I spent a few days in November at the Convio Summit in Austin, TX with hundreds of fellow Convio customers and peers. These were my main takeaways from the experience:
1. Managing data is hard. From talking to other groups, I found that everyone struggles with issues of data cleanliness, integration, reporting, and duplicates. The best anyone can hope for is stabilization of systems, processes and guidelines that make up the overall decision support and functional systems. But stable systems require constant vigilance as requirements change, functional systems change, and the reliability of data acquired online and from external vendors is always questionable.
2. Choose functional systems based on functionality not technical reasons. The reason we struggle so much with data integration issues is that we have chosen to use functional systems (e.g. advocacy systems, email marketing, donor database, organizing database, etc.) that best fit the needs of the program not based on some need of the IT department. Having one system that did everything would make data integration much easier, but it's not worth the cost of not having the best systems for the program.
3. Many groups are using Convio's API's now, but few are doing it without consultants (Convio or otherwise). I saw lots of examples of interesting uses of Convio's API's but not many that were implemented solely by a groups internal staffing. This means that the implementation of the API's are too complex for non-profit IT types to understand (not likely), most groups don't have the staffing capacity to implement (more likely), or the ideas for implementing the API's are being generated by the consultants as part of a larger project. We rarely use consultants for this type of project work so I'm curious far we can take sophisticated API implementations before we need outside help. We've done some small-scale work with the single-sign-on, donation, and constituent API's but nothing large-scale yet.
4. Convio is viable and a good company to be invested in. They impressed me with their level of understanding of the non-profit market, their willingness to be open with their technology, road map, and existing faults. They have a corner on the market but realize that non-profit orgs are finicky and willing to jump ship quickly, which means they need to continue to innovate to stay competitive. They are a fairly large company (>250 employees) yet are somehow able to remain agile and flexible. And they listen to their clients. They've certainly heard the masses demand an open platform and are delivering well on their promise to integrate openness into all their product line.
5. Our structure consisting of IT as the technology hub of all online work is the most effective model for a grassroots advocacy- and fundraising-focused organization. I'm probably biased since I help develop this model in Greenpeace, but it is working well for us to have IT as the source of technical support, innovation, and data management for all departments that utilize online tools-for us, Online Fundraising, Online Communications, Campaigns, and Grassroots (online and offline organizing). Having these functions centralized gives us a broader understanding of the entire organization and enables utilize efficiencies of scale when designing and building new tools, analyzing data, or just figuring out out already-built functionality in a product works.