Saturday, May 15, 2010

NonProfits need Technology like hotdogs need mustard . . . or is it ketchup?

 In my first year now with the National Wildlife Federation as their lead technologist my charge is to manage a rather complex infrastructure while providing a level of service that meets the mission of the organization. I'm a 20 plus year vet in the tech world and I've seen the industry from the start grow and change sometimes at staggering rates.  What I really dig about the NWF gig is how this organization utilizes and isn't afraid of embracing technology.  When you look at our web and social networking presence it's hard to find any other NPO that do it as well. NWF is refreshing but not without it's challenges, for instance . . .

When I began a year ago the group was struggling with the implementation of an internal SharePoint platform - this is a software system that was intended to better share, collaborate and document our workflow within and between departments.  But it became clear to me we had some cultural and software challenges before this system could be embraced by staff to better their outreach and program work in bringing wildlife along with climate causes to the public and to our members.

Complicating matters, our email platform was just a tad behind the times, this needed to be upgraded if we were going to make SharePoint work.  While there was a desire to migrate the email platform before I came on board the cost and cultural change was daunting, but being the new guy on the block I wasn't afraid to try. Knowing the in's and out's of how to manage something as core to any organization as email was, is as natural to me as breathing, it was time to put my geek hat with the little propeller on it aside and start to really listen. The culture change for some was going to be the biggest obstacle as we have some long term staff who hadn't worked with any other email platform. All they knew was GroupWise their entire professional career so moving this core group and doing it well I saw as an opportunity but not without it's perils.  

One of my peers, Peter Campbell from Earth Justice, likes to say "It's not that people are afraid of change, they fear disruption"  and he's right but changing how an organization functions with using email is as big a disruption as you can imagine.  

Addressing the quantity of email and the storage implications was one of the biggest challenges, who to partner with while factoring in a cost effective solution was the other.  We identified 10 different NWF location of mail servers holding a staggering 4 terabytes of mail.  Terabyte is 10 to the 12th power or if you look at the US Library of Congress they have 100 TB of electronic files - our single organization had 4.  We had some serious pack rats in our midst and for an organization that numbered just under 400 that quantity of mail was staggering.

To combat this problem we held our own "Biggest eMail Loser" contest - complete with prizes and "weigh ins" and as a result we trimmed that number down to around 2.5 TB but still large enough to make the migration a painful and time consuming process.  Plus it meant we would have to add to the infrastructure, more servers, more hardware, more systems to manage and that included the need to archive our mail, more time and internal resources.  And let's not forget all of that meant more energy, more cooling, more impact to the climate.

From an implementation perspective I turned to the regions power house tech group System Source based on Hunt Valley MD who for years and years had a positive history in migrating email platforms. These guys and gals were great to partner with.  They kept the consulting time to a minimum, got my tech team on track and we began to implement a well thought out industry standard plan.  To complement and save us from spending a small fortune on archiving and storage hardware we turned to another juggernaut of the industry, Google.  

Google provided an option for us that will be one of the biggest cultural obstacles the organization will face, storing old mail in the cloud and not in your client.  I had repeatedly stated that email was never intended to be a file storage system and yet that is what it became for a great many of us.  Statistically there are a plethora of formulas that documents how much time we all spend on email.  That number I hope is going to fall as more lines of communications like Twitter and Yammer takes messaging in a different direction but for now email is still that "enterprise app" that we all live on and we as technologist take very seriously.

Moving to Google for both mail filtering and archive services was no easy process.  Speaking of taking email serious, Google leads that charge.  Our testing process was extreme, the search functions while robust still has staff yearning for category tags or some folder structure, which Google doesn't provide. 

The other challenge was coming to terms with the "green" impact.  While moving mail storage to Google meant NWF would lessen our own power and cooling needs, what about Google's green commitment.  We effectively would be removing servers and storage from 10 locations, we would NOT have to add more hardware infrastructure to our headquarters, less energy to cool our server rooms - our Carbon Footprint reduction would be considerable.

Now it was up to Google to maintain, store, cool and power these systems.  How green was Google?  There is a lot of talk about that question but the video below below shows a desire and an intent to indeed practice what they preach. Getting them to make that same commitment at their data centers will be critical to taking that last step towards green tech.

Leading the charge for my nonprofit to streamline our carbon footprint is a win win in my book.  To lessen our impact on climate and better connect our infrastructure which in turn means better ways for us to engage and have a positive impact to wildlife, education of children and fight for a climate that we can pass on to the next generation makes my pocket protector glow with pride.  I'm proud of my team and happy with my partners.  

Yes, I like to rock the boat a bit, after all I like mustard and ketchup on my hotdogs. 

- Michael Sola heads up the IT department at NWF, contributing writer to Internet Management for NonProfits, blogger, invited presenter and speaker.  Follow him at


Posted via web from Michael's Ramblings

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Keeping Your Nonprofit Safe from Spam

It's not a new topic but I am always surprised when I have staff come to me and complain about how they get hit with new waves of Spam. I've been a fan of the "filter at the gate" approach, long time user of the Google filtering services called Postini provides both enterprise controls while allowing staff to manage their own mail.

And isn't that the point? We should each of us be responsible for our own mail and take responsbility for that influx of mail but so many of us just don't think it through.

My friends at Wild Apricot posted a nice piece about some simple steps you can take to reduce the chance of being labeled a "Spammer" which can cause a lot of grief.

We are in the midst of migrating from GroupWise email platform to Outlook / Exchange environment. Out cut over happens the end of the month, lots of moving parts, but the end is in sight and the planning, testing and training is paying off. Part of the process was to solicit feedback from staff via focus groups in order to gauge how staff use the current system.

One of the uses I am well aware of is staff who select the local / internal email client to circumvent the normal bulk email web distribution process and instead contact their lists via internal channels. This is a concern for many reasons, one of which is you can't put measurements on open rates, click thru or tie that interaction back to a constituents record.

But here is a concern you may not have thought of: what happens if something you send via your client side system like Outlook ends up being flagged as Spam and the organization internal email servers gets flagged as a Spammer? How is that going to fly getting blacklisted?

So while it's an old Hillstreet Blues line to use, it's relevant: "Let's be careful out there." Think, for the love all things digital please think.

Posted via web from Michael's Ramblings