Tag Archives: nonprofit

A grassroots group or nonprofit org = disorganization?

logoThree comments I received or read in the last few weeks via email or social media:

As a nonprofit, we can’t always make updates and changes to our web site quickly…

As an all-volunteer organization, we won’t be able to do much marketing for this event…

We haven’t replied to people that have posted on Facebook saying that they want to volunteer because we’re an all-volunteer movement and we’re progressing methodically…

Being a nonprofit, or being an all-volunteer organization, or being a grassroots group organizing a march, has nothing to do with a group or organization’s ability to:

  • make simple changes to its web site
  • market an event
  • provide quality customer service
  • have an up-to-date list of the board of directors or senior staff on the web site
  • say on the web site what volunteers do at the organization and how to express interest in volunteering
  • say on the web site what the organization needs in terms of volunteer support
  • respond to emails in a timely manner
  • refer all phone calls and emails to the appropriate person immediately
  • quickly reply to every person who wants to volunteer, even with a simple message that says “you will hear from us in the next two weeks with next steps”

Legitimate reasons for not doing those things is because the organization or group:

  • is suddenly and severely understaffed (mass staff walk out, mass layoffs…)
  • has other immediate, urgent priorities in that specific moment (building burning down, death of a client, etc.)
  • is inefficient
  • is disorganized

If you have ever wondered why so many people from the for-profit sector think nonprofits are incompetent, that people that work at nonprofits aren’t experts, this is why: because we use our nonprofit status, or our volunteer staffing, as an excuse for not being able to do the basics of customer service, management and marketing.

My reaction to someone who says As a nonprofit, we can’t always make updates and changes to our web site quickly… or As an all-volunteer organization, we won’t be able to do much marketing for this event… is this: maybe you should dissolve your organization, or seek new leadership for your organization and its programs. And my reaction to anyone that says their group doesn’t have time to respond quickly to every person that expresses interest in volunteering is this: in fact, you don’t have to involve volunteers at all, and you should say so.

Yes, I’m talking to all you folks organizing marches as well.

When you get an email from someone asking why certain information isn’t on your web site, or why you aren’t updating your Facebook page, or why your nonprofit wasn’t represented at some event, here’s an idea: apologize to the person for not having the information or activity that you should have had, tell that person you are currently understaffed, and ask if he or she would be interested in volunteering with the organization to help you correct this. For instance:

Thanks so much for the email noting that we haven’t updated our Facebook page for four months, and haven’t posted any information about our upcoming event. Our marketing manager is currently on maternity leave, and we are looking for a volunteer to help us with social media management for the next four months. Would you be interested in helping us? 


Thank you for writing about your frustration about trying to volunteer with your organization. People that want to volunteer with us deserve a quick response to their expressions of interest. Would you like to help us do that? Would you be interested in volunteering to help us quickly respond to people that want to volunteer?

Yes, I know, I wrote a similar blog back in 2012.

Also see:

My web site: online for 20 years!

logoLast week, I celebrated the second anniversary of the publication of The Last Virtual Volunteering Guidebook, (available for purchase in paperback or as an ebook (PDF) by Energize, Inc.). But there’s another anniversary as well that snuck up on me:

It’s the 20th anniversary of the launch of my own web site. The first version of my web site was uploaded on January 4, 1996.

Wow. 20 years. That’s centuries in terms of the Internet.

I began creating and posting tips on database management for nonprofits and other tech-related suggestions to the soc.org.nonprofit USENET newsgroup back in 1994 (see A Brief Review of the Early History of Nonprofits and the Internet for more about the early days of nonprofits and the Internet). Back then, questions about how to build and manage databases of volunteers, donors, clients and others was probably THE hot topic on any online discussion about nonprofits – not marketing (the other hot topic was, of course, how to raise funds). Two years later, I created my own web site to post my growing materials and favorite links, focusing on how nonprofits were, or could, use computer and Internet technologies. The earliest version of my web site that I can still access is at archive.org, from 1998. Super, duper simple design – like most of the web back then.

The original spirit of the Internet was to freely give information, as well as to take it, to make accessing information oh-so-easy, and to collaborate with anyone, anywhere. I got really caught up in that spirit. I was quite the Info Superhighway cheerleader back then. I still look at the 90s as a golden age, when sending just a few emails could double the amount of people that attended an event, when emailing a reporter or government official meant he or she would call you back, and when web sites downloaded oh-so-quickly. I wanted my web site to be a reflection of that, as well to promote my expertise and services as a new consultant, but back in the 1990s, it was online discussion groups, like USENET newsgroups, that got me jobs and built my professional reputation, not the web.

Why “Coyote” Communications as a name for my web site? Because I am quite partial to canines, and I think the coyote is unique among them, with qualities I greatly admire. Coyotes are amazingly adaptable to ever-changing surroundings – efforts to control or exterminate the coyote and the massive garbage-production of modern humans have produced an animal that is even more alert, opportunistic, and able to survive, even flourish. They are uniquely American creatures, incredibly misunderstood animals, much smaller than most people think, and often blamed for destruction not of their making. Coyotes are surprisingly, sometimes shockingly, intelligent, have the reputation of being “tricksters,” work well in groups, love to play, and have boundless love for their families. At night, to hear the high quavering cry or the short, high-pitched yips of coyotes is the most beautiful song you can hear outdoors. My only regret in choosing the name for my web site is that it is very hard for non-native English speakers to say, let alone spell, and most people abroad don’t know the word.

So, here I am, online for more than 20 years, and celebrating my two-decade-old web site. And this occurs within days of my 50th birthday. Wow. I’ had real champagne, not virtual bubbly, in case you were wondering.

A PDX group’s volunteers ROCK MY WORLD! (that’s good)

As a researcher regarding effective volunteer engagement and a trainer of managers of volunteers, I have high expectations when I engage with volunteers or the managers of such as a customer, client or volunteer. I’m a tough audience. I know that successful volunteer training and support, and appropriate customer service, come not from large budgets but, rather, from the organization making such a priority. I’ve encountered so many well-trained, conscientious volunteers from small nonprofits with tiny budgets, and so many ill-trained, distracted, unmotivated, uncaring volunteers from large, well-known nonprofits with large budgets.

I live near a group home for adults with mental disabilities, and I’ve grown quite fond of the residents – one in particular, who loves animals. He used to help his neighbor with her many pets, but she died last year, and all of pets had to be rehomed – taking away not only his beloved friends, but also activities that he absolutely lived for. About the same time, a stray cat living under a foreclosed house across the street had two kittens, and my friend started feeding them. We’ve cobbled together shelter for the cats on the front porch of his group home, and neighbors give him bottles to return to the grocery to get money for cat food. He has a renewed lease on life, and the cats are well-cared for. My friend loves his new role as cat caretaker – but I’m dreading new kittens in the spring. So I decided to see what our options were for getting the cats spayed and neutered. How could I catch these cats?  And if I caught the cats, was there a place that would fix them for a low cost? And how would we provide after-surgery care, when he couldn’t have them in his house, and me, with a dog, a cat, and a cat-hating husband, couldn’t have them in mine?

My vet gave me a flyer for the Feral Cat Coalition of Oregon, based in Portland. I called the number, left a message, and within two hours, a volunteer called me back. She patiently answered all of my MANY questions, said that FCCO does a special surgery that allows cats to be released the next day after surgery, and said that my friend’s cats qualified as feral cats. She put me in touch with a volunteer a bit closer than Portland, who lent me humane traps for the cats, and she explained the week-long process to go through in order to catch the cats. Unfortunately, I was able to capture only one, but I drove him to Portland (45 minutes away), dropped him off at the FCCO offices just before 8 a.m., spent the day with various friends in PDX, then went back just before 4. A volunteer provided an orientation to everyone like me, new to FCCO, about how to release the cat and look for post-surgical issues, and then I came back with the cat to where I live outside of PDX.

Every FCCO volunteer and employee I encountered was wonderful. They had complete information, they all knew the process inside and out, and they answered my questions before I could ask them. They were always ready and willing to help me. I never felt like I was a burden, that I was bothering anyone, as I’ve felt SO many times at other organizations. FCCO made me feel so supported and valued. They didn’t focus on what they couldn’t do – they focused on all that they CAN do for people that care about stray cats. If they couldn’t provide something I asked for, they always gave me an alternative – not just a “No, we don’t do that.” I didn’t have to pay anything, but was happy to make the recommended tiny donation for the cat’s surgery, rabies shot and ear-mite treatment.

BRAVO, FCCO! You are doing a LOT of things right when it comes to recruiting, training and supporting your volunteers. And, based on my experience, I think animal welfare groups are some of the most challenging when it comes to effective volunteer management: the people you attract as volunteers are oh-so-passionate about animals, and that kind of passion and mission ownership be both a wonderful blessing and a horrific curse. Your volunteer management is obviously outstanding, as is your focus on customer/client services. WELL DONE!

As soon as I catch that other cat (the mom has disappeared, I’m sorry to say), I’ll be back!

And if you want to see what it’s like when I am NOT happy with customer service from an animal welfare organization, you will have to go over to my personal blog.

I also have often blogged here on my official, professional blog site about unsatisfactory volunteering experiences, on my part and on the part of others, but I don’t name names. I provide these as cautionary tales – what NOT to do in engaging volunteers:

Learning from a nonprofit’s failure

logoA couple of the nonprofits where I have worked over the last 30 years have closed for good. I don’t count my time at either agency as enjoyable, and I don’t mention either on my résumé. It was many of the things that made these places so unenjoyable for me (and others) that ultimately lead to their demise. But both organizations did teach me quite a bit in terms of how not to run a nonprofit.

As I read an article today by some of the board members that tried to save one of those organizations from closing its doors, I shook my head at the level of denial about what they said the problems were at the organization: they lamented how they were unable to find that one big donor that would have saved the organization with an annual massive donation and connections to friends who would also have made an annual massive donation.

Here are the actual reasons the organization closed:

  • The organization’s leadership never made an effort to connect with and serve the many diverse communities that made up their region. It’s not at all a cohesive community. It’s a community that’s known worldwide for people working in high-tech, but it’s also a community with a massive Hispanic population – both new immigrants and third, fourth, even fifth-generation families. It’s a community with massive wealth, but also massive poverty, with a homeless population that’s one of the largest in the USA. There’s no one style of music listened to by most people, no one type of food eaten by most everyone there, no one set of religious values most people in the region adhere to – it’s not a melting pot but, rather, a tossed salad of diverse thoughts, beliefs and lifestyles. This now-closed organization didn’t initiate meetings with representatives from the many different populations that make up the area, to talk about how to serve them better or better reach different people. There were no special employment or volunteer recruitment efforts to attract staff from those different communities – in fact, there was no volunteer engagement scheme at all outside of having ushers at events (almost always the same people, people just interested in getting community service hours rather than doing something to serve the organization’s mission). Programs were developed in a bubble, and leadership just never understood why people outside that bubble didn’t participate.
  • The organization never successfully marketed its fee-based programs to groups. Group sales are everything when you are trying to sell something for a price, something that people have to pay something for to be a part of. You must have a crackerjack person, or team, that knows how to sell blocks of items or event tickets in order to generate the proper amount of income. Successful ballet companies, art museums, live theaters and other arts-based groups know this. Roller derby leagues in the USA — all nonprofit — know this. For-profit sports leagues know this.
  • The organization didn’t really try to cultivate young people as participants. People that grow up participating in a particular activity often want to continue to participate in that activity as adults. Integrate your nonprofit program offering into schools, and you will have, in a few years, new supporters, new donors, and new participants. It takes more than just having a “youth day” or one “youth event.”
  • Leadership didn’t engage with the leadership of other nonprofits. There were no regular meetings, formal or informal, with others serving the community through nonprofit services, and, therefore, no relationships – instead, other nonprofits were seen as competition for audiences and donors. The long-time head of the organization’s programming was particularly isolationist, and saw no need for building professional friendships with other nonprofit leaders. Without those relationships, the organization wasn’t hearing about what was important in the region it served, wasn’t hearing fresh ideas, wasn’t learning new approaches that could have helped improve their own offerings.
  • Leadership ignored criticism. Certain actions by this organization had ignited hostilities of some rather outspoken folks who claimed to represent a certain population of the area, and such has received a lot of media attention. I’m not sure if those criticisms were legitimate, but they were loud and they created a mindset about many people about the organization that was quite negative. The organization chose to ignore that criticism, rather than sitting down not only with the people claiming to represent that group, but with other representatives from that group to find out if they felt the same way and what might be done to build bridges. Instead, the leadership said, internally, “This isn’t our audience anyway,” and took no action.

During my brief time working there, I was frequently reprimanded for how I approached things regarding public relations and marketing. An example: I marketed one program in particular so well that it became one of the best-attended in the organization’s history, but my boss told me that I had not done a good job, because I’d marketed the program to the large gay community of the region, and he didn’t want people thinking of the organization as “a lesbian” one. I once lined up several media representatives to interview a member of senior management, in order to create a blitz of coverage for our organization in a variety of publications, and she cancelled most of the interviews at the last minute, saying this one wasn’t really worth it, that she wasn’t in the mood to do another one, etc.

It’s strange that so many of the things I did at this organization that were so disliked by senior management have ended up getting me hired elsewhere, and have lead me to be successful at other organizations. Because I was so passionate about the organization’s mission, the experience was even more painful. But as a result of what I witnessed in my brief time at this now-failed agency, ties with the community is one of the first things I evaluate when I take on any communications or management task. I look to answer lots of questions:

  • What do different people from different populations say about this organization?
  • Are the different populations that make up our community represented among our employees and volunteers, and/or among the active participants in our programs? Who are we missing, and why?
  • Does this organization have lots of people making small donations, or is this organization funded primarily by just a few big donors and grants?
  • Are there people that don’t like this organization and, if so, why, and how should we address that?
  • Are media reps seeking our leadership out for stories, even to just comment as experts on a particular issue they are covering – and if not, why not?
  • Do emails, calls and tweets from the media get answered promptly?
  • Do we monitor social media about this organization and what people are saying?
  • What nonprofits are doing similar work, or are also serving this region, and what is our relationship with them?

I’m so sorry for the people that have lost their jobs because of this organization’s closing. I hope they have learned as much as I did as a result of their experience there, and I wish them the very best of luck.

Are you a web designer? Then this is for YOU

The Accessibility Internet Rally is the centerpiece project of the nonprofit organization Knowbility.org, based in Austin, Texas. It’s my favorite corporate volunteering event, my favorite group volunteering event, my favorite tech volunteering event, and my favorite episodic volunteering event. And now that it’s available to anyone to participate online, it’s poised to become my favorite online volunteering event!

The Open Accessibility Internet Rally (OpenAir) is an international community hackathon with a unique twist – accessibility! OpenAIR increases awareness of the tools and techniques that make the Internet accessible to everyone, including people with disabilities, and it also enhances participants’ accessible design skills. Unlike other hackathons, the things that get developed at this event are used LONG after the event is over! Unlike other hackathons, this event changes people and the way they work for years to come.

Experts in the accessibility field will act as mentors during the competition – that’s some primo networking! Truly, participate in this, and you increase your own marketability as a web designer!

Added bonus: this year, OpenAIR has added new game elements, leaderboards, and fabulous prizes.

OpenAIR begins in October and wraps up with an awards ceremony in February. Requirements to participate:

  • Skilled in web production: Designers, developers, QA testers, we’re looking at you!
  • Passionate about making a difference: Help non-profits, create inclusive content, empower everyone to access the web.
  • Eager to learn: You’ll receive amazing training and support: prepare to be challenged!
  • Ready to level up: You don’t mind getting a little glory for your skills and your team.

If this describes you or your team, don’t miss out! There are limited spots, and the competition is just about to start. This year’s OpenAIR kicks off at the Google campus in Austin, TX in October, streamed live across the world.

Reserve your team on OpenAIR now! (The first 10 teams that sign up receive a custom game avatar for the competition)

Don’t have a team? Don’t think you can put together a team on your own? Still want to participate as a designer? No problem! Register as an individual and Knowbility will help you join a team!

Are you a nonprofit that wants to be the recipient of an OpenAIR web design/collaboration? Register here.

Community Service Help Cons Another Person

It’s happened AGAIN – the shady company Community Service Help – communityservicehelp.com – has conned another person.

I just approved this comment on one of my blogs about this deceptive company. The comment says, in part:

“I wish I would have read this article before wasting my time using the community service help website. Of course the court did not accept it and now I have been put in a real bind trying to complete my hours… I have PTSD and social anxiety from my military service and was searching for a way to complete my hours when I stumbled across the website which seemed perfect for me due to my disabilities should have known it was too good to be true. I wish I could leave a review somewhere to prevent people from making the same mistake I did.”

I’m so sorry for this person’s experience – as an advocate for virtual volunteering since the early 1990s, it makes my physically ill that this company, as well as many others, are ripping people off with their scheme to charge people money to watch videos and call it “volunteering”, and to claim it will be accepted by courts. I’ve encouraged this person to contact this company and demand his money back. I also have asked him if he would be willing to talk to someone from the media about his experience with this fraud – there have been at least two local TV news stories about this shady company, and I would love to see many more.

Back in November 2012, I got an email from a TV reporter in Atlanta, Georgia who used my blogs about this racket to create this excellent, DETAILED video about this scam and the people behind it. Thanks again, Atlanta Fox 5! Of course, after an NBC affiliate in Columbus, Atlanta did a similar, shorter story, this scam company put a tag on its web site noting as featured on NBC news!

I would love to know this deceptive company’s response to the court refusing his community service hours – it’s a response they have to make regularly to people who find out the court will not accept “community service” that consists of watching videos rather than actual volunteering.

I’ve also told this person that most recently commented on my blog that, if he still needs community service, and he wants to do it online, there are MANY places to find such, with legitimate nonprofit organizations that won’t charge the volunteer, and where the volunteering will be *real* – it will actually help the organization, which is what volunteering should be.

Here are other blogs I’ve written about this deceptive company:

Back in 2011, and again at least once since then, I wrote the Florida State Attorney General’s cyberfraud division, the Consumer Services Department of Miami-Dade County, numerous parole and probation associations, the Corporation for National Service and AL!VE to PLEASE investigate or, at least, take a stand regarding these scam companies – to date, they still have done nothing.

And, yes, I still get harassing emails and blog comments from people who supposedly are satisfied customers of this company. The commenters never use their names or location, the messages are packed with misspellings and grammar errors, they ramble on and on about how watching videos really is community service, and they call me some rather vile names. I’ve been deleting those comments – but I think I’m going to compile some and make a blog post just about those, to show you the caliber of support for this company.

12.March.2014 Update: Just found this story from Portland TV stations KATU about a similar scam in Seattle. Another example of a judge rejecting watching videos as community service.

July 6, 2016 update: the web site of the company Community Service Help went away sometime in January 2016, and all posts to its Facebook page are now GONE. More info at this July 2016 blog: Selling community service leads to arrest, conviction

Without a Champion, Your Initiative Won’t Survive

In 1994 or so, while working with various community initiatives in San José, California, I was introduced to a concept I hadn’t heard before: that any project, initiative or program must have a champion in order to be sustainable and have real impact: a person who will advocate for that project or program with colleagues and potential supporters, that will fight for that project or program, that will argue for it, and that will be seen, through their actions, not just words, as a person absolutely committed to such. Without a champion, a project, initiative or program fails.

Over the last 20 years, I’ve seen this concept proven true again and again.

I’m not talking about causes – it goes without saying that a cause needs a champion. I’m talking about a project or program – it could be the introduction of a new database system, a reform of your human resources department, a program to bring theatre activities to classrooms, an HIV education program, an online discussion forum, an anti-bullying initiative, etc.

I have watched well-funded initiatives with a full team of staff fail because there was no champion. There might have been someone designated to be in charge of the initiative, or funded to work on such, but he or she wasn’t a champion, as I have defined it; rather, the person did basic things regarding the job – answering emails, generating reports, building a web site, supervising staff working on such, etc. – but nothing beyond that. The person might say he or she is committed to the project’s success, but the actions that demonstrate that kind of commitment aren’t there – the person rarely attends meetings or events regarding the project, he or she doesn’t participate in the project in some obvious, very visible way, the person doesn’t bring up the project frequently in meetings or presentations, he or she doesn’t push for an online or traditional marketing strategy to promote such, the person doesn’t link the project to other initiatives at the organization, etc. After a few months or a year or even a few years, when the money runs out, the person or team that worked on the project shrugs and says, oh well, sorry that didn’t work out. And the project ends and is forgotten.

I have seen fledgling, under-funded initiatives thrive because there was a champion – an employee, a volunteer, or a funder. I heard that person, that champion, talking about the initiative to others, frequently, I saw that person seeking out participation from others – other employees or volunteers, senior staff, clients, members, donors, the press, other organizations. I saw the importance of the program through that person’s actions. There was an obvious commitment to success for that program that could be seen just by watching that champion. The champion may not be the person working full-time on the project – it could be a senior staff person or other leader/decision-maker at the organization who ensures, through staffing and budget allocations and organizational strategies, that the project is going to happen, is going to be successful, and is seen as essential by the entire organization.

Consultants can’t be champions. They can be be essential contributors, they can undertake activities that are fundamental to a program’s success, and they can feel passion for a program or project. But, ultimately, they cannot be the project’s champion – they are short-term, part-time workers. They will be gone when the money runs out – and they may be heart-broken at not being able to participate in the project anymore, even weep for it (I have!). This isn’t a question of the value of consultants – there is NO question that consultants often play an essential role to a project or program’s success. But if there is no champion at the organization among staff – particularly staff that are in decision-making/leadership roles – it doesn’t matter how much a consultant cares or how hard he or she works: that project will fail.

There can be more than one champion for a project; the most sustainable projects and programs have more than one. Think of a nonprofit theatre; when you talk about the performances such an organization undertakes with any staff member, you will find champions throughout the organization. You will find people in almost every department that, if the entire executive staff left and the budget were cut in half, would step up to ensure that organization continues to produce performances. But that in-school outreach program the theatre undertakes might have just one or two true champions, and after 20 years of success, if those people leave and are not replaced with champions, the marketing and fundraising departments may suddenly start questioning whether or not that program should continue.

Not everyone working on the project has to be a champion. The web master doesn’t have to be a champion for the project. The administrative assistant doesn’t have to be. The database designer does’t have to be. Most of the staff on the project doesn’t have to be. But there MUST be a champion, someone internal, that is pushing the organization regarding the project, or it WILL fail.

When you want to start a project, program or initiative, or you start working on such, you can predict the success of such based on identifying the champion. If you can’t identify such – and if you cannot be such – then that project will be short-lived. I guarantee it. And when you are a consultant working on such, it’s particularly frustrating. And if you’re like me, you weep a lot.

It’s official: my new blog home

It’s official: this is my new home for my blog. Welcome!

Supposedly, posterous.com will be sending me all of my blog posts in a format such that they can be uploaded here at my new blog home. Time will tell… the blog is not pretty, because I’m still trying to figure out how to edit the template, and I am NOT a web designer.

So, to recap: when I got word in February 2013 that posterous.com is shutting down, I needed a new blog host STAT. The posterous announcement was really horrible news, because it meant I would have to change my blog home for a second time: I used forumer.com for years as my blog host, because it was simple and blogs on the site could be read by people using older operating systems. I was satisfied until my last year on the site, when customer service became non-existent and the site became wretchedly slow. So I switched to posterous.com, on the recommendation of a friend, and when Twitter bought the site, I thought, great, that ensures it’s not going anywhere! I was wrong… I have really loved being on Posterous – I still quite upset that it’s going away.

I loathe blogger.com / blogspot.com – I have a couple of personal blogs there, and I find these platforms extremely hard to use and inflexible in terms of design. I also hate how you have to have the very latest everything (operating system, browser versions, etc.) to access blogs on these sites.

I’m not a techie; I know basic .html, that’s it.

So I asked for recommendations on my Facebook page, my Twitter account and, of course, my posterous blog. It came down to a choice between Tumblr and WordPress. After some research, I went with WordPress because my blog can be hosted on my web site – my wonderful web host, HostGator, makes that unbelievably easy to do!

So, here’s my blogs new home – right on my own web site.

And, again, I second what this blog notes about blogs themselves: Businesses should always invest in a comprehensive website, and then use whatever social networks and other services they can find that will help promote the business and engage other people. Do not depend on any single network, and definitely don’t leave your unique content on someone else’s platform.

Thanks to everyone who offered suggestions! If any of you, as a volunteer, can help me to edit my blog template, give me a shout (I’ll be happy to edit your résumé or cover letter for you, or otherwise offer some pro bono consulting for you in return).

To know when this blog is updated:

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What did you learn today? Or this week?

Are you an employee, a consultant or a volunteer at/with a nonprofit, library, NGO, school, government agency, charity or other mission-based organization?

Then these questions are for you:

What did you learn today, or this week, or recently, about computer or Internet/networked tech while working with or for a that mission-based organization? Or some other thing you learned about tech that would be helpful to others? And per this learning, what else do you need to know?

It could be:

“I learned to do this cool thing with Outlook – I can now…”


“I learned that I really don’t like such-and-such feature on LinkedIn. Here’s why…”


“I learned that washing my LG 500 feature phone in the washing machine leads to it no longer working” (Yes, that’s me).

I would really love it if you would answer that question here on the TechSoup Community Forum.

Registration on TechSoup is required in order to respond, but registration is free. And by registering, you can participate in TechSoup community activities in the future! Come on, let’s hear from ya!

what’s most important about software experience

Back in the mid 1990s, when I found myself jobless and was temping, my agency sent me to fill in for an executive administrative assistant that was going on vacation for two weeks. I read over the job description, and it said I needed to know Microsoft Powerpoint. I looked at the recruiter and said, “Oh, I haven’t used this much. I’ve used Aldus Persuasion for slide show presentations.” She shook her head and said, “Same thing. You know that, you’ll do fine with PowerPoint.” I went to the job terrified they’d boot me as soon as they figured out that I didn’t know Powerpoint. But the recruiter was right: it was most important that I knew how to lay out a slide show presentation properly; I figured out PowerPoint in just a few minutes, and put together slide show presentations for two weeks per the company’s specifications.

I’ve taken one software class in my life: it was for a new version of Aldus Pagemaker (oh, how I loved Aldus products back in the 1990s!). The class was all about how you did things differently in this version versus the last version – but it didn’t teach me anything about design. And during that hour-long class, I realized I could have figured everything out about the upgrade on my own – a book about the upgrade would have been cheaper, and always there, ready for reference.

I bring this up because of a discussion on an online community where someone said they were from a nonprofit that didn’t have the money to upgrade to the latest version of Microsoft Office, a very old version of which they used to train their clients regarding how to prepare résumés, write formal correspondence, create simple business documents, etc. I responded that a great alternative for this nonprofit was OpenOffice or LibreOffice, both of which are free, both of which provide very powerful word processing, slide show/presentation, spreadsheet and database software, both of which are frequently updated, etc. I use OpenOffice myself.

Other people thought that the advice was outrageous, that if this nonprofit were to use anything but Microsoft, it would handicap their clients. But I stand by my advice: what’s important is not to teach someone how to use Microsoft Word or Microsoft anything. What’s important is for people to understand all that office software can do, such as in a document:

  • using fonts appropriately
  • setting tabs and margins
  • creating and editing tables
  • adding headers and footers
  • recording and showing, or hiding or accepting, edits by other people
  • creating mail merges
  • etc.

What’s MOST important is that you understand the capabilities of word processing software, spreadsheet software, presentation software, web page creation software, etc. – having that understanding means you will be able to learn to use future versions of the software or most any software produced by a different company that is designed to do what you want done, whether it’s to create a document or a web page or a database, whatever.

I bring this up not only because of that online community debate, but also because I see so many job postings asking just for advanced experience with Excel – rather than asking for experience with creating calculations on spreadsheets or producing a variety of graphs using statistical data. Or someone asking for experience with such-and-such database instead of asking for experience creating fields or customized reports in a database.

Another software skill that is just as important: ability to learn new functions on upgraded software or ability to learn new software quickly or ability to figure out new software/upgrades, because software changes. And changes and changes. It gets upgraded. The IT manager decides to use something different. The price gets too high and some board member can get a special deal on something different.

Give me a nimble learner over someone with 10 years of experience with ANY one software package! Give me a person who understands the basics of document design who has used a typesetter and hot wax for the past 20 years over someone who knows how to use Microsoft PowerPoint to create really ugly slide show presentations!

Also see:

Embrace FOSS and Open Source