Organising 1,600 free walks with online tools

In my last post on co-founding a non-profit organisation, I promised to write a post about how we organise everything with online tools. 

Vienna Greeters organises free walks for visitors to Vienna (1,600 so far and counting).
Here's how we do it.

Before we even started work on Vienna Greeters, we managed all the preparation in a "Personal" project at Basecamp (a one-time-fee simple version of Basecamp 2, before they went all corporate). 

The website

Then we set up a funky website at Squarespace (we liked it before everyone else). 

There's a bit of a learning curve here, as they do things a bit differently, and some things are a bit fiddly, but after three years, and experience with WordPress, Jimdo and Wix, I'm still happy to stay with Squarespace.

It's one of the few things we actually pay for. 

The submission form 

This one took a bit of digging. We started with the built-in Squarespace forms but soon realised that we needed a bit more power. 

One thing we wanted to do was use logic to reduce ambiguity and errors in the submissions.

I looked at everything out there: Google Forms, Wufoo, WordPress again, Typeform – and others I've since forgotten – before chancing upon what turned out to be the leader of the pack: Cognito Forms

Cognito gives you complete control over logic and usability. You can tweak practically anything, use your own CSS and embed seamlessly (not just as an iFrame). 

It sounds silly, but simple things like preventing a visitor from entering a departure date earlier than their arrival date really made a difference for us. I'm still amazed at how many websites still don't have some of this functionality. 

Amazingly, we're still on the free plan at Cognito, as we don't have more than 500 requests a month. But we'll gladly pay once we hit that target. 

Side note: I really really like Typeform. They have the best user experience, and built-in logic (in the paid plans). But for curious reasons they stubbornly refuse to implement a date-picker (I have asked them several times why, to no avail). So you have to decide in advance whether your date is formatted dd.mm.yyyy or mm.dd.yyyy for all visitors. Believe me, if you get a date like 04.03.2019 from the USA, you cannot be sure whether they mean 4th March or 3rd April. Trust me. 

G Suite

No big surprise here: we manage our main list in Google Sheets. 

What may be a surprise is that Google gives free unlimited access to the G Suite apps (primarily Docs, Drive and Gmail) to all non-profit organisations

So we run our email accounts and all our documentation in the Google ecosystem.  

That's not all, they also give us a monthly budget of $10,000 (yes, you read that right) to spend on Google Ads. Seriously, $10,000. Read more at Google Ad Grants.

If you work for a non-profit organisation and aren't yet taking advantage of Google's offers, drop me a line and I can explain how it works. 

Connecting the form and the spreadsheet

This is the clever bit, and it changed how we organise everything. 

Cognito offered only one API connection to an external service: Microsoft Sharepoint. 

Weird. Until I looked closer. They connect to Zapier, and Zapier connects to more than 1,000 services. 

The rest is history. We now manage practically every step in our request process with Zapier. 

A "Zap" is basically a little script that connects the APIs of two external services, but with a really easy to use interface – just as it should be. 

So when a guest sends us a request via Cognito, Zapier creates an entry in Google Sheets, a new card in Trello, and then sends the guest a confirmation email using Gmail. 

Later, when we manage individual requests in our Trello board, and move them from New to Pending, Matched, Completed or Cancelled, Zapier updates the Google Sheet to reflect the changed status and sends notification emails to the guests along the way. 

This way, we have redundancy and remove error sources. Discovering Zapier saved us hours every week. Zapier even wrote a blog post about us. I know! Blush. 

Here are what some of those "Zaps" look like: 

 

Zapier is the only other service listed here that we pay for, but we're on the smallest plan and they give us a discount as a non-profit. 

The main dashboard

As mentioned above, we use Trello as our main dashboard to manage requests. It's perfect for this. We simply drag and drop requests from list to list, and trigger actions in the background via Zapier.

With Trello's simple interface we can comment on cards, include team members in discussions, change details and crucially, do this from anywhere using the iOS and Android apps. 

Sharing our requests

Our volunteers need to find out who's coming to Vienna and what they're interested in. And this is where we use a tried-and-tested method: MailChimp

MailChimp lets us send personalised weekly emails to our 100+ volunteers. We created a new tab in Google Sheets containing a pre-formatted HTML version of the new requests. We just copy and paste this list into MailChimp and off it goes. 

We thought about automating this and using Zapier to send the emails, but we found that MailChimp is easy to use and does the job well. 

MailChimp is free for up to 2,000 contacts. 

Pros and Cons

Sure, it's not all perfect, and we know that other Greeter organisations have individually customised request management systems. That's cool, but it just wasn't the path that we took. 

Some things have caused some head-scratching over the years:

The new GDPR data protection rules (which incidentally all these tools comply with) meant we had to delete thousands of old requests. This was very fiddly in Trello, as there is no way to automatically delete archived cards. A generous friend kindly helped with a fancy script that triggered the delete via the API. Zapier doesn't support a delete action, apparently to prevent people accidentally deleting their whole account, which I suppose makes sense. 

Our Google spreadsheet is getting a bit long. Sometimes the API request from Zapier to Google times out because Google doesn't respond quickly enough and the Zap stops. But Zapier sends me a notification and I just need to click on "Replay", which usually does the trick. In the long term, we'll either have to shorten the spreadsheet – which would mess up our statistics – or move over to MySQL, which I'm not really keen on. 

Finally, a brief point on Gmail, which we sometimes overlook. 

Gmail's ergonomic usability, its filters, labels and instant search mean that it is basically a content management system. 

We spend a lot of our time sending emails, and Gmail makes it incredibly fast to find requests, move them, label them and forward them.

I'm generally careful about gushing praise for the behemoth that Google has become, but I cannot overemphasise how important their tools are for our day-to-day organisation. 

Conclusion 

I'm sure we could do this better, but I'm quite proud of what we've put together. 

Are there any groovy tools out there that we're missing out on? I'll look at any new tool if I think it can improve our workflow. 

The key to all the tools listed here is that for the most part they're fun to use. I think this aspect is seriously underestimated with a lot of software.