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Tech Terms in Plain English

If you've ever been confused by tech terms or abbreviations and want to learn what they all mean, this page is a good place to start!

Below are some common technology terms  You can find a comprehensive dictionary at Some terms can have multiple meanings depending on the context: when in doubt, just ask "what do you mean when you say X?" If there's a term you'd like to get some clarity on, send us an email.

App - Short for “application software,” an app is essentially a piece of software with limited functionality, usually developed for a special purpose. Most of us think of mobile apps when we hear the term, bringing to mind games like Angry Birds or mobile music apps such as Spotify. Apps can also be plug-ins that add functionality to existing technology. The term predates the rapid rise of smartphones and other mobile devices, so you may also here the term app used in the older broader manner: any computer software that enables something other than the work needed to run the computer itself (that is, anything other than the system software).

Cloud - "The cloud" refers to services and technologies that allow computing to take place over the Internet in real time. You probably already use cloud technologies without even knowing it; common web-based services like Office 365, Gmail, Facebook, and Skype aare "in the cloud"--allowing access from virtually any computer with an Internet connection. Cloud computing lets users utilize services without having to purchase and maintain their own hardware.

CMS - A content management system (CMS) is defined by Wikipedia as the collection of procedures used to manage work flow in a collaborative environment. When we talk about CMS, it most commonly refers to a web content management system, which is simply the software that we use to develop and manage websites. Many website CMS options like, WordPress, Plone, or Drupal are designed to be user-friendly so that, at the end of a web development project, even the non-techie members of your staff will feel comfortable updating your website content, without having to learn code.  At 501 Commons we use open source (see below) CMS solutions for our clients' websites.

CRM - A CRM is a specialized type of a database. You'll often hear this acronym expressed as customer relationship management, meaning the strategy and technologies used to manage interactions with customers or clients. In the nonprofit world, however, we're managing relationships with donors, volunteers, foundations, corporate sponsors, etc., so at 501 Commons we express the C as "constituent" instead. Constituent relationship management is fancy way of describing a database that tracks your contacts and every "touch", whether it be volunteer activity, donations, mailings, phone calls, or event attendance. A CRM enables a nonprofit to learn more about their network, target marketing efforts, enhance their stewardship efforts, and generally build stronger relationships with constituents.  Microsoft Dynamics and Salesforce are examples of CRMs that are available with charity pricing for nonprofits. Contact 501 Commons if you want to learn more about this special pricing.

CSS - "Cascading style sheets." A language that manages the design and presentation of web pages: color, look, feel, and so on. It works together with HTML (see HTML), which handles the content of web pages. "HTML is the skeleton of your web pages, while CSS is the clothing," as one of our colleagues says. With CSS, you can create rules to tell your website how you want it to display information. And you can keep the commands for the style stuff -- fonts, colors, and so on -- separate from the commands for the content. They’re called “cascading” because you can have multiple style sheets, with one style sheet inheriting properties (or “cascading”) from others

Database - A functional database is an essential piece of technology for a nonprofit organization. It is a system that allows you to organize, store, and retrieve all sorts of data, including contact information and history of an individual's involvement with your organization. A good database makes it easy to import and organization information, and should also be capable of running various reports (containing information such as donor lists, giving trends, and lists of eNews subscribers or event attendees) to help make your work more efficient.

Domain - When people talk about a website, they often use the word domain as a short version of "domain name" --  the identifying name for a website (for example, and But if you are talking with someone about your IT Infrastructure and they say "domain," they often mean your local network. Most nonprofits are using a Windows network domain, a form of a computer network in which all user accounts, computers, printers and security principals are registered with a central database (called a directory service) located on one or cluster of central computers known as domain controllers. Active Directory is the Windows component that provides that central database. A key benefit of a domain network is the higher level of security and control over the computers in your organization.

Functional Requirements - Functional requirements are processes and other specific functionality that define what a system is supposed to accomplish. We typically use this term in database/CRM website development projects to determine what you want your website or database to be able to accomplish.

Handle - A term used to refer to the user name of a Twitter account. Handles are indicated by the presence of the @ symbol (for example, @501Commons). The best handles are both relevant and short. Since tweets can only contain 140 characters, a short handle ensures that other users will be able to reference your Twitter handle without taking up precious characters.

Hashtag - The # symbol, called a hashtag, is used to mark keywords or topics in a tweet. Words or phrases that follow the # are automatically transformed into links that lead to an aggregated list of tweets that include that same hashtag. Hashtags make tweets easier to search and can be utilized to find tweets regarding a single topic or event. For example, a common hashtag included in 501 Common's tweets is #nptech. Short for nonprofit technology, the use of the #nptech hashtag means that our tweets will show up in searches on the topic of nonprofit technology.

HTML - "Hyper-text markup language." The language used to direct the architecture of your website, landing pages, and emails. HTML lays out the structure of your website, from the title and first header, to a bulleted list, to your footer. Remember, "HTML is the skeleton of your web pages, while CSS is the clothing."

ISP - Internet service provider." An organization (commercial, community-owned, nonprofit, or otherwise privately owned) that provides internet services.

Javascript - A computer programming language used to create interactive effects within web browsers. For example, it allows you to perform calculations, write interactive games, add special effects, check forms, create security passwords, customize graphics, and so on. It has become the standard equipment in virtually all web browsers and is well-suited to a large range of non-web-related applications.

NLP - natural language processing, is when machine-learning algorithms are trained to comprehend large amounts of human language and respond to those commands. You might hear about this machine learning technique most when you are reading about voice assistant products that can respond to multiple spoken commands at once, like Amazon's Echo.

Open Source Software (OSS) - Open source software is software whose source code--the software behind the scenes--is available for modification or enhancement by anyone. Quite often open source source software is "free" in that the software does not require any licensing fees. We often say OSS is "free as in kittens" because although you pay nothing for access to the software, making customizations to it and maintaining upgrades and security patches will require ongoing effort by a technically skilled staff member, volunteer, or consultant. The most popular content management systems in use today are open source software solutions.

Plugin/Plug-In - A software extension that adds a specific feature to an existing software application. You've probably heard of plugins in the context of web browsers to add new features like virus scanners, for example. Ever enabled Adobe Flash Player or Microsoft Silverlight QuickTime Player on your internet browser?

QR Code - Short for "quick response," QR codes are those black and white square icons that are showing up all over the place. The image is encoded with information that can be scanned using camera-enabled smartphones (it generally requires downloading an app that can read the code). The codes are commonly embedded with information to open the phone's web browser to a specific site, or to hold the contact information that typically appears on a business card.

Re-Tweet - Abbreviated RT, a re-tweet is the act of sharing a fellow Twitter user's tweet with your audience of Twitter followers.

RSS - Short for "really simple syndication," RSS is a web feed format that is used to publish frequently updated content like blog entries. Subscribing to an RSS feed lets readers get timely updates from websites or view the feeds from several sites in one place without having to visit each individual website to manually check for updates.

Sandbox - A place to run a program for testing and experimenting in software development. Basically, it's a testing environment that isolates untested code changes and experimentation. This isolation protects live servers and their data from changes that could be damaging.

SaaS - Software as a Service. This acronym categorizes platforms that help professionals and B2B employees with daily tasks or other aspects of their own job. Examples of SaaS platforms are HubSpot, Slack, and DocuSign.

Scrum - A framework for managing product development used in agile software development. In Scrum, projects are divided into succinct work cadences known as "sprints," which are usually one, two, or three weeks long. At the end of each sprint, the team meets to assess their progress and plan the next sprint. One key to Scrum's popularity and success is that it has a simple set of roles, responsibilities, and meetings that never change.

Search Engine Optimization (SEO) - Search engine optimization is the art and science of making the important content on your website easy to find when people search for relevant terms on Google, Bing, or other major search engines. Optimizing a website requires thinking about the words or phrases that you would like your site to rank highly for on a search results page and modifying your site's structure and content accordingly.

SMS - Short for "short message service," the term SMS usually refers to a text message sent via mobile phone.

Social Media - Social media refers to the set of web-based and mobile technologies that are used for communication and interaction, and often encourage users to create their own content. Social media can include social networking sites (Facebook, LinkedIn), blogs and microblogs (Twitter), wikis (Wikipedia), photo and video-sharing (Flickr, YouTube), and dozens of other types of media (if you want to learn more, Wikipedia has a pretty comprehensive list).

URL - Short for "uniform resource locator," the acronym URL is used to describe a web address. For example, the URL for the homepage of this website is