December 2008

"Support, encompassing traditional installation, desktop, and software lifecycle support, is a significant issue for NFPs [not-for-profits]."

Jason Cote and Julian Egelstaff

Much of the currently available off-the-shelf software offers too many features and does not meet the unique usability needs of non-technical or disabled users using old hardware. When leveraging open source components to rapidly build products for not-for-profit organizations, the speed of development doesn't reduce the need to make the product accessible by the users.

This article shares the experiences of a unique community/university partnership to bring accessible technology to the non-profit community in the National Capital Region.

Creating a Partnership

In 2006, Volunteer Ottawa (VO), a charitable non-profit volunteer centre which increases the capacity of organizations through the use of volunteer energy, recognized that it needed to build a more efficient internal system to manage its staff and volunteer resources. Because of its focus on community capacity, and mindful of the hundreds of community organizations it supports, VO decided that it would look for innovative solutions that the non-profit community as a whole could share. Once VO secured individual donor support for a community tool, it began thinking about how to best leverage this financial support into a secure, useable and sustainable system for itself and for the sector at large.

Through investigating possible administrative solutions, VO realized it was really searching for an external program delivery model that supported internal administrative pieces. A central part of a volunteer centre's role in the community is helping potential volunteers find volunteer opportunities and helping community organizations advertise their volunteer needs. Individuals, school groups and corporations need to make quick and easy connections with community organizations. A system that provides online volunteer applications, tracks volunteer activity to help with recruitment strategies, and provides backend administrative reporting and organizational management would provide significant support to the non-profit community throughout the region.

Carleton University was looking for ways to bridge the university to the community. Coralie Lalonde, an angel investor and community volunteer, immediately saw the possibility for a partnership that would create that very bridge. "I knew that the volunteer centre would make a perfect conduit for community needs to flow to Carleton and for the technology solutions to flow back out," she says. Open source was proposed as the most efficient means to provide maximum functionality with minimum associated costs.

Technology Needs

VO hired a staff member to research community needs and to provide social support to organizations to ensure the technology was actually usable. "When talking about technology and the non-profit sector, it isn't enough to believe that if you build it they will come. Non-profit staff and volunteers are focused on delivering hands-on programs. They simply do not have the time to invest in chasing down every possible tool that comes along, and it is really important that not only is the tech solution easy to use, but that it is clear how the individual, the organization, and most importantly, the client service will improve through using the technology," Jill Woodley, communications manager at VO, points out. A Carleton graduate student and VO set to work on figuring out the best option for the first task of the partnership - building a community volunteer website.

The website had a number of requirements. It needed to be:

  • easy to navigate and straightforward for volunteers to apply for opportunities
  • accessible for people with disabilities who use various programs to help them navigate on computers, such as screen readers
  • expandable, as the partnership had many plans for numerous applications
  • easy for community organizations to post their volunteer needs onto the site

VO insisted that organizations also be able to run reports showing them useful data such as the number of applications they received directly through the website or the number of individuals who clicked through to their organization's homepage from their profile at VO. VO needed a host of administration functionalities, as keeping track of over 300 community organizations and thousands of volunteer requests required simple but extremely reliable reporting. VO needed some way of knowing not just how many applications were being made, but which volunteer opportunities were not receiving applications. This would allow VO to focus scarce staff resources to work more closely with those organizations to provide additional recruitment support. Finally, all of this had to happen in both English and French as VO is a bilingual organization.

VO settled on an open source application, a service provider and a basic design layout. As the back-end for community groups was built, Jill continually tested the functionalities with various organizations to ensure community needs were being met and that what was being built could be used by organizations with older hardware or slow Internet connectivity. By testing functionalities continually, Jill gathered useful information about community needs and created buy-in for the technology work VO was engaging in.

The community site was officially launched during National Volunteer Week in April, 2008. In the months since, over 4,000 potential volunteers applied to volunteer positions through this website. Currently, VO is now focusing on building a volunteer management application that community organizations can use to manage their volunteer programs. This application will be available and supported through VO's community website.

Communications Technology

Ontario's Talent First Network had created an open source web conferencing product called BigBlueButton, which was being used to teach remote students in their TIM program. It had also spun out a new company called Blindside Networks to provide commercial support for BigBlueButton. BigBlueButton provides high-quality voice conferencing using asterisk, a popular open source implementation of a private branch exchange. Wondering if free conference calling would be of interest to non-profit organizations, a connection was made with VO who immediately saw the huge benefit this service would be to the community. Blindside Networks offered its professional services to the project, and Carleton's Foundry program, led by Luc Lalande, offered to host a voice conference server and provide the necessary phone lines.

While developers are good at providing software that solves technical problems, in-house customization is often needed to ensure the application is accessible to a vast array of users. Any successful project needs to proceed through the core phases of requirements gathering, planning, implementation, testing, and deployment.

Blindside started gathering VO's requirements and found that:

  • end users had to be able to schedule a conference from their web browser
  • the interface had to be really easy to use
  • the interface had to work with various levels of outdated hardware and be accessible to persons with disabilities
  • the product needed to be integrated into VO's existing web site in both official languages
  • the conference server had to send out an e-mail with the instructions for joining the conference

During the planning phase, the project was broken into four main steps, with the intent that VO could see and test the solution with community organizations after each step. These steps were:

  1. Setup a voice conference server using asterisk and its MeetMe module.
  2. Provide a simple interface to schedule a conference as MeetMe's web interface, Web MeetMe, was too complicated.
  3. Integrate the server with VO's existing web site.
  4. Create training material for self-support.

Creating an alternate interface was important as VO was certain that end users would be overwhelmed by the default interface. VO knew that anything that was perceived as complicated would simply not be used by the community. Figure 1 illustrates the interface which is used to edit an existing conference.

Figure 1: Simplified Interface

Writing a simple interface is not simple. Most open source developers have little expertise in user interface (UI) design and there is clearly a market for UI designers that are skilled in working with open source projects. For this project, there were two choices: i) rework the PHP based MeetMe interface to be much simpler; or ii) develop a custom application. The second option was chosen, largely because another open source project, Grails, provided a rapid development toolkit for creating database driven applications. Within two weekends, a working interface for scheduling conference calls was completed and available for testing. User feedback showed that the UI still needed to be easier to use. What seemed like small tweaks were incorporated, and all were important in reducing the steps necessary to book and invite attendees to a conference call. "If it takes three steps, especially if those steps require moving between browser and email programs, people give up at step 2," Jill noted. "We continually run up against the sad state of technology hardware and Internet support most organizations are struggling with, which really forces us to keep everything very streamlined, clear and clean. It means more time in development but if it increases an agency's capacity to devote more resources to client care, it's worth it from VO's perspective."

VO's site was built on open source software called EZ Publisher. This was helpful for integration as we could look at the code and leverage its existing web services interface for authentication of third-party software. When a user clicked on "Schedule a Conference" at the VO site, the URL would need to pass a session token to the voice conference server, which would then connect back to EZ Publisher and get the user's e-mail address. Because we had access to all the code for both applications, integration was fairly easy to implement.

The final step provided an interesting challenge. With three hundred organizations served by a small staff, VO does not have the capacity to handle large numbers of support requests. VO delegates time to share information about the new application to the community and to run group information sessions about the new service, but it is critical that the application be intuitive for users.

Videos are an effective way to introduce new software, and a 2 minute video was created that shows how to schedule a conference. However, even when the video was offered in both the Adobe Flash and Windows Media Video formats, many community organizations did not have the plug-ins or players to view the video. Those that did have the software often reported that their bandwidth made it impractical to watch a video. Finally, the internal capacity was not available to also provide a video in French. The decision was made to keep the video available for those who were able to view it, but more traditional screen shots and text were made available to everyone.

In the end, VO was excited about this application and initial feedback from site trials has been garnering positive feedback. There is still work to be done, but clearly this will be an extremely useful tool for its community.

Lessons Learned

Everyone involved in the partnership learned a few lessons about using open source software at not-for-profit organizations:

Don't assume technology capabilities. Regardless of their size, many non-profit organizations struggle with software, hardware, and Internet support. Sometimes even the larger, established organizations capable of carrying out complex local, national or international programs are lagging in technology.

Just because you build it doesn't mean they'll use it. Anyone who communicates with the non-profit sector appreciates the vast number of organizations, services and approaches comprising its community. Some organizations have literally no paid staff, while others have hundreds. Some have state of the art hardware and no support services while some have state of the art everything and no time to learn how to use it. The key is support: technology support and also the social support that takes a peer-to-peer approach and is able to meet the organization where it is at in terms of technology. Support increases the use, and therefore the community impact, of a technology solution.

Be prepared to integrate. Complete solutions require the integration of multiple open source applications. Having access to the source makes integration possible.

Be prepared to extend. Blindside ended up writing its own web interface for scheduling voice conferences. Fortunately, they had a pretty deep knowledge of asterisk, so most of the time was spent on UI design.

Be prepared to simplify. What is easy for developers is often not easy for everyone else. Non-profit staff and volunteers have varying levels of comfort with technology, but even the most savvy have limited resources to learn new systems. For non-profit organizations to invest time in learning new technology, there must be a high return on investment with minimal effort.

Be prepared to rework some parts. Blindside thought they had done a good job at planning, but could have done at least one more UI mock-up before implementation. There's a bit of a trade-off, as it's always quicker to iterate designs on paper, but the best user feedback comes from interaction with a real UI. Fortunately, the use of Grails enabled us to iterate our web interface fairly quickly.


Cote and Egelstaff, in the beginning quote, were right. The issues of support and sustainability in developing technology solutions are very important for a not-for-profit. The real challenge for this partnership is not implementing software, but in adapting the software to end users. By working with a non-profit organization which is already supporting the capacity of hundreds of other non-profits, Carleton University was able to adapt some of its cutting edge thinking to the needs of the non-profit sector, increasing the sector's capacity for service delivery. That's enabling innovation using open source.

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