Many distributed organisations with local affiliates coordinated by centralised headquarters face similar challenges: how to exchange structured data and aggregate local achievements to present a global picture of their impact.

In today’s fundraising environment, large nonprofits, NGOs and charities find it hard to present the impact of their work. Notwithstanding the difficulties of evaluating local projects, a common complaint we’ve been hearing a lot lately is how difficult it is for nonprofits to meaningfully connect local affiliates to their headquarters.

During conversations at the inaugural meeting of the Open Charity Drupal group in London, we heard this challenge arise. And again at the Brighton Sustainable Food Cities Conference.

We’re aware of at least three large networked nonprofit organisations who all face this challenge and, since there are many federated organisations around the world, we suspect there are possibly hundreds of organisations also facing it.

This problem is not currently being solved successfully by these organisations’ content management and management information systems. But a combined effort from Drupal developers could offer some hope: an open source solution which could benefit a huge number of people.

Situation

Federated and decentralised nonprofits, NGOs, charities and networked movements present some unique technology challenges. Such organisations are typically composed of many autonomous, local affiliates providing services and campaigning at the “grassroots”.

Affiliates are typically served by staff at a central HQ who aggregate data from the field, negotiate with funders and international bodies and coordinate governance and other services on behalf of members.

Mind, one of the UK’s largest mental health charities is one such organisation, as is the global sexual health champion International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF). UK-based food sustainability network Sustainable Food Cities exhibits some of the same attributes of a federated network, as do the Transition Network and CSA UK network (which currently doesn’t have its own site). And the Abundance Network and UK Wholefood Shop Action Network are just a few others.

We are certain these are not the only organisations with a need for better, more meaningful connections between local affiliates. Please add any others you know in the comments.

Since affiliates are autonomous, they’re free to make their own decisions on technology. They might be sizable registered charities or small community groups. Whatever their size, they typically have some form of online presence: a basic blog along with activity on social media. But being based in countries with a relatively low number of skilled developers, many affiliates use poor quality software and blogging tools. Locally running a custom solution perhaps built on Drupal and/or WordPress (coordinated by HQ to meet the needs of both HQ and local affiliates) and compatible with the HQ’s own software would offer significant benefits.

Affiliates need good quality digital tools to help them in carrying out their general day-to-day business of providing services and campaigning. In many contexts, it is hard for them to gather and represent data about their work and achievements at the local level. Often the process of transferring impact data and reports is a completely manual operation, involving Excel spreadsheets, Word files being emailed to head office and much copy-pasting by HQ staff: certainly not an efficient process and completely impractical for many organisations once the size of data sets reaches a critical scale.

Because individual network members barely have time to publish to their own sites, let alone to the network, automating the information transfer means potentially important information can reach a much wider audience than if it is only published locally.

Case Study: Transition Network’s Project Sharing Engine

The Transition Network developed their Nominet-funded Project Sharing Engine (PSE) which demonstrates one possible approach to developing this idea. The engine allows any affiliate groups (who have embedded the PSE widget on their site) to enter information about their projects which is then added to the HQ site. From there it can be republished out to any other affiliate site in the network (as long as they’ve also embedded the widget) as well as being available to the HQ.

Their system ensures the network can communicate its impact and scale to funders and supporters and, at the same time, enables network members to learn from one another.

Requirements

The central HQ might have several important needs for its own website:

  • Provide a central point of reference for general information about the network.
  • Present the means to find out information about each part of the network, e.g.
    • a list of all the local affiliates and a view of them located on a map
    • a profile of each one showing more detailed information, particularly contacts and links to the affiliate’s own online presence and digital tools
    • list other information about the activity across the network, such as projects
  • Offer tools to allow local affiliates to update their own profile
  • Suck in blog posts, tweets and other content published by affiliates
  • Provide news and blogs for a variety of authors
  • Suck in more complex content, perhaps in the form of:
    • financial or impact reporting
    • evaluation results
    • detailed operational data on staffing
    • clinical data
    • other forms of structured results data
  • This could even be provided in real-time should such a need exist

Solutions

Our vision is for the members of the Drupal and WordPress communities with an interest in supporting this initiative to work together to contribute to a suite of modules, features or even a pair of distributions which can be plugged into existing sites.

How might we build a solution? Since Drupal (a flexible content management framework) has now been adopted by so many charities and nonprofits for managing their web content, it seems an appropriate candidate system on which to establish the basic functionality of our solution.

Modules

The most basic solution would be to develop and install a Drupal module to (securely) pass information from the affiliate site up to the HQ servers. To begin with, this might only broadcast the existence of new blog posts and other content added to affiliate sites. But, once installed into each affiliate’s site, the module could be progressively enhanced with extended features.

Structured data could be transferred back and forth from the central website or could even bypass HQ altogether to allow affiliate content to flow around the network wherever it is requested.

Complete distributions

Drupal also supports creating distributions (or “distros”) – specially adapted versions of the core Drupal product, tailored to a specific market or type of client. For instance, Folk Labs is in the process of developing OpenLocal which serves the needs of local community groups like Transition Towns and ecovillages.

A truly advanced solution would be to create a pair of Drupal distributions: one for affiliates and the other for the central hub or headquarters, with many advantages for both affiliate and headquarters.

Could a paired Drupal distribution provide an innovative solution for these organisations?

The best way to enable this to happen is to build tools which help those things to do their daily work more efficiently easily and cheaply. Moving beyond blogging would be the objective. An example we recently heard during a workshop with local affiliates was a plea for a clinical case management system.

Running such a system in a clinic would then allow data to be drawn out automatically by the headquarters teams without any action needing to be taken by the affiliate staff.

Our vision

We see an opportunity here for developers and the organisations that benefit to rally together and collaborate around one solution. It’s not just a nice idea – this is the way we should work together.

This, after all, is the whole purpose of open source software – to collectively collaborate on projects to obtain the best product for everyone in the most efficient way possible.

So would you or the organisation you work for find such a software tool useful? Could you see some benefit to having a better connected and more structured approach to exchanging data?

Perhaps you’re a Drupal developer or designer who can see some benefit to more joined-up thinking around this sort of functionality? Or do you know some developers who would appreciate having a well designed and implemented Drupal module or distro which would provide a basis for new builds?

Please do let us know your thoughts on this idea in the comments or on Twitter.