It seems that "What do you use to manage your league?" is one of the most repeated questions in Roller Derby circles. (We've seen at least three versions of this topic raised in the last couple of months...)
Sadly, one of the most common answers is: "we use Facebook because getting people to use something else is really hard". This is true, of course: Facebook's entire raison d'etre is selling access to its community to advertisers, so it's extremely good at finding ways to stop that community leaving it. The problem is that Facebook is also fairly terrible at being a system for managing a league - finding things which didn't happen in the last few days is very hard, and there's few good tools for decision making or project planning. Additionally, Facebook's policy decisions, in general, are at the whims of their management; the history of Facebook's changes to its social content to improve the advertising revenue, at the cost of service to the user community, is telling. Facebook Events are a pretty good solution for promoting public events - and they're better than the features in most other social networking sites - but only if your target audience is also on Facebook.
And that's the other part of the rub: despite Facebook's best efforts, not everyone has an account on it. Increasingly, especially younger, people - the people your league wants to recruit to grow - are either using other social networks (Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat), or not using social networks at all (just communication tools like WhatsApp). All social networking services "age out" after a while, and becoming dependant on a particular social network for running your league gives you a built-in sell-by date.
As we've previously noted, there's a lot of ethical and philosophical overlap between Roller Derby culture - "For the X, by the X", regardless of if "X" is "Skater", "Member", or otherwise - and the various open culture and consensus democracy movements on the Internet. Luckily, those movements also have built a lot of software for helping organise the various issues communities face...
We're going to break down the (software) problems of managing a league (or an NGB, which is really a community of leagues) into a few sections:
Project Management (page 2) - the core aspect of running any community with goals - managing who is responsible for them, and how things are going. Consensus decision making (page 3) - making decisions that your community can own. Real-time Communication (page 4) - bringing your community into contact with each other, transparently, in discussion. Event Calendaring (page 5) - keeping track of time, especially to promote your events to the public.
We're not going to talk about "sports club" specific software here, although it does exist. Mostly those tools cover the items on page 2 - Project Management - with a sports-themed emphasis.
Community Task Management : Taiga, PodioThe most important thing that a community with tasks to accomplish needs is a way to track and manage all the responsibilities for making those tasks happen. This is such a common requirement for any community - be it a sporting group, a software development team, a newspaper or a political party, a FTSE100 company... - that there are countless solutions which address this space. Some of these solutions are tied to particular "styles" of project management, and some are more free-form.
As with all of the other solutions in this article, we're going to talk about "hosted" solutions - software which runs on someone else's servers, where they're responsible for all the data you give them - and "self-hosted" solutions - where you run your own service, on servers which you own [this can be actual physical machines, or services in "the cloud"], where you have more control, but also need more technically skilled people to run things.
Currently, one of the most popular hosted solutions for project management is Podio. As well as project management, Podio tries to be a kitchen-sink solution - also rolling in forums, voting systems and document management - and offers a free trial option (for small teams < 5 members), and a series of paid options (paid per member). We've not used Podio much in anger, but, as with many project management tools with "extras", it seems that the core project management is much better than the things bolted on to it.
There are very many free, or open-source solutions in this space as well - open-source communities also need to manage their own tasks, and tend to write their own tools to do so! Out of these options, we currently favour Taiga. Taiga is more focussed on the task-management aspect of things (although it does do many of the things Podio offers in addition), and prefers solutions in the "agile development" space, which encourages breaking projects up into rapid, incremental goals to allow a team to adapt to changing circumstances. Taiga offers both hosted solutions (free for public projects, paid per member for private projects), and also supports self-hosting - the source code is completely free, so anyone can run their own Taiga server. The Taiga team also have a handy guide to project management, and Taiga, here: https://taiga.pm/
Taiga and Podio both offer mobile-phone Apps for phone-friendly access, as well as the desktop friendly web interface.
Other good solutions, depending on the Project Management paradigm you like, include Trello and Wrike (both hosted services), and Orchard Collaboration (an open-source, self-hosted solution). There are also several app-only services aimed specifically at running sports clubs, but these seem to be vexingly limited and are usually pay-only. One of the best of the sports club solutions seems to be TeamStuff, which, despite being a hosted closed-source solution, does have a free option with most of the features you'd want.
Community Consensus : LoomioIn order to drive your community's priorities, you need to make decisions which involve your whole community. Hierarchical cultures will make decisions from "on top", whilst more open, "democratic", communities will involve the membership in all decisions, from "bottom up". The project management software from the previous page will often allow for both styles, but tend to focus on adversarial voting systems to do "democracy".
Generally, the best approaches to community decision making tend to be Consensus, not direct voting; approaches whereby the community negotiates a mutually acceptable solution for any given problem, collaboratively, rather than adversarially. Consensus approaches for government are pretty widespread in many cultures in the world, from the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) through to the Religious Society of Friends (the Quakers). They've not caught on as much in Western-style mainstream politics, where adversarial voting systems are more common, and the "minority loses absolutely" mindset can be difficult to shake, even when relatively minor compromises could improve solutions for everyone. Majority votes easily split communities, and can be a big source of frustrations and feelings of disenfranchisement for those in the minority (especially if that minority is large, or if the "majority" is less than 50% itself)*. We know that many leagues adopt consensus style systems to make decisions - but many also don't, and it's definitely worth considering them if your league uses adversarial voting and has strong tensions due to minority votes.
If you want to use software to help you make decisions by consensus, then you will probably need to use a separate service to your project management solution.
An example proposal, responses, and the top of its discussion thread from Loomio.
The best Consensus decision-making application we're aware of is Loomio. A product of the Occupy movement, and run by a self-owned community, Loomio provides both a hosted option (you can sign up for accounts on the Loomio website and use it right away, with free and paid options - including a very discounted paid option for non-profits), and also options for hosting your own copy on your own servers (the code is, of course, entirely open-source, and therefore compatible with the community spirit of roller derby). Loomio has become increasingly widely-used by communities at all scale, even national governments - the Welsh Assembly, for example.
Loomio also provides mobile-phone friendly interfaces to allow you to interact easily on whatever device you have, although there's no "App" per se.
(You can read about how the Loomio Collective embodies the same spirit as Roller Derby does, and the way they structure themselves to support this in their freely available handbook: https://loomio.coop/ , and read their free, and open-source guide to Consensus and Facilitation here: https://www.loomio.school/)
*This is as true in countries as it is in smaller communities - we're sure readers can point at several contentious political decisions in the recent past where "narrow victories" led to the absolute acceptance of the "winning" position with no compromise, and resulting anger from all sides.
Community Communication : Mattermost, Riot.IMEvery community benefits from a place to just, well, communicate. Whilst Loomio, and project management tools, all provide a way to discuss things, modern communities are used to freeform, rapid, social messaging. (Ironically, this also used to be the case with earlier internet cultures, who used IRC for precisely this, so this is something of a re-invention of an old concept.) Having one of these communication services absolutely is not a replacement for a proper decision making system, or a project management tool - for the same reason that Facebook is awful for project management: finding things in a long, stream of consciousness history, 6 months later, is almost impossible. However, rapid communication is definitely essential "in the moment", and to bind together your other services with your community itself.
Whilst the current "mainstream" solution for real-time comms seems to be Slack, that product has several limitations which make it less than ideal for large volunteer communities. For a start, Slack is closed-source; and there's no way to run your own separate version of the service - all your data is on Slack's servers, and subject to Slack's rules. Additionally, the balance of features between the Free and Paid tiers of service is not particularly good, especially regarding retention of logs - it's very easy to hit the "max 10,000" messages limit and then start losing your league's history of communication. Finally, because of that very closed-source, hosted-only solution, Slack has the balance of power in your relationship with it - very recently, they've started turning off features which allow you more flexibility in using their service, as part of the usual pattern to achieve vendor lock-in in the tech industry. Having to rely on your service being a good-guy, all the time, is not a good place to be.
Luckily, the open-source movement has our backs, and there are many alternatives to Slack which are just as good, if not better, ethically and performance-wise. We will only mention two here, as examples of the rest of the field.
Mattermost provide a Slack-like series of options (free, paid, and "even more expensive paid"), but you need to host your own server running the software. Of course, the free version of Mattermost is open-source, and does not have most of the limits of the free version of Slack.
Riot.IM provide a hosted solution which is currently totally free for every feature (they are planning paid hosted options, but it's been a year without any appearing); they're also a completely open-source solution which you can host yourself. [Technically, Riot.IM is a front-end to a messaging system called Matrix, which is also open-source and free.] At present, the "free" Riot.IM hosted instance seems to be having some performance problems, but we believe that this is temporary.
A test room in Riot.IM (all of these chat systems look near identical, and much like chat systems always have done since the 1990s).
Both Mattermost and Riot.IM support Slack-compatible "integrations" - allowing your Loomio consensus discussions, and your project management tool, to send notifications and messages to your chat rooms, reminding your community of decisions to be made, or tasks which need to be performed. (The Loomio integration even lets you respond directly from the notification!) With both sets of integrations turned on, your chat channel can be the social "glue" which binds your decision making and your project management together. Mattermost and Riot.IM also both offer mobile Apps for phone-friendly access, which are just as good as Slack's.
Because Mattermost and Riot.IM (and other alternatives like RocketChat etc) are both open-source, and provide self-hosting solutions, they are very unlikely to try (or succeed at) the same vendor-lock-in approaches which Slack is currently attempting. We'd strongly recommend that leagues look at any of the Slack alternatives with open-source options just for this reason.
Community Event Calendaring: Google Calendar
The final thing that any league needs is a way to keep track of events, and to promote the public ones to the world. This is really two problems: a calendar, and "social media suite".
Ironically, promoting public events is something that Facebook itself is actually fairly good at, as we mentioned at the start of the article - as long as your community is all on the platform (which they increasingly are not).
For more open-access calendaring and event promotion, there are relatively few truly "open" services. The problem with "promotion" is, of course, that you do need an audience and a way to push your things at them. In the past, this was handled by common services - like RSS - which could be "subscribed" to by interested people, who would then get updates. In the present, your calendaring service needs to be able to be promoted on all your social media platforms, which (given the increasing fragmentation of the market) is much harder.
One hosted service which does work pretty well for this - and has less lock-in than Facebook - is Google Calendar. Obviously, Google is not the most "grass-roots" of providers - and they have a disappointing track record in turning off services at little notice. However, their Calendaring service is one of the more used of their core products, so it's a slightly safer bet for longevity than some of their other products. Google Calendar is also used as the "backend" for many other applications which manage schedules and events for users. In itself, Google Calendar handles the calendar part of things pretty well, and for free (Google, like Facebook, get money from having data about you, and pushing ads at you). A Google Calendar event is inherently public, and can be linked to by you from anywhere, without the viewers needing a login. Zapier and IFTTT, the two most popular "app automation services", fully support the "social media" side of things - they can be set up to automatically share a public calendar event on any and all social media platforms you have logins for. (They also have integrations for Mattermost to post things in your public chat, and several of the Project Management applications - like Trello and Wrike - can add things to a Google Calendar for you automatically.))
From the other side of things, there are a whole suite of applications to share things across social media with the click of a button, most of which are paid, hosted services - ranging from the relatively affordable (Loomly, Hootsuite, etc), to the ridiculously expensive and "professional" (Kapost, Percolate and others). The more expensive of these offer huge ranges of services to schedule promotional posts across whole suites of social media profiles and platforms... your league probably already has their social media team using whatever their favourite tool is (and it's probably Hootsuite). Most of these can integrate with a lot of the tools from earlier sections (including your communication service), and can draw items from Google Calendars.
If you have the technically minded people in your league, we'd actually recommend hosting your calendar yourselves on your website, and linking people there across all your social media accounts. (You can make Facebook Events and Google Calendar entries to match it, of course, but owning your data on your website gives you more control and freedom). If you do this, please do turn on the RSS (or Atom) feed, as it's a very cheap and open way to provide updates to your schedule for anyone who wants to subscribe.* This also frees you from needing to rely on third-party services like Zapier, as you can push your social media notifications directly from your server.
Bonus page: Forum Software (page 6)
*Our weekly event roundups for the world mostly draw from Facebook Events as a pragmatic acceptance that that's where leagues advertise things [and we prefer that to the growing trend of leagues just posting an flyer on Instagram, which doesn't help syndication at all].... but being able to subscribe to RSS feeds would also make our lives easier ;)
BONUS: Community Forums: Discourse
Whilst we've covered the most popular modern means of communication in the Real-time Communication section, some leagues may also want to host a more static discussion. Whilst project management software, and Loomio, provide discussion threads as part of their service, there can be some benefits to running a separate Forum, in addition to your real-time discussion rooms.
In common with the software in many of the other section, Discourse also provides a number of "integrations" with other services - a chat integration so your real-time chat can be notified of new topics, for example.
Back to: Project Management (page 2) - the core aspect of running any community with goals - managing who is responsible for them, and how things are going. Consensus decision making (page 3) - making decisions that your community can own. Real-time Communication (page 4) - bringing your community into contact with each other, transparently, in discussion. Event Calendaring (page 5) - keeping track of time, especially to promote your events to the public.