Matthew Latterell

Jul 30, 2008

Online backup for small and medium nonprofits

by Matthew Latterell — last modified Jul 30, 2008 12:00 AM

(Note:  This article needs some updating.  The fundamentals are covered well and have not really changed, but available services have.  I have added a few alternative services at the bottom of this article and will fully update this soon. hn)

A computer backup is like car insurance. You know you need to have it and you hope you never need to use it. Given the critical importance of technology for today’s nonprofits—membership/donor databases, client databases, grant applications, educational and advocacy materials are all created and maintained on computers—it is stunning to me that still many (MANY) small and medium sized nonprofits do not backup their data.

Sure, some do it now and then—the “I should burn that to a CD” approach. Some even have attempted to set up backup schedules and have time set aside each week for staff to backup their critical files. And some (bless their hearts) do backup data to CD or DVD or tape drives on a monthly, weekly or even daily basis.

If there is one thing I’ve learned in twenty years of technology support work it is that any backup strategy that requires human involvement is doomed. People forget. People get distracted. People are lazy. Even server-based backups that run nightly or weekly to tape drives require a human being to take out one tape and put in the next. It is something I usually do for folks when I’m in their office fixing other problems—and it usually hasn’t been done in weeks. And actually testing a backup tape or CD to see if it contains data that can be retrieved? Forget about it.

Of course some organizations do a great job of backing up (and testing) their data. To all of you I offer a huge “thank you!” since you make the work of nonprofit technology support folks that much easier (not to mention make it possible for your organization to go on functioning after the server fails, the office is flooded, the power outage fries the Development Director’s computer, etc.).

To the rest of you, however, I present one of the truly magnificent wonders of the modern world—the automated online backup.

The automated online backup takes the human factor out of the equation—once the service is set up it backs up the data you have selected. It also takes out the “leaving your backup (on CD, tape, etc.) sitting in or next to your computer” factor. So if something really awful were to happen like your computer getting stolen or a disaster like flood or fire were to damage or destroy your office, your backed up data is somewhere far away from the action, needing only an internet connection to get it back.

Online automated backups have become cheap and easy for the simple reasons that (1) hard drives are big and cheap and reliable and (2) fast internet access is affordable and available for most nonprofits in the U.S. Put those two things together and the missing link is just the software running on your computer that backs up your data.

While there are ways to create an automated backup of data to the internet for free (imagine a scheduled task that creates an FTP connection to your organization’s website and copies the contents of specific folders on your computer to a folder on the web server), free solutions won’t necessarily try again if they can’t make a connection, won’t easily recognize that much of your data didn’t change between the last backup and this one and so will copy it all again, and won’t (unless you are deliberate in your approach) back up your data over an encrypted connection.

How much is your donor database worth to you? Or the information you’ve been tracking about your clients? Or that grant application you are almost finished writing? I’d imagine quite a bit. So, just as you buy insurance for your car and for your own health, invest in your data. And if the very existence of automated online backups isn’t already making you giddy, the fact that these services are actually affordable (most are in the $50-$100/year range) should have you jumping up and down.

Excited? The following is an alphabetical list of five services that fit the backup (and budget) needs of most small and medium-sized nonprofits. Some I’ve used, some I’ve tested, some are in use by one or more of our clients. All are far better at backing up your data than most forgetful, distracted or lazy humans—at least the ones I know.

 

Carbonite

Carbonite is a Windows-only (Mac edition is supposed to be available mid-2008) automated backup service. Only one computer can be backed up with a single Carbonite account although you can transfer that license to a different computer (useful if you need to do a complete restore from one computer to another). Carbonite does not offer any web-based backup or restore services—access to backed up data requires use of the Carbonite software. Carbonite costs $49.95/year with better pricing for two and three year service plans.

 

iDrive

iDrive offers desktop-based automated backup for both Windows and Macintosh. iDrive offers 2GB of free automated backup as well as iDrive Pro Personal (up to 150GB for $49.50/year) and Business (50GB for 99.50/year up to 500GB for 499.50/year) versions. Only one computer can be backed up with a single iDrive account. The iDrive service can also be accessed via the iDrive website. Through the iDrive website you can view backed up files as well as restore those files to any computer.

 

Jungle Disk

Jungle Disk is operated by Amazon and provides support for Windows, Macintosh and Linux computers. Unlike the other services included here, Jungle Disk charges for the amount of data stored and transferred. 10GB of stored data with about 3GB of new/changed data backed up monthly is roughly $2/month. Jungle Disk is an affordable option for use on multiple computers as well, since a single account can be used for as many computers as desired. A one-time $20 purchase of the Jungle Disk Desktop Edition software is also required for full functionality. Jungle Disk offers desktop clients for Windows, Macintosh and Linux. Jungle Disk can function as both an automated backup solution as well as a network drive, meaning organizations can also use Jungle Disk as a shared “server” environment, although the costs for this usage will be more since files will be transferred (opened and closed) frequently. Complete pricing is available at http://www.jungledisk.com/desktop/pricing.aspx.

 

Mozy

Mozy offers a number of different automated backup services including Mozy Home, Mozy Pro and Mozy Enterprise. Mozy Home has desktop clients for both Windows and Macintosh and is priced at $4.95/month for unlimited backup for one computer. Mozy Pro is $3.95/month plus $.50 for every gigabyte of stored data. Mozy Enterprise is essentially the same as Mozy Pro but offers more support options. Mozy Home can be used for free for backing up up to 2GB of data. Mozy can be configured to automatically backup new/changed data as often as twelve times a day but Mozy will only start a backup when your computer has been idle for a period of time that you can adjust, which means if your computer isn’t idle for that long it won’t back up changed data. Alternatively you can set Mozy to do a scheduled backup daily or weekly at a designated time. Mozy offers web-based restore services and will also burn the restored data to DVDs and send them overnight via FedEx for an additional fee.

 

Xdrive

Xdrive is currently a service of AOL, although AOL recently announced that they are planning on selling the service or, if they cannot find a buyer, shutting it down by the end of 2008. Xdrive provides automated backup services for Windows computers through the Xdrive Desktop application. It provides limited flexibility over what folders you can backup but instead bases the backup on file types—you can backup all Word files, for example. You can have it monitor and “Auto Copy” changes to your My Pictures, My Music and My Videos folders, but otherwise backups can only be scheduled weekly.

 

 

 

Carbonite

iDrive

Jungle Disk

Mozy

xDrive

 

 

 

 

 

 

Cost

$49.95/year for unlimited backup for 1 computer

$4.95/month or $49.50/year for up to 150GB of data for Personal accounts or $99.50/year for up to 50GB of data for Business accounts;

Based on storage and data transfer volumes. 10GB of storage is $1.77/month. Jungle Disk Desktop Edition software $20.

$4.95/month for unlimited backup for 1 computer.

50GB of storage for $99.50/year

Free Version?

Free 15-day trial.

Free for up to 2GB of data.

30-day trial.

Mozy Home Free offers 2GB of data backup.

Free for up to 5GB of data.

Platform

Windows; Mac client expected soon (although they have been saying that for a while now)

Windows and Mac

Windows, Mac, Linux

Windows and Mac

Desktop application for Windows; web-based backup/recovery for Macintosh.

Web-based Options

You can log in to the Carbonite website to install the software to a different computer and transfer the license. No direct web-based backup or restore options.

Web-based logon allows access to and recovery of data to any computer.

Available with Jungle Disk Plus for an extra $1/month.

Web-based logon allows access to and recovery of data to any computer. Restored files are queued and Mozy send an email when they are ready for download. Mozy will also backup to DVD and send the DVD via FedEx.

Provides Xdrive Web to retrieve backed up files from another computer.

Number of Computers

One

One

Unlimited

One

One

Security

Yes, encrypted transfer.

Yes, encrypted transfer.

Yes, encrypted transfer.

Yes, encrypted transfer.

Yes, encrypted transfer.

Backup Frequency

Carbonite will back up changed/new data every 15 minutes or less, or you can schedule a daily backup routine.

Backs up changed/new data every 10 minutes or can be scheduled by user.

Manual backups, 5 minute, 15 minute, 1 hour, 6 hour, daily and weekly intervals.

You can set the frequency

Scheduled backups can be made weekly, nothing more frequent. Can use Auto Copy to back up an changed/new files in My Pictures, My Videos and My Music.

Recovery Options

Integrated Restore feature with desktop software.

Integrated Restore feature with desktop software; Java client for restore to any computer via web-based connection.

Integrated Restore feature with Desktop Edition software.

Integrated Restore feature with Desktop software.

Integrated Restore feature with Desktop software.

Restore Previous Versions

Available, can restore up to 3 months of previous versions of any backed up file.

Available, can restore up to last 30 versions of any backed up file.

Available and can be configured by user.

Yes by backup set date.

xDrive does not support the recovery of previously backed up versions.

 

 

Notes on Backup Services


For any online backup service the first backup will take a long time, often several days depending on the amount of data to be backed up. After the initial complete backup only new or changed files in the designated folders will be backed up and will go much more quickly.

Some of these services—Jungle Disk in particular—can also be used as a shared drive that appears as an additional drive on your computer. This, in combination with web-based access to files, can make these online backup solutions work for file sharing within organizations, especially for organizations with staff based in different locations.

Automated online backup can be used with individual desktops and laptops as well as dedicated file servers—even those running server software. Organizations that have file servers and store most or all of their organizational data there can simply install one of these online backup services to the server and configure it to back up the data stored on the server rather than buying multiple licenses for the online backup service and backing up individual machines. Automated online backup of server-based data can take the place of onsite backup options like tape or external drives or can provide redundancy and peace of mind knowing that you now have another layer of protection in the event of data loss or worse.

 

Conclusions


If you aren’t using an online automated backup service already, you should be. The five services included above vary in pricing and features but one will most likely meet your needs. Once properly configured they effectively remove the biggest point of failure with backups—human beings. Get rid of the stress over not knowing if your data is being backed up, get rid of the guilt that comes when your IT consultant or Board member asks if you are backing up your data and set up an automated online backup for your data. Do it now. Thank you.

Some Additional Alternatives

  • Dropbox - Dropbox.com
  • SafeSync - trendmicro.com/SafeSync
  • SkyDrive - SkyDrive.com

 

Jan 30, 2008

Green IT: Minimizing the Environmental Footprint of Your Technology Systems

by Matthew Latterell — last modified Jan 30, 2008 12:00 AM
Filed Under:

Folks have finally awakened to the reality of climate change. While many are worried that it all will still be "too little, too late", there is exciting momentum building in all sorts of areas--from renewable energy technologies (from big to small, my favorite one right now a "microwind energy generator"), to a renewed examination of food production and consumption, resource conservation in buildings, transportation options and much, much more.

All this is enough to make an "ecogeek" like myself giddy.

What is really exciting in this latest wave of concern and action is that there is a tangible connection between the local and global aspects of the decisions we make. I've been inspired by activists in cities and countries that are not only making commitments to change, but actually making progress.

A significant source of energy consumption--and one that individuals, nonprofits and businesses can directly impact--is computer usage. If you assume that the typical desktop computer draws about 100 watts of power and you run that every day (even leaving the computer in "idle" mode at night and on the weekends uses power), the environmental and financial costs of an individual computer quickly adds up--to the tune of $100 a year or more, and that doesn't include a monitor, printer or other peripherals, or any of the other computers in a typical nonprofit office. As energy costs rise, Google projects that it will soon cost more to power a computer for four years than it does to buy a new one.

Computer usage in the broadest terms includes the basics: things like desktops with monitors, keyboards and mice, laptops, printers, copiers, etc. It includes network switches, routers, modems and wiring. And, importantly, it includes servers--servers in the office that share files and data, servers managed by others that host websites, databases, web-based applications, email and more.


Minimize Energy Consumption, Maximize Performance

Central to the quest to "green" our information technology is finding the balance between low energy use and high performance. Better, probably, to say "appropriate" performance. A server, or a workstation for someone crunching a lot of data or doing a lot of graphical work--these should be machines up to the task. A workstation for someone doing basic office work like email, web browsing, word processing etc. doesn't have to be a top of the line system. The good news is that there are many ways to squeeze both noticeable energy savings and performance out of both types of systems.


Paying Attention to the Complete Lifecycle of your Computers

As we consider minimizing energy consumption and the environmental impact of our computer systems, we need to look "cradle to grave". How, and with what materials, are computers constructed? How do we use the computers to minimize energy consumption and maximize longevity? And, when the time comes, how do we appropriately "dispose" (reuse/recycle) of our computer systems?


Help Making Sense of it All

Fortunately, there are emerging systems to guide us through purchasing decisions that take the environmental "footprint" of computer systems into account. The "Electronic Product Environmental Assessment Tool", or EPEAT, is certainly the easiest and most comprehensive tool that takes into account the environmental impacts of the manufacturing, use and disposal of computer systems.

Energy Star, a joint program of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Department of Energy, offers verification of Energy Star qualified office technology. Energy Star certification covers more products than EPEAT but only looks at the energy consumption of technology during its "useful life" and does not evaluate the environmental and energy consumption issues during manufacturing or disposal. The Energy Star standards for computers were revised in July of 2007 (now version 4.0). EPEAT is requiring Energy Star 4.0 compliance for any products certified after July 20, 2007, but will keep products that met Energy Star 3.0 certification prior to July 20, 2007 in their database until January of 2008, after which time only Energy Star 4.0 certified systems will be included in the EPEAT database.

In Europe, the Eco-label program certifies a variety of products including computer equipment. The Eco-label program essentially merges the energy savings focus of Energy Star with the lifecycle analysis of EPEAT in one program.


Manufacturing/Fabrication

How a computer is constructed and what pieces go into the system are critical. EPEAT looks at the reduction and/or elimination of environmentally sensitive materials such as cadmium, lead, mercury, PVC, and other chemicals and metals. It also rates computers on the percentage of post-consumer recycled plastics as well as bio-based plastic materials used in the construction of computer components and how computers are packaged for delivery/sale (minimization of packaging and use of recycled content and ease of recycling packaging materials). EPEAT also rates the simplicity of upgrading and/or replacing components to help extend the useful life of computer systems.


Disposal/End-of-Life

How long can a working computer remain useful? Once it eventually needs replacing, how easily can it be recycled? In addition to criteria governing how easy it is to upgrade and repair a system, computers certified under EPEAT must have the option for an additional three-year warranty or service agreement, meaning that the possible life span of an EPEAT certified computer needs to be at least six years. Once a computer has reached its useful end of life, EPEAT ranks systems on how easy it is to disassemble the computer and what percentage of the materials are reusable or recyclable.

If a computer can still be useful to someone, maybe just not your organization, reuse is the first course of action. TechSoup maintains a list of organizations that accept computer donations, and is a good first place to look. If the computer cannot be reused, recycle the system. Many cities and counties are beginning to offer residential curbside electronics recycling and electronics recycling companies will often pick up equipment for recycling if there is sufficient volume. Computer vendors like Dell, Lenovo, HP, Apple and others offer mail back programs for unwanted equipment. Office Depot recently launched a national program that, for between $5 and $15 you can purchase shipping boxes of various sizes and Office Depot will recycle all the equipment that fits in the box.  Other companies have sprung up that will also pay you for your old equipment such as O2 and Gazelle.


Use it, Don't Abuse It

Sure, buying an EPEAT Gold or Energy Star 4.0 certified computer will take you far towards minimizing the environmental footprint of that computer system. How we use our computers, though, is also critical in addressing the energy consumption issue.

The majority of energy consumed by our computers happens when they are idling. Estimates suggest that up to 85% of the energy used up by computers occurs when we are away from the machine--at lunch, at meetings or simply not at the office. There are two simple solutions to dealing with this:

1. Turn it off!

For a while, a great debate waged as to the benefits of turning a computer off when leaving work at night as opposed to leaving it on. Would turning it off wear out the moving parts? At some point in the past, the answer probably was "yes" or at least "maybe." But advances in drive technology and the reduction of physically moving mechanical parts in computers has disposed of this argument. If this is still your concern, lay it to rest and shut down your computer before you leave.

A second reason why computers are often left on at night is to allow for scheduled data backups or other maintenance. If this is how your systems run now, consider changing how your data is backed up. For offices with multiple computers, central data storage (servers, shared drives) is a better solution for back up and file storage in general. Let these machines handle your data and back up requirements so other systems can be turned off.

For offices with one to three machines that do not need to share data in this way, individual backups can be done to CD, DVD, external drives or online services. These backups can often be set up to be done incrementally so, after a baseline backup is done, only files that have changed are backed up each time. In the case of many online backups, these backups are often done throughout the day, meaning that the file you created 15 minutes ago is probably already backed up. If backing up to CD, DVD or other local storage, schedule automatic backups for over a lunch hour or during routinely scheduled staff meetings.

In the initial example of a computer using 100 watts of power running 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, energy consumption would cost approximately $100 a year. Running the same computer only 8 hours a day drops the cost by two thirds to approximately $33 a year--and the cost would drop even more if the computer is off for entire weekends as well. Turning off any technology when it isn't in use is the single easiest thing any individual or organization can do to conserve the energy used by these machines.

2. Give it a Rest!

Turning off your computer at night, over the weekend or during times when you will be away from it for an hour or more can have a huge impact on energy consumption. When turning your computer off isn't an option, make sure it is at least taking advantage of whatever "sleep mode" functionality it has. Putting a computer into sleep mode basically shuts or slows down computer components like the monitor and hard drive, helping the computer use less power. To check your computer's available power management settings, check the following:

On a Macintosh:

 

  1. From any application select the Apple menu
  2. Select "System Preferences..." (OS X) or "Control Panels" (OS 9) and then click on "Energy Saver"

 

On a Windows-based computer:

 

  1. Point your cursor at the desktop background and right-click
  2. Choose "Properties" from the pop up menu
  3. Go to the "Screen Saver" page; in the lower right-hand corner near the ENERGY STAR® logo click the "Settings" or "Power" button. This brings up another dialog box where you choose power management settings.

 

From these screens, you can set when the monitor is turned off, when the hard drive spins down and when the computer will go in to "system standby" or "sleep mode". Generally, turning an unused computer monitor or hard drive off after 10 or 15 minutes and sending a computer into standby or sleep mode after 30 minutes is a reasonable rule of thumb. These settings will minimize power use but also make it so your computer will wake up quickly when you return from that meeting or meal. These and other recommendations regarding turning off and using standby settings can be found in the Green Computing Guide from the University of Colorado at Boulder.


Other Usage Recommendations/Considerations

In addition to buying EPEAT and Energy Star certified computers, turning them off when not in use and taking advantage of power-saving features at other times, other basic practices can further decrease the environmental and financial costs of your computer systems:

  • Printers, scanners, copiers and other peripherals? Unless there are important reasons to leave these on (we've had experience with some color printers, for example, that consume a lot of ink during start up), turn them off at the end of the day and leave them off until you need them. Otherwise, if they have a low-power mode, make sure it is enabled.
  • When making purchasing decisions, also consider how "powerful" a computer you need now and for the next several years. And don't only look at the one computer that needs to be replaced. Would replacing a different computer in the office with a new machine and using that hand-me-down at the first location be possible?
  • Could a laptop be a replacement for an aging destkop? Laptops by their very nature consume far less power than a desktop and offer other benefits to the user and organization.
  • Wired vs. wireless? In new office space it is tempting to consider a completely wireless solution to connect computers to office networks and the internet. Wireless requires less material (far less copper or fiber since there is little network cabling needed) and will potentially use less power although wireless routers and access points could add up to the same amount of power used as network switches. The performance trade-offs, however, between wireless and wired could easily tip the balance in favor of building out a wired network. The more users on a wireless network, the slower it is likely to be.

 
Servers, Websites and More

Many nonprofit offices have one or more servers managing file sharing, backups, database access, email, website or more. These machines tend to be high on the energy consumption scale, employing multiple hard drives, power supplies, fans and more. As the energy efficiency of individual computer components continues to improve, the energy costs of these computers will probably go down, although this will likely be overshadowed by rising energy prices.

Except for an organization that is managing its email, website and other systems on in-house servers, every nonprofit is using a hosted server for one or more critical services--web, email, database, etc. When the energy and support costs are factored in, maintaining in-house servers can easily be a big cost center for an organization although these costs are certainly justified for many groups. One way to quickly size up the energy costs of your servers or any equipment is to plug in a nifty product called a Kill-a-Watt energy monitoring device that will tell you exactly how much electricity a particular electronic gadget uses and how much it costs to run that gadget each year. Add up all those costs and moving email, web hosting, backup and other services to an outside provider could make financial and organizational sense.

But does it make sense from an energy conservation standpoint? Data centers--huge facilities with hundreds or thousands of servers, power supplies, back up power supplies and more--use enormous amounts of energy. While improvements in power management and the energy conservation of server components will continue to improve, there is a reason companies like Google, Microsoft and Yahoo are building new data centers in places like Eastern Oregon and Washington that offer access to relatively reliable hydro-power (supplemented by growing wind farms). Still, recent reports, like one from IT analyst firm IDC, suggests that at least for larger organizations, using outsourced, data center-based services makes financial and environmental sense. And, with energy costs going up, it makes financial sense for the companies to get every ounce of efficiency from their data centers.


Green Data Centers?

While there are currently no EPEAT or Energy Star ratings for hosting services and data centers, many green or at least "greenish" services exist. Hosting companies and data centers are taking on initiatives to improve the efficiency of cooling systems and manage the power consumption of servers, tapping directly into renewable power systems, buying green energy credits from utilities or purchasing "carbon offset credits" to mitigate their environmental impact.

If your server requirements are such that a green data center or hosting company isn't an option, purchasing green energy or carbon offset credits for your organization/office is another option. While going with a company that purchases these credits or buying your own through your utility or a third-party isn't the same as actually using green energy to power your computer systems, it is the next best thing.


Go Forth and Conserve

The best and easiest strategies to reducing the environmental footprint of your computer systems are to:

  • purchase EPEAT Gold certified computers and Energy Star 4.0 certified peripherals that are appropriate to your organization's needs,
  • turn them off when not in use, and
  • set up energy conserving power management settings when the machines are idling.

With continued advances in energy conservation technologies for computer systems, newer desktops, laptops and peripherals will certainly consume less power than current models. Of course, this doesn't mean you should run out and replace perfectly good systems now. Taking in to account manufacturing and disposal issues, it is probably better to adjust how and when existing computers are used rather than simply upgrading. So when the time comes, feel good about selecting a new system that meets EPEAT and Energy Star certification.

Consider the impact of your servers and hosting environment as well. Just because they are "somewhere else" doesn't mean they don't need to be an important part of your energy conservation.

The research group Gartner Inc. recently released a report which put "Green IT [at the top of] the list of strategic technologies that companies should consider in their planning processes" for 2008. This is just as true for nonprofit organizations. As we look to maintain or increase our effectiveness and efficiency, we need to be making decisions with long-term impact. Integrating and implementing a green IT strategy is an easy way we can all influence the financial health of our organizations and, more importantly, the ecological health of our communities and the world.

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In addition to the links provided above, I have collected a number of "Green IT" resources which can be found here: http://del.icio.us/mlattere/greenIT. You can also click on that link to subscribe to the RSS feed of this growing list of resources.

Oct 20, 2007

How RSS Feeds Changed My Life--for the Better?

by Matthew Latterell — last modified Oct 20, 2007 12:00 AM
Filed Under:

So much information, so little time. At least it seemed that way, before I fell in love with RSS. RSS (Really Simple Syndication) is a method that allows information on the web to be collected--by a keyword, a tag, a type of content, a content author, etc.--and then made available to anyone who wants it. Some content is collected by the publisher. Want to get the latest Science and Technology headlines from Google News? Go to http://news.google.com, click on the Sci/Tech link and then click the RSS link. Not specific enough? Create your own feed based on a Google News search. Instead of just "Science and Technology" maybe I want to see articles on "Green Technology" so I can search on that and click on the RSS link to access that feed.

Wait--a what? A feed?

Sorry. Let me back up. RSS has been around for a while, but the every day use of it by common folk (that would be most anyone who isn't a proudly self-identified "geek") has languished due to a lack of easy software to collect and read RSS feeds. What is the point of creating or promoting RSS feeds if no one out there is listening?

But with the ability to subscribe to feeds through Internet Explorer 7.0, the Firefox web browser, Microsoft Outlook 2007, Mozilla's Thunderbird email software and a host of web-based and free RSS reader applications like Google ReaderRssReader, FeedReader and more, investing in RSS finally makes sense.

How can/should nonprofit organizations use RSS? RSS, essentially, is a way for you to allow members, constituents, peers--anyone really--to get timely information from your organization delivered to them quickly and easily. A 2006 article by Phil Shapiro, explains:

"As an example, RSS feeds can be used by a nonprofit organization to distribute different kinds of information to different people. One RSS feed could be the organization's calendar of events or classes. Another could be a call for volunteers. A third feed might be information for funders. The more feeds an organization offers, the more narrowly tailored the information delivered to people served by that organization or supporting that organization."

How do you go about creating an RSS feed? Well, there are at least three answers to that and it mostly depends, for lack of a better term, on software. 

First, if your website is using one of many "content management systems" to manage site information, RSS is very likely already available. This means that you can create RSS feeds for things like calendar items, news and press releases, articles on a certain topic and more. Plone, the content management system we use, for example, offers an RSS feed on the built-in News and Events pages, as well as any "Smart Folder" (basically a page built to display certain site content based on keywords or other criteria). Additionally, any search that a visitor makes on the site is also instantly available as an RSS feed. In this way RSS can be used by both the content publisher to promote certain content (your latest news) as well as by the content reader to make it easy to track new content from your site specific to his or her interests.

The second way to create RSS feeds is to start using software that supports RSS. Basically, start using third party tools that offer feeds. Blogging tools, video sharing services, photo sharing services, news services and others almost all offer RSS feeds. Upload your videos to YouTube (or one of several other video sharing services) and create a custom RSS feed of them and promote that on your site. Use Flickr to do the same with your photos. Use Google News or Yahoo News to create a search about your organization or issues that interest you and your constituents and publish that feed to your website. And by publish to your website, I mean you can literally display that content on your website using other third party tools/services (widgets, they are called these days), as well as sharing the link to the feed so your constituents can have that content essentially "beamed" to them on regular intervals--the same way that email is delivered to their inbox.

The third way to create RSS feeds from your website is to use a third party service that creates RSS feeds to do the work for you. These services often charge for this, but if you don't want to figure out how to write the code to generate RSS feeds or you don't want to use other tools that already offer RSS feeds, then a third party service might be the way to go, like FeedYes, PonyFish and others. More information on this approach, as well as software that can be used to build feeds for use on your website, can be found in the recent TechSoup article, "Easy Ways to Publish Your Own RSS Feeds."

The upside of creating RSS feeds (of your own content or content of interest to your constituents) is you instantly have a new fantastic way to "push" content to your constituents, including both the content you want them to get as well as content they are specifically interested in receiving.

This is why I ultimately fell in love with RSS. Because there really is just so much information out there. And despite the fact that I said I'd visit those websites on a regular basis, I don't. And email lists, even if they are grouped around a topic, don't hold my interest with every post.

With RSS, though, I can select exactly what information I want to get. So if I want to know what my peers are thinking about and learning, I can subscribe to their blog feeds. If I want to keep up on the latest environmental news on a specific topic, I can find a feed dedicated to that or I can make my own. I have, essentially, filtered the abundance of information on the web into my own personal information delivery service.

My fear, initially, was that by filtering this way I'd miss things, I'd shut off areas of information. Instead, the opposite has happened. Feeds I've subscribed to have led me to subscribe to other feeds--sometimes similar, sometimes not. Feeds from organizations I care about have gotten me more involved in their issues and their work, not less. And I am much more knowledgeable on things I care about and can act on those issues more quickly because of how fast and easy it is to get to the information.

I think that is the take-away message here for nonprofits as well. Sure, your nonprofit can (and should) be using RSS to keep up on issues and organizations by subscribing to feeds using your browser, email software or RSS reader, making you more effective in your work. More than that, though, RSS has huge potential to instantly share information with your constituents just by publishing it to your website, whether they visit your site or not. It also allows folks to tailor information from you to suit their interests, and that is fantastic. And it allows you to pull information from other sites and services (the latest YouTube videos on your issues, the latest news on your issues from the 4500 news feeds tracked by Google News) onto your website, making your site that much more relevant. The problem with the Web is that there is just so much of it, and every nonprofit is competing for keystrokes and eyeballs against all that other content.

So much information, so little time. Make the most of it--start using RSS.

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In addition to the links provided above, here are a few other resources to get you going:

Easy Ways to Publish Your Own RSS Feeds

http://techsoup.org/learningcenter/internet/page5820.cfm

 

 

Why Nonprofit Managers Must Use RSS — And How to Start http://techsoup.org/learningcenter/internet/page7325.cfm

 

 

Make your nonprofit more effective with RSS aggregation http://www.socialsignal.com/nonprofit-RSS

 

 

How to Create RSS Feeds for Your Organization http://marshallk.com/how-to-create-rss-feeds-for-your-organization

Oct 17, 2007

Mediation Works: An IT Success Story from Southern Oregon

by Matthew Latterell — last modified Oct 17, 2007 12:00 AM
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Mediation Works, based in Medford, Oregon, teaches conflict resolution skills and offers mediation services. Mediation Works supports individuals and organizations to help them resolve differences peacefully, building understanding and respect within families, organizations and communities in Southern Oregon.

netCorps’ relationship with Mediation Works began in the Fall of 2003. Picture a situation where everything is much harder than it needs to be and the technology in use is only making things worse. Computers weren’t networked. Users ran between machines to find information. Each computer ran different versions of software, so sharing documents was difficult. Because information was spread around it was impossible to back up. The whole office shared one email account so the office manager printed everyone’s emails and put them on their desks. The donated phone system was not fully functional. Plus there was only one voicemail box for the entire organization so no one could easily get messages. There was no database of constituents. Instead, each person had their own Excel sheet on their own computer with their own contacts. It was a situation generously described as “frustrating”.

Fortunately, Mediation Works’ Executive Director took these challenges and turned them in to an opportunity to think long-term about the strengths, health and goals of the organization. Fast forward four years and Mediation Works is an organization with tools and infrastructure that have helped grow fundraising and programs, encouraged staff retention, increased efficiency and let staff focus on their work rather than struggle to get their work done.

But that is jumping too far ahead. The starting point was a netCorps technology assessment.  Jenny Council had just started providing netCorps’ services in a new Southern Oregon program.  Mediation Works was one of her first clients.  “The technology assessment process,” explains Jenny “is a real opportunity for nonprofits to think big, to articulate their administrative, financial and programmatic goals and design a technology plan that will move them forward towards those goals … and of course also to vent about their awful computers.”

The assessment is done using individual staff interviews, inventory of the organization’s hardware, software, and skills; and analyzing current information management systems, strategic plans, programs and goals.

From this information we craft a detailed technology assessment report that outlines specific technology projects that could help the organization meet its strategic goals. For Mediation Works this meant:

-          improved efficiency through upgraded, networked and standardized computers;

-          improved communication made possible by a better phone system, centralizing electronic data and setting up email for all staff;

-          increased fundraising with the help of a central donor database system designed for expansion down the road;

-          improved reliability of infrastructure through regular backups, more control over what sort of technology donations the organization accepted and the adoption of a proactive approach to computer upgrades and replacements.

The outcomes have been a doubling in fundraising from events, the development of a workplace-giving campaign that has grown into $28,000 in annual income, better marketing of programs, enhanced communication with the Board, improved efficiency (and decreased frustration!) of staff and in infrastructure with the capacity to support Mediation Works’ impressive growth of programs and increased impact on the local community.

All because of improvements in their technology systems? Of course not, but, explains Mary Miller, Mediation Works’ Executive Director, “this is what we’ve been able to do so far with the right infrastructure, the right tools and the right support. There is no way we could have done the fundraising work with the Board without this new database. It supports our annual event, our volunteer management and a lot more.” And, according to Mary, what has made their investments around technology over the last three years has a lot to do with…vision. “It’s not about just bringing in any tech consultant and pointing at a computer that isn’t working and saying ‘fix it.’ It’s about having a consultant with vision, one who really understands our vision for our organization, who understands our culture, our language, our funding needs, our structures—who understands nonprofits. And it’s about having a consultant who has the breadth of hardware and software skills to evaluation technology needs in the context of our organization.”

Jenny is proud of all that Mediation Works has accomplished in the last few years, and the way in which they embraced and moved forward with the technology plan piece by piece. “Once nonprofits see that investing in systems really can provide a concrete pay back, that it helps them reach their goals, it is hard to stop wanting to make that investment. Mediation Works is now ready to take the next step in their development database and their communication technology to help with education, marketing and fundraising. Keeping Mediation Works’ vision at the center of what can sometimes be an otherwise dry technology planning process is key to our approach. It is that vision that informs our work and makes their success possible.”