The Problem of Many-in-One/Council of Canadians Peer-to-Peer Session

Submitted by Dan Bashaw on Wed, 2006-10-11 08:14.

During the Peer-to-peer breakout sessions (aka “Workshopping your Issue”) a group of us created an ad hoc session focusing on the web site design and development issues faced by the Council of Canadians, a progressive national organization with 70 local chapters scattered across the country.

The Council’s challenge is to create a unified yet flexible web presence for the largely autonomous chapters, while still keeping control of branding and much of the messaging.

Problem Statement (Council of Canadians)

The Council’s requirements and constraints include:

  • 1 national organization with 70 chapters, a handful of which have their own web sites, while most have no web presence.
  • The need to cascade content from national to chapter sites
  • The need to allow chapter sites to generate their own content, with the option of having it promoted to the national site.
  • The need for chapter sites to have their own login and security controls
  • The need for the national web coordinator to have editing access to all sites.
  • The requirement for easy WYSIWYG editing through a simplified admin interface.
  • The need to respect chapter autonomy by allowing choice of template and branding, within limits.
  • The need for every chapter to have a minimal page with contact information.
  • The option for every chapter to have calendaring capability
  • The need for backup and recovery capability.
  • The reality that no development budget is currently allocated for the project, and that any budget requested would be low compared to the magnitude of the task.

Problem Pattern (The Problem of Many-in-One)

For many of the session participants, the Council’s problem was a familiar one, but also one for which no out-of-the-box solution was available: Many of us had developed specific solutions that addressed the problem for a specific client, based on Drupal or other CMS technologies, but all recognized that the problem was one that continues to recur, and that is not addressed by the rudimentary multi-site capabilities of the various open source solutions available.

In a nutshell, the issue was of developing an umbrella CMS site framework that strikes the correct balance between coherence at the organizational level, and autonomy at the chapter level. The balance would vary from instance to instance: some organizations require more autonomy, and others require more control.

(The generic Proiblem of Many-in-One is discussed on the Shifts and Devices blog.)

Roundtable Comments

Each of the developers contributed their perspectives on the Council’s needs, focusing on the potential to build a site in Drupal that would address the Council’s requirements.

Some of the comments included:

  • The concensus was that Drupal would be a good framework for developing the site.
  • The caution that Drupal would not address usability in an out-of-the-box fashion, and that custom development would be needed. This position was widely shared, though some developers felt that the challenge was not overly great.
  • Several developers cautioned that rather than striving to build out the entire system as a one-shot solution, that a cautious scalable approach meeting the minimum requirements would be the best way to proceed.
  • All agreed that the problem was one well worth solving, and that the lessons learned from the solution could inform other similar development projects for other NGOs.

Follow-up Action Plan

The session participants agreed to stay in touch and exchange resources and information on possible solutions. Some expressed interest in working on a solution, if funding becomes available.

Pam agreed to research possible hosting arrangements, and Dan, Pam and Carleen agreed to prepare a draft project proposal for consideration by the Council executive. Should the project receive approval, Dan volunteered to assist with training materials for the new site administrators that would be operating the Chapter sites.

Project Contact Information

If you are interested in participating in or following developments with this proto-project, contact Dan Bashaw or Pam Woolridge.


The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.


"This conference is small enough to really learn from the other attendees, and is very focussed on online social change, and what it takes to make it happen. It's very well facilitated and structured, with constant learning opportunities – and that's why I've returned year after year."
Eric Squair, Manager of Web Communications, Greenpeace Canada