Pledged to the Mac

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If you’ve ever watched pledge drives on your local public television station, you’ve probably noticed that they aren’t the most high-tech of affairs. Volunteers answer calls, and then fill out slips of paper with donor information—everything from name to address to credit card number to requested gift is all coded by hand. At the end of each pledge session, the slips are collected and hand-tallied, then data-entered into a system at some point in the future. But during a recent volunteer session at Oregon Public Broadcasting (OPB), I noticed that things had changed dramatically—instead of paper and pen, there was a shiny white iBook sitting at each phone station in the studio.

Each iBook was running a custom Cocoa application called simply OPB Pledge. This elegant program turned the tedium of hand-completing pledge paperwork into a simple and time-efficient task. No more rooting through a catalog, for instance, trying to figure out which gift a donor was eligible to pick based on their donation—just look in the Gift section and see which ones are at or below the donation level. The program walks you through each step of the process, and even includes the script you should read as you proceed through the call with the donor. When the call was done, clicking the Submit Pledge button finished the transaction, and you were ready for the next call. The submitted pledges are held in a queue on the iBook and then transmitted wirelessly to the back-end server.

By the end of each pledge break, OPB staffers had a running tally of dollars collected, gifts requested, and total call volume—information that they would have had to manually tally in the past. All without generating a single piece of paper.

I watched closely as over 40 volunteers, most of whom had probably never seen a Mac before, sat down to go to work. Somewhat surprisingly, there were literally no problems the entire evening. Everyone was able to use the program without any instruction beyond the initial how-to, and there weren’t any complaints or questions about the hardware. In short, the OPB solution just worked, and users didn’t really seem to find it strange to be using a Mac.

Dave Fulton, OPB’s Director of Engineering Information Technology and Rob Vincent, the programmer on the project, were kind enough to discuss the details behind the OPB Pledge program, which they kicked off in early 2004, after examining various commercial and web-based solutions. In the end, Dave’s analysis showed that an iBook front-end client connected to a custom database solution running on an Xserve would be the most cost-effective solution, and that’s what they began building.

OPB Pledge is Cocoa application that feels every bit as well-done as any commercial package. And yet Rob’s background is in PC programming; prior to the launch of this effort, he had last dabbled with Mac code in the System 7 days. Nonetheless, he dove right in with Apple’s free Xcode development tools, and started learning Objective C, the language used in Cocoa applications. Rob found the learning process “relatively simple,” given his background in C programming, and he praised Apple’s development tools. A longtime PC user, Rob’s also a recent Apple convert, having purchased a PowerBook on which he’s been doing additional Xcode programming.

After a few months of part-time effort amid his other duties, Rob had the client application basically done. He then set to work on the database server and web-based administration programs. The server is a MySQL database running on the XServe. The web administration interface, used by OPB staff members to work with the pledge database, was developed using a program called Struts, an open-source framework for building Java web applications, and Hibernate, a tool to ease working with Java and SQL-based databases, all served from a Tomcat application container.

All of these programs are freely available and run easily under OS X. As such, the software side of OPB’s pledge system is completely free of license fees.

After development and testing of both the client and server components, the system went live in September of 2004 and has been used for five separate pledge drives. There’s been a minimal number of issues with the iBooks since the launch—two hard drives have failed, but they’ve had no broken keyboards or screens. OPB purchased AppleCare on all of the iBooks, so they’re covered for hardware issues for three full years.

The whole system is wirelessly networked together. When an iBook user hits the Submit button, the iBook stores the pledge data locally, then attempts to connect to the web service (using a hidden application that simply watches for newly created pledges). When a connection is confirmed, the pledge is sent, confirmed on the server, then removed from the iBook. For audit purposes, a printed record of each pledge is also created and filed. A “tallier” task on the server generates summary reports for OPB staff to use through the web management interface—this gives them an instant report on gifts they’ll need to order, as well as the total collected during the last pledge break.

The advantages of this system over the old method are numerous. There is no longer a need to enter all of the paper pledge slips, which saves time and money and improves accuracy of donor information. Typos, though, are still somewhat of a challenge. With 40 different “temp workers” on the pledge drive staff doing data entry each night of a pledge drive, Rob and Dave have been working on code enhancements to trap more data entry errors before they reach the database. Still, the time spent on proofreading and correction is substantially less than what was spent on data entry.

The other big advantage of the system is in speed of turning a pledge into a mailed contribution envelope. In the past, it has often taken six to eight weeks to get all data entry done, credit cards charged (or check envelopes mailed) and gifts sent to donors. With the data entry step removed, and more timely knowledge of gift requirements, OPB is now able to turn around many pledges in a much more timely manner, leading to quicker collection of pledged funds.

The OPB Pledge system is the continuation of what has been a slow but steady migration toward the OS X platform. Over the last two years, Dave has installed a total of seven Xserves and an Xserve RAID; these boxes are doing everything from running the corporate mail system to streaming MP3 and video to the Web using QuickTime Streaming Server. Soon, the OPB Web site itself will be hosted on an Xserve.

OPB’s new Mac-based pledge drive system is helping the station lower costs, improve accuracy, and decrease the turnaround time required to collect donations. After some initial fears concerning automation, the system is now well accepted and helping everyone do their jobs more effectively.

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