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Peggy Hoffman

This post is quite timely in that over as ASAE & The Center we're working with a young group of professionals to "invent" the association of the future by working through key scenarios. I has just posted yesterday in the (not free) e-community space that we needed to address nonprofit's reluctance to be more strategic in their technology choices. While I didn't envision this particular scenario, it does resonate with my concern that we still think of technology in terms of databases and outbound communication and not as a strategic resource.

If we don't take on the responsibility of new vision, then we will not be ready (or invited) to sit at the table when our "free" partners change the rules. And therefore not able to inspire and encourage software companies to adopt a philanthropic approach - which yes I think should be part of their business model.

Thanks again for asking the right questions!


I would agree with those who believe that Ning should remain free for nonprofits and schools - especially schools. Just last week, in a training session, I was asked about the concerns around privacy on Facebook and which platform may be a good fit to bring together a group of youth working on community issues - I immediately suggested that Ning may be a great option. By creating a private social network on Ning, school administrators and nonprofit program managers can a create a private space that can be moderated and is perceived as a safer choice for online collaboration. And it's free - which allows so many groups beginning to get comfortable in the social media space, to be brave enough to give it a try! [Although as I look at the Mashable article, it appears there are some alternatives out there...]

If companies are able to be philanthropic, and realize the good that their platforms can be used to create - then, yes, we should absolutely encourage them to do so! In the meantime, Amy's question around synching your social media efforts to some of your more traditional efforts to ensure data is gathered and contact information retained is a critical set of activities.

So perhaps it is a little bit of both...encouraging philanthropy, while being smart about keeping your online communities intact in the face of a changing marketplace.


I've been building Web sites since the graphic Web started in 1994 and I have seen a lot of technologies come and go. I am very skeptical about depending upon any third-party for business (be it for profit or not-for-profit).

While we may advise clients to take advantage of the reach social media platforms provide, we view these as ADDITIONAL channels to their Web site and they should be REDUNDANT. For example, in addition to a YouTube Channel, have videos on your Web site -not embeded from YT, but on your Web server- (This helps with SEO as well).

So to those who are using a third-party blog service, get a WordPress blog on your own domain; to those who are only using gmail and Google docs, calendar etc., add redundancy by downloading gmail to your hard drive as well (set gmail to a POP account), keep copies of Google Docs on your computer and use a FREE suite off applications in place of Microsoft Office - like for Macs or for Windows, sync your Google Calendar with a desktop calendar.

I'm not saying this only about Free applications. I do not advise depending on any third party services (SAS) or cloud computing.

Again, I am not saying don't use them. I am saying do not depend upon them. If you use them, make backups and it is best to have a service which you can substitute in place of any third party if need be.

In my opinion this is part of being a responsible professional. Just like you would not be responsible if you were entirely dependent upon any subcontractor with no alternatives, don't be dependent upon any third-party on-line services without a back-up in place.


There is a mindset that online means free or at least cheap that we need to change.

A lot of free services and open source software can appear free, but neither truly are. They require staff time to keep them up and keep them effective.

Because there is this impression that everything should be free, it becomes difficult to get the budget to use paid for online services. If that attitude didn't exist, all but the very smallest organization would be able to find an extra $20 a month (just a guess on Ning's final price) in their budget to pay for Ning.

I think you begin to change that attitude by showing the real value of these networks to your organization. Fundraising dollars would be nice, but getting decision makers to agree on engagement metrics is probably better.

If you can show a clear benefit, then costs are a lot easier to justify. I'll say more obvious things later.


To build on a couple of the points that Charlie made, and on the reference to WordPress:

* if you do depend on a cloud service, make sure that you can get your data out without too much hassle. I think that makes this relatively easy.

* if you go self-hosted, and get some help with setting up your site, make sure you're not at the mercy of the consultant who provided the help. For example, if the consultant does some fancy stuff to your WordPress site (I'm thinking of implementing the custom post type and typology stuff on the way in WP3.0), can you continue to improve your site without breaking something, or breaking the budget my having FancyConsult hit you with big bills.


ps Beth, I used the Zoetica contact page to ask about helping out MD/DC nonprofits with social media stuff. Does anyone ever look at stuff that arrives through that channel? It's been a couple of weeks.

Amy Sample Ward

Thanks for continuing this conversation, Beth! I really appreciate you including some of the thoughts I've shared as well.

I know that I'm in a unique position working in a nonprofit and outside of one, but am trying to connect with folks who will be directly impacted by Ning's change (those that think they will not be able to continue using the platform and will try to change platforms or discontinue hosting a community) to discuss further the kinds of questions or areas of consideration that would be involved in selecting software in a sustainable way - would love to hear if you have any ideas or know of any groups!

Thanks again

Robin Mohr

As many people have said in other forums, the real problem with the Ning announcment is that they didn't clarify from the start what the changes will be or what they mean by paid - will $5/month be good enough? Free was a good price for an experiment to start with - if it had cost money, we wouldn't have gotten into this at all. We had it in our plan for this year to consider upgrading to their premium services, but now I'm spooked to wonder if it's worth sticking with Ning - if we start paying now, will it still be around in six months? This is always a gamble with technology - will this company survive? Will this feature be available long term? Whether it's free or not, there's no guarantees.


Dear Beth,

Thanks for drawing attention to Ning ending their free service. As a group owner and longtime user of Ning, I had hoped it wouldn't come to this. But I think that their decision is a sound one.

It's $20 dollars a month to continue to use the service. Nonprofits could find a donor to take on this commitment, even in this economic climate. Whether it's a board member, or a longtime volunteer, 20 dollars a month is $240 per year, and long term, it's a viable solution to Ning's issue of funding.

Constant Contact, which many nonprofits use, is also around $20/month, and you don't hear anyone complaining about that, do you?



Katie G

I think your question about the "free mindset" and making critical choices about technology is a great one. Unfortunately, it seems like if you have a nonprofit mission, many feel like operating costs should be next to nil. Unfortunately, to effectively run a nonprofit, as many of the business persons who sit on our boards should know, you have to have infrastructure. Volunteers, free software/Internet/computer, even free office space can have a cost to an organization that may be higher than we think. If someone gives me a free office, but it isn't someplace where my volunteers can park or where my clients can reach on a bus, it isn't a free office anymore. If I am using free donor software but it doesn't handle the information I need to effectively cultivate and solicit donors in a way that makes sense for us, it also has a cost. This is so important since all nonprofits are under immense pressure to show the highest possible dollar-to-mission.



You wrote: "Back then, my favorite question was: "What is the cost of a free computer?" How much time are you wasting having to reboot and redo work because the computer crashed?"

Old hardware is not the reason computers crash. Software is the problem. Please do not add to the myth (and the eWaste) by saying older equipment is useless. I am using a 9 year old laptop that someone was throwing away, I installed Ubuntu on it, I have a perfectly usable and virus free system!

Doug Jacquier

Irrespective of the debate about Ning and other future pay-per-use applications and SaaS, embedded in Beth's article is the 'elephant in the room' that others have alluded to, namely the obsession in nonprofit circles with 'free' and/ or heavily discounted. By all means grab a bargain when you see one but when is the nonprofit sector going to grow up to the extent of understanding that technology is ultimately no different than any other service required to ultimately support the processes that make a difference. Energy, rent, materials, even the cheap office coffee, has to be paid for, just like in any other office. If you are not generating sufficient income from your supporters to meet your basic requirements (let alone a decent living wage for any employees you may have, but don't get me started) you need to either:
1. Get a lot better at what you do very quickly (and listening to Beth is a great start - yes, Beth, you were right about Twitter and I was wrong ;-)
2. Stop what you're doing and divert the resources to someone who is succeeding in your cause area. The world doesn't owe your take on the cause (or your ego for that matter) a living.

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