Nonprofit organizations increasingly depend on data to be effective, but databases are far less effective than they might be because it's so hard to integrate data. Ben Schaffer at Personal Democracy Forum explains the problem in his article "Open Standards for Online Advocacy Tools":
Interoperability is more advanced with software in general than it is with software used by activist organizations, political campaigns, and non-profits. You'd be surprised if two word processors, two drawing programs, or two email programs couldn't share common formats, and yet applications for advocacy organizations are largely without this key feature.
Instead, applications used every day to run campaigns and organizations each exist on their own islands. An organization might accept contributions by two or three separate methods, and have no way to combine them all into a quarterly report. A campaign might have an email mailing list, a list of contributors, a list of volunteers, and a list of voters in their community, but no way to cross-reference them for an overall picture of their supporters.
In order for applications for online advocacy to work together, we must overcome two separate but related obstacles: the lack of open and commonly accepted standards for storing the types of data used by advocacy organizations, and the lack of mechanisms for moving data between different tools in real time.
Not only is it hard to move data around, it's hard to move it forward when an organization wants to adopt new technologies with incompatible data formats.
Tate Hausman of dotorganize, an organization that recently published a helpful report on the need for data integration and interoperability within the social change sector, facilitated a conversation from which an Integration Proclamation emerged. The Proclamation, drafted by Megan Matson of the MMOB,, says
"We, the undersigned progressive leaders, have together identified technology integration as a top priority infrastructure need in 2007. We urge progressive funders, vendors and technologists to support a collaborative effort dedicated to ensuring that our tools integrate effectively, so that we can move forward with innovative, powerful platforms that will help us win."
Signed by 326 progressives to date, the Proclamation is a postive step toward better, more effectve technology for nonprofit organizations. Signors are being asked to blog this paragraph:
If you work for a progressive organization or campaign, you probably struggle with technology. You probably have multiple databases and tech tools that half-work, but don't work together. You're not alone. For years, thousands of us have struggled with fragmented systems that don't get the job done. If you want the progressive movement to finally get the winning tools we need, you should sign The Integration Proclamation. Check it out at IntegrationProclamation.com.
Working in Washington, it becomes apparent that a few vendors do the technological work for most progressive organizations. Many of their engineers seem to have come into the political realm as volunteers on campaigns, and their innovations there lead to getting contracts from other campaigns and organizations.
Part of the trouble in my eyes is that they're for-profit firms doing the architectures for nonprofits. Thus they have motivation to come up with proprietary standards that keep customers stuck to them unless they're willing and able to hire robust in-house tech support. Nonprofits compete when taking credit for stuff, but they may be more likely to build cross-compatible systems.
It really gets bad when the engineering isn't scalable, causing organizations to lose tens of thousands of sign-ups, for instance, because a vendor got overloaded.
Anyway, this sounds like a great development. Let's hope it works.
I'll second that; the non-profit I work with is in the midst of upgrading all it's internal software systems (and it is not a pretty sight). As with many non-profits, we are inheriting years of "unplanned" database and file systems. Things are often just a mishmash of cobbled together solutions. So we do have a contact database--but we have a separate donor database and most of our files are spread out across several computers so one staff member might not have access to a file on another's computer. (And I, as the director of communications, am on another continent without access to any of them!) It's taking a great deal of thought and planning to sort it all out now; whereas, had we done it right from the beginning (or, rather, had the tools to do so) we'd be in a much better state now.
Thanks for the article and links; I'll explore this with great interest.