The Digital Nonprofit Toolkit

For most nonprofits, a suite of digital tools can be a critical asset for enabling your team to do amazing work (not to mention simply enabling yourself to kick ass). As consultants to nonprofits that have hands in some start-ups, we don’t have the same needs and use cases as many nonprofits. But we’ve spent years working in nonprofits and are collaborating with many on a daily basis.

Here’s what we are using these days:

File sharing: We use Dropbox a lot, although Google Docs can be a good alternative if you’ve got a shared account (and we suspect that the new Google Drive is going to give Dropbox a serious run).

Email: I mostly use MailChimp…it’s inexpensive, reasonably easy to use and integrates with a wide array of third-party apps. Creating and changing templates can be annoying at times but, hey, nobody said HTML email was as easy as making toast. Documentation is solid, the Chimp folks blog frequently and seem genuinely interested in nonprofit implementations.

I am increasingly a fan of SendGrid, as well. They’ve got awesome customer service, it’s much easier for a non-techie like me to design and modify the email templates, and they are slowly rolling out free and low-volume pricing options. If you do high volume email, especially if you want to build your own internal UI, then SendGrid seems like the obvious choice.

We realize that most mid-size to ginormous nonprofits (and many small groups) are going to be using tools from Blackbaud, Convio, Salsa or other companies that mush together email, advocacy and fundraising. If you’ve got the budget and you’d prefer the combined multi-function product instead of stand-alone elements, they can make a lot of sense.

Emailing large files: YouSendIt and Dropsend are both solid. They can be pretty useful when the other party isn’t using DropBox.

Document collaboration: For all its quirks, we haven’t found anything that beats Google Docs (which is now being folded into Google Drive).

Bookmarking, Notetaking, Writing: Ted has become a consistent and almost fanatical user of Evernote (and if Instagram can be worth a billion dollars then why not Evernote?). It covers the bases, it’s easy to use, and it’s very accessible on multiple devices. Our main complaint is that its formatted content doesn’t paste well into other tools.

Cloud storage: For simple storage, I’m a fan of Rackspace, and I especially love their “fanatical” customer support. We know others who like Amazon Cloud, as well.

Backups: I use a pair of external hard drives and Time Machine, but I might end up exploring something cloud-based (maybe as a supplement to my hard drive-swapping approach). Anyone out there really in love with a particular cloud backup solution?

Social media dashboards: Hootsuite has been the hands-down winner for me, although it’s really just a Twitter dashboard. I like the UI, it’s easy to use, and it does what I want. You can include other accounts, like Facebook, but it doesn’t work as well for those (which I think is generally true of dashboards like this). Ted is happy with Hootsuite as well but is less enthusiastic about it … he finds the interface to be clunky, and there are some annoying issues when trying to manage/admin client Twitter accounts (e.g., if the client is already using Hootsuite free version to manage their Twitter account you can’t get access to it via your own Hootsuite, which is just silly).

Time tracking/Invoicing: When you’re an independent consultant or small shop tracking your time is both a pain in the arse and one of the most critical parts of surviving. We’ve been very pleased with Harvest. Heck, most nonprofit enterprise time tracking systems could learn a lot from Harvest and similar systems.

Project management: Basecamp and Wrike are my two favorite project management tools. They take different approaches, the former built more on a “Getting Things Done” type of structure while Wrike is a little more traditional, but they both have good UIs and solid features. I’m just starting a project using Smartsheet (because it integrates with a very cool public input tool we are using called Crowdbrite), which I’ve not used before … I can report on it in a few months.

Blogging/web platform: WordPress, especially when it’s used with the Genesis framework. It has its quirks, and it can be tough for non-techies to build out a site with any real customization (although I can recommend great web designers if you need anyone), but every blog I use now is built on WordPress. It’s robust, the UI is solid once the site is built, and it looks really good. We’ve seen (and built) some great sites that are much more than blogs using WordPress. It can be done. But think hard about Drupal, especially if you’re building a broad content and/or community-rich site.

Music: Because who doesn’t need music sometimes while they work … I’m a fan of Spotify and Pandora, although our local classical station (KVOD) and the terrific Santa Monica indy station KCRW get a lot of my streaming as well. Ted is a big Rdio fan, which I haven’t tried yet (but should because it’s far better than Spotify, Ted claims). He also threw in a vote for KCRW and for Denver’s KUVO. We are both fans of Seattle’s KEXP for edgy alt-rock.

Link shortening: I mostly use Bitly. It’s simple, free, and has decent analytics. Hootsuite integrates ow.ly, though, which also works fine.

Password management: It took me a while to warm up to it, and because I have multiple Dropbox accounts the Dropbox-based syncing didn’t work (they have other sync options), but I’m now a solid fan of 1Password. I keep track of one master password and it keeps track of everything else. Very handy once you get over the hump of actually using it.

Online stores and e-commerce: The combo of Shopify and Stripe seems to work well for managing online stores and the related e-commerce transactions.

What did we miss? Other great options we should cover?

Photo courtesy actna.net (which has a pretty good article on digital tools that should be in a journalist’s toolbox).