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British and Irish Graduates in America (http://biginamerica.net) is an all-volunteer NPO that was formed in 2006 to promote and enable collaboration among the US alumni groups of British and Irish universities, to encourage the formation of such groups, and allow individuals who do not have their own alumni group to join in with these communities. We organize occasional real-world networking events and an annual gala ball, and sought a web application to support these activities and to provide online community-building tools. While supporting our own core activities was of primary importance, we were also attracted to the idea of allowing our web application to be used by individual groups as a resource for their own purposes. An unusual feature of our 'membership' is that were are not in fact a membership organization at all: individuals may be members of their own alumni club (or not, as the case may be), but to us they are either unregistered users of our site with access to general information, or registered users with access to specific information and community features, and/or 'customers' who have purchased tickets to specific events.

We acquire users through word of mouth, search engines, affiliate links and direct mailing. A key category of affiliate for us are the British and Irish university alumni offices themselves - which never share individual data but are often willing to distribute our mailings to their own alumni and link to our site from their alumni websites. It's therefore hugely beneficial for us to be able to manage a multi-tiered referral service for attracting users to our site, and track these sources, while integrating this CRM with the actual user features of a multi-community site.

After starting with Yahoo Groups and a separate very basic php CMS, we have used CiviCRM 1.4 / Drupal 4.6, with the CiviMail module (based originally on the CivicSpace distribution, but by now somewhat customized) for about 6 months. We do not use (so far, anyway) CiviContribute, mostly because we don't have a suitable payment processor (we use Paypal but not at the API level), don't have to manage membership fees or dues, and can manage our events and sponsorship package payments adequately using the Drupal e-commerce model with the eCiviCRM integration to track transactions back into our CRM database. CiviMail with click-through, tracked-openings and bounce processing allows us to efficiently monitor which groups and universities are reading and acting on our mailings and forwarding them to their own mailing lists or posting them on their websites, as well as managing mailings to people who end up registering on our site and/or coming to our events. We use CiviCRM custom profiles to collect additional individual and event-specific information from users. The new CiviMember module in 1.5 is interesting, and we are considering the possibilities of implementing this to provide a member management tool for individual alumni groups in our community. (Under our current model, this functionality is achieved in a rudimentary way using organic groups functionality in Drupal.)

Before we decided to implement CiviMail, we hosted our Drupal / CiviCRM site on an inexpensive shared host (bluehost.com - we moved from globat.com which did not provide adequate script memory or ability to customize php settings). The application worked well in this environment. To implement CiviMail we required more control over server configuration, and moved to a virtual dedicated server (linode.com). Getting CiviMail working still required more technical knowledge than the main CiviCRM module, which is a breeze to get going, and optimizing server configuration is essential for CiviMail.

We're just starting out as an organization and as a community website, and our financial and human resources are extremely limited. So far we have about 300 registered users and 3000 names in our CRM database, and Drupal / CiviCRM for the most part copes well at this level (with CiviMail being the major concern for resource usage). Implementation and maintenance of the site is feasible - indeed eminently doable - with a part-time, volunteer webmaster. We are not making significant use - yet - of the permissions system, but as the user base and number of groups grows, this will clearly be a very useful and important feature. We anticipate that as our community grows, the very active development of Drupal and CiviCRM will continue to add useful features and enhance the stability of the system under increasing user loads. Certainly the pace of development is impressive, and the responsiveness and support of the developers and the user community is awesome. I would have no hesitation in recommending this platform to any organization that wants an inexpensive (in development/maintenance time), versatile, feature-rich web-based community-building solution.

UPDATE: We have now upgraded to Drupal 4.7 / CiviCRM 1.5. The upgrade took about one person day, divided roughly equally into one third planning, one third execution and one third troubleshooting and making modifications to make use of upgraded features.

Peter Hirst
co-chair & webmaster
British and Irish Graduates in America

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