entry and remove it.  We should be able to enter this client information once and have it automatically replicated in the other systems.

Systems Integration

Chances are, of course, that all of your data is not in one system, and the systems that you do have (finance, CRM, etc.) don’t easily integrate with each other.  The first question to ask is, how are we going to get all of our systems to share with each other? One approach, of course, is to replace all of your separate databases with one database.  Fortune 500 companies use products from Oracle and SAP to do this, systems that incorporate finance, HR, CRM and inventory management.  Chances are that these will not work at your nonprofit; the software is expensive and the developers that know how to customize it are, as well.  More affordable options exist from companies like MicroSoft, Salesforce, NetSuite and IBM, at special pricing for 501(c)(3)’s.

Data Platforms

A data platform is one of these systems that stores your data in a single database, but offers multiple ways of working with the data.  Accordingly, a NetSuite platform can handle your finance, HR, CRM/Donor Management and e-commerce without maintaining separate data stores, allowing you to report on combined metrics on things like fundraiser effectiveness (Donor Management and HR) and mail vs online donations (E-commerce and Donor Management).  Microsoft’s solution will incorporate separate products, such as Sharepoint, Dynamics CRM, and the Dynamics ERP applications (HR, Finance).  Solutions like Salesforce and NetSuite are cloud only, whereas Microsoft  and IBM can be installed locally or run from the cloud.

Getting from here to there

Of course, replacing all of your key systems overnight is neither a likely option nor an advisable one.  Change like this has to be implemented over a period of time, possibly spanning years (for larger organizations where the system changes will be costly and complex). As part of the earlier system evaluation, you’ll want to factor in the state of each system.  Are some approaching obsoletion?  Are some not meeting your needs? Prioritize based on the natural life of the existing systems and the particular business requirements. Replacing major data systems can be difficult and complex — the point isn’t to gloss over this.  You need to have a strong plan that factors in budget, resources, and change management.  Replacing too many systems too quickly can overwhelm both the staff implementing the change and the users of the systems being changed.  If you don’t have executive level IT Staff on board, working with consultants to accomplish this is highly recommended.

Business Process Mapping

BPM_Example

The success of the conversion is less dependent on the platform you choose than it is on the way you configure it.  Systems optimize and streamline data management; they don’t manage the data for you.  In order to insure that this investment is realized, a prerequisite investment is one in understanding how you currently work with data and optimizing those processes for the new platform.

To do this, take a look at the key reports and types of information in the list that you compiled and draw the process that produces each piece, whether it’s a report, a chart, a list of addresses or a board report.  Drawing processes, aka business process mapping, is best done with a flowcharting tool, such as Microsoft Visio.  A simple process map will look like this:

In particular, look at the processes that are being done on paper, in Word, or in Excel that would benefit from being in a database.  Aggregating information from individual documents is laborious; the goal is to store data in the data platform and make it available for combined reporting.  If today’s process involves cataloguing data in an word processing table or a spreadsheet, then you will want to identify a data platform table that will store that information in the future.

Design Considerations

Once you have catalogued your data stores and the processes in place to interact with the data, and you’ve identified the key relationships between sets of data and improved processes that reduce redundancy, improve data integrity and automate repetitive tasks, you can begin designing the data platform.  This is likely best done with consulting help from vendors who have both expertise in the platform and knowledge of your business objectives and practices.

As much as possible, try and use the built-in functionality of the platform, as opposed to custom programming.  A solid CRM like Salesforce or MS CRM will let you create custom objects that map to your data and then allow you to input, manage, and report on the data that is stored in them without resorting to actual programming in Java or .NET languages.  Once you start developing new interfaces and adding functionality that isn’t native to the platform, things become more difficult to support.  Custom training is required; developers have to be able to fully document what they’ve done, or swear that they’ll never quit, be laid off, or get hit by a bus. And you have to be sure that the data platform vendor won’t release updates that break the home-grown components.

Conclusion

The end game is to have one place where all staff working with your information can sign on and work with the data, without worrying about which version is current or where everything might have been stored.  Ideally, it will be a cloud platform that allows secure access from any internet-accessible location, with mobile apps as well as browser-based.  Further considerations might include restricted access for key constituents and integration with document management systems and business intelligence tools. But key to the effort is a systematic approach that includes a deep investment in taking stock of your needs and understanding what the system will do for you before the first keypress or mouse click occurs, and patience, so that you get it all and get it right.  It’s not an impossible dream.