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Cool - and sobering - visual on homicide data.

The always fantastic, highly recommended Data Blog at the Guardian just published this engrossing Tableau-based interactive visualization on worldwide homicide rates. Not the cheeriest of weekend topics, but worth a quick look. (I tried to embed the code here but Squarespace wasn't having it, and trouble-shooting javascript doesn't seem like a good Saturday morning activity!)

For example, there has been a lot of talk in Chicago this year about the alarming increase in homicides -- but Chicago doesn't even make this list! New York is the only U.S. city in the top 60 or so in the visualization. Makes one count one's blessings...

In any case, I thought it was worth sharing. One of the many things I like about Tableau is that shared visualizations like this come with the data embedded -- in other words, you can download the data yourself to inspect it. 

Click to interact.

Click to interact.

Why I'm Optimistic About Blackbaud's Acquisition of Convio

This morning’s announcement that Blackbaud has agreed to acquire Convio has certainly made the day more interesting. A surprise to me and most of my colleagues, clients, and partners, the press release has inspired more Twitter, email, and phone activity than I can remember in quite a while. Nearly everyone has asked the same questions: What will it mean? Is it a good thing, or a bad thing?

Clearly it will take a while to understand the implications of the announcement, and much longer to observe how the acquisition and subsequent integration — strategic, operational, and technological — unfolds. But I’ll risk it and offer two initial thoughts:

  1. The acquisition represents a colossal reshaping of the nonprofit technology landscape.

  2. There are lots of reasons to be extremely optimistic about the result.

Why It’s Big

If you’re reading this article, you probably already know why the move is huge. But allow me to recap for a moment, with apologies to product managers at both companies for vastly oversimplifying the systems involved. Blackbaud is the de facto nonprofit technology standard when it comes to back-end systems. Simply put, it’s a Raiser’s Edge world out there. But their cloud products haven’t gained as much traction, and their offering is a mixture of various home-grown and acquired solutions, from eTapestry to Kintera to NetCommunity to Sphere.

Convio, on the other hand, has become the standard for web-based CRM, particularly in the rapidly growing advocacy and peer-to-peer fundraising spaces. And their move to integrate with SalesForce through Convio Luminate has brought powerful for-profit tools barrelling into the nonprofit space. However, Convio doesn’t have the breadth or depth in back-end databases, nor the long history and massive installed user base that Blackbaud offers.

So the first reason this news is big is that these are the two leading players in nonprofit technology, by a large margin.

The second and more important reason is that because of the different competencies of the two companies, most of our clients use a mix of both systems. It is very common to find a Convio front-end feeding a Blackbaud back-end. It is also very common to find frustrated IT managers and fundraisers in the middle, trying to get the two systems to play well together. This acquisition not only brings with it the promise of more seamless integration, it also could vastly reduce administrative headaches throughout an organization — reducing multiple invoices, sales visits, service calls, and so forth to one point of contact.

Why I’m Optimistic

That same conclusion has already led some observers to worry about the move. I’ve read concerns that this change will reduce the leverage of the nonprofit buyer — leverage which many would say is already at a low point. In only six hours since the announcement I’ve also heard worries that the acquisition will lead to higher prices, lower service, slower technological development, and less choice.

I’ll admit, those are legitimate concerns. But from my vantage point, I don’t think they are realistic. Here’s why.

  • First, many nonprofits already use — or wish they could use — both systems. Change comes slowly in our space, particularly when large systems (with correspondingly large financial outlays) are at play. Consolidating those products, designers, and engineers is only going to benefit end users of the systems. I know of fundraisers at several large nonprofits who have literally agonized over the choice between Convio or Blackbaud. That’s wasted time that can go back to mission.

  • Second, I like the mix of skills and competencies. Event 360’s team works with both systems, so I know people at both companies. There are fantastic, smart people at both organizations. And like all competitors, they spend time worrying about each other. I can’t wait to see what those teams do when they combine their talents. When both groups worry more about delivering social impact than keeping up with each other, we’re all going to benefit.

  • Third, I think this will speed up, not slow down, technological development. This is probably a vast oversimplification, but my perception is that Blackbaud has always had the edge in technological robustness and service, while Convio has had the edge in speed and responsiveness. In November 2010 I got to see a preview of the next generation of Blackbaud’s Friends Asking Friends system. I was completely blown away — blown away by the potential, by the power of the system, and by how much they had listened to Event 360’s own best practices to include them in the system. The only disappointment came when I learned that the system wouldn’t be widely available until 2013! To Blackbaud’s credit, this is how they work — methodically. They want to get it right. But at the same time, the market is changing too quickly; nonprofits need help now. I think the addition of Convio’s talent and products could add afterburners to Blackbaud’s rollouts.

  • Fourth, there’s enough market pressure to control prices. I think the concerns about “monopoly pricing” are vastly over-exaggerated, for several reasons. One, if the new Blackbaud prices too high, they are going to encourage many nonprofits to look to low cost and open source alternatives. The strategists at Blackbaud are too smart for that. (And as a side note, to my friends at smaller technology companies — this acquisition is great news for you, too. One of you is going to become the new best alternative.) Two, my sense is that Blackbaud is more concerned about the SalesForces, Oracles, and Microsofts of the world than the CiviCRMs. The market will shift, new alternatives will emerge, new standards will be created — but I don’t think every NPO CFO needs to reach for the wallet.

What’s To Be Determined

As I said at the beginning, there’s still a lot to be ironed out.

  • How long will systems integration take? Months or years?

  • What will the product and service offering be? How will existing customers be treated with regard to potential new, integrated services?

  • Will the acquisition (and subsequent integration timeline) actually slow down NPO buying decisions? This would be understandable, although a shame in my book — there is simply too much need to delay our pursuit of mission.

  • How will the two company cultures mix together? From my experience, they aren’t the same.

  • Closer to my world, how will the New Blackbaud work with partners? Both companies have had evolving partner strategies — how will they work with companies like mine?

  • Which companies and technologies will emerge as the clear second alternative?

We’ll probably all have a lot to debate and wonder about in the next few weeks. Still, when it all comes down to it, I think this is a great move for the space. We’re all trying to change the world — and the work is so, so difficult. To quote Jane Fonda, “Instead of safety nets we need trampolines and ladders.” Anything that can help us jump forward more quickly towards a better world is welcome in my book. I think this acquisition can do that — and so to my friends in Charleston and Austin, I say: We’re counting on you. Let us know how we can help.

Stop the presses! Blackbaud to acquire Convio...

I woke to this announcement in my inbox. For the event fundraising world — and indeed, the entire fundraising world — this represents a significant change in the landscape. It could also represent a powerful combination of strengths as the two main front-end systems come together with the two main back-end systems. I’ll be following this news intently and will post further on the implications as the day progresses.

Perspectives on 2012: Mission Trumps Tools Every Time

This article is the third in a short series of musings about 2012, its opportunities and challenges, and how to best meet them.

From “So, What’s Your Algorithm?” by Dennis K. Berman, the Wall Street Journal, 1/4/2012I’ve started this post several times. The first time, I opened with this: “When I look back on 2011, I’ll think of it as the year when social media hysteria attacked the nonprofit space.” That opener sounded a bit too snarky, so I scratched it out and started over. My second attempt was this: “When I look back on 2011, I’ll think of it as the year when big data arrived to the nonprofit space — alas, the discipline to use it well is still a no-show.” Ack. The second attempt is worse than the first!

So here’s a third try: When I look back on 2011, I’ll think of it as year when the discussion about tools risked eclipsing the pursuit of mission. And when I look into 2012, my biggest hope is that it will be the year when our focus returns to substance over form. 

There’s no question that big data and social media were two of the main themes in the nonprofit space in 2011, at least in my part of the world. Much has been written about both trends, and I’ll not seek to retread that ground other than to say that most of the nonprofits I work with, particularly the larger ones, are investing in systems and people to generate and store constituent data. And nearly every organization is investing in systems and people to “do social media.” Depending on the month, at certain times I might have said that the emergence of big data was the dominate theme; other months I would have probably marveled at the fascination with social media. Obviously, the emergence of the two trends is not unrelated, as the same undercurrents are basically powering both:

  • Dramatic, ever-increasing computing power (we all now carry powerful computers disguised as phones);
  • Progressively transparent, networked consumer behavior (we are willing to have our actions tracked at every turn, and often consciously and deliberately track ourselves); and
  • Evolving infrastructure and supporting systems (for example, the widespread acceptance and adoption of that third 2011 buzzword, “the cloud”).

So rather than try to separate the two, I’ve convinced myself that I can and should muse about them jointly.

I worry that over the past couple of weeks I’ve unmasked myself as a Luddite, and I should say I’m definitely not. Actually, I’m a gear fanatic and a tool nut — I love my electronics and my software, and I continually acquire more of both than I have time to master. 

At the same time, one thing I noticed in 2011, more noticeably regarding social media but also underlying the pursuit of large data management systems, was that we tend to run after the next tool that presents itself without thinking. It’s almost as if we’re hoping that this Next New Thing will finally make it easier, less awkward, and more fun to do what most of us have to do, which is ask for money.

“Facebook! You have to be on Facebook! You have to increase your likes on Facebook!” Remember that? And then it was, “Twitter! You have to be on Twitter! Increase your Twitter followership! That’s it!” Oh, and then, “Text to Give! It’s all about Text to Give! Text to Give is huge and is transforming the space!” And someone else says, “What are you thinking?!? CRM! You’ve got to connect it all to CRM!”

And so we all don our sheep suits and follow the flock over to Facebook — and then we follow it back across the field to Twitter — and then we try to follow it over to the Text to Give pen, but by this time we’re all getting a bit tired aren’t we? And then someone shouts “Google+!” But by this time we finally say, “huh?” And we all try not to ask the obvious question, a question that is getting harder to avoid asking in the new year, which is “How do we translate all of these followers and likes and mobile numbers and circles into dollars for mission?” Because of course what has been lost as we chase tools around the pasture is any time to think about what we want to use the tools for. 

Okay — don’t get me wrong. Again, I’m not a Luddite. I think Facebook is a valuable tool; I use both it and Twitter many times a day, for my clients, my company, and myself. I love computers and analytics, and live and breath both most hours of the day. But here’s the thing: Facebook is just a tool. Data is just a tool. Twitter, texting, Google, Excel — all tools. 

No tool in the world will instantly, magically, permanently eliminate the need to passionately, succintly, and repeatedly describe your mission; no tool in the world will eliminate the pressing, continual need for you to vivdly describe the impact you are making and then pointedly ask for support. What I saw in 2011 was a tools arms race, and what concerns me is that I don’t see signs of it slowing down — although there are observers starting to discuss how, as social media and big data and the cloud become integrated into our day-to-day, the novelty about those systems will change back into an imperative to actually say and do something meaningful with them. 

(And following from that, let me add that just because you can now easily send a message to your entire database of 30,000,000 “friends” in one click doesn’t mean you should, or really that you have anything of value to say.) 

My biggest hope of hopes for 2012 is that we all realize that even now, in some garage in India or some college dorm room in New Hampshire or some offshore development platform in the South Pacific, someone is developing yet another tool that will (possibly) help us (potentially) increase awareness and (maybe) raise money. And so rather than worry so much about how to leverage this fan page or that community stream or how to afford the shiny new holographic brain implants soon to be shipping worldwide out of Cupertino, the best thing we can do for our nonprofits in 2012 is:

  • Emotively articulate our vision of a better world;
  • Concisely describe how our organization is uniquely pursuing that vision;
  • Abandon our reluctance to ask for help and boldly put our offer of change to everyone we meet
  • Continually develop our volunteers and staff so that they have the language and confidence to do the same;
  • And more than anything, ensure that the program work we do actually helps bring about social change

Tools are fun and cool and neat and can help a lot. But substance outlasts form every time, and mission trumps tools all day long. 

Mind the Gap

I consider myself a fairly good parent. I love my kids, and I tell them; I make sure they eat well (McDonald’s right? just kidding); we all get lots of exercise, and we all get lots of sleep (well, I don’t, but they do). I know their birthdays, and I know their friends.

But I’d have a hard time telling you how tall they are. It’s just not something I have in my memory.

Amusement park operators clearly know this, and so at the entrance of every ride they have signs like the one at the left. They don’t expect me to know how tall my kids are, and they don’t expect me to be able to compare that height against an abstract. I just plop them next to the stick.

Think of how else an amusement park could have done this — when I enter the park they could have, for example, given me a print-out of each ride with the height and weight requirements. But what would I do with it? It would be the same data, but pretty much useless. 

This is an example of the difference between identical data that is usable (hey, my kid is too short) versus useless (what did I do with that sheet of paper?) simply because of differences in presentation. It matters how you present data, at least if you’re trying to get action out of it. And if you’re not, why present it? 

This is all a long introduction to one of my favorite tools, and favorite sites, and just favorite people: Gapminder from Hans Rosling. This incredible, ingenious tool allows you to map demographic data — say, the number of people who live in a country — against other demographic data — say, the number of people who live in poverty — and chart it out over time. This sounds very wonky to read but when you go to the site it is all very easy to understand and very intuitive. You select a couple of fields and hit play, and all of a sudden you can see pretty amazing relationships between them. Like, for instance, what is presented to you in the default graph, which is that a country’s life expectancy directly correlates to its income per person, and that the poorest countries, mainly in Africa, are fighting an uphill battle. 

So two themes here, I guess: One, if you are presenting data, think about the recipient’s frame of mind and present it in a way that will create an impact; and two, if you are looking to learn more about the world, the challenges we face, and why your part matters, take a look at Gapminder.