Published
Tuesday, March 31, 2015 - 09:40
Written by

I just hung up the phone with the President of a US-based CiviCRM consultancy. He's interested in collaborating with Future First on our SMS based survey system. We discussed a lot of different options, but all of them had one thing in common: we had to release the resulting software publicly. That, to us, is what CiviCRM is. It is collaborating and sharing, to produce, deliver, and share the technology we all need.

Future First engages the former students of state-funded schools and colleges to help those institutions. Private schools and Universities have been doing this for decades - they know it is a very effective way of raising students' aspirations - and Future First want to do the same to level the playing field between privately funded schools and state-funded schools. We bring people from all walks of life, including doctors, policemen, athletes, journalists, firemen, businessmen, engineers and television writers to speak to students at their old schools about their careers. The results are fantastic, with 90% of students reporting an increased belief in their own ability to succeed later in life!

As Future First operates in more than 10 percent of state-funded schools and colleges nationwide, we have a lot of contacts to maintain, more than 135,000! We record the emails and text messages that the schools' volunteers have been sent, records of the fundraising they've done, and how they've contributed in events. Former students sign up in droves to submit their information to us online, and we share it with their old schools and colleges through a custom-built dashboard that teachers can log into to invite them to future events. CiviCRM is customisable enough that when a member of my team asks me how to expand CiviCRM to do something, I can either configure it on the spot in front of them, or find out how to add the feature quickly.

When I first arrived at Future First I had no experience of CiviCRM, or any CRM for that matter! I was a games industry veteran, bitten by the charity bug from working overnight shifts in homeless shelters, and I was ready to move into the third sector. Learning how to develop on this technology would have taken much longer and been much harder if it wasn't for the support of the CiviCRM community. I went to a London based meetup and met Jamie Novick (the Managing Director of CompuCorp), before being trained first hand by Michael McAndrew (CiviCRM core team member). When I went on the CiviCRM online forums I was helped extensively by Tim Otten, Coleman Watts, and Kurund Jalmi (also core team members). I have been helped extensively by Parvez Saleh of Veda Consulting, with whom Future First have a long-running development project, as well as by the staff at Circle Interactive. Many others, too many to include here, have all helped me as well. Throughout my time at Future First I've had the privilege of swapping CRM tips with organisations like Childreach, the UK's Green Party, and Disability Rights UK, and many others besides.

Having such a welcoming community made me really enthusiastic to contribute back in any way that I could. When I embarked on a mission to clean up Future First's phone numbers, I produced a validating and cleaning tool at the 2013 UK CiviCRM development sprint that I attended (with a lot of thanks to the members of the core team that were there!). I shared it publicly, and shortly afterwards I was emailed by a Vegan society based in Norfolk thanking me, and asking me if it works with Clickatell (it does). Later I released a different extension to automatically correct incorrectly added email addresses. I'd made it to reduce Future First's email bounce rate, and when it was finished I shared it with the community.

When the time came to build an in-house software team at Future First, the interview process consisted of making an extension to deduplicate organisations with similar names (if you've not been using CRMs long, believe me, people will spell McDonald's in dozens of different ways!). When it was finished we released it publicly. DaveFF later released another extension - although CiviCRM lets you flag certain individuals to not contact, it doesn't (out of the box) let you assign a date for this to expire. But with DaveFF's publicly available extension it does - and now anyone can install it in a few clicks. When VitorFF joined us it wasn't long until he'd developed an extension to clean up the capitalisation on our names. This extension was signed off for public release by Carlos Capote of Amnesty International Spain at the 2014 UK CiviCRM development sprint. We were able to work with Tim Otten on the exciting new A/B mailing feature, as well as on fixing bugs, which was invaluable training.

My top three tips for anyone embarking as a developer at an organisation that uses CiviCRM are:

1. Stay on top of the latest extensions and plugins.

2. Build and release your own extensions. Get the feedback and iterate. This teaching is invaluable.

3. Be a part of the community. Go to the meetups, go on the forums regularly, post there if you get stuck, and read the experts' responses to others' questions. Attend the development sprints and go there specifically to fix bugs. Look at other organisations' installs and see what they have that your organisation could benefit from.
 
Both myself and Future First are indebted to this amazing free software, and the people that make and use it.
 
You can follow me on twitter at https://twitter.com/CiviJohn, and email me at john AT civifirst DOT com