Sunday, December 9, 2007

Conversation with CiviCRM leaders

L. is one of the leaders of CiviCRM, an open-source constituent relationship management (CRM) system for advocacy, non-profit and non-governmental groups. He contacted me after hearing that I was interested in transitioning to the nonprofit tech world, and kindly agreed to meet me for a chat over coffee last week. I'll just write up the notes from our discussion, in fast but disjointed fashion:

L. was previously at Yahoo, worked for Groundspring (nonprofit donation website), ended up heading CiviCRM. He brought along his co-leader, D., who was in social services, got into tech by way of PC consumer software development, and later on to Groundspring and CiviCRM.

Check out: PICnet, Democracy Abroad(?), CivicActions

Tech consulting for NP sector: ONE/Northwest (L. thinks highly of them), CTCnet in San Diego, others - generally geographically-based.

CiviCRM is not trying to become another (sales-cycle-centric CRM).

NP sector is not as tech-savvy as for-profit sector. However, more forgiving/understanding than for-profit clients of for-profit companies: they understand about severe time and resource constraints.

Check out NetSquared (I have been...)

OSS world vs. NP software world: there's some overlap, but it's not huge. Note that a lot of software target to the NP sector is closed-source - e.g., Groundspring

One way to divide up the nptech world:
  1. Tech-focused nonprofits or for-profits whose "customers" are (mission-based) non-profits; i.e., they provide software and/or tech consulting to NP clients
  2. "End-user customer" nonprofits (i.e. mission-based) - so the tech roles in this kind of org are: volunteer techie, accidental techie, dedicated tech staff

D. recommended that I start out with an org that fits profile #1. Why? This provides exposure to a wider variety of NP orgs, and their business practices and requirements. Through learning and direct observation, I could start to absorb and formulate my own general best practices regarding NPtech.

On joining an existing consulting group:
  • Has similar advantages to option #1 above
  • Opportunities for mentorship/learning/experience
  • Often geographically distributed; members are usually contractors rather than employees, so there is more flexibility (and uncertainty???) regarding hours
Given the advantages, this might be an ideal way for me to go.

CiviCRM business model:
  • Part 501(c)3, part LLC (to help it be a financially sustainable enterprise)
  • Goal is for core functionality to meet 80% of common requirements, remaining 20% is customization that ISVs can do.
    • Try to make it fairly customizable
    • A familiar model...a lot like enterprise software in the for-profit world. That's why L. says that the distinction between NP software and for-profit software is a bit artificial (although some applications are strongly associated with the NP sector) - "it's all just software"
    • Each CiviCRM release attempts to incorporate the most commonly requested features, and also the "well, duh" features (user suggestions that make perfect sense, but weren't thought of initially)
  • When CiviCRM LLP is involved with projects, it generally acts as a subcontractor; it is not directly involved in client-facing engagements. There are a few exceptions, e.g. if a NP has a dedicated tech staffer/intern who can commit to working with CiviCRM to implement functionality in a sustainable, maintainable, best-practices way.
  • Challenges in the RFP process: the up-front cost of "doing it right" is quite a bit more than "doing it fast". Consultants who are only concerned with "doing it fast" can put in a low bid, but their solution will be less sustainable/maintainable and may in fact cost more in the long run. (Boy, isn't this a universal truth...)
  • Case in point: some ISVs using CiviCRM build their solution as a "quick hack" that solves the immediate problem but ends up being difficult to maintain--and so they eventually get tired of maintaining it in the codebase! One of CiviCRM's big challenges.

On the client mix for consultants and other NP technology providers: currently, the distribution of nonprofit clients tends to skew towards the progressive side, although more churches/religious orgs are starting to enter the mix. There is presently a BIG boom in environmental NP clients.

D. and L. were both agreeable when I asked if I could contact them later to hook me up with organizations and consultants who could give me CiviCRM experience. D. suggests that I keep an eye out on the CiviCRM community forums for the occasional "help needed" request as well as for the educational discussions. L. offered to put me in touch with TechSoup. They are actively recruiting for a Drupal/CiviCRM developer. L. thinks this could be a good introduction to the nonprofit and open-source worlds.

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