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Whenever I learn about a new concept or trend in technology, I try and think about how nonprofits and libraries could use it or benefit from it. TechSoup's Senior Online Community Manager, Lewis Haidt, introduced me to Vendor Relationship Management (more commonly shortened to VRM), which is sort of the converse to Customer Relationship Management.
The movement has huge potential for nonprofits and public libraries, but it still has some ways to go in the overall technology sector. We like to be ahead of the trend here at TechSoup, however.
Vendor Relationship Management is meant to serve as the customer-side counterpart of CRM. According to the Project VRM wiki:
"VRM tools provide customers with both independence from vendors and better means for engaging vendors. These same tools can support individuals' relations with schools, churches, government entities, and other kinds of organizations."
Of course, when I read "other kinds of organizations," I immediately think of nonprofits, public libraries, and foundations. Nonprofits use donor management tools to manage funders. These fall into the category of CRM. VRM tools, on the other hand, work on the side of the individual donor. A VRM tool would allow a donor to control how much information a nonprofit has about them.
In a larger scope, individuals who work at nonprofits use systems that capture data and information about them. For example, I use Facebook at TechSoup to share new blogs or articles. Facebook captures that information about me as an individual as well as about TechSoup as you need a separate personal profile to post on behalf of an organization's page. I don't have any control over what information Facebook retains about me or about TechSoup. A VRM tool, however, would allow me to decide what information about myself and TechSoup I'd prefer to share with Facebook. VRM operates on the customer or individual's side.
To get a better sense of VRM in context of nonprofits, we spoke with one of the movement's pioneers, Doc Searls. An author, photographer, journalist, Searls is also the current lead of ProjectVRM at the Berkman Center for Internet & Society. Searls also wrote The Cluetrain Manifesto, a business book about the impact of the Internet on commercial marketplaces and organizations.
Searls explained how an organization has all the power in the relationship with their customers. In the case of nonprofits, that would be donors or perhaps even volunteers. He said that a "captive" customer or donor is worth more than a free one. In nonprofit terms, that means that a donor, whose information is already stored within your CRM or management system, is worth more because you can continuously contact them during fundraising campaigns.
Searls and other VRM advocates, however, believe that donors should have control over the information captured by organizations.
"If we're going to be using electronics and the Internet, we have to empower every node on that net," said Searls.
The greater tech community still needs to warm up to VRM. But with the NSA spying revelations, however, individuals and organizations have taken a greater interest in privacy and surveillance issues. Earlier this month, Searls and other VRM advocates went straight to the heart of the tech community: Silicon Valley. They organized VRM Days, a week-long unconference to get techies, venture capitalists, and innovators involved in the project.
Even so, something about VRM still doesn't click for me. But as I was writing this piece, I realized that it isn't the concept I'm not connecting with, but the presentation of the information. The ProjectVRM site, a wiki, is a bit daunting to the VRM novice. The language is complicated for someone unfamiliar with the concept. In order for VRM to catch on among techies, nonprofits, and other potential advocates, it needs to be accessible, organized, and simply defined.
Although VRM still has some strides to make, it is an important movement for nonprofits, public libraries, and privacy advocates to be aware of. Organizations that seek to empower their communities, especially, should take an interest. After all, VRM is all about empowering individuals. To start exploring VRM, I recommend reading through the ProjectVRM wiki and utilize some of the tools it recommends. Searls also offers this advice:
"The easiest and best and first thing is to become fully comfortable with being unfollowed."
Ginny Mies is a Content Curator at TechSoup Global.
The Citizenme app is an intriguing twist on managing how your personal data is shared with companies. The app promises to help users 1) understand what data they're sharing via social networks and eventually 2) decide if they want to sell that data to advertisers. www.wired.com/.../citizenme
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