The Raiser’s Edge Integrated with Gmail… A series of case studies (1)

This is the first in a series of case studies looking at custom integration of Blackbaud products.

Unlike very many of our previous third party integration application the main driving force behind this application, Biographica, was the fact that we could do it. We did not have any particular client knocking on our door asking us link the two products and Google , funnily enough, did not approach us either asking us to develop an integration between The Raiser’s Edge and Gmail.

We had already some experience of working with Google Apps having already developed an integration between the RE’s Events module and Google Calendar. We also knew that many people made use of the Microsoft Outlook integration with The Raiser’s Edge. As well as that, we knew that more and more organisations were moving to Google Apps for their organisation email.

In building a connection between The Raiser’s Edge and Gmail there were two obvious issues to overcome:

Firstly, how do you ensure that the application keeps up with changes made to Gmail. While major changes do not happen that quickly, they do happen. Even small changes to the interface can break the way in which an extension would work. Our fear is that we would have to become experts in working with Gmail. While this would not be too difficult to achieve it is not our core business. Then we discovered Rapportive. Rapportive, who are now owned by LinkedIn, produce a side bar for Gmail that pulls information from all over the web but specifically from social media sites such as LinkedIn (hence the tie up), Facebook, Twitter and others. Whenever you open up an email you are shown an image of the person if available as well as other information about them that is publically available. It will also look for informaiton that you have give it permission to do so such as your LinkedIn connections and Facebook friends.

One of the great things about Rapportive is that third party developers can build extensions, what they call Raplets. This allows you to display information from other sources. We tapped into this functionality and displayed constituent information alongside the Rapportive found data.

Of course, everything we have talked about so far lives in the cloud. Gmail is a cloud application and so is Rapportive. The Raiser’s Edge is not. It follows the classic client/server model. There is no web based access. If you are hosted you may think otherwise but the application interface is not accessible via the web. This leads us to the second issue that we needed to overcome.

When somebody goes into Gmail somewhere in the cloud, how can it find The Raiser’s Edge server for their organisation which sits in a specific location. If you had wanted to connect to, say, a Salesforce database, you would just point Gmail to the single instance of the Salesforce web interface that they make available. Obviously you supply credentials so that you only get served up the data you are entitled to but finding Salesforce is much easier as there is only one of them!

What we did to overcome this was to make a user who is signing up for Biographica, log into ZeidZone (our extranet).  From there, there Rapportive credentials were saved and tied to the server address where their RE server was located. That meant every time they access Gmail a call was made to to ZeidZone to determine where to get the data from and then to go and get the data from the specific instance of RE. Now clearly there are security implications of this but at each step of the way checks are made to ensure that only qualified calls are made with security tokens being encrypted and sent to and from the three servers.

Now when our Biographica users receive an email from a donor or a potential donor they can determine what they should be saying to them without having to go back into The Raiser’s Edge and break their workflow. They can see, among other things, who their solicitor/canvasser is, which events they have attended previously, what their constituent code is and what they have given previously.