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Mobile for Nonprofits and Libraries

How your organization can benefit from using and creating mobile technologies

Mobile for Nonprofits and Libraries 
Kevin Lo - June 06, 2011
How do mobile technologies affect nonprofits and libraries? Learn about mobile opportunities for your organization in this article.

If you're not already familiar with basic terms and definitions of mobile devices and networks, you may want to read the first part in this series, Mobile 101: The Basics. In this second piece we will dive deeper into the implications of the mobile shift for nonprofits and libraries. There are two vectors by which we can analyze how mobile technology — both the IT components and the content that exists in the mobile sphere — that are relevant to the community benefit sector: the inward-facing aspects of organizations as users of mobile technology, and the outward-facing aspect of organizations as producers of content for mobile technology.

Nonprofits and Libraries as Device and Data Users

Do you remember the first time you started using wireless networking? Today we don't think much about how you can access data in the middle of a meeting space, or a cafe, or the library, and being as productive as you would be tethered to your desk at the office. Mobile technology too has advanced to an extent that work can be further untethered as long as you are in an area with sufficient wireless access. In some ways the "new" mobile technology is not all that new, except you now can do your work on different devices than before, using different interfaces and technologies. Mobile technologies thus add further flexibility to your workforce by allowing them to work anywhere.

Flattening the Learning Curve

Similarly, when we first learned to use Microsoft Windows or Mac OS there is a learning curve to understanding the functionality and interfaces to do the things we need to do. Now we have additional interfaces to learn, but that which is understood to be more intuitive. As we use more touch gestures instead of keystrokes, taps instead of clicks, mobile devices are designed to be more user friendly and removes as much as possible the layer between human and machine, something that is still all too familiar whenever there's a problem on our desktop or laptop. This deliberate "flattening" of the technology learning curve is beneficial to the sector, as training needs decrease if users are already familiar with the technology in their daily lives.

Access from the Cloud

Mobile technologies working in the cloud, as defined by applications and services delivered by a third party over the Internet, and delivered to devices and platforms regardless of build, is another way nonprofits and libraries are realizing the benefits. You can now post a fundraiser as a Facebook event on your computer at work, check the attendance for the same event on your phone, and modify the location because of an unexpected change from your tablet at home. Even nonprofit-specific tasks such as donor management and fundraising can be done via the cloud, let alone more common tasks like office productivity or data management. Libraries, as key supporters of open information and accessibility have also moved to using mobile by developing apps that inform patrons of events, allows users to place holds on an item in their collection, or shows new additions available for check-out. Since your data remains off-site you are now free to access it from any network or device.

Salesforce.com, the company that developed the eponymous constituent relationship management (CRM) package whose donation many nonprofits use, is perhaps one of the earliest and strongest proponents to cloud and platform-independent usage. They also ensure that both their core CRM package as well as their new collaboration suite Chatter can be accessed via different form devices and platforms seamlessly.

As companies develop and utilize cloud and mobile technologies more for the commercial sector, nonprofits and libraries will benefit as well. For example, some of TechSoup's donating partners can be used via the cloud and mobile devices already, and we can expect more donor partners to expand in that direction.

Leveraging Existing Assets

In addition, since nonprofits are no strangers to consumerization — consumer devices used increasingly in the workplace — as the corporate sector adjusts for this trend, social benefit organizations who have already adjusted should take full advantage of all the new options available. Volunteers and new employees may already be embracing smartphones and tablets in their personal lives, so organizations should be structured to leverage those assets.

If, five years ago, you may have worried about the phone or computer that your intern won't have, you now should work towards creating an environment where some of your work can leverage mobile and cloud technologies so that they can work with their own devices. At the same time, IT managers and accidental techies must be ahead of the curve in terms of policies and guidelines to accommodate these devices. Even if you only access data in the cloud, remnants of your visits or downloaded information may lead to data loss should they be misplaced. For more information, refer to our earlier article or our blog post on using your own computer at work.

Nonprofits and Libraries as Content Creators and Aggregators

In addition to how organizations can use mobile technologies internally, we must reconceptualize our organizations in cyberspace where your supporters and allies can connect and interact with you in an increasing mobile world.

Does Your Site Work on Mobile?

One obvious consideration is how your site looks on a mobile device. Depending on your mission and the demographics of your visitors you should find out how your site is rendered on an iPhone or Android device. If you tweeted or posted a Facebook update about your event and linked it back to your site, you'd want to make sure that the information you've posted is at least legible on the mobile device that a reader may have gotten that information in the first place.

Excessive graphics or an overly specialized layout might cause pages to load improperly on a mobile device. Better yet, if you are using a formal CMS like Drupal or SharePoint, there will be tools that allow for automatic mobile rendering, or creation of a special mobile domain. Your mobile users would then be redirected from "www.localhealthservices.org" to "m.localhealthservices.org" for instance. If your online presence is already leveraging tools in the cloud, this optimization would be less disruptive since most of these are already mobile optimized.

Citing the earlier example, by using Facebook as the tool for your fundraising event, you now ensure that outreach and marketing reach your supporters and constituents getting this info using a mobile device. Even if you didn't specifically use the event feature in Facebook, your event management software should allow for broadcasting via all social media sites, where many users may be getting via smartphones or tablets. Your email distribution tool should also allow for proper rendering or linking from a mobile device. If your site hosts rich media like videos or slideshows, that is another consideration because Flash video, the format that is used for many video sites, may require additional workarounds by the user to be viewable on certain devices. If you are updating your site now or plan to do so in the near future it would be important to keep these considerations in mind.

Creating and Aggregating Content

Beyond the existing elements like email and web presence however, organizations may choose to deploy mobile specific features should they greatly enhance their mission. Like any other IT investment, you should consider how much return you can expect on the investment you put in. Here are some actions that you may want to take to enhance your mobile presence:

  • Creating apps. Probably the most straightforward way to ride the mobile wave (but perhaps requiring the greatest investment for questionable returns) is to create an app for your organization. The type of app you create will depend of your mission, but like many commercial sites you may choose to "applify" your website into a mobile-ready app. You can also take your normal outreach material and make that into an app. For example, the Monterey Bay Aquarium has an app for its popular Seafood Watch guide on sustainable fish, and the First Amendment Coalition has an app iOpenGov reference and guide for Open Access Law.
  • Location awareness. Although your users and supporters may be roaming, the fact that mobile devices have GPS has spawned a genre of online activity that advertises one's location to their social network. With Foursquare and Gowalla as the early pioneers, and companies like Google, Facebook, and Twitter all joining the fray, location-based recognition is expected to be an increasingly important part of one's mobile footprint. Although for now they are still limited to commercial applications, for example special deals or coupons for those who "check-in" the most, nonprofits like museums and galleries are already using leveraging this feature to raise awareness. Libraries can issue "badges" for users who visit often, or to those who participate in certain events at a set frequency.
  • Better digital storytelling. Using the cameras that come with smartphones and tablets, nonprofits should encourage their community of supporters to use this feature to better tell your story. TechSoup readers are probably familiar with digital storytelling already, but the community interaction afforded by mobile activity can be a powerful tool to shed a different light on your work. For example, Instagram is a popular app on iPhones that allows for snapshots to be taken by users, propagated to their social networks, and geotagged with Foursquare. If, say, a volunteer or staff used such functionality to tell their story volunteering at a shelter, or for a field trip sponsored by a historical society, this could be a powerful message to both funders and supporters.

Conclusion

Mobile technologies are enabling greater productivity within an organization, and are offering new ways of interaction with our stakeholders. Although the competitive landscape and industry standards are still shifting, organizations should begin to educate themselves about the opportunities this mobile evolution will bring. Like any other IT investment, a change in both internal and external processes should be well thought out and discussed with all relevant stakeholders.

If your IT infrastructure is lacking the basics to keep your staff running, you probably should not invest in new technologies until you have those basics down. Likewise, if your website hasn't been updated since your last intern was here, and you don't have a proper content strategy, pursuing a mobile-ready website should not be your first priority.

Even as the competition is shaking out amongst the data providers, the device makers, and the software developers, community benefit organizations should be ready to deploy mobile as an organizational strategy and utilize it in their implementation and execution of their mission.

Additional Resources

Image: Mobile, Shutterstock