Tag Archives: salesforce

Year-end Reflections

This post was originally published on the NTEN Blog on December 24th, 2015.

As years go, 2015 was a significant one in my career. The work of a CIO, or IT Director, or whatever title you give the person primarily responsible for IT strategy and implementation, is (ideally) two parts planning and one part doing. So in 2015—my third year at Legal Services Corporation—we did a couple of the big things that we’d been planning in 2013 and 2014.

First and foremost, we (and I do mean we—I play my part, but I get things done with an awesome staff and coworkers) rolled out the first iteration of our “Data Portal.” The vision for the Data Portal is that, as a funder that works primarily with 134 civil legal aid firms across the U.S. and territories, we should be able to access the relevant information about any grantee quickly and easily without worrying about whether we have the latest version of a document or report. To reach this vision, we implemented a custom, merged Salesforce/Box system. This entailed about a year of co-development with our partner, Exponent Partners, and a move from in-house servers to the Cloud. We’ll complete our Cloud “trifecta” in early 2016, when we go to Microsoft’s Office 365.

This was particularly exciting for me, because I have been envisioning and waiting for technology to reach a level of maturity and… collegiality that makes the vision of one place where documents and databases can co-exist a reality. Integration, and one-stop access to information, have always been the holy grails that I’ve sought for the companies that I’ve worked for; but the quests have been Monty Python-esque through the days when even Microsoft products weren’t compatible with each other, much less compatible with anything else. What we’ve rolled out is more of a stump than a tree; but in the next year we’ll grow a custom grants management system on top of that; and then we’ll incorporate everything pertinent to our grantees that currently hides in Access, Excel, and other places.

I’m working on a much more detailed case study of this project for NTEN to publish next year.

Secondly, we revamped our website, doing a massive upgrade from Drupal 7 to… Drupal 7! The website in place when I came to LSC was content-rich, navigation-challenged, and not too good at telling people what it is that we actually do.The four separate websites that made up our entire site weren’t even cross-searchable until we addressed that problem in early 2014. Internal terminology and acronyms existed on the front page and in the menus, making some things incomprehensible to the public, and others misleading. For example, we often refer to the law firms that we fund as “programs.” But, in the funding world, a “program” is a funding category, such as “arts” or “environment.” Using that terminology. along with too buried an explanation that what we actually do is allocate funding, not practice law ourselves, led many people to assume that we were the parent office of a nationwide legal aid firm, which we aren’t.

The new site, designed by some incredibly talented people at Beaconfire-RedEngine (with a particular call out to Eve Simon, who COMPLETELY got the aesthetic that we were going for and pretty much designed the site in about six hours), tells you up front who we are, what we do, and why civil legal aid is so important, in a country where the right to an attorney is only assured in criminal cases. While civil cases include home foreclosures, domestic violence, child custody, and all sorts of things that can devastate the lives of people who can’t afford an attorney to defend them. This new site looks just as good on a phone as on a computer, a requirement for the Twenty-Teens.

My happiness in life directly correlates to my ability to improve the effectiveness of the organizations that I work for, with meaningful missions like equal justice for all, defense against those who pollute the planet, and the opportunity to work, regardless of your situation in life. At my current job, we’re killing it.

Should Non-profits Seed Software Development?

There were a ton of interesting side topics that came up at the Salesforce Non-Profit Roadmap event, but a few hit on some related themes that have long interested me, and they can be summed in two basic, but meaty questions:

1. Why isn’t there more collaboration between non-profits and open source software developers?

2. Should non-profits seed software development?

You’d think that open source and mission-focused organizations would be a natural fit, given that both share some common ethics around openness, collaboration, sharing and charity, and, let’s face it, both have challenging revenue models that often depend on the charity of others. And I think that’s the rub — simpatico they may be, but non-profts need partners to satisfy their needs, not share them. So when Microsoft, Salesforce, Cisco or some other high-powered tech company throws a significant bone (and these companies are very supportive), they can take it without putting their sustainability at risk. And I like to think that their charity is returned in more ways than the obvious support of our missions. Non-profits can take risks and do some creative things that profit-oriented companies shouldn’t. When it became strikingly clear to me that Salesforce had data management goals way beyond CRM (The evening that Marc Benioff told me that he was very interested in Goodwill’s inventory management challenges), it pretty quickly occurred to me that there would be a mutually beneficial opportunity if Goodwill wanted to pilot some of Salesforce’s development in that new territory.

The Roadmap session was stimulating on a number of levels – if I weren’t about to get extremely busy on my own sustainment pursuits, I could probably blog non-stop on it. One of the fun things was systematically determining exactly how non-profits are different in our software needs from the software-consuming world at large. There are clear needs for fund development, case management, grant reporting/management, and advocacy that aren’t germaine to the standard business world. And the general market for non-profit specific software has some limitations, as I often mention. At Goodwill, I searched high and low for a Workforce Development case management system that sat on an open platform. It doesn’t, to my knowledge, exist – every option out there limits the clients ability to integrate data from and to other systems. Most of them have severely limited reporting capabilities. Ironically, one of the worst offenders is the system that Goodwill International commissioned and sold to the members.

If the time hasn’t come, then it’s about to – non-profits can no longer afford to lock up their data in inflexible systems. Business management is not about silos. Success lies in your ability to learn from the data you collect, and inter-relate data between disparate systems. It’s not about how many clients you served. It’s about the cost of serving each of those clients and the effectiveness of your methods. You need systems that talk to each other and affordable ways to correlate data. So if the existing vendors don’t value this — or, worse, have built their business models on keeping you locked into their platforms by limiting your access to the data — then you need alternatives. And since Microsoft will discount their own software, but won’t fund other vendors, you need to consider if you shouldn’t be putting aside some of your hard-earned donations toward funding that development.

Salesforce Show and Tell

Day 2 of the Salesforce Non-Profit Roadmap session was focused on refining plans and sharing information. We had sessions and reports from Salesforce Product managers and developers, and we discussed and demoed some of the creative things that our community has developed. The Salesforce guests showed off Apex, the new scripting language that will be available for live use sometime next year; and we had a fascinating (but non-discloseable!) peek at where the reporting is going.

A lot of the talk focused on ways that we can — or will be able — to get around Salesforce’s core assumption that we deal with companies and contacts when, in fact, donation management is about individuals and households. And a big topic was integration, with a lot of questions centered on what can or should be done in Salesforce and what should be programmed on top of it. Two technologies that popped up a lot were Facebook and Ruby on Rails. I learned about (and immediately grabbed) a Salesforce library that has been developed for rails, and Alan Benamer sang the praises of Facebook both as a compelling social network and a fundraising tool, via their new “Causes” feature. Facebook has been in the news for opening up a powerful API, which makes them pretty much the “Salesforce of Social Networks”.

In the afternoon, we got to th fun stuff – showing off what we’ve done. Six of the participant’s showed off projects big and small.

Ben Munat showed us ChipIn, a fundraising widget that currently is available as a wep page plug in, but will soon be integrated with Salesforce, Facebook, and other application platforms.

  • Sonny Cloward showed us a very clean and elegant Salesforce template for fund development created using Salesforce’s Person object. The Person object, which can be used in lieu of Accounts and Contacts, was introduced late last year to a somewhat underwhelming response, the problem being that it’s an either/or choice. If you use Person objects, you can’t use Accounts and Contacts, and, in most cases, you have both companies and individuals among your constituents. All the same, Sonny’s template transformed Salesforce into a clean and simple CRM that would be far easier to teach and support, and maybe quite suitable for small organizations.
  • Rem Hoffman demoed the very sophisticated case management system that his company, Exponent Partners, has put together. This was a real ooh and aaher, as he demoed how a Mental Health agency, swamped in paper, could use it to track cases and print all of the paperwork with about a quarter of the effort that had been required. I’m very intrigued by Rem’s work, as I believe that case management options in the workforce development industry are all pretty painful. As far as I know, Social Solutions is the only company talking about opening up their application; most are the worst examples of grabbing a company’s data and locking them out of it.
  • Ryan Ozimak of PicNet demoed his Joomla/Salesforce integration, which is also very cool and clean, and promising. At present is is likely the fastest and easiest way to develop a web site with Salesforce Contact integration, and the next steps will open up other objects for clean integration. Ryan (who is sitting next to me as I type) has just let me know that this is around the corner.
  • As usual, Steve Anderson of One/Northwest had an amazing demo, showing how he has developed Apex code that completely masks the Account/Contact model so that a user can easily add and remove individuals from households. This was very slick, as his automation made tasks that take multiple screen views and actions today and almost magically integrated them. For example, if you have the household of John Doe and the house hold of Jane Doe, and you want to combine them, then you add Jane Doe to John Doe’s household and – poof! – the household is automatically renamed to “John and Jane Doe” and Jane Doe’s household is deleted. This completely removes the limitation that use of Person accounts involves – you can still have accounts and contacts. The problem being that Apex is only available in the sandbox for now.
  • Finally, Evan Callahan of NPower Seattle demoed a simple translator lookup app that he created for a client. What was cool about this was both that he put together a very intuitive and functional tool for finding a translator with the proper skills and availability, and he did it with some very simple code and a web form. In both Steve and Evan’s cases, they took innovative and undocumented approaches that produced powerful results. Must be something in that moist Seattle air.

Today we dive into how the Salesforce community can better operate as a cohesive support infrastructure and wrap up at noon. If you are a Salesforce license donee, keep your eyes open for a survey that will let you in on this critical input. And look for a bigger event next year — this was a great exercise for all parties.

Mapping NP Salesforce

Day one of the Salesforce Roadmap session was a well-crafted, but fairly standard run at typical strategic planning. Hosted by Aspiration’s ever-able Gunner (who I seem to run into everywhere lately), we had a group of about 40 people: five or six from Salesforce/Salesforce Foundation, five to six NP staff, and an assortment of Salesforce consultants. While I’m a consultant these days, I maintain a bit of a staff perspective, as my primary experience with Salesforce was to roll it out for SF Goodwill. The day consisted of breaking up into small teams and hammering out what works for our sector, what doesn’t, what could be done, and building all of this into a set of possible roadmaps that would address non-profit needs. The most striking thing about the outcome was that we had six groups design those roadmaps, and we largely all came up with the exact same things.

So, what are they?

Templates. In 2005, Salesforce developed a template for non-profits that everyone admits was pretty lame. Most of the consultants advised against using it. In 2006, Tucker MacLean, at the time a Fellow with the Foundation, redesigned it into something far more substantial – but still problematic, the problem being that non-profits are far too diverse in their structure and needs to fit a single template. The template in place transforms Salesforce into a donation management application. But I would argue that deploying Salesforce strictly as a fund development tool is short-sighted, and possibly disadvantageous when there are so many choices for software that is developed to that purpose, not twisted to it. The reason to deploy Salesforce is because it can handle the fund development and do so much more.

So, roadmap 1 is to move away from the one-size-fits-all template to something far more modular.

Road map 2 is around the community, or eco-system that supports the non-profit Salesforce adopters. And I think this is where the most meaningful changes can occur. This is about shared development — should NP Salesforce have an Appexchange of its own, one that acts more like Sourceforge? Can the consultant community adopt standards for how we deploy, and can Salesforce support us in any innovative ways? And can best practice, case studies, and non-profit specific training and documentation be collected in one place?

Third was the product itself, which I really don’t think non-profits can or should influence all that heavily. I don’t believe that our platform issues are unique. But we do want to see that new things (document management, Google Apps integration); we would really appreciate a customer portal and stronger ties to CMS’s and web sites, and stronger integration with our external applications.

What interests me is the dual need for this very open, malleable platform and the dire need non-profits have for out of the box functionality. Currently, Salesforce is a very worthwhile investment, but it’s not a light investment for a tech and cash strapped organization. The integrators working with it are frustrated by how much programming they have to do to support some very basic functionality.

But it says worlds that Salesforce is approaching this by inviting the community to advise them. This somewhat techy gathering will be followed up by a survey for the non-profit users at large. Ask yourself, how often does a large, corporate software company ask you directly to give input into their development? Or, if they do, do you think they actually listen? Once again, Salesforce is modeling an approach to doing business that has far more in common with the open source world than the for-profit. More on this later.

The future of Salesforce

I’m attending a strategic planning session at Salesforce.com this week devoted to planning the roadmap for non-profit use of the product. This should be an interesting event and an exciting opportunity to help steer one of the most exciting applications to hit the industry in some time. I remember walking through the exhibitor booth’s at the “Science Fair” during the 2005 NTEN Conference in Chicago and noting, in the corner, the guy with a shaved head standing at a small booth titled “Salesforce.com” and wondering what, on earth, he was doing there. Wasn’t Salesforce that corporate application used by all those people trying to sell me enterprise software? The next year, in Seattle, Salesforce was a key sponsor of the show, and the whole gang from the foundation was there. I was a lot more educated as to why, as well – in the interim, my former organization had signed up and I had started work deploying it.

Salesforce appeals to me because it lives up to many of the standards I look for in an online database:

  • It’s open. Any Salesforce customer can download their entire database into Excel pretty much at any time. There are no technical or contractual walls separating me from my information as a Salesforce customer.
  • It has a community around it extending, developing and integrating the product. While Salesforce is far from the only commercial application with such a community, it is far more analogous to the open source communities around applications like Joomla and Drupal than it is like their commercial counterparts. Salesforce has provided excellent forums and support, nurturing their partners in ways that most commercial developers are far too guarded to allow.
  • Sharing and philanthropy are part of the corporate ethic, fairly deeply ingrained. I like to joke that their stated policy of “one percent of people, product and profits goes back to the community” is not that big a deal, given that 100% of a non-profit’s revenues are recycled back into their missions, but the truth is that they do a lot more than just give away software, and I’m certain that it ends up being much more than 1%.
  • Salesforce is audacious and ambitious in all the right ways. They want to do away with your infrastructure and change the way that technology is deployed, and they are by far the most sophisticated example of how that can and should be done. And don’t ever mistake them for a CRM company just because that’s what they’ve primarily been – they’re a shard data and computing platform, and the next few years are going to see them break out of the CRM neighborhood into a new role as a data management middleware provider. Store your data and build your processes, they’ll handle the hardware.

Finally, in this era, when internet business is shaking up traditional business models in dramatic fashions — just ask the RIAA, or the telecoms, or your local newspaper’s classifieds editor — Salesforce is the disruptor in our community. Blackbaud, Kintera and Convio, along with the other established donation-based business support vendors, are all rapidly changing their models to more closely match the open approach. And Social Solutions and the case management crowd are well aware that they’re next. This bodes well for the customers.

I’ll be blogging from the conference (as allowed) and hope to spread exciting news.

Free as in "Hurricanes"

As NPTech community members have heard, a brilliant metaphor was coined the other day by Karen Schneider in her excellent article titled IT and Sympathy:

“Free as in kittens” (as opposed to the popular “free as in beer”).

It’s not a hard sell to tell the average executive that open source, or donated Salesforce.com licenses, or volunteer labor isn’t exactly free of cost. But “as in kittens” really says it well, implying the commitment and caring that need to be applied to critical IT investments, regardless of the license terms.

I think Salesforce.com‘s offer of 10 free licenses to any 501(c)3 is a great example of this. Salesforce rises to meme status in the NPTech world these days, with their corporate philosophy that 1% of their people. product and profit should be donated to non-profits. I could write another blog entry on all of that – but I’ll boil it down to this: one part “Great ethic to model” and nine parts: “Only 1%?!?“. But anyone who thinks for a second that taking Salesforce up on their offer has no budget impact, well, right away you’ve cost your organization every minute that you’ve invested in a project that’s doomed from the start. CRM doesn’t deploy itself – a successful CRM strategy generally involves dramatically altering your corporate culture. Is it worthwhile? For people-based organizations, like non-profits, that’s a general yes. But is it free? No way.

Any major technology project has potential for gigantic leaps in productivity and success or flat out disaster. A key skill for any of us who manage tech is fiasco avoidance. Fiasco avoidance has far more to do with company culture, planning and politics than it does with the actual technology. Salesforce offers a powerful, flexible system that can do incredible things for you. But Convio/Kintera, Raiser’s Edge, or ETapestry might do exactly what you need and are ready to take advantage of out of the box. Software evaluation for strategic projects requires an organizational readiness assessment right along with the product evaluations. Lots of things in life are free, but the “as in” modifiers tell the story.