After much deliberation, we have decided to abandon implementation of Blackbaud’s NetCommunity product. Over the past year, my colleagues put in a tremendous amount of time and effort to get NetCommunity working to our satisfaction. Much of the hangup was caused by poor control over template design. It was impossible to get NetCommunity to look like the rest of our web site, despite paying Blackbaud to help and carefully examining the dozens of available style sheet modification screens. Another issue was that the web front-end is not attractively designed. For example, directory entries appear in widely spaced columns, with the list sorted by last names but only the first names linked. Finally, NetCommunity does not have career networking capabilities, which are important to us.
We realized that we would get to launch more quickly and present a better interface to our community if I migrated the alumni script I wrote for University High School to the Catlin Gabel web site. My script does the job, is free, uses a single template file, and has more of the features we want. The main advantage of NetCommunity all along was trouble-free import into Raiser’s Edge. Now with our alumni director’s experience importing data into Raiser’s Edge and my experience creating custom web site export files, this is no longer such a great advantage over other options.
Here is an advertisement for NetCommunity from Blackbaud’s web site:
Ha ha! Don’t you have better ways to spend your time than defeating my critical commentary?
The text underscores a missing piece in Blackbaud’s web strategy. Getting data into your database does not by itself lead to a closer relationship with alumni. Instead, turn the equation around and evaluate the web site experience from the alum’s point of view. As an alum visiting a web site, what is there of interest? What would motivate you to visit this web site more often? What tangible benefits can this web site provide you? A stronger sense of belonging to a community of former and current teachers and students? A referral to an individual who could help you get a job? A lead on an ultimate frisbee get-together this weekend? A description of what has changed since you left the school, and perhaps more importantly, what hasn’t?
Before you ask me for a copy of my alumni web site script, note that it is a lot easier to create a web script for one institution than it is to create it for many. Part of the complication of Blackbaud’s product comes from the goal they have to build one alumni web site community tool that will work for a wide variety of schools with different needs. They also cannot consider all the other available resources within the school. For example, we already process credit card transactions manually. We therefore do not need to pay additional service charges to process transactions online. I have already written separate volunteer and event registration scripts. We therefore do not need to duplicate these features in our alumni web site tool. I have found it easier to provide interesting people with attendance or volunteer scripts than with larger, more heavily featured online community scripts such as this alumni tool.
On the technical side, my first objective is to test MSSQL queries using the read-only user that is automatically created during the Blackbaud install process. Limiting this user to only the necessary database tables is a good first step for ensuring data security in our web site. Luckily, I also have a crew of talented web hackers who will test the integrity of our site!
Ultimately, adopting my free, custom tool gives us the flexibility to consider more broadly what we would like to provide to our alumni community. One desirable feature missing from many alumni web site tools is a social networking component. Starting from career networking, we need to develop more ways for alumni with similar interests to get in touch with each other. This could involve using some input fields to create a tag taxonomy and then allow users to search on it. This year, we will undertake consideration of what features would really excite alumni and get them to come to our site more often. It’s going to be a fun process!
It also helps enormously that we will stop paying $6,000 a year in license maintenance and support costs and free ourselves from Blackbaud’s preferred feature set.