From Ning to Causes to Ideablob: Why We Need a New Way of Building

by Amy Sample Ward on April 16, 2010

Last November we saw a few alarming events taking place in this social media for social good sector: Causes left Myspace and Ideablob shut down, both without warning or community support.  In a guest post on the Tactical Philanthropy blog I started brainstorming about what was next.  Now, with the recent news from Ning that it plans to discontinue free service, I am revisiting those thoughts about “what’s really needed?” and asking myself if these events aren’t just disruptive to members and users, but also huge signs that we need a new way of building. Building networks, communities, connections, campaigns, and our work.

When I start thinking about this, I come back to three main issues with the current way we build:

1. Not All Communities Can Be Treated Equally

Grassroots, hyper-local, nonprofit, and educational communities cannot be expected to operate in the same way as commercial or sponsored communities, online or off.  These kinds of groups can’t even be expected to fall in the same kinds of rubrics for use or application of tools between each other as they are inherently unique, every time.

2. Payment Is More Than Purchase

I truly believe that when it comes to the financial requirements for tools and services in the nonprofit and larger public sector, payment is far more than a purchase, it is an investment.  We are willing to buy in to something if we can be part of shaping what it is, how we can use it, how we can improve it.

3. Investment Is More Than Money

If investment was required to get a tool, I believe many groups would be willing to participate in evaluations, provide feedback, submit user stories and help in the development of the tool.  All things that take time, which is valuable. But not money.  Many groups would much rather have an impact and involvement in the shaping of the tools they use than pay for something that others control.

So, how do we build this marketplace?

When I wrote about this back in November, I closed my post with an invitation.  I’d like to repost that invitation here and then add a next step.

Your invitation:  Join this conversation.  Tell me what the recent Causes/ideablob announcements means for our sector and for you.  And share your ideas with your friends and colleagues to further the breadth of the conversation.  The more voices the better!  Here are some places to start:

  • Evaluate your use of social media tools: do you encourage your supporters on other platforms to register on your website, ensuring you have their contact details?
  • Evaluate your community: are you reaching a diverse community or operating in a silo?
  • Evaluate your relationship with developers: are you using tools that allow you to surface suggestions, ideas, and useful functionality for development? Do you know what the plans are for the tools you are using?

I have already had creative, exciting conversations with others in this sector about how we could build a marketplace that:

  1. allows end users surface ideas for tools or new functionality for existing tools
  2. allows those ideas get support, gather feedback, get fleshed out by developers and users
  3. allows funders (whether they are foundations, organizations, VCs, companies, etc.) identify tools to fund
  4. allows developers to find work they know will be adopted and start working on tools with an active base of users
  5. maintains an expectation that these tools will continue to be available for the people, by the people.

It is the last point that I think is the most important. It isn’t about having a crazy-liberal or Utopian version of the web.  It IS about adopting tools that we feel comfortable deploying to our communities and building on, knowing they won’t close or leave without notice.

I am going to continue having this conversation, examining how a marketplace could work, and what these events mean for our sector. Please join me. Share your ideas and your experiences. Let me know how you wish we built things.  Let’s start at the vision of how we want it to work, and then build towards it.

  • http://thinkshout.com Sean Larkin

    First off, I think that this is a great article and I’m glad that folks like you, Amy, are working to get Ning to reconsider this decision – as it obviously has huge implications for the community. That said, and I hate to sound negative, but this is just the reality of NPOs and small organizations becoming dependent upon proprietary SaaS offerings. And in some ways, folks are lucky that Ning isn’t drying up completely – as tough as this economy is on technology start-ups.

    There is definitely a space for proprietary tools – but I think that organizations need to better understand the risks in depending upon these solutions – and to consider open source alternatives for core features and data management.

    What I’d like to see develop are better open source CRM/CMS options that really focus on open APIs and open data. Drupal is headed this way, but it still needs work. With these tools in place, SaaS companies could develop an ecosystem of smaller paid services and offerings that scratch the “itches” that open source will never do well – things like mass email delivery or complex geo data integration/look-ups.

    Lately I’ve been getting a lot of inspiration from http://thesmallbusinessweb.com. This collective of smaller SaaS companies (well, at least the original companies involved were mostly small) that understand that the new/better approach to SaaS is to focus on building targeted tools that talk to other tools.

    But again, big shout out to the people in the nptech community who are engaging Ning creatively/positively to discuss and work through this issue. Ning’s a great tool. And the NPO community’s embrace of it has had to have had a huge effect on their viral marketing in the for-profit sector.

    Respectfully,
    Sean Larkin
    ThinkShout.com
    http://twitter.com/sean_larkin

    • http://www.amysampleward.org Amy Sample Ward

      Hi Sean-

      Thanks so much for your thoughtful reply!

      I really think that your suggestion of promoting open source platforms on the larger scale and building out services for the niches options is both interesting and sustainable. I’m curious how the core development teams for groups like Drupal and CiviCRM and so on feel about that idea? Do they welcome that option as covering more ground for their tool or see it as infringing one the ideal/platform they are working to build?

      I’ll take a look at http://thesmallbusinessweb.com – thanks for including the link!

      When it comes to platforms or tools that work in the community facing (opposed to organizational tools like a crm etc.) as Ning does, that may be created by anyone and shared in administration by anyone, etc. How do you imagine your example scenario to play out? Curious on your thoughts.

      Thanks again for contributing to the conversation!

  • http://twitter.com/angusparker Angus Parker

    For any Ning refugees looking for a home, consider WiserEarth.org. WiserEarth will remain free to use and free of ads for anyone working on social justice and environment issues. You can read more on: http://www.wiserearth.org/article/wiserearthgroups

  • Pingback: Sad that Ning went paid service, WiserEarth will remain free | WiserEarth Blog

  • http://thinkshout.com Sean Larkin

    Hi Amy,

    I think that CiviCRM and Drupal have very different approaches to community management – as well as architectural priorities. IMHO, I think that Drupal is more focused than CiviCRM on building a tight, well-documented, upgradable, and pluggable core. I think that the CiviCRM development team has spent too much time building features rather than tightening their core. For example, if CiviCRM had invested the many thousands of hours that they’ve put into CiviMail into more core development, a larger community of contributers and contributed tools would have likely grown up around the product sooner.

    In the Drupal space, tools like Acquia Solar Search and Mollom (which are goth SaaS and open source), are proving that there’s a space for niche SaaS add-ons in the Drupal space. Lev Tyspin’s MailChimp integration for Drupal is also a great example of how you can use Drupal as the glue for various web services.

    ——————————————————–

    Hi Angus,

    Thank you for all that you and Wise Earth are doing. I haven’t used your tool, but it looks really interesting and I look forward to exploring it. That said, I’m going to put you on the hot seat. Guarantee me that your organization, and your networking tools are always going to be around for the NPOs. Guarantee me that the economy isn’t going to cause your organization troubles that could risk the time/data that NPOs are investing in your service.

    Maybe your organization/offering does have a commitment to open APIs, open data. Maybe your organization does have an “sustainable exit strategy” just in case – and which includes open sourcing your platform. If so, right on!

    But this is the risk of all of these platforms. And frankly, it’s a higher risk for the more interesting/innovative SaaS offerings, like WiseEarth, Wild Apricot, etc.

    Again, there’s a huge place for easy-to-use, off-the-shelf, pay-as-you-go (or free) software services. But like Amy said, we need to be more intentional in thinking about how we build these tools.

    Cheers,
    Sean Larkin
    ThinkShout.com

    PS – Along similar lines, don’t even get me started on our growing dependance on Twitter. Talk to me about open source micro-blogging platforms….

    • http://twitter.com/angusparker Angus Parker

      Dear Sean:

      All very good points. In fact, I think a lot of the concern about Ning going premium is overblown – $20/month or whatever nominal fee they are planning to make you pay is generally money well spent – especially if you don’t have to move your community. Having said that, to answer your questions:

      Are our tools always going to around for NPOs – I sure hope so. We have very low funding requirements (a lot of ‘work’ is done by the community). Also I’m looking for us to raise a small endowment to fund our bare minimum tech/hosting costs forever.

      Do you have Open API, open data – Yes, we have an API where you can access any public data. About two years ago we open sourced our platform on Sourceforge (at the request of AskNature.org) but no one showed much interest so we haven’t updated it lately. I think it would be wise for us to put our code in escrow somewhere in the case that we ever ‘went out of business’ – like Salesforce has done.

      Agreed that SaaS carries risk, but frankly the cost of running your own site on Drupal or Joomla probably is riskier for most NPOs with a small or outsourced tech team and a huge money sink in the bargain. So it needs to be put in perspective.

      Cheers, Angus

      Angus Parker
      Program Director
      WiserEarth

      • http://www.amysampleward.org Amy Sample Ward

        Hi Angus-

        Thanks so much for the additional information about WiserEarth’s platform. Going back to the original impetus for this post (Ning going premium) and your last point about perspective… We are still waiting for details from Ning about what the costs will be and what other options/changes are in store with their platform, but from your experience, what is the deciding line? Is it $20/month? More? Groups that have set up on WiserEarth, have they had other presences before that were too costly in one way or another (either $ or time or other capacity) and if so what was the line for them?

        Thanks for continuing the conversation here

        • http://www.facebook.com/angusparker Angus Parker

          We are all wired to be physiologically responsive to the word ‘free’ – so the barrier is really about paid versus unpaid services. When smaller nonprofits and individual activists have to pay anything it turns into a big barrier – and they will look elsewhere. Then it’s mostly a matter of having the features they need in a social community. You can quickly see why Ning decided that they could do without this customer segment!
          A more rational decision making process – comparing cost of community management – would possibly push you towards paid services (although many free ones are excellent). People who have communities on Ning should probably stay put and pay the small fee because of switching costs for their existing community (transferring profiles, content etc).

          • http://www.clienttrack.com/wordpress Scott Anderson PhD

            I would add that many organizations may already have the funds available to pay the small fee, but may be using them in less efficient places. I heard last night: Often times getting something is not about figuring out what we want…it’s about figuring out what we’re willing to give up to get what we want. Perhaps the issue isn’t about money, but the nonprofit’s uncertainty that putting what few monies they have toward social media will really make that big of a difference. It could well be an issue of confidence in the medium rather than cash available in the moment.

          • http://www.amysampleward.org Amy Sample Ward

            Great point, Scott! I think this is an issue that many companies/providers/developers are tackling actively whenever they post (or even create entire sections dedicated to) success stories and case studies – showing the way others have used tools (their tools!) to make impact, deliver on their mission, etc. If the idea of social media, in all the gooey-ness that comes with that term to many in the nonprofit sector, is scary and sounds like something not worth investing/participating in, but one tool can demonstrate it’s value, then there’s a much bigger chance that organization will adopt that tool and not try to see what else is out there.

            For better and for worse, I think.

    • http://www.amysampleward.org Amy Sample Ward

      Hi Sean-

      I appreciate your argument on development of the core vs feature-specific modules etc. but I also wonder if that doesn’t create an unsafe environment/assumption that users have to rely on other developers, 3rd parties, etc. in order to get the non-core functionality they need to make the platform as a whole worth using…

      And thanks so much for spurring continued dialogue here – just wanted to be sure you saw that Angus replied to the thread as well.

  • http://www.theCoup.org Matthew Willse

    A for-profit group might be able to balance and sustain a free tool for the public’s benefit … but we must always expect that their primary motive might trump the public’s needs at any moment. Regardless of their goals and vision, our investments will always be subject to the whims of the market, shareholders, and board members.

    Open source ownership!!

    Open source platforms might take a sudden turn, but the community always has the power to gather their resources and steer the project as they see fit. Their investment might not be entirely stable, but it is always theirs to keep.

    As groups try to figure out where to take their network, we should build a list of sustainable & open options.

    The Open Planning Project has several tools, including CoActivate.

    http://openplans.org/code/
    http://www.coactivate.org/

    • http://hildygottlieb.com/ Hildy Gottlieb

      I agree with those who are talking about something bigger than NING. I would also suggest that this is larger than simply tools for communities. The issue we have been considering (albeit with no real time devoted to it other than noodling some ideas) is a focus on everything web-related for the needs of community benefit orgs.

      We have thrown much of our thinking into this short video, proposing something rather large and audacious – access to web-related technology, in all its forms, for all organizations who need it.
      http://is.gd/a3Mjn

      We have suggested (and have not had the time to pursue) a discussion sector-wide of the needs of any and all organizations, and especially those who are small and would benefit most / can afford it the least.

      If technology were fully accessible for all purposes an organization could need, and that technology was not only free (or VERY cheap) but easily and seamlessly plug-and-play, what would that look like? And what would it take? (Aside from money – that should be the LAST question we ask, not the self-limiting FIRST question) What would we need to have in place to make such a platform real?

      Communication? Coordination? What else? We would love to see this happen, and the retreat of NING offers just one more reason why a more permanent and comprehensive answer is critical.

      Hildy

      • http://www.amysampleward.org Amy Sample Ward

        Hildy-

        Thanks so much for sharing the video and some of your early questions. In light of your comment in this conversation, I’m curious and cautious about the kind of technology “solution” you are proposing. A one-for-all model, even if it was customizable and plug-and-play seems to go against the principles of drive in a market.

        I’m also curious about your thoughts to the marketplace idea as explained further in the comments thread in reply to Sean.

        And lastly, wonder if you have feedback or input you’ve already received that could/should be shared in response to that video; and ideas for about or for the uservoice that Sean set up.

        Thanks again for contributing!

        • http://hildygottlieb.com/ Hildy Gottlieb

          Amy:
          Thank you for these thoughts and for the forum to talk about this. I should start by saying that other than lobbing the video out to the world hoping to generate some discussion, we have had no time yet to pursue anything with this effort (hoping that will change soon), and so our feedback has been limited.

          Overall the response has been on 2 sides of the fence – a) Yes, let’s do it (or more to the point, “Yes, I hope someone else does this”), and b) Who’s going to pay for it? Neither of those further this discussion much (especially as my life experience tells me that asking Question B at the beginning of a process, rather than at the end, is a Creativity and Results Killer if ever I saw one.)

          As for the marketplace approach, I have been in this sector a long time and seen a lot of well-intentioned stuff fail due to lack of sector-wide infrastructure. We think the market can cure a lot of things that frankly I have found it repeatedly fails to do when it comes to community benefit and global benefit work.

          In the Pollyanna Principles, I lay out an argument for community-wide infrastructure for some of the basic things every single organization needs and almost none can afford. Great training is on the list. Basic back-office functions like accounting and HR. Program evaluation expertise and support.

          I believe basic web interface capability is part of that basic infrastructure. No organization can succeed in this age if they do not have something in place to engage with the rest of the world, even if that world is their neighborhood.

          I am looking forward to engaging a discussion around this issue, then, that asks questions in a slightly different way.
          1) What would equal access to web technology make possible for organizations? What difference could it make to organizations and more importantly, to the world / the communities and individuals they serve, if every organization had access to easy-to-use tools?
          2) What would it take to ensure that end result happens? What conditions would need to be in place, and for whom?

          The answer might be a marketplace system. Or it might be a very different type of system. But until we reach for what we believe the effect can be (and the effect is not the technology but what the technology makes possible), we wind up arguing means without clearly defining end results.

          Rambling – sorry. But you asked!
          :-)
          HG

          • http://www.amysampleward.org Amy Sample Ward

            Hildy-

            Thank you for your thoughtful and though-provoking reply. I really hope others jump into this conversation thread as well! Zeroing in on the two questions you included at the end, I would suggest that question 1 not use the word “access.” Whether it is in the situation of a kind of “marketplace” where people suggest what they want/need and others can find things to build for people they know will use it, or another manifestation of a process, the key is that people don’t just have access but are involved, are using, etc. You could argue now, if you really wanted to, that we all already have access because the tools exist online – just go find them, download them.

            I would change question 1 to reflect that change as:
            What difference could it make to organizations and more importantly, to the world / the communities and individuals they serve, if every organization used tools that were easy to implement, sustainable and committed to the end users?

            I still see a co-existence in that frame for both open source and proprietary software options. I’m not going to argue that everything has to be open source and free only. But, I think that using the elements of 1. easy to implement, 2. sustainable and 3. committed to the end users let’s us see how a huge organization to a small community group could all leverage the same/similar tools to meet their needs.

            Really excited to continue this conversation especially as your capacity grows and you guys begin investigating/pushing too.

            Thanks for sharing here

          • http://hildygottlieb.com/ Hildy Gottlieb

            Amy:
            I’m not so certain I agree about access for one reason – if an organization’s leaders have no tech proclivity / comfort level (sometimes that means they are over a certain age, sometimes they have no knowledge or are otherwise intimidated), then the tools that are readily accessible to some might as well be on Planet Xenon for others.

            I would argue that for many many many organizations, their belief that they have no access is as important as the reality. So a big piece is bridging that gap in a way that is nurturing and not intimidating. As with all things, it may have less to do with the thing itself than the people who will be using that thing.

            A small point, but when talking about critical sector-wide infrastructure, I believe an important one.

            Hildy

          • http://www.theCoup.org Matthew Willse

            Hildy, I agree that accessibility is important. You both want it, but in 2 different key places.

            Amy, if I understand right, wants users to have an integral role in development, not just access to the software. She wants constant engagement between the makers and users to build the best tool for all involved. In a way, she wants a more accessible development process.

            Hildy, if I understand right, wants tools that are accessible rather than just available. A tool is of little use if it doesn’t welcome users that lack technical prowess or confidence. The best designed tools require no how-to instructions.

            A good case study is CiviCRM. This open source platform provides an incredible tool that every organization needs. According to the NTEN survey on CRM statisfaction, the organizations that use it, love it. Unfortunately, you can’t just flip a switch and get started with CiviCRM. You need an expert to get rolling. So, many organizations choose to pay for other services to manage their fundraising and contacts. Without seed funding or paying customers, the CiviCRM developers can’t lower the threshold of engagement to create a tool accessible to everyone as Hildy wants. What they need, is to involve a broader community in development as Amy suggests. Reaching beyond tech people, they might build new funding or income strategies.

            I hope I didn’t misrepresent the ideas from either of you.

          • http://hildygottlieb.com/ Hildy Gottlieb

            Matthew:
            Far more eloquently said than I have done. Thank you for adding clarity to the conversation AND to my thinking!
            Hildy

          • http://www.amysampleward.org Amy Sample Ward

            Thanks, Matthew! Exactly what I was saying :)

    • http://www.amysampleward.org Amy Sample Ward

      Thanks, Matthew -
      I think your point and the reply I just left for Sean are ringing the same chord: open platforms enable the community to drive and feel confortable knowing what the priorities are, unlike in a relationship/reliance on a commercial product.

      Thanks also for sharing the links!

  • Kate

    i heard about this- ning is shutting down their free accounts.. i saw on webs.com that they offer the same things as ning, and have even more cool options.. i have a webs.com account- theyve been around for awhile now, and you can build a free social network website in a few minutes..

    it’s definitely worth checking out guys:
    http://www.webs.com

  • http://www.la-grange.net/karl/ karl

    For maintaining your assets as an organization, a company, etc, we have to forget the notion of free. Free doesn’t exist. Someone, something pay for the infrastructure and time spent, be it by ads, by selling your own data for yourself, by asking for rewards in return, etc.

    Once you have done this healthy thinking, you can really start thinking about your services and data infrastructure. Let’s say you have a family and you feed this family with potatoes that you got for free from a local business. At a point, you realize that this local business is working on money it doesn’t own, what do you do? You know that your life is 1) not sustainable and 2) at high risk to become a nightmare.

    Organizations should always think about their sustainability and in the “freemium illusion” we are living in, not that much is done towards this. I have written a document to help you ask the right questions. http://bit.ly/freedata

    • http://www.amysampleward.org Amy Sample Ward

      Hi Karl-

      Thanks for joining in here! I really appreciate the breath of perspective here around the culture of “free.” I think that for the most part nonprofit organizations already question the concept of free as they start to build out full time positions for social media roles and have faced in the longer view with volunteer management – all things that try to use, value and quantify actions in the “free” space.

      I think the key difference in this case is that if an organization was invested in growing it’s facebook group, and then the 3rd party (facebook) pulled out, all the users and organizations would have to go somewhere else. The drop wouldn’t be attributed to the organization in any way. With Ning, organizations have built there so if Ning pulls out or rather creates a new model that organizations can’t/won’t stick with, then the drop and any subsequent issues around moving are attributed (faulted) on the organization.

      Thanks again for contributing to the conversation

  • http://thinkshout.com Sean Larkin

    Heya folks,

    Lots of great conversation today about alternatives to Ning. As an
    open source geek, I’m most interested in how this conversation has
    generated greater awareness about the risks to small organizations of
    wedding themselves to closed source, proprietary solutions. Don’t get
    me wrong, I believe very strongly that there are certain services/
    tools that the open source community will never be able to tackle on
    their own. For example, Google Apps is clearly a strong solution for
    organizational email. And mass email services like MailChimp (which
    have relationships with the major ISPs) will likely always trump open
    source mailing tools like phpLists and CiviMail.

    That said, there is a ton that we /can/ do in terms of building and
    sharing open source social platform tools. Personally, I think that a
    Drupal distribution would scratch a lot of these itches – but
    ultimately, the starting place isn’t with the solutions, but
    identifying the core needs.

    To help with that, I just created a UserVoice site for anyone who’s
    interested in helping the open source social networking/platform
    community identify and prioritize features. Maybe there’s already a
    place for us to brainstorm and prioritize these features. If so, let
    me know. Otherwise, help us open source software geeks solve this
    problem!!

    Go to: http://nposocial.uservoice.com

    (Apologies that I had to “own” this UserVoice page. If a few of you
    are interested in being co-moderators of this discussion, ping me off
    list.)

    Cheers,
    Sean Larkin
    ThinkShout.com
    760.223.0589(cell)

    • http://www.amysampleward.org Amy Sample Ward

      Hi Sean-

      Thanks for taking the initiative to create a starting place for driving development in an open and collaborative way from the needs first, and not the tools.

      The whole “how do we create a marketplace” conversation is one I’ve been having with various colleagues since November and a concept some have expressed possible interest in funding. As a conceptual example, what if Netsquared opened up the Project Gallery so instead of just ~500 innovation projects being showcased, we could have another section of the (drupal) site that lets people suggest new tools or added functionality and so on in a similar way. Then, to stay with the NetSquared process, Challenges could be incorporated but again not for the Projects but for the functionality; and get the most interested/interesting ones funded to be built etc. I think it could be pretty cool, just as an example of a model and clearly one that could work in various places outside of NetSquared, too.

      Will watch the uservoice and help out there as well – thanks!

  • http://www.theCoup.org Matthew Willse

    Sean, I assume you’re talking about a hosted service, yes? There are open source options available, and it would be great if a free hosted service utilized one of these platforms. Symbiotically, each would buttress the other and become more sustainable.

    Just one example is buddypress, based on the wordpress core. It might not be fully mature, but it has all the features of Ning, and like WordPress, it is highly usable. An example: http://commons.gc.cuny.edu/

    I’d be glad to help facilitate the uservoice forum.

    • http://www.amysampleward.org Amy Sample Ward

      Matthew – thanks for the context around buddypress and example link. Will be great to have you in on the uservoice space, too!

  • http://www.clienttrack.com/wordpress Scott Anderson PhD

    Hi, Amy-

    I wasn’t aware of ning, but I can see its value, especially for enabling smaller voices to be heard more loudly among a wider community.

    I just wanted to be clear about the context of social media you are addressing here. In your first point, you said that Not All Communities Can Be Treated Equally. I think the boundaries of this statement need to be very clear, because in some nonprofit contexts (e.g., compliance reports, grants, accountability, transparency), all communities ARE being treated equally, for better or worse.

    My intention is not to be mean-spirited, but to seek clarification. Some of the comments in this thread seem to be poaching good rationale from your argument in the social media space for use in other non-profit related technologies. This is what McGlone has called “contextomy,” or taking bits and pieces out of their original context, then applying them to suit one’s own desires. That said, I’m uncomfortable about extrapolating the context of openness in social media platforms to more generalized contexts; in other words, I don’t believe advocating open source in social media is or should be taken to be the same as advocating open source in ALL nonprofit technologies. I’m dividing “social media” software from other types of software used by non-profits, although I can’t yet clearly articulate the criteria I’m using to do so.

    Am I mis-reading you here? Are you advocating this message for ALL nonprofit tools, or specifically for Social Media nonprofit tools like ning? I ask because I believe there is a lot of value when organizations ARE paying for <> of quality software solutions. I admit I’m biased, given that I am part of an organization that creates subscription-based, SaaS, CRM-type software. In our organization, our livelihood depends on our ability to create quality solutions–my job depends on how willing our clients are to refer our product to their colleagues. That means I have to work hard to maintain quality. And that quality translates directly into a better product for our clients, which in turn translates into better outcomes for them (i.e., more funding, better collaborations, greater community awareness) and the communities they serve.

    In summary, should “free” be an ideal standard for ALL types of software connected with nonprofit organizations, or is there something inherent to “social media” software that should make it “free-er” than other types of nonprofit software?

    • http://www.amysampleward.org Amy Sample Ward

      Hi Scott-

      Thanks so much for asking these questions! As I have said before, I believe that there is still plenty of space and opportunity for non-free software solutions (whether they are “social media” or not). What I do want, though, is a “new way of building” those tools regardless of if they are open source or not, free or not, etc. I want a process by which the end users can be involved, not just as testers but as the guides for development. I also want a process by which the “builders” (whether it’s a company, an individual, or anything in between) have a commitment to the end users to continue letting them drive development/improvements/etc., as well as to the end users in not dropping the tool.

      It is from wanting to make a process like this that I’ve been exploring the marketplace concept as I mentioned earlier in the thread in reply to Sean.

      Would love to hear your thoughts on this and how you foresee the balance striking between open source and proprietary software solutions.

      thanks again

  • jamesdcalder

    I second the notion of using WordPress/ Buddypress as an open source alternative to services like Ning. As mentioned earlier, there is still a lot of work to be done as far as Buddypress being fully developed, but I think it offers some promising possibilities. Just in case anyone is interested, here’s a quick link to a blog post on how to get started migrating user data from Ning to WordPress: http://teleogistic.net/2010/04/importing-ning-users-into-wp/

    • http://www.amysampleward.org Amy Sample Ward

      Thanks, James, for pitching in the link! Have you migrated a group before just out of curiosity? What spurred the decision to move?

      • jamesdcalder

        Unfortunately, I have been mostly a spectator of colleagues’ WP/Buddypress projects. I was involved with the creation of thatcampcolumbus.org, which lives on a WP/Buddypress site, but most of the development credit there goes to my friend Erin Bell.

        I guess my interest in the topic stems from the fact that many people I work with in the Public History/Museum world had been using Ning sites to develop online communities. My original impulse was to tell them to switch over to WP/Buddypress because it is A.) open source, B.)more interesting to me personally. However, since Ning was free and generally more user friendly, I didn’t have such a convincing argument at the time. Now, although I’m sad for their frustration, I’m hopeful that this whole situation will encourage people to switch to open source alternatives like WP. I think more people involved will lead to faster and better development and a greater acceptance of tools like WP, Drupal, ect.

        Needless to say, thanks for spurring this great discussion.

  • http://luis-davila.com Luis

    Good article!

    You should try TakingITGlobal.org… It was always a better, free, option over NING.

  • http://www.theCoup.org Matthew Willse

    James — is it a coincidence? Your buddypress link points to the developer behind the Cuny Commons site that I linked to…

    Scott — remember that “free” and “open source” are not synonymous. I believe that paying for service to support the use of software can be quite helpful for non-profiteers. When that software is open source, others might use the code on their own, but that doesn’t replace most people’s need for quality support services and hosting, especially for complex tools like CRM. Going open source would require you to give up management or control of development, but it give you my eyes and hands for increasing security, building new features, squashing bugs, and building a broader user-base.

    • jamesdcalder

      That’s funny, I totally missed your link to CunyCommons, which I think is a great site by the way. I also totally agree with you about the difference between free and open source. In fact, my experience has shown open source to be anything but free. Instead, much time, energy and money often has to be invested by and into people to make whatever open source tool you’re using worthwhile. Its very important, and unfortunately, sometimes overlooked that you must take these costs into account. That being said, I’ve had great experiences with many open source tools and generally find it a better strategy to invest money into people as opposed to something like software licenses. Also, as open source tools get easier and easier to use/modify, I predict the human costs of using these tools to go down. Or, I could be totally wrong. Any thoughts?

      • http://www.amysampleward.org Amy Sample Ward

        Hi James-

        Thanks for continuing the conversation! I absolutely agree with you that as more investment is made to the people driving and building open source tools, the barrier to entry with those tools for others will continue to go down (usability, admin interface, all those things). The important nuance is that it isn’t a 1:1 ratio. For every new person that adopts a new tool (whether it’s open source or not), there is not an equal amount that the tool is better for the next person. So, what are the major thresholds of users, capacity, investment that need to be made for noticeable (though still incremental) improvements?

        Thanks again

        • jamesdcalder

          In my limited experience, simply getting more colleagues to use these tools has been very useful. The most common problem I have when using open source tools is that, for lack of a more precise explanation, they often “almost” work. For example, its not necessarily that I’m always looking for plugins that don’t exist, but instead I spend a fair amount of time getting plugins to work properly, display exactly how I want them to, have the proper configuration for my site, etc.

          Given this, I’m often in need of relatively simple hacks rather than large scale development. Thus, being in contact with various user communities (especially personally, but through forums too) has been invaluable to me. The larger the user community, the higher the probability that someone has gone through a similar problem and, of course, the more likely I am to get help with a solution. At least this is how things have worked for me.

          Typing this all out, perhaps it would be useful to improve ways of organizing people who are working with opensource tools, especially at the local level, so they are available to help one another. Although, as I mentioned, forums can be very helpful, I’m not sure if they are as productive as getting help from someone with whom you have a personal relationship with, if only for the fact that people you know will generally spend more time helping you. So now I’m back at creating communities. Maybe I’ll create a Ning site for opensource users in my area. Oh wait… ;)

          • jamesdcalder

            Amy, I’m also not sure if I answered your question at all. I may have to rethink and post again. Sorry, I’m having the type of day where I can’t stop myself from going off on all sorts of tangents!

          • http://www.theCoup.org Matthew Willse

            James, I think what you say is very true. Most of the stuff we need is available, but not always complete, accessible, or well documented. That seems to be the nature of ever improving technology.

            In general, I think developers connect well with each other. On the other end of the spectrum, activists and advocates also support each other. Do you think the greatest need and opportunity is connecting across disciplines, so that both groups become engaged and involved with the others’ work?

            There are some forums, both online and locally, for this cross pollination. But these forums seem to require ongoing nurturing. What do you think? Is it because their rewards are not as immediate? Are they less automatic and self-sufficient?

          • jamesdcalder

            I agree Mathew, developers connect with developers and activists/humanists/advocates connect with each other very well. I think one of the issues is that nowadays, with the opening up of technology, a sort of hybrid is emerging where professionals find themselves with one foot in the developer world and one foot in the activist/humanist/etc. world. In my profession, I guess we’d call it a Digital Humanist. These people require a different skill set than either developers or activists/humanists/etc. and with few exceptions (George Mason University comes to mind) there is little formal training available at the university level.

            I think part of the problem with creating communities (locally or online) with such individuals is precisely that we, as am emerging group, are hard to define. Even self definition is challenging.

            As time goes on, I think this will become easier. I am also hopeful that higher education will catch on to the trends set by places like GMU. I don’t know, what do you think?

  • http://eadvocate.wordpress.org Kendra Kellogg

    Hi Amy,

    Thank you for an excellent post. It is wonderful to see you take a lead with the idea of “A New Way to Build.” I agree with many here that open source is the best way to engage a developer-user relationship.

    A good example of a development community working for long term nonprofit goals is Crisis Commons. Most here probably know about their projects, but take a look at how they have organized around Wikis, local chapters and CrisisCamps:

    http://crisiscommons.org/

    Google called the week following the Haiti Crisis Camp, “One of the greatest leaps in innovation in such a short time.”

    I think there is good reason for it, and for why an open source “Better Way to Build” would be well received. Though the fields seem worlds apart, the best web innovators and leaders in the public sector share similar visions: to connect people.

    Berners-Lee invented the web’s mark-up, the most scalable and innovative code written, and gave it away to connect us. Developers I know have Berners-Lee in their hearts, not Ning.

    I think you are onto something fantastic Amy!

    • http://www.amysampleward.org Amy Sample Ward

      Thanks for joining in, Kendra; and thanks for your positive encouragement!

      When it comes to tech-innovation-tool response to crises situations I think it’s important to remember that the “to help people in need” aspect is tangible, evident, and immediate. That’s not to under value the work or the projects, but just to say that when thinking more broadly about creating a different way to build things or a different way to co-create our tools, the benefits are less tangible and less immediate and thus the process itself need to hold value, and not just the end result. This is part of my motivation or thinking around a visible “marketplace” like approach so any idea, modification, or new tool proposal can all be visible all the time, people can contribute ideas, feedback or enthusiasm as they want, and tools can be promoted/selected out of the pool to be taken on – all in public so that people can be finding each other, knowledge in the global network can be shared, the tech itself can be redistributed and modified collectively, etc.

      Really looking forward to having you in this conversation for the long term :)

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  • http://eadvocate.wordpress.org Kendra Kellogg

    Hi Amy,

    The light bulb went on. I think I see what you are proposing. Let me know if I am on the right track.

    When we look at networks such as NTEN, they are collaborative communities dedicated to nonprofit technology as a field. Now your goal is to bring in the development side to nonprofit technology as a field, equally invested as mutual collaborators.

    I am studying virtual communities in class, so we may be digging into similar issues. Here is one suggestion based on successful development collaborations:

    Start with one open-source project/application dedicated to effective and long-term collaboration with nonprofits. Build out your development community, then build out a marketplace or lab.

    The birth of communal open-source collaborations, such as Linux, Android and Mozilla may be a guide. They all started as source code and then shot off into constellations of different applications, add-ons, marketplaces, products and software.

    A Mozilla-type philosophy of development is what nonprofits need to partner up with: http://www.mozilla.org/

    • http://www.amysampleward.org Amy Sample Ward

      Hi Kendra-

      Thanks for the follow up comment; definitely talking the same language now :)

      I think your approach of starting at a place that’s already part of what could be the larger field is true to form to what I’m proposing and thinking. That’s why one of my suggestions was to branch out/build on the work we’ve already started at NetSquared where there’s a global community of people intersecting around technology for social impact: some are the builders, some are the users. But provide a space where they could call for new things in a new way.

      Keep me and the other readers here posted about your class and your thoughts – always welcome!

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  • http://twitter.com/SarahSchacht Sarah Schacht

    Hi Amy,

    Caught this blog post and I think the concerns you bring up are spot-on. I think for me, I’ve grown really frustrated on having to rely on technology companies to reach my audiences.

    Examples:

    Ning, nevermind a fee, makes it difficult to send targeted emails to our Net Tuesday list.

    Facebook makes it a challenge to roll attendees from one event into the invite list for the next. They penalize you for frequent postings or emails.

    I am really, really tired of technology companies being gatekeepers to my own organization’s network.

    I’d really rather have a nonprofit technology co-op where we could pull services from and chip in on, financially and/or with effort. I’m so done with trying to negotiate or ask nicely for great tech tools. I’d rather there be an open source kit that those with little technology skills can piece together their tech tools from resources within a nonprofit catalog.

    I guess it’s a pie-in-the-sky idea, having tech tools that you don’t have to hire expensive developers on, to put in place for you. Kits where you can plug in existing services with ease, where each talks to each other.

    I just want to talk to my people without having to ask permission for how to talk to them. (Cue tiny violin.)

    • http://www.amysampleward.org Amy Sample Ward

      Sarah-

      Thanks so much for joining this conversation! You offer some great, real world examples. I’m curious if you have seen the conversation Hildy has started that is in a similar vein but strikes me that you should see as she uses some of the same words when talking about this issue that you have in your comment. There’s a bit of conversation in this thread, and you can get to some of Hildy’s thinking here:
      http://is.gd/a3Mjn

      Again, thanks so much for joining in here and hopefully we’re on to something we can move forward with!

  • http://networkofcircles.net Bruce Schuman

    Dear People, Dear Amy –

    First, thanks for this interesting and meaningful conversation. Secondly — hello Amy, I saw your introduction on Steven Clift’s “e-democracy.org” mailing list. Because some of us are into some excited expansion and growth, I immediately took a look at this web site, and popped you off a little note (haven’t heard from you — :):):):)

    Then, ten minutes ago, Leo Romero, someone I also met on e-democracy.org, and who is becoming a fascinating co-collaborator, sent me a little email, asking me if I had seen this article. Well, serendipity is just too cool.

    There’s a lot to assimilate in this thread, and I have not read it all, but Sarah says

    I am really, really tired of technology companies being gatekeepers to my own organization’s network.

    I’d really rather have a nonprofit technology co-op where we could pull services from and chip in on, financially and/or with effort. I’m so done with trying to negotiate or ask nicely for great tech tools. I’d rather there be an open source kit that those with little technology skills can piece together their tech tools from resources within a nonprofit catalog.

    I guess it’s a pie-in-the-sky idea, having tech tools that you don’t have to hire expensive developers on, to put in place for you. Kits where you can plug in existing services with ease, where each talks to each other

    Yes, lots of issues in there. For me, this situation was just too clear. I started building my own projects many years ago, and today, am a (self-taught) SQL Server programmer, working with the programming language ColdFusion. SQL Server/ColdFusion is not open source — but it has made it possible for me to build very ambitious integrating projects without the permission or control of big corporations (well, I DO thank all concerned for the Internet, my broadband connection, etc.).

    I think this conversation is very germane to some of the things that are emerging now — including the little design consortium that is emerging among “community organizers” such as myself and Leo Romero.

    I don’t know if the issue is open source — or maybe just a really open and well-defined philosophy of community and collaboration. Listening, sharing, building things that work across boundaries — and maybe, devoutly to be wished, programming platforms — maybe these are keys that can help move us forward into a new era of high-energy collaboration and sharing.

    Big subject, a lot to talk about, thanks for being here,

    Bruce Schuman
    http://purplealliance.us
    http://networkofcircles.net
    http://sharedpurpose.net

    • http://www.amysampleward.org Amy Sample Ward

      Hi Bruce-

      First off – sorry to have missed your message; though, I searched in my email and don’t see anything from you (can you resend?).

      Serendipity is quite cool! Thanks so much for following down the rabbit hole and joining the conversation here.

      I really appreciate you sharing your experience and personal approach to the issue; especially your list at the end of your comment of key elements that should be part of/guide how we work together. I’ve said before that I don’t necessarily think we need to do away with everything that isn’t open source, and I recognize the limits that open source has inherently for people with less access/resources/knowledge/experience – but I do think, along the same lines as you, that there are some core elements to creating better, more sustainable, more community-focused tools that will help us achieve what we want to without investing in tools that disappear, wasting time on platforms we can’t control, and so on.

      I hear you that this is a big can of worms and I’m looking forward to having more of the conversation with you.

      Thanks again for joining in

      • http://networkofcircles.net Bruce Schuman

        Thanks so much for responding, Amy. I do continue to feel that this is a very timely topic. So much in the air — so many things that need a web of enthusiastic and idealistic programmers and designers and integrators looking for ways to get the pieces to work together better…

        Just kind of shooting from the hip — I just feel like mentioning — that a few of us have been working on some kind of programming/organizer collaboration — not exactly clear what it is about yet, because we see the possibilities in many different ways — but there is something about pulling all these fantastic options into one integrated framework — so at least we begin to get a sense of the larger picture…

        I got the feeling — that we are actually going to build this kind of framework. Maybe a little raw — but it might be a way to gather up a whole bunch of stuff. What I would like to do, or see happen — would be the emergence of a network of activists and developers working on “community” kinds of projects — non-profit agencies, anybody working on building better connections in society — plus a big network of coders and programmers and computer-people, who have their fingers on some hot or interesting new aspect or piece of the puzzle.

        There is such a hunger among people for better ways to work together. The possibilities seem fantastic. But we are still somewhat trapped in the programming Tower of Babel — too many systems and languages that don’t talk to each other (very well) — and as Sarah suggested above, too often confined in the rigid categories of some pre-fabricated corporate-controlled framework.

        “If it doesn’t sell to a big market, why build it???”

        Here’s a little quote from James Calder (above), that illustrates one of my ignorant questions about open source…

        The most common problem I have when using open source tools is that, for lack of a more precise explanation, they often “almost” work. For example, its not necessarily that I’m always looking for plugins that don’t exist, but instead I spend a fair amount of time getting plugins to work properly, display exactly how I want them to, have the proper configuration for my site, etc.

        I can’t speak directly from experience — but as a system builder, it often seems to me that “system integrity” is simply essential. Tiny inconsistencies in definition or connectivity between parts — just cause the system to fail. So, I have tended to suppose that complex systems need a demanding kind of architectural supervision to maintain this integrity. I am just guessing — but I tend to suspect that a series of even the most well-intended and skillful programming elements developed independently — might be pretty difficult to pull together. Open source, too, seems to have its “Babel” issues.

        My little thought for this afternoon is — maybe a simple but broadly conceived kind of “gathering” process could begin to pull many of these critical elements together — while forging and refining an underlying “philosophy of community” that can guide the entire project, and attract skilled and excited people from everywhere.

        I’m just sensing a hunger for this — and maybe the capacity to help it emerge…

        • http://www.amysampleward.org Amy Sample Ward

          Hi Bruce-

          Thanks for continuing the conversation here!

          I’m really interested in the collaboration project you mention and wonder if you can give any details about where/how/who – and also how other readers interested in learning more can do so, or get involved.

          I think that your sense that the community at large is looking for something that pulls resources and people together is underlying my post and everyone else’s comments here – we are ready for something, now we just need that “something” :)

  • http://collaborativealliance.us Bruce Schuman

    Good morning, Amy –

    This is all so exciting, and kind of amazing.

    But keeping this simple — I think the message I posted here, and to which you responded, just kind of led to the next step — which was imagineering a new domain domain, and getting that domain, and putting a new project into that framework…

    So — let me just say — that we have a start on something.

    I haven’t even formally announced this project to the group that conceived it — so, you can see how fast this is all moving. But the project exists, it has a framework — and the pieces are starting to work.

    The “Join Us” feature does not work yet — but there is a behind-the-scenes password that will get you in. Maybe you and I can connect privately. I have felt since I saw what you were doing that you are a “natural” for this space. I think you could bring a lot to what we are doing…

    So

    This new project — less than One day old as I write this — is http://collaborativealliance.us

    Collaborative Alliance for Neighborhoods and Community

    I probably would have got the .net extension, but it was not available. “.us” — might mean “USA” — but I want it to mean “us” — as in “we” — the collective…

    Take a look at that place for a minute. It’s just a raw beginning — but once you get signed in — there are a lot of things that do work — and it will grow to contain just about everything people can bring to it.

    It’s exciting, and I hope to see you there.

    http://collaborativealliance.us

    With appreciation –

    Bruce Schuman, Santa Barbara CA USA

    • http://www.amysampleward.org Amy Sample Ward

      Thanks for sharing the links and some context about “Collaborative Alliance” Bruce! I’m reading through it now. I see blog posts about a very diverse topic set – is there a specific direction for the space yet?

      This is quite exciting for sure. Looking forward to it building momentum and seeing what other readers think!

      Thanks again

  • http://collaborativealliance.us Bruce Schuman

    Yes, you are quite right, Amy — the focus of the blog, as I had it in there, was a bit blurry. It’s probably true that politics and community organizing DO have a common ground (Barack Obama, of course, was a “community organizer” — one reason I got excited about him) — but in this context, we got to keep things a little more in focus. I think it’s clearer now — though there is now only one blog post shown.

    I have put more time into that framework — it’s starting to have something (??) like a coherent design and style, and there’s a java “flyout” menu in there now for signed-in people that should open lots of possibilities for complex navigation through a tidy interface.

    This site really is an attempt to combine a kind of broad “survey” of community/neighborhood organizing (asking lots of questions) with a suite of collaboration possibilities that are created when people click similar kinds of responses. So, the site is partly “research” into what is going on — and partly a format to “apply” the connections that emerge.

    The “Join Us” feature does work now, as does most everything else. There’s a lot of growing to do, however — I want to keep pulling in more relevant issues and concepts and questions and categories — while trying to keep the whole thing neat and easy on the eye…

    Thanks for your response, Amy. If you have the time and the inclination, your thoughts and suggestions on this new project would be most welcome and valuable. That goes for anyone else here, as well.

    http://collaborativealliance.us

    - Bruce Schuman, Santa Barbara CA USA

  • http://eadvocate.wordpress.org Kendra Kellogg

    Hi Bruce and Amy,

    I am not sure if the Collaborative Alliance is public. I have been engaged with Amy’s discussion here, so I joined the Alliance to continue the exploration and excitement. If your project was meant to be private, let me know. It is wonderful that you created a gathering ground for the ideas to come alive. Kudos for taking the time and initiative to create the Collaborative Alliance. Exciting!

    • http://www.amysampleward.org Amy Sample Ward

      Hi Kendra-

      I do believe it was meant to be public for a purposeful community – and you are exactly the type of person to join! Glad you did and look forward to more.

  • http://collaborativealliance.us Bruce Schuman

    Yes, thanks so much for checking in over there, Amy and Kendra, much appreciated. This Collaborative Alliance project is very new, and still emerging — but we’re very much a “public” project, and hoping to gather up insights and issues from everywhere across the spectrum where people are working on “community” and “community organizing”.

    There are a lot more pieces of the project we expect to develop, but we’ve got a pretty good start. Here is an invitation and review of what we’re doing, as found on the “Join Us” page — http://collaborativealliance.us/join.cfm

    The Collaborative Alliance is a gathering — a gathering of insights, people, experiences, skills, techniques, tools, visions, hopes — and magic

    This project began as a survey, as we undertook to discover what is going on in the world of community organizing. We started by developing a series of detailed questions, intended to illuminate what is happening in the field today, and to reveal ways that we can more effectively work together.

    Now, only a couple of weeks later, the project is emerging on its own web site, in a different sort of framework — but many elements of this site continue to retain the original spirit of inquiry and discovery.

    We are asking…


    What are you doing? Who are you working with? What do you hope to do? What is your dream or vision? What tools are you using? What principles and purposes guide your work? What are you learning? What works for you?

    These are things we want to know. We are building this project because we are hoping you will tell us — and because we want to connect you with others interested in partnering with you.

    We’re identifying commonalities, surveying existing tools and methods, locating potential partners and projects, and building a big picture of social change activism at local and global scales. And we’re working together to develop solutions to some of the most challenging problems in the world today.

    If you are working in these areas and want to collaborate, or if you are simply interested in what is emerging and want to contribute in some way, you belong here.

    We might simply say — that we are “building a community of community-builders” — and we want to start by finding out who you are and what you’re doing. We think our “matrix” framework will help connect people working in common areas — that we can learn from each other, that we can explore solutions to common problems, that we can all become stronger, at all levels, local, regional, global….

    Many thanks,
    - Bruce Schuman, Santa Barbara CA USA