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August 02, 2007


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I feel like we have been here before. Every organization needs much the same thing and has much the same choices to make. You can camp out at a hosted facility or develop a site with your own identity with existing tools. Either way the critical issues are not the tools, but the intentions and purposes of the community that you gather to the site.

If an organization is really serious, they will take on these questions in a serious way and develop a proposal to address it. Doing it well would create a hub for group formation, and as I've said elsewhere this is not primarily a technical issue. I and others in my network would welcome the opportunity to work with Andre and Rockwood, and I see great synergies of mission. How would we begin a dialog towards collaboration?


OK, Gerry, I suspect we could do something interesting here, but it will take a deep breath on both sides. My impression is that Andre's audience, and his organization, is very good at what you describe, building networks of action-oriented leaders. They are not high tech and they don't spend their lives online. But the leaders are dispersed all over the US and their budgets are small, so to keep the network perking they should be using technology.

To me the key thing that Andre said on the phone, the one thing that did not seem generic, were tools for finding people who have what you need. Think of it as almost like a dating service or a social networking site. If I have the capacity to work with high end donors to grassroots orgs, how can I be found by those who need that skill? If you have tech skills and are willing to work under certain terms, how can you be found? In other words, how can people be cross-indexed by skill, geography, cause, need, etc? Is that a capacity that can be had off the shelf?

I have a feeling that Andre could not write a Request for Proposal at this time. I don't think he has the background. He would need to be pointed to relevant sites to explore. Could you meet him half way by pointing him to the backgrounds of your team or network?

I personally an taking this seriously, this relationship with Andre, because he is at the very center of a large network of grassroots activists and he is training them to be more effective. We have a classic example here of social network development where two networks now touch on a single fragile line. Yet if we bring Andre's network into proximity with the professional financial networks I move in, and with the tech networks you move in, we might lift all three.

Maybe a good first question for Andre would be, "Who on your team is the point person for this project, and are they willing to spend a little time exploring sites like Ning, Linked In, Omidyar (quickly since it is going off line soon), Civicspace?"

David Geilhufe

This is a very common situation, one I think has only two outcomes that lead to success:
(1) Identify the person on your staff that will lead the effort. They are either already qualified or have 2 months full time to get up to speed (yes, social technology is that hard).
(2) Hire a pre-vendor consultant. They work for you, they are not the group ultimately responsible for building the solution.

Two other thoughts:
(1) Anyone can write an RFP... just write down in plain English what you want to accomplish- your goals (not what you want to do- how you achieve goals). If you can't do that, then you need to spend some time actually planning and/or hire a consultant.
(2) Start SMALL. It is perfectly OK to start with a cheap, throw away online community... that will tell you if your alumni really do connect on line before you spend lots of money.
(3) Rockwell is about movement building. Why build when if you harness existing resources... facebook, linkedin, etc... you potentially expand impact far beyond the limited number of people that can attend a leadership training in meat space.



Thank you so much. Your comment has the ring of hard-earned experience. Do you yourself do this kind of consulting? Recomend those who do?

Marc Baber

Thank you, Phil, for inviting me to look at Andre's posting and comment.

Perhaps the most fully developed examples of skills matching databases are the job search and contractor search systems (Dice, Monster, Freelancer, etc.), but the burden on users to explicitly catalog their skill sets, years of experience, levels of proficiency, etc, can be a huge undertaking and would tend to dissuade a number of would-be users.

For non-profits, the skill sets of interest are likely more narrowly focused on more general categories like:

Event planning
Web development
Graphic arts
Strategy planning

I would guess that a few dozen categories would provide the best trade-off of utility /efficacy versus burden of data entry. Does that sound about right?

The usual problem with NPO's websites tends to be that, while many examples of desired functionality can be found on the web, they are not easily combined as part of a coherent whole website-- The organization's blog might be once place with one login password and the social networking someplace else and the skills search in a third place.

Control of member data is another serious question to consider-- many of the free services don't provide ways for the convening organizations to manage data about their members.

Site development modules can address some of these problems (as within the PHP/Drupal community), but typically much custom work is needed.

At Botworks.com, I build custom web sites for NPOs and political campaigns using an integration of:

A. Third party web services (for example-- Sitemeter Web Stats, Skype voip links attached to phone numbers displayed in directories)

B. Pre-developed modules (secure registration, login and password management, contact list management, opt-in lists, survey administration, online credit card contribution processing, conference registration)

C. Custom-developed modules (mini-auctions, audio file sales, online store catalogs, to name a few).

I also often consult to projects during the requirements phase. My class was the last year at UO to graduate Computer Science majors with a minor in English, like myself, so I'm a software professional (former Intel Applications Fellow) who can write, and this often is helpful in the early stage of a project like this.

Please contact me through my web site if I can be of further assistance. Thank you.


Marc, thank you. Very helpful.

Marc Baber

Very welcome. I would just add that one process that is useful in defining a new website is similar to what architects recommend for people having custom homes built-- keep a notebook of pictures from magazines (or, in our case, print-outs from favorite web sites) of examples from houses (web sites) you like and would seek to emulate.


Marc has it right both about why you want to be careful about David's suggestion to just use other networking sites. You loose control of you data. It points to the issue that a real movement builder, an organization that sees itself as one cog in a larger and growing network needs to think of this data as a Commons built up by the many participants in many networks that are connected together.

That's why I see much larger synergies possible through working with a network, for example STC (Source Tree Commons). A strategic fellowship could go a long way and be like the "pre-vendor" consultant suggested by David.

The application to connect needs with opportunities, or desires with fulfillment is a sweet spot that a lot of people would like to hit, but as you know well, the devil is in the details. The information about what people want is strategic in itself, but to mine it is to invade the privacy of your members unless you handle it very carefully.

I caution Andre and any organization against going after a play too directly, against specifying too much up front as you have to in order to contract for a solution. I invite him and his organization into a dialog with a network of people and organizations who are working to build these tools as a Commons. My claim is that we will all gain much more from the relationships than from the tools that are built, but the tools will be transformative by design as well.


Davd, Marc, Jerry,

Clearly at one end of the spectrum you have fee sites like Ning. At the other end of the spectrum you build a custom site. Can you give us any idea of what a reasonable budget might look like for a community site like this? $5,000, $10,000, $25,000, $50,000? What about ongoing maintenance work? How could someone like Andre feel his way into this without having to contract for a "pig in a poke?" Do development agreements specify a front end phase for just talking about the project before the vendor is paid, then a proposal from the vendor, or how are contracts and work processes structured?

Marc Baber

On the low end you can get someone to set up a Drupal site for a few hundred dollars IF Drupal meets your requirements. On the high end, tens of thousands or even into six figures for high-traffic sites is not unusual.

Everything depends on the requirements and how closely they match existing re-usable code. It's the new features and customization that cost the most.

As a professional trying to balance working for NPOs with putting my children through college, I don't currently contribute my code to open source projects like STC, though (somewhat hypocritically, I suppose) I use open source software whenever I can. I believe this approach gives the best possible value to my clients in terms of overall utility and professional delivery and timeliness.

I find it ironic that some groups that wouldn't be caught dead using non-union printers think it's okay and expected that web developers work for free or very cheap. I would be happy to work within an open source community if I could see a financially feasible way to do so, but I haven't seen that so far.

Mostly, open source developers do what they want to do or what someone rewards them to do, whether that someone is a single NPO or a consortium of some kind. If forming a consortium, you need to be certain that the goals of the participating organizations are very close to identical.

So far, I've made the base services that I've developed available to my clients on my hosted site without additional charges beyond hosting and customization work. I find this to be a good balance that benefits my clients with the utility of previous projects and allows me to run a business at the same time.

I develop with the aim of the greatest good for the greatest number of clients, so unusual synergies result.

For example, my contact list management system allows organization A to share (or not share-- that's the default) six levels of access to any of their lists with other users in other organizations. Permissions lists are maintained just like any other list.

I hope these are useful ideas for you in considering alternative approaches.


Very helpful, Marc, thanks.


Since part of the goal for STC is to create an economy around the commons, I am interested in what would make this community more attractive to developers like yourself. We don't necessarily want members looking to STC for a paycheck, but it is very desirable to create situations where members can effectively collaborate on larger projects than they might individually take on.

An ideal situation would be an organization that does have resources to deploy a cutting edge community site, and that they would fund building it in the open in open source. This kind of partnership would be able to bring a lot more development resources to bare on the project for the same dollars as a more traditional consulting or in-house project, and is would allow for the sort of feedback and multi-disciplinary collaboration necessary to get really revolutionary features and functions.

Fundamentally, you can't do really new and interesting things by yourself. You need community and partners.

Marc Baber

One of my favorite quotes from the Star Trek IV movie, was to effect "Oh right, this is the 20th century. They're still using money here." Now, it's the 21st century and, much to my dismay, they're still using money here :-)

Let's just say I'm not holding my breath waiting for consortia to be formed to fund open source software development. I believe it's a laudable goal-- a win-win-win proposition, in fact-- and I've written on its potential at length at http://www.marcbaber.com/EnterpriseFreeware.htm (I apologize for the formatting in advance, I'll try to correct that soon with a new version at http://www.marcbaber.com/Docs/EnterpriseFreeware.pdf).

But, to be honest, it would take a paycheck for me to be interested in working with STC or any other Open Source project. At least until the rest of society stops using money and then I'll be cool with working for free.

With regard to doing really new and interesting things by oneself, I'd say the jury's still out on that one. As a former Intel Applications Fellow and author of two patents, I'm fairly confident in my ability to do new and interesting things solo. But I agree, it's "more friendly with two" as Milne's Piglet put it, and even better with more people. That's why my sincere hope is to grow my company and attract more employees from the ranks of starving open source developers-- I think they deserve better treatment.

andre carothers

Gerry, Marc, David, Phil:

It is a pleasure reading through these posts. Thanks to all of you for keeping the thread alive.

First, some responses and clarifications:

On the “camp out on an existing site (Ning, LinkedIn, CivicSpace, MyQuire, Facebook) or build your own” question: after much debate, research, an assessment that interviewed 100 of our 1,600 alumni, and a review of the capacities of the existing services, we are pretty firmly set on building our own. Here’s why:

1) We think of ourselves more as a B-to-B network than a social networking site, in part for reasons cited by Phil. First, our 1,600 clients are all professional non-profit advocates working 50-hour weeks. And, they are mostly older senior executives, which means their exposure to the delights of Facebook is slow, and their interest is low (as time goes by, this will shift, of course).

To enroll them in an online community, we first have to provide just-in-time services that they desire (they are not interested in posting photos of their vacation, for example—or worse, seeing someone else’s). And we need to provide in-person and virtual experiences, so that the social networking benefits are enhanced. We are quite scalable, with a team of 8 trainers and 11 staff, so the ability to show up in the cities where our alumni are is no problem.

What our clients are asking for, according to our assessment, is:
a. More leadership development services that build on the experience they had at the intensive leadership seminar. This means:
i. Downloadable materials
ii. Wiki- and blog-style conversation opportunities (“What is the latest thinking on launching a coalition?” What are ‘best practices’ for your first meeting with the corporate representative of a company you have a campaign against?”)
iii. One-day in person follow-ups
iv. Pushed content and reminders
v. Conference calls with experts on key topics.

b. Contact with fellow alumni, for sharing of resources, ideas, and socializing (“I miss the group that I got to know so well when we were together for four days……I need to let my real allies know about an upcoming event, demonstration, issue in a way that does not get lost in the ‘noise’ of online life”)

c. Advanced multi-day residential trainings

So, our current picture of the Rockwood Network alumni experience goes something like this:
1) Client attends training—data collected (this is where Marc’s list comes in): name, organization, position, issue focus, what you want to know more about, what you feel proficient enough in that you would share with fellow Network members. So far, the 100 people we have asked this question say:
a. Want to know: coaching, coalition-building, conflict resolution, strategic planning, technology options, delegation, presentation, diversity issues and racial justice
b. Willing to share: nearly everything, including all of the above, plus communications and press work, dealing with venders and consultants, fundraising and working with foundations, etcetera.

2) Allowed access to an alumni site where they can download materials, see who else in their area is an alumnus and who they are (by issue area, position and expertise, willingness to share knowledge, find out who knows what they need to know), sign up for pushed content, contribute to online discussion of the latest best practice in…..whatever.

This is where things get interesting, because of the potential “mashup” of applications that could come into play here. For example:
• a Google map of “trained organizations” and alumni in their region
• a searchable document repository of written materials on the “Five Key Practices of Non-Profit Advocacy Leadership,”
• a downloadable mp3 of a curriculum piece,
• a video of a terrific facilitation or training process (“DO try this at home”),
• a http://www.lijit.com/ style search function that searches the alumni site and the ancillary data contained in bios, capacities, willingness to share data, etcetera,
• a meetup capacity (“communications directors for environmental non-profits are meeting to share strategies on the wildlife bill at Amy’s house”).

What else?

FYI, we are currently using a custom built site to host our website and our in-house 360 degree evaluation process (a requirement for all participants in any of our programs), EMMA for mailings and newsletters, and DIA (Democracy In Action) for list management and training registration.

We have nothing in place yet for the alumni program described above. As mentioned, it would obviously be a custom-built site.

I very much appreciate Marc’s description of the business model dilemma, and feel at this point like the best contribution is to launch a project like this with results and client satisfaction in mind (regardless of costs and structure), and then share the results. A team is good, but what this project really requires is not a Yahoo-style offsite skunkworks to devise new applications, but a steady hand that links existing capabilities with the particular needs of this client base. And then builds it.

I share Phil’s insight and aspiration that there is something in this conversation and our services that would serve all three communities/sectors.

Gerry asks: How do we begin a dialogue? I think this is it. Rockwood’s alumni program is a sweet and elegant problem that I can imagine would interest a certain class of people, because it links technology with political and community organizing, network theory, usability and coolness, and an existing base of 1,600 eager non-profit professionals (and growing).

How to “poke”—to appropriate a Facebook term—these networks cited by all of you to continue this conversation?

I would love your feedback on what I have said above, and also links to others who might be in support of this inquiry.

Many thanks, Andre



What is the simplest step forward? Maybe a Rockwood Blog just to get a conversation going and poke a few networks. Then maybe a Ning site for free as a follow on to your next convening. Who might do that for you? What staff person or volunteer might give it a shot? I thought the advice about starting simply and messing about for awhile made the best sense. Ultimately this will require you to have at least one web savvy person on staff or as a volunteer. Identifying that person and allow or encouraging them to get active on line would be free and smart. An expensive site that no one really uses would take the fun out of it. It is mostly social dynamics, not technology. Why not encourage a few of your people around the country to try blogging back and forth among themselves and with the larger web? If no one wants to, maybe that is telling you something about the level of interest.
Is this driven by you or by demand? Demand driven is a good predictor of success. If there is a demand how can you address it as cheaply as possible on a free platform to get a feel for all this? Your needs are unique, but a lot of what you say sounds like really big reasons why even the best community site may not work - your organizers are older, busy, and not into socializing online. So if you had the perfect site, would they come?


Thanks, Andre. I like your vision. Phil is right about identifying your organizational assets in the blogging/wiki world. Then I would want to connect them with some people and resources. Network building is a social process distinct from the technology. Some friends of mine are doing that sort of work with About Us, and could be a great resource.

Another project talked about around Gift Hub is "Source Tree Commons", a networked organization being designed and built to facilitate building open source software platforms. We are really just getting started, but we have a good network of people with significant capability. At some point we should talk so you can learn more about our network and we can learn about your project, maybe a conference call with Phil and one or two associates from STC.


When I entered rockwoodleadership.org it populated a page for your organization at AboutUs. Now you (or anyone, actually) can edit this page and/or create more content at AboutUs.org relating to your organization. They will also host your wiki content under your domains. I think this is free by default, but you can pay to get more control and such.


Connecting open society, open space, and open source people seems a worthy thing to attempt. As people they fall into "pods" or tribes, but the ideals are often much the same. Team building and gift culture are topics that cross over among these groups.

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