Goodbye, NetCommunity

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.

4 comments

  1. Bill Fitzgerald says:

    Hello, Richard,

    I’m shocked! Do you mean to say that Blackbaud’s tool lacked flexibility? Astonishing!

    RE: "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."

    I would argue that part of the complication with Blackbaud’s product was that they focused on integrating with other Blackbaud products FIRST, and meeting the needs of communities SECOND. Also, their solutions are notoriously institution-centric, where good (and by "good" I mean stuff people actually enjoy using) community software has decentralized control.

    RE the relative difficulty of building a generalized tool for multiple schools, as opposed to a script that works for one — the school-specific script can be easier to write, but, I would argue, more difficult to maintain. Part of the benefit of going with an open source tool is that the development community of a good open source community helps share the work of maintaining/improving the tool. If the needs of the organization are clearly conceived, then setting up a solution using existing open source tools is not difficult. If, however, the needs of the institution have not been clearly defined (and this can occur for a variety of very valid reasons) then even the best tool will fall short of the mark, because, without some clearly articulated goals, there is no mark.

    So, while using a school-specific script may translate into a faster launch, it can also contribute to an unnecessarily complicated deployment.

    RE: "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!"

    This pretty much describes Elgg.

    Cheers,

    Bill

  2. rkassissieh says:

    Bill, I don’t think we disagree … at least not yet! One key contextual factor is that we need to create a functional alumni web site immediately, and this necessitates staying within the box for the moment. The Development office owns this site, and we should not ask them to make the conceptual leap you are suggesting all at once. By freeing ourselves from a constraining web tool, we make it possible to have a wide-open conversation about new directions for our alumni web site. Then we can put alumni needs first, identify our top priority objectives, and select the best tool to meet them. That said, here are some responses to your points.

    If both an established open source project and a custom web site can meet an institution’s project objectives, then I would go with the open source project every time. For instance, I would not consider writing a custom course mangement system! Moodle fits the bill perfectly. I have even learned a lesson on the road to Oregon. It is better to give up a few small customizations for the sake of ease of future maintenance. I have so far resisted making any custom modifications to the Catlin Gabel Moodle installation.

    There is an important difference between Moodle-as-course-web-site-platform and Elgg-as-alumni-site-platform. Elgg is a generic social networking tool, whose project objectives do not align perfectly with those of most alumni offices. Specifically …

    – Alumni directory: alumni need to be able to search a directory of other alumni to find information they have chosen to make public. The source of this information should be a school’s alumni records, which in most schools are stored in a different database. Elgg does, I assume, store most profile information locally.

    – Non-web users: Todd estimates that 15% of our alumni typically interact with a school through their web site. The rest typically interact at school visits, local alumni events, on the phone, by letter, and by email. Any web solution must integrate with these other forms of communication as much as possible.

    – Authentication: For Moodle, we can authenticate against LDAP, because all of our Moodle users exist in LDAP. For alumni, users are stored in Raiser’s Edge. Elgg cannot authenticate against Raiser’s Edge!

    – Blogging: a main feature of Elgg is the ability to maintain an individual blog. This is a long leap from the submission of class notes, which most alumni offices would like to see on an alumni web site. For most development offices, unmoderated blogging would run counter to the approach taken to print publications such as the school’s alumni magazine.

    If a school wanted an unmoderated, unintegrated alumni community, then Elgg would probably fit the bill. However, the potential for an online social network for alumni to include all alumni and pay off in tangible form sometime in the future is untested. You still need to justify the salary of an alumni director who would spend time cultivating this online social network.

    The first stage of this project is simply to publish the school’s first alumni web site, providing alumni with their first customized online hooks into the school. It will be very interesting to see where the next stage of this discussion goes. I hope you will lend your expertise to that conversation!

    p.s. The lower and middle school divisions are keenly interested in multi-year online portfolios. This sounds like a much better fit for Elgg!

  3. rkassissieh says:

    One more thought. Jim at OES has adopted a "social network first" approach to their alumni site. Check it out.

    http://www.k12converge.com/

  4. Theodore King says:

    Hi Richard,
    This is Theodore, very interesting post, we’re in the final stages of deploying our solution, but you can see our demo mockup at http://dlcsol.com/demo

    I think we could definitely customize and host a community suite system for much less than 6k. And we’d be happy to get feedback and customize it for you.

    We’ve actually changed our delivery model, right now we’re trying to get it setup like basecamp.com, so users can easily register and deploy it as a hosted solution.

    We’re planning on charging about $299 to $399 per month for unlimited users (with a storage cap of 30 gb).

    Let me know what you think!

    Thanks,
    Theodore