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Solving the Mysteries of APIs

Imagine you’re sitting at a conference table, discussing the new nonprofit digitals tools your organization has chosen. You start to hear some words, phrases, and acronyms that are new to you. One of those might be, “API.” If you’re thinking to yourself, ‘I have no idea what that means,” then you’re in the right place. Here are the basics of APIs, boiled down to what we think nonprofit professionals need to know.

What is an API?

API stands for Application Programming Interface. In the most basic terms, an API is what allows applications to talk to each other. One example is if you have a form on your website where supporters can sign up for events at local chapters of your organization. An API could connect the form to your CRM, and any time someone submits the form the data is stored in your CRM. You’ve just learned a little more about your supporter!

For an example of APIs in action using WordPress and Salesforce, check out this case study about one of our partners, Team RWB.

Where You Might Already See Them

The most common interaction you might be having with an API is simply when you type a URL into a browser. The browser sends a request to the server where the website is hosted, and the server delivers the content so you can see it on your device. In this instance, the server is the API, allowing the browser and website to work together. (Read more about web hosting here.) But wait, there’s more! If you’ve ever seen a website that dynamically shows Instagram images based on a certain search term or hashtag, then you’ve seen an API in action. Another example you might be familiar with is a custom search on a website. Using a Google API, organizations can allow their visitors to search only the content available on their site.

How Nonprofits Can Use APIs

Imagine that you want to give your donors the ability to donate to your organization, or sign-up for a program, without having to leave your website. Your goal is to give them a seamless experience. An API-driven form can make this happen. Your donor or member would enter their name, address, credit card number, etc. into the website form. Using an API, the data would be sent to the servers of the tool that handles your donations or sign-ups, and all that information would be stored for your records.

Check out this example of a sign-up form we built for our client Pet Partners.

Say you are an organization that offers services in a variety of locations and you store all your location data (like clinic hours, store manager contact information, or school districts served) in a database. You want to create a tool that gives your constituents the ability to find the location nearest them by simply typing their address directly into a search field on your website. In this case, Firefly would use an API to connect your CRM to an online mapping service. Individuals could then go to your website and search a map that would give them the location information they’re seeking. They keyword here is connect. The API is bringing information from your database and a map together (which is different than embedding a regular map on your site).

Here’s an example of a map we built for Energy Outreach Colorado.

Risks and Rewards

As with any technology solution, it’s important to understand that solutions built with APIs need upkeep and maintenance. Here are a few top line risks and rewards of APIs.

Risks

  • Code changes over time. If a company notifies you that there will be a change in the way their API works, you may need to spend time and money updating your code.
  • A free API may start requiring a paid subscription to keep using it (for example, ask us about the Google Maps API!).

Rewards

  • APIs reduce manual data transfer which can save your organization’s staff time.
  • APIs can allow you to abandon a paper-based application system or give constituents the ability to access and update their own personal or donation information.
  • APIs allow you to think big and create custom experiences that still allow you to keep your data neat and tidy. 

As a nonprofit professional, you don’t necessarily need to know every detail about APIs. But it’s important to understand the technological opportunities that are available to your organization. If you think that APIs could help your tools work harder, smarter, and more efficiently for you, fill out this form and we’ll get started on a digital project with you today.

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