I recall having a conversation with the executive director for an under $2 million budget group several months ago and he was recounting some of the immediate hurdles he encountered when stepping into the job. One of the more nagging issues was the complete lack of a season planning calendar and to add insult to injury, getting something up and in place was much easier said than done.
Among the many problems was the lack of infrastructure; meaning, no season management software that made it simple to get everyone in the office working on the same page (literally and figuratively).
Looking back at the conversation, I have to kick myself for not recommending what may very well be the single best solution small to mid size performing arts organizations can take advantage of: Basecamp from 37signals.com.
Before I dive into the nitty-gritty behind why it should be on everyone’s shortlist, I want to hit the best part: it’s free for single project use. And the free account is the real deal, so there are no worries over watered down features or support to the point where it’s next to useless.
Just in case you think that the single project limitation for the free account may not be enough to handle an entire season’s worth of planning for every department; then prepare to be pleasantly surprised.
What Basecamp Does
In short, although Basecamp is rooted in traditional project management soil, it’s really more of a flexible, organized collaboration tool. When you visit the Basecamp site, the tours and overview videos are all presented from a project management perspective; consequently, I want to present this overview from the perspective of how Basecamp can likely be utilized by small/mid size performing arts groups. To that end, here are some of Basecamp’s highlights (all but two images are screencaps from my own account):
Unlimited Users: Although you can add as many users as you like, the typical small office will likely have an executive administrator, administrative assistant and one or two folks each in the marketing, development, artistic, ops, and HR/finance departments. Everyone gets their own user account and you can even add remote members and consultants. And like any good system, admins can set user permissions so you can even consider using it as a board plus governance organizational tool.
Master Planning Calendar: A super simple, user friendly tool to keep track of what’s due, when it’s due, and who’s responsible for getting it done. Create individual events, phases, and more that connect with other items such as to-do lists. It even plays nice with Google Calendar, Outlook, Backpack, .Mac, and iCal. You can also set milestones that send out automatic reminder messages to responsible team members.
To-Do Lists: Perhaps my favorite component, lists are extensible in that they can be categorized by topic or chronologically (or even cross tabulated between the two!). Create a parent list category per department then let each depart create sub-lists within that structure. You can assign one or more responsible parties drawn from existing users and drill-down communication is facilitated by each item having its own respective comment thread.
single msg & overview index
Messages: Say goodbye to random email messages, you can now conduct message thread style communication on any topic in one place that everyone can access. You can attach files to messages (which are automatically stored and indexed in the master “files” area) and make conversations private so only certain users can participate and see messages. One particularly handy feature with this component is if you reply to a message via one of the auto-email notices using the “reply” feature in your email client, Basecamp will post that reply in the message thread so you don’t have to necessarily log into Basecamp to participate. Very cool. And BTW, make sure you have all users enable email updates so as to receive a daily digest of events and reminders for to-do deadlines or calendar milestones.
(grid and list views)
File Sharing & Storage: The free account receives 10MB of file storage, which may feel a bit tight but judicious file pruning should keep you from running into storage limits. But there’s no limit to the numbers or types of files you can upload and team members can pull those files onto their computer at any time (but you can make files private so that only certain users can access them). Other file sharing goodies include image previews in the index list (very handy when working with multiple variations of the same file – think brochure revisions) and my favorite file sharing feature is automatic version tracking, which keeps a copy of the old version around for safe keeping while simultaneously posting critical info such as who/when a file was updated. In the end, the file sharing tool is downright dummy-proof and you’ll enjoy how simple it is to get files from Digital Point A to Digital Point B.
Custom Categorization: In order to help speed up indexing among messages, files, and to-do lists, you can create custom categories such as “marketing” and “library” alongside file group categories like “images” or “music.” This will make it much easier to sort through what might end up being hundreds of files when you can’t remember when the file was uploaded or what it was named.
(Basecamp promotional image)
Mobile Friendly: It’s easy to access and utilize all of Basecamp’s functionality since 37signals has designed mobile platform optimized versions for all the leading operating systems (iPhones/iPads, Android, Blackberry, etc.). And best of all, none of them are app dependant; you just go to your regular Basecamp URL and you get the mobile optimized version that fits with your device. As someone who uses both iOS and Android devices, I can attest to the fact that the mobile versions are well designed and easy to use.
Simply put, Basecamp is the coolest thing for small to mid size budget performing arts groups since automatic online grant renewals. My guess is most orgs will get along fine with the single, free account but if you need more room, basic accounts start at $24/month and bump up file storage to 5GB and up to 15 separate projects (that in turn can be managed cumulatively by administrators).
And for something that you don’t have to install on any computer, is entirely cloud based, comes with great human being focused support, has a low learning curve (even for “seasoned employees”), and is mobile optimized you’ll be hard pressed to find anything better.
There’s quite a bit more Basecamp offers and you can get a rundown at their sales site, basecamphq.com (note the URL is not simply “basecamp”.com). But even though this overview is geared toward small and mid budget groups, big budget performing arts group should take a good look at Basecamp’s multiple project capability from a departmental use perspective.
In the end, if you have any questions about how Basecamp can be best used by performing arts groups, [sws_css_tooltip position=”left” colorscheme=”rosewood” width=”500″ url=”” trigger=”just ask” fontSize=”14″]And if you’re interested in something along the lines of direct assistance in setting up an account and getting everything related to season planning in place, I can put together a written bid. [/sws_css_tooltip]. And to be clear, 37signals doesn’t offer referrals, I simply think Basecamp has quite a bit to offer performing arts groups and I don’t want to see any of them miss out (or worse, spend money on a lesser product) because 37signals doesn’t necessarily gear their promotional material toward our field.
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