It's a Cloudy Day

Har... I'm talking about cloud computing. The first session I'm attending is "Is Your Organization Working in the Clouds?" by Cathleen Parsons-Nikolic. I'm always a little wary of "trend" presentations, but so far, so good.

Cathleen's university is on Salesforce, a database I would certainly take a hard look at were I considering a conversion. One of the benefits of cloud computing cited by Cathleen is that software upgrades and patches are handled by the software provider. This certainly sounds lovely, as this is one of the biggest pains associated with maintaining our database. This is a really crucial distinction that I did not understand about cloud computing -- our database is web-based, but it's not cloud computing, because we are still housing the data on on-site servers.

One resosurce that Cathleen mentioned as an example is Spideroak, which is like Dropbox, but with encryption. This could be promising, as security is one of the biggest challenges for using cloud computing in the world of fundraising.

Other concerns are privacy (distinguished from security, which is more about cyber-attacks, whereas privacy is more around ownership of the data); reliability (no Internet = no data); and usability (e.g., lack of customization options).

Most universities and other fundraising organizations are primarily using cloud computing in the realm of social networks. Cathleen mentioned the biggest concern non-profits tend to have: "What if people say bad things about us?" Well, they will anyway! So you might as well join the conversation.

One attendee asked how to get "buy-in" from management to make the shift to cloud computing. Cathleen's answer: "It's about the money." When Temple University switched from an in-house email solution to Google mail, they saved $2 million. Portland State is making the same switch right now, and everyone is excited about the possibilties. We have already made the switch to Google calendar and are considering all kinds of applications for it -- like exporting a list of communications and solicitations from our database, and importing them into a calendar so that everyone on our fundraising team can easily see the data.

Cathleen also talked about the ability to shift staffing resources from maintaining servers and upgrading database versions to actually creating innovations. is a good source for comparing various constituent relationship management solutions. This is one of the number 1 questions I get asked by development colleagues, particularly those at smaller non-profits. I'm looking forward to checking this out.

Cathleen's university, Villanova, uses Banner as their underlying database of record, with Salesforce layered on top. This is an interesting model. They use reporting tools with Banner to do their analytics and reporting.

I am surprisingly pleased with this presentation. I'd seen Cathleen present before, so I knew she was a good speaker, but as I said at the beginning, I'm usually nervous about trend presentations. This one's given me a lot of food for thought. I don't anticipate us doing any sort of database conversion any time soon, but it's helpful to see The Future (read in movie preview guy voice).

The conversation has turned to "researching in the clouds," including reviewing social media content (e.g. Linked in), direct connections between your CRM and electronic screening (it appears that Wealth Engine is at the forefront of this -- our database, Agilon's ONE, has a direct link to Wealth Engine, which is quite nice), and electronically-generated profiles (I saw Rob Scott from MIT present on this about 3 years ago, in a presentation titled "Killing Me Softly: The Death of the Profile," or something along those lines. At that time, that seemed like a crazy concept, and now I think is becoming the norm).

Cathleen is talking about the balance between openness and privacy. She was not entirely comfortable with having contact reports, financial ratings and giving data available, as this is highly-sensitive data, and faculty members and other non-development staff have access to the database. Ultimately, their organization decided to import the data to Salesforce, and bring non-development staff in as partners in the process, of course with signed confidentiality agreements.

Some other implications of CRM are implementation issues (focus on goals, not tech; getting buy-in; put constituents first); data quality issues will become more apparent and pressing, especially if you do distributed data entry or have multiple entry points for new records; and the need for strong confidentiality policies.