Category Archives: Recommended Posts

Starred posts are posts that I’m particularly proud of

Career Reflections: My Biggest Data Fail

This article was published on the NTEN Blog in February of 2014.  It originally appeared in the eBook “Collected Voices: Data-informed Nonprofits“.

Peter Campbell of Legal Services Corporation shares his biggest data fail, and what he’d do differently now.

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

Note: names and dates have been omitted to protect the innocent. 

Years ago, I was hired at an organization that had a major database that everyone hated. My research revealed a case study in itself: how not to roll out a data management system. Long story short, they had bought a system designed to support a different business model, and then paid integrators to customize it beyond recognition. The lofty goal was to have a system that would replace people talking to each other. And the project was championed by a department that would not have to do the data entry; the department identified to do all of the work clearly didn’t desire the system.

The system suffered from a number of problems. It was designed to be the kitchen sink, with case info, board updates, contact management, calendaring, web content management, and other functions. The backend was terrible: a SQL database with tables named after the tabs in the user interface. The application itself had miserable search functionality, no dupe checking, and little in the way of data quality control. Finally, there were no organizational standards for data entry. Some people regularly updated information; others only went near it when nagged before reporting deadlines. One person’s idea of an update was three to five paragraphs; another’s two words.

I set out to replace it with something better. I believed (and will always believe) that we needed to build a custom application, not buy a commercial one and tweak it. What we did was not the same thing that the commercial systems were designed to track. But I did think we’d do better building it with consultants on a high-level platform than doing it by ourselves from scratch, so I proposed that we build a solution on Salesforce. The system had over 150 users, so this would be relatively expensive.

Timing is everything: I made my pitch the same week that financial news indicated that we were diving into a recession. Budgets were cut. Spending was frozen.  And I was asked if I could build the system in Access, instead?  And this is when I…

…explained to my boss that we should table the project until we had the budget to support it.

Or so I wish. Instead, I dusted off my amateur programming skills and set out to build the system from scratch. I worked with a committee of people who knew the business needs, and I developed about 90% of a system that wasn’t attractive, but did what needed to be done reasonably well. The goals for the system were dramatically scaled back to simply what was required.

Then I requested time with the department managers to discuss data stewardship. I explained to the critical VP that my system, like the last one, would only be as good as the data put into it, so we needed to agree on the requirements for an update and the timeliness of the data entry. We needed buy-in that the system was needed, and that it would be properly maintained. Sadly, the VP didn’t believe that this was necessary, and refused to set aside time in any meeting to address it. Their take was that the new system would be better than the old one, so we should just start using it.

This was where I had failed. My next decision was probably a good one: I abandoned the project. While my system would have been easier to manage (due to the scaled back functionality, a simple, logical database structure and a UI that included auto-complete and dupe-checking), it was going to fail, too, because, as every techie knows, garbage in equals garbage out. I wanted my system to be a success.  We went on with the flawed original system, and eventually started talking about a new replacement project, and that might have happened, but I left the company.

Lessons learned:

  1. If I’m the IT Director, I can’t be the developer. There was a lot of fallout from my neglected duties.
  2. Get the organizational commitment to the project and data quality standards confirmed before you start development.
  3. Don’t compromise on a vision for expediency’s sake.  There are plenty of times when it’s okay to put in a quick fix for a problem, but major system development should be done right.  Timing is everything, and it wasn’t time to put in a data management system at this company.

A Brief History of Nonprofit Technology Leadership, And a Call to Action for New Circuit Riders

This article was first published on the NTEN Blog in June of 2013.

When someone asked me, “What is the role of circuit riders today?” I didn’t have an immediate answer. But the question stuck with me, and I have an idea that I want to share, appropriately, with the NTEN community.

A month or two ago, a friend of mine asked me a great question: “What is the role of circuit riders today?” I didn’t have an immediate answer. But the question stuck with me, and I have an idea that I want to share, appropriately, with the NTEN community.

We speak a lot here about nonprofit technology, more affectionately known as “nptech.” The origins of nptech lie in the tradition of circuit riding. The circuit riders that founded NTEN were a loosely affiliated group of people who saw the need for technology at nonprofits before the nonprofits did. As with the Lutheran ministers from whom they borrowed the “circuit rider” name, these people weren’t motivated by money, but by missions, those being the missions of the numerous nonprofits that they served.

The typical services that a circuit rider would provide included setting up basic PC networks, installing phone systems, and designing Access or Filemaker databases to replace paper donation records. While NPOs still need some help getting their basic technical plumbing in order, that work is now simpler and help is easier to find than it was in the 90’s. And anyone designing an Access database for an NPO today should be spanked!

In the early 90’s, we were hitting that turning point where PCs went from specialized systems to commodity equipment. Prior to that, a telephone was on every desk, but there wasn’t necessarily a computer. And, even if there was one there, it wasn’t turned on every day. Today you don’t even need a phone if you have a computer, a VOIP service, and a headset. So we hire people trained in setting up specific systems, or we pay a professional company, rather than relying on volunteers, because it’s more critical to get it right.

So what is the role of the circuit rider in a world where we hand the networking to tech integrators and subcontract database design to specialized Blackbaud and Salesforce consultants? By nature, the role of the New Circuit Rider should be short-term engagements that offer high value. It should capitalize on a technical skill set that isn’t readily available, and it should be informed by a thorough understanding of nonprofit needs.

It’s a type of technology leadership – maybe even a stewardship of technology leadership. I say that it starts with technology assessments. What small to mid-sized nonprofits need most importantly is some good advice about what to prioritize, what to budget for, how to staff IT, and how to support technology. The modern circuit riders’ legacy should be a track record of leaving their clients with a solid understanding of how to integrate technology staff, systems, and strategy into their work. There’s a great need for it.

Just this month I’ve heard stories of NPO leaders who have no idea how to title, compensate, or describe the duties of the IT leader that they know they need to hire; I’ve met newly promoted accidental techies charged with huge integration projects with no strategic plan in place; and I’ve seen a $15 million social services org scraping by with two full time IT staff supporting their five-office enterprise. These organizations need some guidance and advice.

So I’m opening the floor for strategies as to how we build a New Circuit Rider Network to fill this immediate need, and I’m proposing we start helping nonprofits do more than invest in technology, that we help them plan for it and resource it proactively.

Peter Campbell is a nonprofit technology professional, currently serving as Chief Information Officer at Legal Services Corporation, an independent nonprofit that promotes equal access to justice and provides grants to legal aid programs throughout the United States. Peter blogs and speaks regularly about technology tools and strategies that support the nonprofit community.

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.

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

 

TIG Takeaways: First Impressions Of The Legal Aid Tech Community

Last week I attended two events sponsored by my new employer, Legal Services Corporation (LSC). The first was a two day Technology Summit, where a group of 50 thought leaders gathered to develop a plan for addressing the demand for legal aid more dramatically by making strategic use of technology. That was followed by the three day Technology Initiative Grants (TIG) conference, where 220 or so Legal Aid staff came together to show off their projects, prep for LSC’s next round of technology funding, and discuss the future. For me, these two events were a crash course in who’s who and what’s what in the world of legal aid technology. I learned much more about LSC’s role in the sector (and my role, as well). And  I found it all inspiring and challenging (in a good way!)

The Tech Summit was part two of a process that began last June. We sought to address the following mission statement, developed at the prior meeting:

To use technology to provide some form of effective assistance to 100% of persons otherwise unable to afford an attorney for dealing with essential civil legal needs.

Attending the session were 51 judges, American Bar Association leaders, state court strategists, fellow legal aid funders, key legal aid technologists, technology providers,  Executive Directors and staff of legal aid organizations, among others.  We prioritized five areas of service to focus on in a five year plan:

  • Document Assembly – the automation of form creation and the work to standardize the data they collect
  • Expert Systems – online querying to determine legal outcomes and the proper use of same (are these client or attorney tools?)
  • Remote Services Delivery – can each state have an online portal that eliminates much of the physical challenges in seeking representation?
  • Mobile Technologies – what assistance and services can be delivered on smartphones and tablets?
  • Triage – how can we further automate the complex processes of determining eligibility and matching clients to resources?

These were all worthy goals with some key inherent challenges. For instance, we want to standardize forms across all state courts, but that’s not necessarily a priority for the courts, and we don’t have much authority to set priorities for them.

Much of our work supports self representing litigants, but there’s still a bias against having people represent themselves. As LSC CEO Jim Sandman pointed out during his address to the TIG conference, most Americans don’t realize that the right to an attorney is only a given in criminal cases; it isn’t applied to most civil cases.  So you can have your house improperly seized by a bank or suffer from domestic abuse, but access to the justice system has an entry fee in the thousands of dollars if you can’t find a volunteer attorney or represent yourself.

As the Tech Summit and TIG conference went on, it became clear that another challenge lies in finding the resources to maintain and replicate the innovative technology projects that LSC funds.  TIG grants award innovative use of technology, but they’re basically startup funding.  We’ve seen remarkable projects funded, including flexible call centers and web sites that effectively automate triage; key integration of case management, phone and other systems; development of document assembly platforms that dramatically increase efficiency. Now we have to figure out how to increase the internal tech capacity and drum up additional funding in order to sustain and share these efforts across the sector.

I was not only impressed by the creativity and dedication of the legal aid tech community, but also by the role my organization plays in sponsoring these events and so thoroughly assisting with the grant process.  I don’t think that many foundations put this kind of effort in coaching and supporting their grantees through the application process.

Finally, I learned a lot about the challenges and opportunities ahead for me in my new job, as CIO at LSC (I love how that rolls off the tongue. I also laughed when my wife pointed out to me that her initials are “LSC”). Those boil down to the ways that I can use my position and my network to drum up resources for legal aid tech. Wherever possible, I want to work with our legal partners, such as the courts and technology vendors, to develop standards; where appropriate, I want to assist Legal Aid orgs in their efforts to collaborate and solve technology challenges; and I want to support the community in strategically using technology to overcome our functional and service-oriented barriers.

To that point, I think that the tech summit goals are worthy goals that I look forward to working on.  But the key to their success lies in the facility of using technology at the ground level.  We need to build that capacity, and much of that can be done if we can standardize our use across the sector and more easily share our successful efforts. At the conference, I spoke with one ED who was partnering his statewide org with a neighboring state to hire a shared CIO.  Another group of three legal aid orgs in the same state were planning to combine their technology.  These are efforts worth championing, and I hope to see more like them.

A few final, related notes:

Is It Only Spam If The Other Guy Does It?

This was originally posted on the No Nonprofit Spam blog on November 3rd, 2011. Hat tip to Deb Finn, who started that blog.

You work for a great org.  What you do is important and meaningful.  To you, it’s not just a job — it’s a mission.  And it deserves funding and support from the public.  I get that.  But if your next logical step in that progression is to assume that I want to be on your email list, you’ve stepped over a line.  It’s a line that does not markasspaminvalidate your mission, or your devotion to it.  But it doesn’t serve your mission, or your goal of garnering my support for it.  Because I reserve my support for organizations that merit my attention, not ones that abuse it.

We live in a world where most of us wrestle with two common priority-setting challenges:

  1. Most of us are not Bill or Melinda Gates; we can only afford to financially support a handful of the organizations that we would like to support.
  2. Our inboxes are already overflowing.

I spend as little time as possible assessing unsolicited emails before I delete them or mark them as spam. It takes longer if the email is from a nonprofit, because I never assume that an NPO is deliberately spamming me, although it does, sadly, prove true on occasion.  It’s time that would otherwise be spent doing a lot of things, many of them in service of the causes that I work for. Accordingly, the message that a nonprofit sends when they subscribe me to their list (without my approval) is: I am willing to set your priorities for you.

That’s not an appeal — it’s an edict.

It’s not an engagement — it’s invasive.

If their goal is to make it on my short list of organizations that I support, then the way to do that is by being the organization that pops up when I’m looking to add to my list. Those orgs have websites with solid descriptions of their work; metrics and testimonials to back it up; and good ratings with the organizations that assess non-profits.  My friends and family advocate for them. They garner support by being good at what they do, as opposed to being good at getting in my face, or inbox, as the case might be.

I know that it seems like it might be less effective.  And I know that we all want to be effective, because the missions we work for are critical.  But I support organizations that address their missions with good strategies and tactics.  Spam is not a strategy, and it’s an abhorrent tactic. And the fact that what a nonprofit is spamming is important doesn’t change the nature of it.

Goodbye, Tommi Campbell (Mom)

mom_80_birthday

Tamara (Tommi) Groen Campbell passed away on Thursday. She was 81, and this was no surprise. A combination of pulmonary disease and heart trouble had created a well-predicted situation. A pragmatist to her dying moment, her death went well according to plan. She saw everyone that she wanted to see, said everything that needed to be said, and, finally, constrained to a chair with the two tanks of oxygen that couldn’t get her quite enough air, she decided that she was done.

She was quite a woman, and her story, which deserves a much broader telling, is one of overcoming extreme adversity to live a life of service and, ultimately, happiness.

She was born Jewish in the Netherlands in 1929, and she was chased out of her home by the Nazis. She recalled being ten years old and wearing the Star of David on her arm; not being allowed to cross the street; being harassed by the SS while playing in a tree.

The trip to the United States was quite dramatic. The day before they were scheduled to leave, her mother received a call from someone claiming to be SS, telling them that their seats on the train had been reassigned. When my grandfather came home from work, he called them back to ask why, and they didn’t know what he was talking about. The next day, unsure of whether they’d be able to travel or not, they showed up at the train station and took their seats. They never learned who had called or why.

My grandmother was ill through the two month trip across Europe and the boat ride to the states. They were turned away at Ellis Island and lived in Cuba for a few months before making it to New York. Once settled, my grandmother left her husband, who had been cheating on her before and after the war. My mother worked through high school, taking care of the house and her younger brother and sister while her mother worked as a seamstress. She worked her way through college doing the same thing, ending up with a nursing degree.

Her first marriage, to Bob Wadsworth, had its challenges. Shortly after I was born, but before my sister was, her father’s second wife died, and their two children (my half-aunt and half-uncle) came to live with us. The elder of the two proved too much to handle, and she eventually went back to live with her aunt. After all of this, my father started drinking, and proved to be a violent drunk. She left him when I was eight.

We moved to Brookline, Mass., where she worked and raised us as well as she could. There were times when we were only sustained by the child support, but she eventually found work as a nurse. By the time I was a teenager, she was running a clinic for pregnant teenagers in downtown Boston. The friends she made in Boston proved fairly Bohemian — long haired astrologers and members of the touring cast of Hair. She ran a coffee house called the Damaged Angel, and met a lot of folk musicians who I still listen to today,. I remember being twelve years old and going with her to Love-ins at the Boston Commons.

Around this time, she also met Chuck Campbell, who proved to be a far better partner than Bob. Chuck was a poet and musician when they met, working a day job as a researcher. They both transitioned into teachers. In the late seventies they moved to New Mexico (where Chuck had grown up) and took jobs at the University of Albuquerque.

In 1987, my sister, who claimed to have been abused by our father (Bob) and had always fought with my mother, cut herself off from the family completely, and remains cut off to this day. This was the gash in an otherwise reconstructed life. Mom had found a lot of happiness, but the rejection of her daughter was a constant pain.

They eventually retired, and took the opportunity to travel. Chuck, who had been moonlighting as a tuba player in a Polka band for years, joined a few more jazz bands. I met Linda, and Mom nagged us to have children (even before we were married!). We did the best we could, giving her a grandson who grew to love her dearly.

The last few years, in and out of hospitals, were hard, but she was stoic. It cracked us up that 80% of the nurses that attended to her had been her students — she told them which meds she needed.

A testament to her is the number of friends she had, a parade of them visiting at the end. She was well admired and loved. For me, she was the best mother I could have hoped for. Not the most affectionate, until she was older, but wise, caring, and always there for me. She instilled a sense of duty to help people in me that well defines my choices in life; choices that bring me happiness.

I love you, Mom, and I’m so grateful for all that you did for me.

The Five Best Tools For Quick And Effective Project Management

This article was first published on the NTEN Blog in March of 2011.

The keys to managing a successful project are buy-in and communication. Projects fail when all participants are on different pages. You want to use tools that your project participants can access easily, preferably ones they’re already using.

As an IT Director, co-workers, peers, and consultants frequently ask me, “Do you use Microsoft Project?” The answer to that question is a resounding denial.

Then I elaborate with my true opinion of Project: it’s a great tool if you’re building a bridge or a luxury hotel. But my Project rule of thumb is, if the budget doesn’t justify a full-time employee to manage the Project plan (e.g., keep the plan updated, not manage the project, necessarily), then MS Project is overkill. Real world projects require far more agile and accessible tools.

The keys to managing a successful project are buy-in and communication. The people who run the organization need to support it and the people the project is being planned for need to be expecting and anticipating the end result. Projects fail when all participants are on different pages: vague or different ideas of what the goals are; different levels of commitment; poor understanding of the deadlines; and poorly set expectations. GANTT charts are great marketing tools — senior executives never fail to be impressed by them — but they don’t tell the Facilities Coordinator in clear language that you need the facility booked by March 10th, or the designer that the web page has to be up by April 2nd.

You want to use tools that your project participants can access easily, preferably ones they’re already using. Here are five tools that are either free or you’ve already obtained, which, used together, will be far more effective than MS Project for the typical project at a small to mid-sized organization:

  • GanttProject. GanttProject is an open source, cross-platform project management tool. Think of it as MS Project lite. While the feature set includes identifying project resources, allocating time, and tracking completion, etc., it excels at creating GANTT charts, which can then be used to promote and communicate about the project. People appreciate visual aids, and GANTT charts visually identify the key tasks, milestones and timeframes. I don’t recommend diving into the resource allocations and the like, as I think that’s the point where managing the project plan starts becoming more work than managing the project.
  • Your email app. It’s all about communication: setting expectations, managing expectations, reminding and checking on key contributors so that deadlines are met. Everyone already lives in their email, so you want to visit them where they live. Related tool: the telephone.
  • MeetingWizard, Doodle, etc. We might gripe about meetings, but email alone does not cut it. If you want people to understand what you’re trying to accomplish — and care –they need to see your face and here the inflections in your voice when you tell them about it. By the same token, status updates and working out schedules where one person’s work depends on others completing theirs benefit greatly from face-to-face planning.
  • Excel (or any spreadsheet). Budgets, check off lists, inventory — a spreadsheet is a great tool for storing the project data. Worthy alternatives (and superior, because they’re multi-user): Sharepoint or Open Atrium.
  • Socialcast (or Yammer). Socialcast is Facebook for organizations. Share status, links, and files in a microblogging client. You can create categories and assign posts to them. The reasoning is the same as for the email, and email might be your fallback if your co-workers won’t take to microblogging, but if they’re open to it, it’s a great way to keep a group of people easily informed.

It’s not that there aren’t other good ways to manage projects. Basecamp, or one of the many similar web apps might be a better fit, particularly if the project team is widely dispersed geographically. Sharepoint can replace a number of the tools listed here. But you don’t really have to spend a penny. You do need to plan, promote, and communicate.

Projects don’t fail because you’re not using capital “P” Project. They fail when there isn’t buy-in, shared understanding, and lots of interaction.

Peter Campbell is currently the Director of Information Technology at Earthjustice, a non-profit law firm dedicated to defending the earth. Prior to joining Earthjustice, Peter spent seven years serving as IT Director at Goodwill Industries of San Francisco, San Mateo & Marin Counties, Inc. Peter has been managing technology for non-profits and law firms for over 20 years, and has a broad knowledge of systems, email and the web. In 2003, he won a “Top Technology Innovator” award from InfoWorld for developing a retail reporting system for Goodwill thrift. Peter’s focus is on advancing communication, collaboration and efficiency through creative use of the web and other technology platforms.