Imagine you are like me. You find people fascinating, media interesting and computers useful. Perhaps you are, as I’ve been described, “an avid indoorsman.” But projects and organising can be a challenge, especially when practical DIY-type work is involved. As far as I’m concerned, existing picture hooks add to the value of a house.
Now imagine that someone gives you a job which includes looking after a massive public building which is nearly 1000 years old and crumbling in parts, as well as helping to look after the 200+ people who use this building on a regular basis. As the new church warden, that’s my job. Project!
Thankfully, among all those people, no-one is expecting me to become Handy Andy, while there are plenty of people with skills and the desire to get involved. Also, my colleague church warden is a surveyor and extremely handy, and the outgoing warden knows the people, building and systems from over 40 years of being hands on. The only problem is that these guys did things differently and organised differently from me. Most of the how-to knowledge is in their heads and the skills are in their hands, and these aren’t trivial to transfer, especially to people who are different and not like-for-like apprentices. To add to the change challenge, we have a brand new priest-in-charge who doesn’t yet know people or how things get done, and would probably like to know a bit about how things have been going as he sets a new course for where we go next.
So how do we get the jobs done, building to-dos planned, the relationships growing, the people involved, and various bits of practical knowledge passed along towards the next generation of church members and leaders? We know church is God’s kingdom, not our project, and prayer is definitely the starting point. One answer to that prayer has been the provision of systems which help us get stuff done and grow relationships together. I’m going to describe some of what I have used and reviewed, and hopefully it might help if you have any of the same questions.
Projects or people first?
This is the vital starting point. Most project management tools are about the efficient use of resources. You start off defining what needs to get done, then the resources available to get the stuff done (this is where people come in, as well as time and physical assets), and so you fit the people around the projects.
For us, people are the foundation. Those who belong to our community may or may not be involved in any of our projects, but we want to get to know them better and involve people when they want to be involved. When I say “our community” that has very fuzzy boundaries too – we’re all about loving our neighbour, and Jesus enlarges anyone’s definition of that. We enjoy relationships with churchgoers, local residents and businesses, work colleagues, suppliers, friends and families, people we support in mission locally and overseas, people who read our website and listen to our online talks, and others who get in touch for all kinds of reasons.
Where to put the basic data?
As a starting point we need people’s names, numbers and addresses. Like many organisations, we keep this in a database or spreadsheet on an office computer, where it can’t be accessed it without the administrator. Various trusted people might have copies or printouts at home, but when something needs to be changed, these copies go out of date. If different people put different changes into different copies, getting back in sync with one up to date document can be a major headache. This way of working is BROKEN and needs fixing.
I’ve worked with a client who insisted on doing things the hard way. They were familiar with Microsoft Access, and wouldn’t be persuaded away from it even though they needed others to share the data online. The system they needed was Microsoft Sharepoint. This can be used to keep Office documents in sync with multiple users and, if you’re not a mega-corporation, the cheapest way to use it is something like the £15 per month Microsoft Sharepoint service from 1and1. That buys 1GB of storage space for up to 50 users to share, as well as tools which help structure what goes where, who has access to what, etc. It’s not a bad package if you absolutely, definitely must use Office.
But there are better and cheaper alternatives for making and sharing documents. I’m trying to wean myself and others away from Office and onto Google Documents as much as possible. These are can seem a bit more basic than your latest Office 2010 whizzyware, but it tends to give me what I need – it’s fast, it autosaves all the time (and lets me go back to previous versions), it can be shared securely with the people who need it and edited by them if they have permission. Everyone is always seeing the up to date document, and it can even be edited by more than one person at a time. Contact details and lots more go nicely into a spreadsheet. Ideas and other things fit into documents and presentations nicely. You can even do some decent drawings – this demo is silly but you’ll get the idea.
It didn’t take long to test and reject Microsoft’s answer to this, by the way. In the first 20 minutes of working with Office Web Apps I found their system lost my data from a test document, gave me unhelpful random error messages when trying to use the prominent “Open In Word” facility (I assumed this might be because it didn’t like Chrome, but with IE9 the best I could get was “The converter failed to save the file”), and then I discovered that the final document another reader might see can look completely different from the document I edited in a browser. That takes away the comfortable feeling you get from it looking a lot like Word – avoid, avoid, avoid.
Do you need more than the basics?
There is a bit more to do than simply build a list of contacts. We are growing relationships and doing stuff. We need to keep track of what we’ve talked about doing when. We want to be open to new people sharing their interests and details with us, which they might be able to do online. At any point we might want to get in touch with groups of people with common interests or needs, and follow what happens with individuals as things develop. We certainly need to keep projects and to-do lists under control and share responsibilities where possible. Ideally the church management wants to do all of this as a team without too much training or admin time, and without too many unconnected documents floating around.
The value of being able to do this well in a business means that lots of developers have attempted to solve the problem with what has become known as Customer Relationship Management (CRM) systems. Yes, we need to reframe that idea for a church where we don’t have customers and a sales pipeline, but I have found lots of CRM systems potentially useful for us.
Here’s the meat: what I’ve considered and why we’re going with one particular one for now. Our needs are:
- a system which can make thousands of contacts’ details easy to store and access securely on a PC, iPhone or Android and, ideally, available for reference when any of those devices are not internet-connected (especially important for a mobile device);
- a flexible data scheme for each person’s info so that we can keep track of some specific things like ministry roles and gifts in a structured, promptable, searchable, standardised way (ie. not just with a big free-form text box) – we’re thinking tags and custom fields here;
- a way to manage basic to-do lists and projects, linked to people in the database – it should be as simple as possible to get a view of who is doing what, not just what needs to be done. Ideally we’d like all our project management to be in the same system, but we need great people management first, and will settle for basic project management for now, adding a more specialised project system later if needed;
- a place to store documents or, ideally, links to Google Documents, related to people and projects;
- a way to attach email correspondence to people’s records and, ideally, manage to-dos and projects by email too – for example, if I get an email asking me to do something, I’d like to forward it to the system in a way which not only stores the email but adds an item to my to-do list;
- easy ways to contact groups of people, including established groups (e.g. a ministry team) or ad hoc groups of people, such as people in a particular area or those who have expressed an interest in serving the homeless, for example – we should be able to contact groups by email (where permission is given) or make a ring-around contact sheet with as few button presses as possible. To manage email properly, we should be able to sync with Mailchimp, the best value mailing list manager I’ve found;
- we can tolerate some stuff for sales people in the structure, but ideally need to rephrase things so it is clear to system users that we are not selling stuff, and we are not cramming people into a totally standardised pipeline (from leads to prospects to customers, etc) although we recognise people do go through different stages in life and relationships, and we want to relate to everyone appropriately, so we can use these sorts of tools in our own way…
- access to the core system for a small number of management users for now (5 or 6) who vary greatly in comfort with IT, so the system should be very easy to use, highly responsive, intuitive and, ideally, attractive. I know that sounds shallow, but people do set their expectations around how things look and are more willing to invest time in making something work if their expectations are high. If it looks and behaves like a boring and complex business megasystem, it will be hard to get buy in from some of the people who need to use the thing if we’re going to find it useful. If it looks easy and is fun to use, we have an advantage.
- access to selected basic contact data for a wider group of ministry leaders, so ideally we should be able to sync selectively with something like Google Contacts;
- amazingly good “how-to” and help videos and support, so that we can develop it right, get the keen users productive and satisfied quickly, and at least keep the technophobes on board.
- ability to get all our data out – offline backups of contacts are essential, and we would ideally like to stay with a service provider merely because they are great and we choose to stay, rather than fussing about the hassle of having our data locked into their system. It’s a sign of maturity and confidence from a service provider than they will let you walk out with all your data at any time.
Better than Highrise? Customisable with “supertags” which work in a similar way to Capsule. They are even more useful with options including recurring dates which link to the built in calendar – ideal for keeping track of birthdays and anniversaries. The Social Media supertag doesn’t just hold contact details, it pulls live Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn updates into a contact’s page, and lets you manage all your social media contact making and commenting from Batchbook. Drawing this info together helps build relationship – a user will see it before they make a call or send an email. Another improvement over Highrise is that emails forwarded to the dropbox attach to all relevant records of people in the email’s “To” or “cc” fields, and emails between the same groups of people get drawn up as related communications. Screen space is saved by not displaying much summary information from each email, but lots of info tends to pop up over anything the mouse hovers over. This isn’t ideal for touch interfaces like an iPhone, but on a pointer-driven system it saves a lot of clicks and screen refreshes. Web forms are another big leap forward, allowing people to sign themselves up as contacts and enter information which can be stored in the basic fields or any supertag’s custom fields. It has an iPhone app which stores contacts offline. Plus it integrates really nicely with Mailchimp, Google Contacts (so we can keep live, basic contact lists up to date for other church members) and just about everything else we thought we might need.
So that’s why we are using it – at least to trial.At $30 a month for up to 5 users it is slightly more expensive than Highrise, but only half the price of Capsule and with more stuff. More isn’t necessarily better – usable and useful are what we need – but we’ll see how the team gets on with it.
PS – we also looked at the following, but rejected them because they are too project-centric or sales pipeline-focused, but they still seemed worth evaluating again later if we need separate project tools: BlueCamroo, Clutterpad, Teambox, Viewpath and Pipedrive. And we looked at specialist church management software like The City (a nice bespoke social network, but not much of an external contact manager) and Church Insight (looks good and can drive a website, but they expect 150 church people to have 75 other contacts BETWEEN THEM???! These people are all spending FAR too long in church…)
Note to self: the secret of getting venture capital funding is clearly to pick the right two words to bang together into the product name. As a public service, I’ve searched and found that StuffTray, MessList, ContactBag and CrapCase are all available as dotcoms. Grab them and seize the future… And if you know anyone who makes a good, usable system for church mission where they expect to know more neighbours than kneelers, let me know…