On a Shoestring

How can you make a smart decision when you don’t have good information? 

That question that was on my mind a lot in the early 2000s. I was living in Brooklyn and splitting my time between corporate consulting and partnering with a small family foundation to help their grantees with digital communications. In most cases, my nonprofit clients didn’t have any digital communications software—this was before social media was widely used by nonprofits, so we’re talking about broadcast email tools primarily—and they needed my help finding the right tool.

It didn’t take long to realize that I hated software selection, not because I wasn’t interested in the tools and how they worked, but because I couldn’t get the information I needed to begin comparing them. My instinct was to find every relevant tool, line them up side by side, and compare their features—apples to apples.

What I found was a marketplace that made that kind of comparison virtually impossible. At that time, vendors treated product information as a trade secret. Pricing was also very secretive. Many nonprofits were forced to choose software based on the recommendation of a friend or the persuasiveness of the vendor’s marketing. Consultants tried to help by developing a roster of three or four tools they were familiar with, but there was no guarantee that one of those was what the client needed.

In 2003, I started publishing an email newsletter called Software on a Shoestring, which provided software information as I collected it. In some ways it was my attempt to justify all the unbilled hours. I was spending a lot of my own time tracking down specs and features for my clients, but just couldn’t get comfortable with the idea that there might be a better product out there that I didn’t know about.

It was a testament to the state of nonprofit technology information that through word of mouth Software on a Shoestring gained more than a thousand subscribers in just a few months. All those weekday evenings and Saturday afternoons spent in my Brooklyn apartment—my “office” was a little room just big enough for two desks and two chairs side by side, one each for me and my husband—began to feel like something bigger than a newsletter.

I’ve heard from a lot of people who started nonprofits in a similar way. You have an idea or you notice a gap that no one else is filling, and then you jump in, and before long it starts to get bigger than just you.

In late 2004 I started talking to people like Ami Dar at Idealist and Ed Batista from NTEN. I had this idea: Start a nonprofit that provided all the tech information a nonprofit needed to be smart about technology. We wouldn’t do consulting work. We’d just provide information as a way to help organizations get started.

Many of the people I talked to had mixed feelings about what I was proposing. They liked the idea and knew there was a need for something like it, but they weren’t sure we could pull it off. Would general information that’s not tailored to a specific organization really be useful? And would vendors cooperate and provide the in-depth details we needed?

Nonetheless, the nonprofit tech community—including TechSoup and NTEN—embraced us and put us to work. Ten years, 1.1 million words, and 68,000 people hours later, it’s clear that the Idealware model is a success. We’ve been part of a sea change toward transparency in nonprofit technology. Today, in an hour, any nonprofit leader can sort through dozens of software products and narrow them down to three or four. We’re proud to be one of the leaders of this movement and to see that so many more organizations are now also working in their unique ways to make sure nonprofits are not left guessing when it comes to technology.

I’m also proud that this year Idealware has grown into the kind of organization that will sustain itself long into the future. It’s not just me typing away at my newsletter anymore. We have a whole team of researchers, strategists, and communicators who will shape the next 10 years of Idealware. And most importantly, we have Karen Graham, who has taken over leadership of Idealware and is pushing us further than I ever thought possible all those years ago.

I’ll let Karen tell you her plans for Idealware’s future, but I just want to say thank you to everyone who believed in this crazy idea and helped us out along the way these past 10 years. Idealware wasn’t founded by a big seed grant. We built it one report, one training, and one research project at a time. Whether you are a funder or a reader (or both!), you are what sustain us. You are the foundation of our success.

Idealware began as a hobby that I hoped would do some good in the world. It’s so gratifying to know that all of you who are reading this have done so much to make the world a better place and that we have played some small part in supporting you.

Thank you for being part of Idealware for these past 10 years and please consider supporting the future of Idealware. I’m excited about what the next 10 years will bring.


Topics: Idealware, Insights
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