Monthly Archives: May 2013

Everything That You Know About Spam Is Wrong

At least, if everything you know about it is everything that I knew about it before last week. I attended an NTEN 501TechClub event where Brett Schenker of Salsa Labs spoke on how the large mail services identify Spam emails.  It turns out that my understanding that it was based primarily on keywords, number of links and bulk traits is really out of date.  While every mail service has their own methods, the large ones, like GMail and Yahoo!, are doing big data analysis and establishing sender reputations based on how often their emails are actually opened and/or read. You probably have a sender score, and you want it to be a good one.

Put another way, for every non-profit that is dying to get some reasonable understanding of how many opens and clicks their newsletters are getting, Google could tell you to the click, but they won’t.  What they will do is judge you based on that data.  What this really means is that a strategy of growing your list size could be the most unproductive thing that you could do if the goal is to increase constituent engagement.

As Brett explained (in a pen and paper presentation that I sadly can not link to), if 70% of your subscribers are deleting your emails without opening them, than that could result in huge percentages of your emails going straight to the spam folder.  Accordingly, the quality of your list is far more critical than the volume. Simply put, if you send an email newsletter to 30,000 recipients, and only 1000 open it, your reputation as a trustworthy sender drops.  But if you send it to 5000 people and 3500 of them open it, you’ve more than tripled the engagement without soiling your email reputation.

I know that this goes against the grain of a very established way of thinking.  Percentage of list growth is a simple, treasured metric.  But it’s the wrong one.

Here’s what you should do:

  • Make sure that your list is Opt-In only, and verify every enrollment.
  • Don’t buy big lists and mail to them. Just don’t! Unless you have solid reasons to think the list members will be receptive, you’ll only hurt your sender score.
  • Put your unsubscribe option in big letters at the top of each email
  • Best of all, send out occasional emails asking people if they want to keep receiving your emails and make them click a link if they want to.  If they don’t click it, drop them.
  • Keep the addresses of the unsubscribed; inviting them to reconnect later might be a worthwhile way to re-establish the engagement.

Don’t think for a minute that people who voluntarily signed up for your lists are going to want to stay on them forever.  And don’t assume that their willingness to be dropped from the list indicates that they’ll stop supporting you.

Even better, make sure that the news and blog posts on your web site are easy to subscribe to in RSS.  We all struggle with the mass of information that pushes our important emails below the fold.  Offering alternative, more manageable options to communicate are great, and most smartphones have good RSS readers pre-installed.

One more reason to do this?  Google’s imminent GMail update, which pushes subscriptions out of the inbox into a background tab.  If most people are like me, once the emails are piling up in the low priority, out of site subscriptions tab, they’ll be more likely to be mass deleted.

Hacking For Justice

This post was originally published on the LSC Technology Blog in May of 2013. Note that “LSC” is Legal services Corporation, my current employer, and “TIG” stands for “Technology Initiative Grants”.

Welcome to the new LSC Technology blog, hosted here on the TIG site, and written by TIG and Information Technology staff. To kick this off, I wanted to report on a fun, exciting, and long overdue initiative we’re on: making our non-confidential data available to hackers.  Let me be clear here, for those of you who have any bad associations with the word, that  a “hacker” is not a computer criminal or spy.  The term has been misused to connote such things, but the original and current definition of a hacker is simply someone who likes to take things apart and rebuild them better, or take things apart and make new things out of them. Most recently, hacking and hackers have been tied to the community of civic-minded web application developers who want to take publicly available data and make it accessible and relevant to their communities. And that’s the group of hackers that we’re discussing.

Hackers hold Hackathons, extended sessions where hackers get together to collaborate on projects. At the first LSC Tech Summit, United States Chief Technology Officer Todd Park addressed the group and urged us to model the behavior of the Department of Health and Human Services by holding hackathons and letting developers build the rich demographic applications that tell our story.

June 1st is the National Day of Civic Hacking.  Across the United States, “Hackathons” will be held in cities of towns, and the attendees will show up with their laptops, connect to the wifi, and create map mashups using tools like Google Maps and a collection of public data sets. The About section of the website describes it like this:

“The event will bring together citizens, software developers, and entrepreneurs from all over the nation to collaboratively create, build, and invent new solutions using publicly-released data, code and technology to solve challenges relevant to our neighborhoods, our cities, our states and our country.”

We’re busy analyzing our data sets, many of which are already available via our web site, but not in the most flexible formats. We’re also working with friends and partners like ProBono.Net to identify more legal aid data, on the assumption that the richer the data set, the more inspiring it will be for the hackers to work with. And I’m looking into other ways to make this information available, such as submitting it to the U.S. open data repository at Data.Gov. A big tip of our hat is due to Kate Bladow, who alerted me to the Civic day of Hacking to begin with, aware of how great it would be if we could get our data sets there on time.

Two questions for you:

  1. What kind of mapping mashups would you like to see done with LSC and related data? We can’t tell the developers what to do, but we should be able to tell them what people would love to see, and hopefully inspire them.
  2. Are you a developer? Whether you’re a C++ maven or just somebody who figured out how to save a Google Map, you might enjoy and benefit from participating in the hackathon.  Do consider it.  I’ll be attending the Baltimore day on June 1st. See you there?

Trello: A Swiss Army Knife For Tasks, Prioritizing And Project Planning

This post was originally published on the LSC Technology Blog in May of 2013. Note that “LSC” is Legal services Corporation, my current employer.

One of the great services available to the legal aid tech community (lstech) is LSNTAP’s series of webinars on tech tools.  I’ve somehow managed to miss every one of these webinars, but I’m a big fan of sharing the tools and strategies that allow us to more effectively get things done. In that spirit, I wanted to talk about my new favorite free online tool, Trello.

Trello is an online Kanban board.  If you’re unfamiliar with that term, you are still likely familiar with the concept: most TV cop shows have a board in the squad room with columns for new, open and closed cases.  Kanban is the name for these To Do/Doing/Done boards, and they are a powerful, visual tool for keeping track of projects.

You don’t need Trello — you can do it with a whiteboard and a marker.  But Trello’s online version can become very useful very fast.  Like the best apps, the basic functionality is readily usable, but  advanced functionality lurks under the hood.  With no training, you can create a todo list that monitors what’s coming up, what you’re working on and what you’ve finished.  Explore a little bit, and you learn that each task can have a description, a due date, a file attached to it, it’s own task list and one or more people assigned to it. Because Trello is just as good as a one-person productivity tool as it is as a team coordination tool.

I can report that the IT team at LSC has dived into it.  Here are a few of the things we’re using it for:

  • Our project big board.  We keep all of our upcoming projects, with due dates and leads, in a Trello board.
  • Individual task lists.  The developers track their major deliverable dates, the rest of us the small things we’re working on.
  • Strategic Planning – anyone who has ever done a session involving slapping post-its on the wall will appreciate this simple, online version of that exercise.  SWOT analyses work particularly well.

At this year’s Nonprofit Technology Conference, where I first learned about Trello, it was successfully being used as a help desk ticket system.  I’d recommend this only for small programs.  A more powerful free ticket system like Spiceworks, or a commercial product will be able to handle the volume at a 50 person + company better than Trello can.

But here’s the real case for a tool like Trello: it goes from zero to compellingly useful in seconds.  While I won’t knock enterprise project management systems, I lean toward the ones that give me great functionality without taking up a lot of my time.  I’ve hit a couple of stages in my career where the immense workload begged for a such tools, but implementing one was too big a project to add to the list.  I bet that you’ve been there, too. Trello lacks the sophistication of a waterfall system like MS Project or an agile one, such as Jira. But it can get you organized in minutes.  And, in our case, it doesn’t replace those more sophisticated systems. It supplements them at the high level.  We do both traditional projects (deploy servers, install phone systems) and agile ones (build web sites, program our grants management system).  We can use the proper tools for those project plans, but keep the team coordinated with Trello.

Here’s our 2013 project board:

 

Note that we only assign the project leads, and the main use of this board is in the project review that kicks off our weekly staff meetings. But it’s helping us stay on task, and that is always the challenge.

What are your favorite tools for team coordination and project management?  Let us know in the comments.

My Tips For Planning Successful NTEN Tech Sessions

NTEN needs good tech sessions at the 2014 conference. Submissions are open.  Here’s a pitch for any tech-savvy NTENdees to dive in and present, followed by my lessons learned (from 20+ sessions at eight NTCs) for successfully presenting technical topics to the diverse audience that shows up at NTC.  Simply put, there are ways to do great sessions that meet the needs of staff from large and small, advanced and tech-challenged nonprofits in attendance. I’ll outline the ones that have worked for me below.

The IT Staff track is the place to submit the infrastructure-related sessions. The other tracks receive a lot more submissions than the IT Staff track (as much as five times the number!), even though 53% of the 13NTC attendees surveyed say they want more technical content.  My take on that the problem is that techies aren’t generally all that interested in standing up in front of crowds and presenting. That’s less of a problem for the Communications and Leadership tracks. All I can say to those of you who have the subject expertise but lack the desire and or confidence to present is that we all stand to gain if you will step outside of that comfort zone. NTEN will have the range of sessions that NPOs struggling with cloud, wireless, business intelligence and unified communications projects need to move forward.  You’ll add public speaking to your resume, which is a great thing to have there.  And I’ll help.

Over the last few years, I’ve presented on topics like server virtualization, VOIP, and project management.  These sessions have averaged 50-60 attendees, and every audience has ranged from complete novices to old hands at the subject matter. To my mind, the biggest (and most common) mistake that presenters make is to choose a target audience (e.g. they’re all newbies, or they’re all intermediate) and stick with that assumption. Simply put, the attendees will be forgiving if you spend some time addressing the needs of the others in the room, as long as you also address theirs.  They’ll be pissed if they spend the whole session either out of their depth or bored out of their minds.

There are two key ways that you can address a range of audiences: structure the session in beginner, intermediate and advanced topics, or break the attendees into groups by org size.  The latter will require co-presenters; the former keeps that as an option.

In 2010, Matt Eshleman and I did a session on Server Virtualization, an incredibly geeky topic, and it was the third highest rated session that year. We didn’t break up the audience into groups.  Instead, I gave about a 15 minute powerpoint that introduced the concepts, doing my best to bring anyone who didn’t know what it was up to speed.  Matt then outlined three virtualization scenarios: one for a small org; one for medium; and one for a large. We left about 30 minutes for questions, and some of those hit on the really advanced questions that the experts had.  By that point, the novices were grounded enough to not be thrown by the advanced conversation.

In 2012, I designed a session on VOIP and Videoconferencing.  Knowing that small orgs and large orgs have dramatically different needs in this area, I drafted Matt again, as well as Judi Sohn.  This time, we split the room into two groups, and had two very different conversations, both of which were quite valuable for the attendees.  I never heard how this session was rated, but I think it’s the best of the 20 or so I’ve done. My measure is: did the attendees walk out of the session with substantial, practical knowledge that they didn’t have when they walked in, that they can use to support their NPO(s)?

Two big tips:

  1. Don’t get to wonky with the slides.  IDC and Microsoft have a ton of diagrams outlining server setups that you can download, but they are not what an NTEN crowd wants to see.  Nobody wants to stare at a Visio diagram with 16 objects and 10 arrows and tiny tiny labels saying what they all mean.
  2. Mine the wisdom of the crowd.  Most people attend sessions to learn, but some attend because they love the topic and have a lot of expertise in it.  The best Q&A (which should never be less than 30 minutes) is one that the presenter facilitates, encouraging dialogue among the attendees.  As the presenter, you can reply (or weigh in), as you’ll have relevant expertise that the audience might lack, but it’s often the case that someone else in the room knows what you know, and more.

I hope this is helpful, but, even more, I hope that you’ll submit a session and make 14NTC the most rewarding yet for the IT staff that attend. It’s in my neighborhood nest year (DC), so come early and have a beer with me beforehand.

My Birthday Campaign: Justice For All

And Justice For All

Image by Steven Depolo

I’m sure that you’re all familiar with birthday campaigns: this one is a little different. For my birthday, coming up on June 1st, I want you to do something for me and a cause that is very important to me.  But I’m not asking for money, I’m asking for your voice. Here’s the deal:

Legal services (aka legal aid), is the offering of free legal counsel and services to those who can’t afford an attorney otherwise.  Many Americans know this, but they have no idea why it is so important. They might ask, “What’s the big deal?  In America, everyone has the right to an attorney” and the answer is that the court only appoints attorneys for those who can’t afford one in criminal cases.  In civil cases, that’s not a standard protection.  Here are some examples of civil cases:

  • A bank forecloses on a house.  The family living in the house has no place to go and can’t afford an attorney.  Even if the foreclosure is not legally justified, without legal help, they’ll lose their home.
  • An abusive parent hires an attorney and gains custody of the children.  The non-abusive spouse has no job and no resources to defend his or her claim, leaving the children in the hands of the abusive parent whom he/she divorced to protect the children from.
  • An Army Reservist is fired from his or her job. The Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act protects service people from wrongful termination due to their armed forces commitments, but, without “hundreds of thousands of dollars” to mount a legal defense, what can an unemployed reservist do to address the firing?

These are all examples of common civil cases, and the challenges that our poor and working poor citizens have in accessing the justice for all that is promised in our constitution, our founding principles, and the pledge of allegiance that I remember reciting every school day in my youth (this is a birthday drive — I’m old!).

And, aside from addressing these injustices, consider what highly available legal aid for the poor can do to improve the quality of life in the community. In addition to misunderstanding the need for legal aid, there’s a poor understanding of how legal defense supports many nonprofit causes.  Our orgs do great work, but often undervalue the effectiveness of legal solutions in addressing systematic problems like poverty, disease and environmental injustice.

And this is what it boils down to:

Our nation is founded on the right for individuals to defend themselves from persecution.  That defense is contingent upon skilled legal advice and representation being available to every American, regardless of circumstance. My employer, Legal Services Corporation, tracks mountains of data on the effectiveness and impact of legal aid providers, and our research tells us that only 20 percent of those who qualify, financially, for legal aid are actually getting legal aid.  In the current economy, that translates to millions of people with no access to justice.

So here’s what I want for my birthday: I want you to tell everyone that you know what legal aid is, and why it’s important.  Make it clear that civil law lacks the level of protection that criminal law provides, but civil lawsuits can tear apart families, remove basic rights, and make people homeless. Explain that we can’t, as a nation, promote our democracy while we let it flounder, by depriving the increasing number of poverty-level citizens the freedom that our constitution promises. Freedom needs to be constantly defended, and many are deprived of the resources to defend their own.

Blog about this. Tweet it! Post it on Facebook and Google Plus.  Link to the resources I’ve provided in the links, or use some of the sample tweets and quotes below.

Hashtag: #Just4All

Most importantly, come back here, or ping me on Twitter, Facebook or Google+, and let me know how it goes. Tell me any good stories you collect about people who really didn’t know, or people who did, and were possibly saved by a legal aid attorney, or desperately needed one and didn’t know where to look.

For my birthday, I want the world to know that, in America, freedom isn’t just a perk for those who can afford an attorney; it’s a right for all. And we still have work to do to secure that right.

Sample Tweets (add more in the comments!):

Right to an attorney not guaranteed in civil cases; homes, families, + jobs are at risk for poor. #just4all

How legal aid saves lives + families: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/03/16/us/16gideon.html?_r=2& #just4all

Is legal aid one of your NPO’s strategies? http://publicwelfare.org/NaturalAllies.pdf #just4all

Only 20% of those who need legal assistance receive it: support your local Legal Aid program. #just4all

Quotes:

 “Equal access to justice contributes to healthy communities and a vibrant economy. No community thrives when people are homeless, children are out of school, sick people are unable to get health care, or families experience violence. Likewise, when a person’s legal problem is addressed in a timely and effective way, the benefit ripples out and helps that person’s family, neighbors, employer, and community.”
   Chief Justice Carol W. Hunstein, Supreme Court of Georgia
 
“Equal justice under law is not merely a caption on the facade of the Supreme Court building, it is perhaps the most inspiring ideal of our society. It is one of the ends for which our entire legal system exists…it is fundamental that justice should be the same, in substance and availability, without regard to economic status.”
Lewis Powell, Jr., U.S. Supreme Court Justice
 
“The failure to invest in civil justice is directly related to the increase in criminal disorder. The more people feel there is injustice the more it becomes part of their psyche.” 
 —
Wilhelm Joseph
Director, Legal Aid Bureau of Maryland
July, 2003
 
“But more than anything else, we have learned that legal assistance for the poor, when properly provided, is one of the most constructive ways to help them help themselves.”
President Richard Nixon, 1974
 
“Equality before the law in a true democracy is a matter of right. It cannot be a matter of charity or of favor or of grace or of discretion.” 
U.S. Supreme Court Justice Wiley Rutledge, sometime in the mid-20th century