Monthly Archives: February 2011

What it takes to be digitally proficient

Lately I’ve noticed a few businesses pushing new fangled IT products and services to the community and voluntary sector. The most prominent of these is cloud-based computing. It’s promoted as being an ideal match for organisations.

The sales pitches are pretty extravagant, offering miracles on heaven and earth: it won’t break down, it’s always open, you can get access anywhere. On top of the superlatives, jargon flows: SaaS, outsourcing, virtualisation, te mea.

Much as I see merit in organisations using the cloud, what I’m thinking about goes a bit deeper. How do people working in the community sector decide if the cloud (or other new technology of your choice) is a good fit? Is this way of working  value for money? Are there hidden traps which mean it’s not as easy or as good as promised?

Of course some of these questions can be answered by learning more about the specific technology. A good example was Nigel Parker from Microsoft giving his slant on the cloud at the Connecting Communities showcase day in Auckland on 9 November 2010. There is heaps online, including resources on TechSoup’s Cloud computing for nonprofits page and recent cloud 101 webinar.

It was a speaker earlier in the showcase day that really had some answers for me – they sidestepped the cloud completely.

Andrew Mahar, the founding Director of Melbourne based social-business Infoxchange Australia talked about supporting organisations to become digitally proficient. I was delighted to catch-up with Andrew again having lost touch after my spell with Infoxchange in 2004. Their tagline — “technology for social justice” — rings as true as ever.

What Andrew talked about will be familiar to people working on capacity building of any sort. He described the goal of digital proficiency as ensuring organisations have the skills and facilities to serve our clients, and to improve efficiency and effectiveness. (See a video recording of the full talk below).

Although you will find a list of attributes to define digital proficiency, which Infoxchange have taken a stab at documenting (as many others have too), Andrew focuses on process. He says it’s not about ticking off a list of things then moving on. ICT capacity building is best seen as a series of improvements.

It’s something that needs to be integrated across the entire organisation, not just at the operational level. This means incorporating ICT into strategic planning, plus ensuring monitoring and board oversight. Leaders and managers need to actively coax and guide their organisations toward digital proficiency. There are strong echoes here of arguments put forward in NTEN’s “Managing technology to meet your mission”.

The conclusions are based not only 20 years of experience in the field, but the recent MeasureIT action research project. In 2009 Infoxchange visited 120 human services to ‘audit’ their IT practices and systems. They found strengths in some areas particularly around hardware, internet connectivity and use of office productivity software. ICT planning and budgeting, staff training needs analysis, access to software suited to community organisations, utilisation of tech support, and use of the web were identified as areas where capacity building could be profitably directed.

At the Connecting Communities day, Andrew gave us a sneak preview of a project funded by Victorian state government to build technical proficiency in community and human service organisations, called iTANGO. At the core is assistance for organisations to develop ICT plans, along with facilitated regional networks of people working on ICT in communities and development of a customer relationship management (CRM) solution designed specifically for not-for-profit organisations.

This type of initiative may not answer immediate questions as to whether the cloud or other new technology will suit a particular organisation. However, by building a good foundation of digital proficiency organisations will be better able to determine what their needs are, and decide what sort of lining is inside the cloud.

PS I’m doing some work for Family & Community Services mapping out how family and personal services can build their ICT capability. I’ve been wondering about both the similarities and differences with our neighbours. I’m wondering what you think?

IT Proficiency in the NGO sector by Andrew Mahar: MS NGO Day Auckland 2010 from Connecting Up on Vimeo.

My month with no beer for FebFast

FebFast logoEverybody I talk with this month will sooner or later hear about FebFast. And you, dear reader, are no exception.

This month I’ve joined over 1,000 people to raise funds for four organisations helping reduce alcohol and other drug related harms amongst young people.

Like everyone else, I’m not drinking alcohol for the month. At day 11 I’m doing fine. Having enjoyed a party last Saturday celebrating our friend’s nuptials with freeflowing drinks on offer, I won’t give in to the temptation for a hoppy pale ale, crisp wiessbier or other tipple. You can read updates about how I’m doing on my personal fundraising page:

I haven’t read many of the updates from other people doing the fundraiser, though I’d describe the mood on the FebFast facebook page as being buoyant.

What I do know is that we’ve collectively raised at least $53,735.12.

That’s one of the great things about online fundraising, it’s easy to see progress and get a sense of the support that’s out there. This actually makes me feel more determined to do my bit.

As this is the first time I’ve actually used an online fundraising tool, I feel I’ve got a fair bit to learn. What’s really obvious is that the best way for asking friends and whanau to support me is in person. Tweets and status updates alone are not enough. In fact, I’m a bit reticent about overdoing online updates so I don’t push my current enthusiasm down people’s throats.

I think this comes back to Beth Kanter’s suggestion, made during a workshop I attended 2 and half years ago, about making appeals personal. Reflecting on a birthday campaign in 2009 to help the Sharing Foundation send Cambodian youngsters to school she says:

I’ve said this before and so has Katya Andresen.  “The messenger is more important than the Cause.”   All of my messaging speaks to why I’m passionate about helping children in Cambodia and why it is  important to my family.  I tweeted about how my family was involved, how my kids dipped into their piggy banks and how other family members were contributing.

Beth also talks about making an effort to engage people in talking or thinking about the campaign, as it is about asking.

While I mull on these insights, I’ll get on with my main fundraising approach: talking with people about FebFast. Which is as much about getting to grips about attitudes to alcohol, New Zealand’s booze culture, and my own experiences of alcohol, as it is about money.

PS Just before writing this post, I read a summary of what Katya Andresen will be talking about at the annual Nonprofit Technology Conference in Washington DC next month: “What 1.9 Million Donors Can Tell Us About Fundraising on the Web: A Cliff Notes Tour of The Online Giving Study”. In brief: relationships matter….

But raising funds online is not about technology, any more than raising funds through the mail is about paper. It’s about the relationship between the nonprofit and the donor who wants to support a cause. People who give online are no different from other donors in that they expect a relationship — not simply a transaction — with the organization they support.

Actually reading my first eBook

Over the years I’ve saved a fair few full length ebooks. It’s been easy to hit download, then find a place to save them. While they’re not exactly gathering dust, most of them are sitting around unread.

This all changed in the last few days. On Saturday I noticed an advert for a book released 1 February 2011 telling the Guardian’s side of the Wikileaks story and baring all about Julian Assange. The story behind the story so to speak.

In no time I purchased an electronic copy, in Kindle format.

I’m reading my ebook on my HPMini, using Kindle reader software. As a reader, the wee brute does not offer a 100% satisfactory experience as there is no off-the-shelf version of Kindle for Ubuntu. It’s not that I can’t read the text, it’s just that my line of sight is distracted by (redundant) grey boxes and navigation. As I’m using a program that emulates Windows, I can’t get the latest version of the software which would likely eliminate these annoyances.

Unlike other times I’ve tried installing applications using the Ubunutu operating system, this time it was painless thanks to warda at RedShirtLinux in an excellent how-to blog post (“Getting Kindle for running in Ubuntu under Wine”).

Of course, although I “own” the book, or more likely the right to read it, I can’t view it in another, more user friendly reader. For instance I could potentially use Calibre, an open source reader that makes it easy to configure the viewing screen and set other preferences, and manage an ebook collection as well. With DRM encoding the book is strictly for reading within Amazon’s proprietary universe, an irony which won’t be lost on the hacking community that supports Wikileaks.

As I’ve also got Kindle software on my Mac desktop and laptop, I can read elsewhere. But sitting at my desk (which I associate with work) or with my hefty laptop is not so appealing. I’m beginning to see the convenience of a tablet or dedicated ebook reader. (So don’t act surprised when you hear I’ve got one).

Having got 20% of the way through (I can’t specify a page number as they are not used on in ebooks it seems), I get the sense the book was rushed into print. It’s not totally coherent and there are big gaps (for instance Assange’s life story between 2002 and 2006), but it is enlightening. It seems as the Guardian journalists are applying the same same standard of transparency to Assange as the wikileaker does to governments, corporates and elites: they reveal details of their relationship and put two and two together in a way I’d imagine the Australian would find unflattering (to say the least). Some commentary is fairly speculative, and some bloggers have identified factual errors.

But as Russell Brown says in his review of “Wikileaks” from earlier today, “I have emerged from the book with a renewed admiration for Julian Assange’s talent and commitment and a better understanding of his politics. I’ve also had some of my misgivings confirmed. ” Brown recommends the book.

With not only the Guardian telling all, but also the New York Times (see “Dealing With Assange and the WikiLeaks Secrets“) and disgruntled ex-Wikileaks insider Daniel Domscheit-Berg, there’s a risk that how things happened will overshadow what happened: getting out information vital for holding powerful interests to account for their actions, and a far reaching example of how a ‘free’ or neutral internet can be used for good (something a corporate takeover of the web threatens).

Although I’m not exactly falling head over heels reading on an electronic device, I think I’ll finish the book as it’s a gripping story. One whose ending has yet to be written.


You can get a sneak preview of the book, with this introduction by Alan Rusbridger, the Guardian’s editor, or hear in brief from the journalists involved in this short video.