lists, nptech, Social Entrepreneurship

Top 10 Things You Need to Know as a Nonprofit Web 2.0 Entrepreneur

It’s clear that code + philanthropy is a Good Thing. I’ve been asked many times to help someone evaluate their new start-up nonprofit idea. I’m MORE than happy to do this. However, if all you’re doing is a YASN (Yet Another Social Network), you’re instantly going to see my attention wander. Folks, learn something about computer science and statistical analysis before you start your venture. I see very little honest-to-goodness intellectual work being performed in many nonprofit startups and it’s become very distressing to me. Please, do not make the same mistake of starting some Web resource that’s already being duplicated elsewhere. Make sure you really have something unique. Besides, the problem of a YASN, there’s also the YADONR (Yet Another Directory of Nonprofit Resources). YASNs and YADONRs, begone with ye!!!

I’ve decided to give people some heavily opinionated, hardcore and hard-won tech advice about what it is they ought to do. To wit, I’m writing down a list of technologies and ideas that I think are incredibly important in our space. If you don’t know how to program or don’t have a background in statistical analysis, I suggest you read the Wikipedia articles for these technologies. If you notice, I include both “hard” and “soft” skills as things to learn. So here’s the top 10 list of things you need to know as a nonprofit web 2.0 entrepreneur:

1. Learn about the Borda count and the Condorcet voting method

I’m leaving it to the smart programmer to figure out what this technology means. Hint: it’s about crowdsourcing.

2. Learn about decision, preference and prediction markets.

Hint: this is also about crowdsourcing.

3. Learn about ratings systems and why Bayesian filters are important

Hint: this is also about crowdsourcing.

4. Learn about Markov decision chains

Hint: this is another kind of ranking system

5. Find out who Stamen Design is

Great designers have the capacity to turn your work from a mess of potage into gold. I love these guys. I wish I could hire them. There’s a gleam in my eye that says… “someday”.

6. Take a look at what JiveSoftware and are doing

Great software, great ideas but it’s clear they haven’t read anything about tips 1-4. That said, you could graft those techs onto these systems and come up with something incredibly great for nonprofits.

7. Learn about Rails and what it can do to instantly build an API for you

I do not care if all you know is PHP. Boohoo for you. There’s this thing — it’s called the Intarweb – use it.

8. Learn about agile software development

Yes, yes, I know there are some people who are hooked on waterfall (if you don’t know what I’m talking about — go read Steve McConnell’s Rapid Development. It’s a great book but dated. And yes, Virginia, you can develop in PHP and still be agile. It’s not a Rails-only technology.

9. Learn how to network (in meatspace)

Don’t be a dork like me and forget your business cards. Be somewhat presentable (don’t smell bad, wear matching socks). Say, “Excuse me” and “Please” (just like your momma told you). Feel free to admit your nervousness when meeting people (“OMG, you’re Beth Kanter!!!”). Don’t be a jerk. Remember people’s first names if you can. Always think about what you can do for people. People are not URLs that you can simply scan and move on to the next one (although I admit that’s one of my major follies). Always look at people’s business cards when you get them. Try to show up on time and try not to be the last one at an event if you can help it.

10. Learn how to talk to the press

I still don’t know how to do this. I tend to speak in long discursive themes that are intricately presented and rely on secondary and tertiary definitions of words. (Umm, just like that last sentence.) So, I suspect all nonprofit web entrepreneurs need a lot of coaching on this matter.

11. Did I say 10? I meant 11 — Friends don’t make friends sign NDAs

As Guy Kawasaki said, “If you’re asking for an NDA to merely discuss your idea, keep your day job because you’re clueless.” Folks, making me sign an NDA to discuss your technology with you on the basis of free work, is actually imposing a cost to ME. And as Guy points out, if your idea is so easy to copy in one conversation, then maybe your idea isn’t really worth doing. Don’t worry I won’t tell anyone about your idea. However, you’re asking a BLOGGER with 3500 unique visitors a month to keep his mouth shut. Seems a little insane not to use me for free press, no?

Anyway, think hard about your ideas. Think about how these tips apply to your work. I’m looking forward to your questions about this!

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  • On 09.27.07 Peter Gulka said:

    OK smart guy – what is Blackbus beyond JASN? We’ve got some product advocacy going on but beyond that I think I’m quite comfortable with what’s going on at the moment.

    Next steps will probably be adapting the community into something like SourceForge is Blackbaud ever releases an Infinity SDK.

  • On 09.27.07 Allan Benamer said:

    Well apparently I’m not that smart as I don’t know what JASN is. I like anything that permits a crowdsourcing element to your work. Blackbus is primarily about people helping each other out on Blackbaud products. That’s one of the earliest forms of crowdsourcing there is. SourceForge for Blackbaud is great — but Blackbaud has to cooperate. That sux bad. I’d love for Blackbus to turn into a user community that eventually builds its own version of Raiser’s Edge on a more suitable platform. Now THAT would be wicked. Could you imagine?

  • On 09.27.07 Peter Gulka said:

    JASN = Just Anothe Social Network.

    To do what you’re suggesting would require us to go head to head with SugarCRM and SalesForce. I doubt that s the right approach. They are great at what they do. Our angle would have to be something unique that serves our community in a way no one else does. Open source collaborative development of RE plugins might be a start. You don’t need the API to build them.

  • On 09.27.07 Allan Benamer said:

    True, but that’s the conundrum of hitching yourself to a product. Your community is at the mercy of Blackbaud. Diversification will only keep Blackbaud honest. Imagine if your folks found a way to convert large portions of the RE database to Just enough to scare the bajeezus out of Blackbaud… Yum!

  • On 09.28.07 Paul Morriss said:

    I think Blackbus works fine, as it has a well-defined “audience”. It’s not trying to be JASN for non-profits, it’s just trying to be a switched-on user group. (At least that’s what it looks like to me.)

    Thanks, Allan, for this post. I thought I was up on most relevant techie things, but I learnt a lot just now.

  • On 09.28.07 Allan Benamer said:

    I don’t think of Blackbus as YASN. User communities are a breed apart for a typical social networking “platform”. I think when I see YASN I start thinking — so what’s your marketing budget for this? What’s so unique about your network that people will go to it? Where is your niche in the long tail? So how do you position yourself against the nonprofit communities that DO work like NTEN, Idealist or Etc. etc. Quite often, a lot of YASN entrepreneurs have had zero or no formal professional experience in the nonprofit sector. It shows quite easily because they don’t know the accepted donation practices or why development directors may not be interested in your whizbang social networking platform. In our sector, if you build it, they will not necessarily come. Worse is when people expect to build a slightly different business model and call that the reason for their existence. Folks, it doesn’t matter whether you build a social network where you get a cut of the donation stream or whether you charge nonprofits for getting a very large cut of your donation stream. For the most part, social networks are intermediaries between donors and nonprofits. To say it crudely, social networks for the nonprofit sector package donors and ship them to nonprofits. I’m hoping that we can get past the aggregation model soon.

  • On 06.23.08 Joe said:

    re: #1 and #7,

    The RubyVote library ( all those methods, and more, easily usable from your rails app. Use the dev version, not the release. In use, among other places, at

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