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The 2011 Annual General Meeting of the Maroondah Citizens Advice Bureau

By Advice for Not-for-profit Organisations and Charities, News 2 Comments

The Maroondah Citizens Advice Bureau is in its 43rd year and provides emergency food relief, information referral and support.

Today’s Annual General Meeting elected committee members for the 2011/2012 year who provide ongoing direction for this vital community organisation. I had previously been a committee member of the Maroondah Citizens Advice Bureau since 2007 where I assisted in the planning and delivery of their business plan.

This plan led to modernisation of the service, including database systems for clients and referral agencies. This results in efficiency improvements, easier access to information and ensuring up-to-date records. The plan also strengthened the marketing of the organisation through a website, as well as ensuring consistent promotional materials and publicity.

Governance reforms were also undertaken providing delegated authority for the office administrator and a clear distinction between paid staff and the committee of management.

I chose not to re-nominate for the committee given that I felt that the changes over the past few years have helped deliver an ongoing and sustainable future for the organisation.

For further information on the Maroondah Citizens Advice Bureau please visit www.mcab.org.au.

The Future of Volunteering – Strengthening Communities Through Volunteering

By Advice for Not-for-profit Organisations and Charities, News, Presentations, Resources No Comments

The Future of Volunteering – Strengthening Communities Through Volunteering, is a conference organised in partnership between Boroondara Volunteer Resource Centre, Monash Volunteer Resource Centre and Eastern Volunteers.

The conference follows from the Community Conference organised last year by Eastern Volunteers, with an emphasis on strengthening communities and enhancing the ability of community based organisations in being able to attract and retain volunteers.

I was one of the speakers for the workshops that were held during the afternoon, where I discussed the potential of technology, including social media, in recruiting and maintaining volunteer involvement within an organisation. Community based organisations need to be able to communicate directly with the community and technology provides an opportunity for this to occur.

I also covered the need for integration via secure and centralised database systems to reduce duplication and to make it easier to manage contact details. This saves time by ensuring consistent information and ensuring that details are available for mail merges and marketing activities.
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Preventing spam without deterring genuine visitors

By Advice, Advice for Businesses, Advice for Not-for-profit Organisations and Charities, News No Comments

Spam is unfortunately far too common on the Internet, arising in forum posts, instant messaging, email and websites. Spam otherwise known as ‘junk’, is unsolicited/unwanted content and will often take the form of advertising or include malicious intent.

Like email, websites can also suffer from spam, particularly when they encourage interactivity from visitors. This is why many sites now require verification when registering or submitting content, either via email or through what is known as image verification.

Most spam is sent via spambots, automated customer systems that write content and distribute this unwanted content.

CAPTCHA is the technical term for automated technology that helps prevent spam. The most common form of CAPTCHA is that of typing text that appears within an image, known as image verification.

While the prevention of spam is necessary to reduce administrative overhead and should be utilized, it is important that user friendliness is not sacrificed.

If a genuine visitor has difficulty interacting with your website due to these spam prevention techniques, then in most cases they will simply find another site to fulfill their requirements.

The level of perseverance a visitor has will depend on their commitment to your product or service and the uniqueness or popularity of your offering. This is because most visitors understand that highly popular sites will be likely targets for spambots and hence will have a higher level of tolerance.

Just recently I was encouraged to participate in an online poll, the poll asked a series of questions and required the verification of text within an image to successfully submit these answers.

Unfortunately the content within the image was obscure and extremely difficult to read. After six attempts in trying to decipher the image, the form finally accepted my input.

While I persevered because the poll was about an issue that is important to me, had this been any other website I would not have persisted. That being said, the site was lucky that I was finally able to decipher the text on the sixth attempt because it was very likely I was not going to try for the seventh time.

The site is not entirely to blame, spambots have been able to decipher image verification and thus CAPTCHA now means increasingly obscure text, which not only makes it difficult for machines to interpret but also difficult for genuine visitors.

Yes, spambots are becoming more sophisticated in their ability to overcome spam prevention techniques, but it is worth considering the balance between prevention and deterring interaction with genuine site visitors.

While there is definitely a role for CAPTCHA techniques in preventing spam, it is worth considering other methods of spam prevention, particularly methods that prevent spambots from visiting your website in the first instance.

Various methods exist to prevent spambots from even being able to visit your website. This has advantages since these methods act as a gateway, preventing these systems from accessing your site in the first instance, thus reducing site traffic from non-genuine visitations.

Linux based webhosts, typically use Apache as a web server, which utilities the .htaccess file, which controls various parameters of a website, including who can access the site. This can be used to prevent automated spambots from even entering your site. Likewise solutions, such as Bad Behaviour, work in a similar fashion, through blocking spambots from entering your website in the first instance.

Should a spambot enter your site, most blog and content management systems can include blacklisting of certain terms, meaning they are automatically rejected, or a greylist, which requires authorization before being published. These greylists can often be set to require prior approval to any comments that include links to other sites, a common tactic used by spambots.

Most content management systems and blogging software will also support plugins some of which can provide further protection against spam providing additional safeguards.

Alternatives to image verification exist, such as the asking a question, which must be answered correctly to submit content (example: what is 1+1?). This has accessibility advantages, since image or audio based verification can be difficult to utilize from a usability perspective, although they do offer a higher degree of prevention.

No method of preventing spam will yield a 100% success rate. The key is to prevent spam as much as possible while not restricting genuine visitors from interacting and participating in your website.

Open Source Software and minimising IT costs

By Advice, Advice for Businesses, Advice for Not-for-profit Organisations and Charities, News No Comments

Open Source Software, which is where software is provided free of charge has the potential to reduce IT costs and maintenance within the not-for-profit sector and community organisations.

For example, I choose to use Linux and open source software since I find it more responsive and stable than a Windows based system. Linux is an open source operating system that is available in various forms known as distributions.

Linux and the majority of software that operates on it are provided free of charge and are designed, as well as supported through active community participation.

While there is undoubtedly a learning curve when trying anything new, Linux distributions such as OpenSUSE and Kubuntu tend to be extremely user friendly. Linux support for hardware continues to improve and there are many free programs that can easily replace existing Windows based software.

In addition, Linux tends to not have the security and virus issues that are far too commonplace within a Windows based environment.

While Linux and open source software may not be for everyone, I believe there is tremendous opportunity for the non-profit and community sector to investigate the use of Linux within their organisations.

The free cost of Linux and associated programs combined with the fact that it can still easily and efficiently operate on older computer hardware means it has the potential to reduce IT costs.

While there may be a requirement for initial training and configuration, this can be offset by reducing the cost of purchasing new software and hardware.

Free software such as Openoffice.org provides an easy to use Office suite and is largely compatible with Microsoft Office. Mozilla Firefox provides a more secure Internet browser than Internet Explorer and Kontact provides a full suite of information services, including a calendar, notes, email and address book features.

GnuCash, a free accounting software package, provides features comparable to commercial equivalents and is easy to operate and utilise.

Linux provides a choice of graphical desktop environments and KDE with its associated applications exceeds the features and stability found within Windows XP and Vista. XFCE is another desktop environment and is well suited towards older computers that may still be present within an organisation.

If there are Windows based programs that an organisation is reliant upon, there is a program known as WINE which can allow such software to still operate within Linux.

Even if an organisation wishes to retain a Windows operating system, applications such as Mozilla Firefox and OpenOffice have Windows versions, providing additional flexibility while maintaining a familiar operating environment.

Linux distributions such as OpenSUSE and Kubuntu provide an easy to install and operational Linux environment with minimal need for customisation.

The use of Linux with its potential to reduce IT costs is certainly worth exploring, particularly within organisations that are facing increasing requirements to minimise cost pressures.