Chatter Communities – The Customer Portal Grows Up

May 6, 2013

Wow, six months since my last post – sorry for the long delay, it’s been a busy time.

One of the blessings (and curses) of working in the technology field is that things are constantly changing.  Working with only makes this fact more apparent – with three major releases a year, the pace of change is unremitting and keeping up can be daunting.  At the Salesforce Customer Company Tour event in London this morning, announced that Chatter Communities will be generally available (GA) as of the Summer ’13 release in June.  Announced at Dreamforce back in September, Communities reflects the evolution of the existing Customer and Partner Portal features into more full-blown social communication tools that are well-aligned with’s customer and social focus.  Chatter Communities are also great potential tools for non-profits to engage much more closely with funders, board-members, volunteers and other constituents.  After Dreamforce, I wrote a guest post on the Foundation Blog giving my first reactions.  Now that we know when it will be available and more about how it will work (see the Release Notes here), I want to go into more detail about some specific use cases for  how Communities might be used.  An important caveat here – I’ve not yet worked directly with the product (though I’m excited to get my hands on it!), and am working off of the release notes for the Summer release, so implementation of some of these use cases may be more or less feasible than I discuss.

We’ve been using the Customer Portal for about 3 years, and while functional, it’s never been a game changer as a tool for connecting staff and constituents.  A couple of years ago, we even built an integration between Salesforce and an online community platform called to try and create a good online community for our volunteers.  Technically, we were able to make CTNation (the name of the community) work, but the tool foundered for a number of reasons that could be a good future blog post.  In some ways, it was ahead of it’s time:  Chatter was brand new (we actually started the project while Chatter was in pilot), didn’t exist and Salesforce had not yet acquired Heroku.  If I were redoing that project six months ago, I probably would have looked at using those tools to build the kind of site that we had envisioned.  I’m glad that I didn’t, because now I can think about how we can use Communities, which provides exactly what we thought we wanted two years ago.

So how can Chatter Communities work for a non-profit?  Below I’ll discuss three options as to how Citizen Schools might adopt this feature.

Board Engagement:  As with most organizations, Citizen Schools has a Board of Directors, who oversee the activities of the organization.  In addition to the BoD, we also have regional advisory boards in each of the 8 states in which we operate.  Each of the members of these Boards assists us in various ways, whether it be by direct fund-raising, introductions to other potential funders or advising on strategic initiatives.  Typically, communication with board members is via email, phone and face to face meeting, and when we ask them to reach out and contact people on our behalf, we send them spreadsheets of data.  Sounds pretty typical, I would imagine.

Now imagine that you had a community for your Board members that was private and secure.  You would be able to share materials with them, give them access to the contact records of the people whom you want them to contact and have a forum within which they can discuss important topics.  Till now, you’ve technically had the ability to do this through a combination of Chatter Groups for Customers and the existing Customer portal, but now you can provide a single login that provides this access.  Naturally, change management is a critical component of making this work, and not all Boards or members are going to see the value proposition of using the system.  To implement successfully, consider using with a subgroup, such as the Finance or Program committee of the Board and see how that goes, then spread it from there.

Volunteer Engagement:  In my mind, this is one of the most natural ways to use Chatter Communities.  For Citizen Schools, our volunteers (Citizen Teachers) commit to teaching a 10 week apprenticeship (90 minutes per week).  Apprenticeships are often taught by small teams and are always supported by a Citizen Schools staff member, so there is a natural need for collaboration around building lesson plans, planning the course of the apprenticeship, etc. In addition, many apprenticeships come from a list of standard curricula and we may have multiple instances of the same apprenticeship being taught around the country in any given semester.

Chatter Communities provides an ideal way to connect these volunteers both within their teams and across the same apprenticeship curricula.  By connecting within affinity groups in your community, volunteers can support each other by sharing lesson and activity ideas.  They can also provide feedback to Citizen Schools staff about things that work or didn’t work, providing a communication loop that can lead to improvement in curricula over time.  With effective community moderation, staff can be more focused on making the volunteer experience a better one, which leads both to returning volunteers and volunteers who will recruit others.

I think there’s a huge opportunity to launch a new version of our CT Nation platform which can do amazing things to engage our volunteers!

School Partner Engagement:  Communicating and sharing data effectively with our school partners is one of the foundations of our success.  We’re currently in the middle of a project to better understand the range of ways that this is done across our network (courtesy of a Force For Change grant from the Foundation), and some of our early findings indicate that better sharing some of the data that we collect (particularly around family communication and homework completion) with teachers might be lead both to stronger partnerships and better outcomes for students.

Chatter Communities could work very well in this situation.  Teachers could be given logins, with access to their students only, and have the ability to both see the data about their students and to comment on that data through Chatter.   The information would be secure, protecting student privacy, and it would be reportable, allowing for better correlation to student outcomes.  Given the plethora of systems that teachers are already working with, having the ability to push information from Salesforce to teachers via email and allowing them to respond back in kind becomes a significant value add to improve adoption.

Hopefully these examples can spark some thinking about how you can leverage Chatter Communities to engage different constituents more deeply and and help make your organization a Customer Company!

Dreamforce X (2012) Wrapup

September 24, 2012

I’m just back form Dreamforce,’s annual user extravaganza (it’s way more than a user conference) and wanted to do a quick recap of the highlights. The show has gotten so big (90,000 registered attendees this year) that it’s impossible to cover it all. After reading this, if you were there and had different highlights, please feel free to add them in the comments. In no particular order, my highlights were:

    • (Re)Connecting with my other MVPs: I’ve been an MVP for a year now, and the opportunity to catch up with these other passionate Salesforce evangelists in the flesh is a lot of fun. Their sense of community translates very well from the digital to the physical, they are fun to hang out with and they know everything about the platform. If you don’t know them, check them out on Twitter, the community site or in your local user group.
    • Connecting with the non-profit user community: the non-profit community at Dreamforce is a microcosm of the whole Dreamforce crowd. There are organizations that are considering using the platform, some who are just getting started and some who have been using it for a long time. Dreamforce is a great opportunity to connect, and to ask and answer questions. I was able to catch up with some great people from organizations like HealthLeads, Facing History, Facing ourselves, Linkedin and partners like Exponent Partners, Heller Consulting, Npower, Groundwire and Cloud4Good. A lot of the conversation centered around Blackbaud’s retirement of Common Ground and what seems like a pretty strong consensus that Luminate is likely to be next. Blackbaud’s got some work to do to reassure the remaining customers that they acquired from Convio – we’ll see what develops on that front.
    • Having Citizen Schools recognized as an innovator on the Salesforce platform by receiving a Force for Change grant from the Foundation: This was a huge honor. This spring we were invited to apply for a grant from the Foundation aimed at spurring innovation on the Salesforce platform and were fortunate enough to have a proposal accepted to do the design work for a portal that will bring together non-profit and school-based staff to use Chatter around a common set of student data to improve student outcomes. I will be posting updates on this project to this blog on a monthly basis, not only to outline how this kind of project is done, but also to solicit input from this community.
    • Seeing some great sessions which gave me new ideas about things we can do in our use of Salesforce: . Dreamforce had more than 650 sessions over four days this year, ranging from introductions to different aspects of the platform to best practices for administrators to hard-core developer sessions to product keynotes. It’s too much to hope to catch it all, but fortunately most sessions are recorded and you get the opportunity to catch up on key things you might have missed. I hit a lot of different types of sessions this year, with a focus on Chatter, collaboration and (Salesforce acquired the social performance management platform and is rebranding it as Watching these sessions not only provides tricks and tips for us to better use our instance, they also inspire me to try and do different things with it.
    • Presenting my first Dreamforce session:. This was fun! I had the opportunity to present a session on Chatter deployment and adoption with fellow MVP Adam Bataran, who runs the Boston Salesforce User Group and is a rockstar at Iron Mountain, responsible for the ongoing use and global adoption of for thousands of users. We had a fairly small session, but it was a great experience and something I’ve wanted to do for a few years. Key takeaway for anyone who’s interested: get an influential executive sponsor, sell him/her on it and get them to sell it.
    • Getting excited by some of the new product announcementsThree big ones for us this year:, Salesforce Communities, and Chatterbox. I mentioned above and will likely have a full post devoted to it in the near future, but the vision that they present of doing goal-setting, performance management and recognition in a social, transparent fashion is, in my mind, a transformative one, and could be extremely powerful in the non-profit space. Salesforce Communities takes much of the capabilities of the current portal functionality, layers on Chatter and adds the branding and website design power of Siteforce to provide what looks like a robust platform for constituent-based communities. It’s in pilot this fall, with a hopeful GA date in the spring or summer of next year. Finally, the least clearly defined (or I may have missed the session) new product is Chatterbox, designed to take on the likes of Dropbox, Google Drive and Box in the realm of document sharing. As we look to migrate our document storage to the cloud, this is definitely be taking a look at this, though it’s not clear how much differentiation there is from these other products.
    • Going to the amazing keynotes, this year including Tony Robbins!The keynotes at Dreamforce are great events and this year was no exception. Marc Benioff does a great job at selling the vision, and enlists some great customers to help make the case, along with the best product demonstrations going. If you couldn’t be there, check it out here here. One of the highlights for me every year is when Marc asks all of the non-profit attendees to stand up and then challenges all the other attendees to help out. What’s amazing is that the Salesforce community does help out, not just non-profits, but all members of the community. In the annual Leadership Keynote, GE CEO Jeff Immelt and former Secretary of State General Colin Powell spoke on a wide variety of topics (Powell, in particular, is very inspirational) and Friday included keynotes from Larry Brilliant, who led the fight to eradicate smallpox and later ran, Dr Dean Ornish, and finally a nearly three hour session with Tony Robbins, the motivational speaker and performance coach. I was skeptical at first, but I left totally motivated and inspired.

If you’ve never been to a Dreamforce, plan on it for next year. The non-profit discount makes it affordable (though SanFrancisco hotel rates aren’t cheap), but what you’ll take away from the conference is well worth the investment. This was my sixth time and I plan on going back for more in November next year!

Blackbaud Kills Common Ground: When Bad Vendors Happen to Good People

September 7, 2012

I’m pissed off.

There, that feels better.  No, it really doesn’t.

I came back from a nice vacation last week to the news that Blackbaud has decided to kill off the Common Ground product that they acquired when they purchased Convio earlier this year.  While this move doesn’t directly affect Citizen Schools, as we’re essentially on the Luminate product, it does affect a lot of organizations in a very negative way and that makes me angry.

It makes me angry at Blackbaud for operating in what seems like a bait and switch fashion – on the one hand messaging their commitment to the Salesforce platform:

“One question I can comment on now: Will we continue a significant investment in developing on’s platform? The answer is yes. A key aspect of the value of the acquisition was our belief that the nonprofit industry needs a diversity of solutions based on the diversity of needs across the industry. We value the platform as the right solution for an important and growing part of our industry. So, to state clearly, Convio’s success in working on the platform was a big part of our acquisition investment, and we have every intention of continuing to capitalize on that value.” (from a message sent by Jana Eggers, Blackbaud’s SVP of Products and Marketing to customers on June 12, 2012)

while on the other hand, killing the based product that had the biggest customer base (Common Ground vs Luminate). They also have the gall to tell their Common Ground customers:

Common Ground customers do not need to make any decisions or changes at this time. We are evaluating your needs to determine the best alternatives for you and will be communicating our recommendations in the coming days and weeks. We will involve each of you in the discussion about your options and the timing specific to them. The Common Ground product will be supported through March, 2014.

(from the email announcing the retirement of Common Ground to Common Ground customers sent August 3)

It’s nice that Blackbaud thinks that it can evaluate the needs of the (reported) 700 Common Ground customers and devise a solution for them, but not very realistic.

It makes me angry at Gene Austin, former CEO of Convio, for leaving the organization less than six months after closing the merger, taking his stock and salary payout and running.

And finally, it makes me angry at the regulators for approving the merger – clearly (in my opinion) missing the boat on the potential impact on the customers and marketplace.

Okay, so I’m angry, big deal.  Time to get over it and move forward.  I wrote back in January about my concerns over the merger and unfortunately they seem to be justified, so how might we mitigate the problems that we face.

If you’re an organization that is being affected by the retirement of Common Ground, start your planning now.  Don’t panic, but recognize that you need to develop a plan.  There are a number of other packages (Affinaquest, RoundCorner, the Non-Profit Starter Pack) which are built on the the platform.  Look at them, talk to their client references, kick their tires.  They are leveraging the most powerful platform available to provide you with tools to run your CRM and Development functions, as well as your other processes.

Talk to partners – there are a lot of good consultants who understand both Salesforce and the nuances of our processes.  Assess your needs (you know them better than a software vendor) and figure out where you want to go and what’s going to be necessary to help you get there.

Consider carefully Blackbaud’s plan to migrate you to eTapestry or the Raiser’s Edge – it’s a step back in time, to platforms that won’t scale as well or support your changing business needs.  Non-profits in the 21st century need to be agile and these solutions will slow you down.

If you’re on Luminate, be wary.  At this point, I have no confidence in Blackbaud’s commitment to the platform or the Luminate product.  I expect that within 6 months to a year, we’ll be getting similar notification about the retirement of Luminate, as Blackbaud continues to develop their Blackbaud CRM product.

We’re going to prepare.  We know well, and as we’re adding functionality or enhancements, we’ll be limiting our exposure to the objects and fields in the Convio managed package.  We won’t be migrating data out of those fields/objects at this point, but we’ll be looking to reduce our reliance on them.  There are already aspects (reliance on Flash for the relationship widget, legacy S-controls for functionality) that were problematic.  I don’t have high expectations that these are going to get fixed, so we’ll probably undertake development of our own to compensate for the gaps – I’ll be sharing our efforts here.

This isn’t the end of the world, but it is an unwelcome distraction from other work that we all have to do and that’s going to cost time and money that could be better spent elsewhere.


Updated 9/13/12

I couldn’t attend the Blackbaud townhall meeting yesterday, but there are some good summary points in the comments section of Robert Weiner’s post and in Idealware’s Q&A with Jana Eggers.  From those posts, I don’t see anything that changes my fundamental conclusions:  Existing CG clients are going to be forced to move to something, potentially with some incentives from Blackbaud to move to ETapestry or Raiser’s Edge (note to other vendors, based or not – how do you capture some of this market share) and lip-service about commitment to Luminate (show me a product road-map and maybe I’ll believe it).’s annual user and developer conference, Dreamforce, is next week.  I expect there will be lots of conversation on this topic, and maybe some coordinated action, coming out of it.  I’ll post what I hear, either here or on Twitter (at @wnourse).

Checking in from 35,000 Feet – Up High in the Cloud

July 31, 2012

I’m writing this on my way back from California – connecting via wireless on Virgin Atlantic.  Technology is great, isn’t it?

I was in San Francisco at the invitation of the Foundation, because Citizen Schools, along with seven other great organizations has been selected as a finalist for a Force for Change Innovation grant.  Yesterday, all eight organizations got a chance to present our proposals to members of the Foundation, and several outside judges.  It was  a great opportunity and we won’t find out if we’re selected for a couple of weeks.

One of the really cool things about the day was that we all presented not just to the judges, but also to each other.  Getting a chance to see what other people are working on, from concepts through to projects looking to scale was amazing, as was the opportunity to talk with the presenters from the different organizations.  At the end of the day, although we all have our own specifics of mission and methods, we face a lot of the same challenges and it’s great to connect with fellow practitioners who are doing great things on the platform as well as with their missions.

This kind of sharing among non-profits is something that we need more of in the community, but not just of ideas, but also of more practical content.  I’d love to see a forum where active admins, developers and consultants who are focused on the non-profit space can share code, metadata, formulas, validation rules, training material etc. with other members of the community.  I don’t think the non-profit Google group is the right place for this kind of content, so as a start, I’ve created a repository on GitHub ( which I’m going to start populating in the next few days.

If you’re non-profit focused Salesforce or practitioner and you’ve done something on the platform that’s addressed a problem or if you’ve got some cool training material – why not contribute it here?  You might just save a colleague some valuable time and stop them from reinventing the wheel!

Time Flies in the Cloud

May 4, 2012

Wow!  I just realized that it’s been several months since my last post and I’m overdue.  A lot’s been happening, both for Citizen Schools in general and the technology function specifically.

For Citizen Schools, the most exciting event is that we’re opening in Chicago this fall in two schools.  As a district, Chicago Public Schools is very excited about Expanded Learning Time (ELT) and we’re getting a great reception from schools, parents and funders.  If you live or work in Chicago, we are on the lookout for staff as well as volunteer Citizen Teachers to teach apprenticeships there (as well as in our other locations).  Reach out to me and I’ll be happy to put you in touch with our staff in Chicago.

In the Tech function, it’s been crazy busy the last few months.  Our fiscal year begins July 1, so there’s the usual round of budgeting and other annual planning tasks necessary to get ready for the new year, but additionally, we made a big decision in February that has the potential to profoundly impact Citizen Schools:  we’re dumping Microsoft Exchange and moving the entire organization (450 + users) to Gmail and (eventually) Google Apps.  And we’re doing it now.  Not in six months or a year, but this spring, with a go-live date of June 21.

As with many  non-profits, we’ve been running Exchange (MS Exchange Server 2003) in-house for a number of years and it’s been a relatively stable environment for us.  As the mailstore continues to expand, it’s easy to add storage.  User maintenance is pretty straightforward.  In the four years that I’ve been with the organization, we’ve had minimal downtime.  So why change?

A few good reasons:

  • We needed to upgrade from Exchange 2003 to a newer version:  With Exchange, you don’t just upgrade, you migrate from a server running one version to a new server running the next one.  We’ve got limited Exchange Server competency, and none in Exchange 2010.  That means either spending the time and resources to get up to speed on the new version, or hiring consultants to do the job for us.
  • Running Exchange in-house has become a business continuity risk:  Of our 450+ users, only about 60 actually work in our HQ office where our ‘data center’ is located.  In the event of a power or internet outage at that location (which seems to happen periodically), the entire organization grinds to a halt.  We’re not in a position to have redundant power and connectivity, so something needed to be done
  • Integration of email to Salesforce:  Although there are several applications that will do synchronization between Outlook and Salesforce, they all require installation and support on the client-side.  None of them were as easy as we needed them to be for our end-users.

Why Gmail?  Pretty much a ‘no-brainer':

  • Google Apps for Education is free for up to 3000 users.  A hosted Exchange solution was going to be substantially more expensive.
  • An increasingly familiar interface for staff.  Almost everyone has a personal Gmail account, and many of our younger staff already want to forward their exchange email to their Gmail accounts.
  • It’s ‘born cloud’.  In contrast to a hosted Exchange environment which is simply remotely accessing someone else’s Exchange platform, Google is built for the cloud from the ground up.  As we migrate, we’re not connecting Outlook to Gmail – we’re moving 100% to the web interface.
  • Salesforce integration.  There are a couple of great tools out there for integrating Salesforce directly into Google Apps.  We’ve chosen CloudFactor by Appirio, which makes it easy to create leads and contacts, and to log calls and meetings in Salesforce directly from Gmail.  We think this will be a game-changer for user adoption around activity-tracking in Salesforce.

In order to do this migration this quickly, we knew we needed help (as we knew we would for an Exchange migration), so we’re partnering with cloud consultancy Appirio to give us the benefit of their experience.  We’re about half way through the project and so far it’s been AWESOME!  They know their stuff, the price was reasonable and the approach has been spot on for our needs.  I’m really looking forward to getting through to go-live with them.

The second thing that’s been keeping us busy has been an exercise in fire-fighting and rapid Salesforce application development.  Part of Citizen Schools’ business model is our two-year Americorps fellowship.  Our teaching fellows are young educators who are the backbone of our school-based program.  Because of the duration fo the fellowship, we have a new cohort to hire every year of several hundred staff.  We currently use Taleo for our recruitment management, and it became clear this spring, that Taleo was unable to give us the reporting and tracking that we need to manage against goals as well as to link important characteristics of our recruits to their eventual performance as staff members.  As a result, we’ve taken on bringing the core data from Taleo into Salesforce and developing the reporting and analytics within Salesforce.  In the last four weeks, we’ve designed and implemented a data model to support our needs, the business processes to manage data import (still quasi-manual using Demand Tools) and the dashboard and individual reporting to allow regional and national Talent management to know where they are against targets and to develop strategies to hit them.

It’s been a great reminder of the flexibility and power of the platform and a major reason why I love working with it – being able to deliver significant business value in a short period of time is transformational.

So that’s what I’ve been up to in the last couple of months.  I’m going to try to get back to a more regular posting schedule soon.  If anyone has any requests or questions, please let me know.

Oh and by the way:  Sounds like the Blackbaud Convio merger is due to close today:  boo!

The Convio-Blackbaud Merger – One Customer’s Perspective

January 20, 2012

Convio and Blackbaud have been bitter rivals in the fund-raising and constituent relationship management software arena, particularly for medium to large size customers, so Tuesday’s announcement that Blackbaud was acquiring Convio came as something of a shock to the non-profit technology world. There’s been a fair amount of commentary and speculation online over the last few days from bloggers, vendors of competing products and consultants who work in this space (see this post on NTEN for a link to some), but I haven’t seen much posted from actual customers so far. As a result I thought I would try to provide a perspective from someone who’s been a customer of both companies, using their flagship products. This isn’t to say that those other perspectives aren’t important – I just want to round them out a bit.

From Blackbaud’s perspective, the acquisition makes a lot of sense: they bring their primary competitor into the fold, gain a better foothold in the cloud and SAAS-based services(on top of their prior acquisitions of eTapestry and Kintera Sphere), supplement their service-offerings (from Convio’s online marketing/email services) and solidify their position as the ‘goto’ vendor for non-profit solutions. For Convio as a company, the benefits don’t seem so clear: the Common Ground/Luminate products have been direct competitors to Blackbaud’s Raiser’s Edge and Enterprise CRM products, capitalizing on the native capabilities of the platform to deliver added value for customers.

As I’ve posted elsewhere on this blog, when I joined Citizen Schools four years ago, we were solid Blackbaud customers with both their Raiser’s Edge and Financial Edge packages installed. In 2011, we left them completely (or so we thought), by migrating our constituent management and fundraising to Convio’s Luminate CRM package built on top of and our financial systems to Coda from Unit 4. We’ve been live on Convio for about three months at this point and are generally satisfied with what we’ve got.

Tuesday’s news honestly has me concerned. When choosing a software vendor and product, I’m not just evaluating the current set of functionality against my requirements and budget, but am also looking at the company’s past and potential future. When we decided to leave Blackbaud, it was in part because neither their past nor their future was that compelling: The Raiser’s Edge is built on ten-year old technology, required substantial in-house resources (financial and staff) to host, support and enhance, wasn’t responsive to the changing needs of end-users and wasn’t scalable from a financial perspective. Neither was there a clear roadmap for the future – the promised version 8 of Raiser’s Edge had been talked about since at least 2006 (and still hasn’t materialized) and there seemed little understanding of the importance of mobile and social tools. It seemed that growth through acquisition rather than innovation was the strategy.

Convio seemed the opposite: by building on top of, the Common Ground/Luminate product has mobile, social and agile as part of it’s DNA and leverages the best-of-breed multi-tenant SAAS architecture to avoid the supportability and maintainability headaches of on-premise software. Yes, they too have a (short) history of acquisitions, but they have also showed a commitment to integration (of their analytic and online marketing tools) that seems to be more of an afterthought for Blackbaud. It’s still an expensive product, but the value that we’d be getting and the future value that I saw coming down the road, combined with our already substantial use of the Salesforce platform made it a choice worth making.

Now though, I question some of that future value. After having spent millions (my guess) developing it’s enterprise CRM product and more millions in acquisitions (including Convio), what incentive does Blackbaud have to invest heavily in the ongoing development of the Common Ground and Luminate platforms, particularly if they cannibalize sales of their other products? Very little, I suspect. Instead, leverage the online marketing and new analytics platforms and integrate with Raiser’s Edge and/or Enterprise CRM. Common Ground and Luminate will likely remain as offerings for customers who want a true cloud solution (which Blackbaud has thus far proven unable to deliver), but I expect little in the way of additional enhancement there, which is ironic, because the capabilities of the Salesforce platform are where real value is going to be added over time (Salesforce touch – access on any device anywhere, Chatter providing context on data and enterprise social collaboration, an open development platform to allow individual organizations to quickly customize to meet their needs, and deeply discounted through Salesforce’s commitment to getting great tools in the hands of non-profits).

So what does it mean? Consolidation happens and we have to roll with it, though we may not like it. This feels like a real opportunity for smaller competitors to jump in. Affinaquest, Sage and CiviCRM as well as other, open-source or custom products all have opportunities here, particularly as Blackbaud digests it’s newest meal. I know that if I were still in my decision-making phase, the decision to go with Convio would not be nearly as clear as it was 9 months ago. I’d be looking for alternatives that can offer not only the basics of fundraising and CRM, which are becoming increasingly commoditized, but that also satisfy the mobile, social and agile imperatives that are increasingly critical to non-profit success, whether it be in technology or achieving the mission.

I’ll be watching carefully to see what comes next.

How Enables Non-Profits to Manage All Constituents in One Database

December 21, 2011

I read a post on the Idealware blog today that had the title ‘Multiple Constituent Groups, One Database? How to Track Everyone Who’s Anyone to You’ that laid out a nice method for analyzing the relationships between different groups of constituents and then went on to conclude:

‘The vision of a single database is attractive, but the reality might be neither practical nor cost-effective for your organization. Should you track all your constituents in the same system? Only if it makes sense for your particular situation. At the end of the day, that’s not easy to know.’

I’m writing this post to rebut this argument from the perspective of a non-profit that is moving to do exactly that – create a single database for managing multiple groups of constituents – and some suggestions for how and why other non-profits should consider doing exactly that.  In fact, I would argue that your default position should be to use a single database and only consider having an additional one(s) in extreme circumstances.

Back in June, I posted about how we’re currently using at Citizen Schools and laid out the different types of constituents that we’re tracking in the system (current staff, volunteers, staff alumni, current students, student alumni, leads for potential staff).  Since that post, we’ve brought all of our donor infomation into Salesforce and also begun tracking key district and school partner contacts as well.  We’re currently planning on bringing all other constituencies under the Salesforce umbrella over time.

So what’s the value proposition for bringing everyone into one system.  Here are a few important ones:

  • One system increases reduces training costs by providing a single interface for users.  Forcing users to move between different systems to accomplish tasks is inefficient and confusing.  With multiple systems, users need to concentrate more on where they are working and switching between applications, rather than just logging in to the system and working in it all day.  Additionally, given the number of ‘hats’ that typical non-profit staff wear, having one system allows all users to know how to use that system to access data even if it’s not their primary job, or to transfer within the organization and not have to learn a new system on top of new job responsibilities.
  • Having all the data in one place gives us the opportunity to reach out to different constituencies as needed.  Earlier this year, when Americorps funding was threatened in Congress, we needed to reach out to all of our constituencies with a call to action.  Because we did not yet have all of our donor contacts in Salesforce, the process of gathering the list to do our outreach was significantly more complicated.  A single source allows you to segment your lists much more effectively rather than having to pull segments from multiple systems and then compile.
  • Reporting from one system is vastly simplified, particularly when it comes to getting data for funders.  You’ve had to deal with it, a proposal for a funder that wants to know everything about your business, from number of (clients/students served/etc) to the number of donors and revenue data for the last ten years.  One system makes it easy to get at that information.
  • Finally, constituents are rarely static; they have a history with your organization and their relationship with you will change over time.  A client may turn into a donor, or a donor to a volunteer, or a volunteer to a key advocacy or policy connector.  Maintaining their history in multiple systems means you never have a complete view of the constituent’s relationship with your organization, which means that anyone trying to do outreach to them is operating at a disadvantage.  Additionally, building and maintaining integrations between systems is a complex process, taking resources that are either hard to come by, or if available, could be better deployed adding business value (I know this from experience).

So how does (or another single database  system) allow this to happen.  To me, the answer lies in the flexibility of the platform. Fundamentally, regardless of the complexity of a constituent’s information, there is a core set of data (name, address, email, contact/do-not-contact status) that’s going to be captured.  In Salesforce, this would be maintained in the Contact object (and most of those types of fields are already built in).  Your additional data would be reflected either as additional custom fields on the Contact, or as related records (for example multiple records of a constituent’s volunteer experiences).  The wonderful thing about the Salesforce platform, is that all of this configuration can be done without writing a line of code or involving your technology team/person/consultant.  When you need to add fields, it can be done in minutes, by anyone with the requisite administrative access and training, rather than relying on your overworked tech folks.

‘But’ you say ‘I don’t want to have to see empty fields of volunteer related data when I’m looking at a client record!’  Never fear, Salesforce allows us to define different views of the data by creating different page layouts for different types of records.  Additionally, these page layouts can be limited by a user’s role and security profile, so you can segment access to data within the same system.  This works really well for reporting, as you’ve got your core data accessible from one location, as well has having your constituent type-specific data accessible to authorized users.

You also gain the advantage of having one interface with a common set of tools and usage conventions to learn, accessible to any computer, smartphone or tablet with access to the internet.  Increased accessibility and ease of use reduce barriers to  adoption and usage, which in turn leads to better data completeness and quality.  Try getting that with all of your multiple systems!

Penultimately, there’s the question of cost.  Salesforce gives you your first ten seats for free and offers a substantial discount for all additional add-on products.  This can still add up to a substantial amount for a large roll-out, but when you compare the costs of purchasing or building multiple systems, hosting them internally or externally and maintaining them, you’ll find the total cost of ownership equation to be in Salesforce’s favor.

Finally, there is a vibrant ecosystem of add-on applications on the Salesforce AppExchange, many free or discounted for non-profits, that can be used to enhance your organizations processes, as well as a solid core of consulting partners who can assist with more complex implementations.

To sum up, there may, in fact, be cases for having more than one system, but you should evaluate the business case very, very carefully and truly assess the costs (dollar, time/efficiency and opportunity) before heading down that path when compared to the costs and benefits of the Salesforce option.


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