Shared Virtual Space Enables Cheap, Easy Nonprofit Collaboration
By David Gleason

David Gleason
David Gleason
Nonprofits increasingly are using cloud systems—off-site software and data accessible through the Internet—to lower overhead and increase flexibility, but, more importantly, cloud computing is breaking down barriers to collaboration.

By moving your material into online space, you are no longer tethered to files stored on a particular computer, server, tablet or phone. After a brief learning curve, you can even see where and when others are working, and how to help.

Reliable, available, and secure, cloud-based technology is finally becoming accessible to everyone, even novice technology users.

Service Providers Provide the Tools
If you’ve used Constant Contact, SurveyMonkey or Doodle, then you are familiar with "software as a service," or SaaS. Moving your IT operations to the cloud is the next step.

The three main providers of cloud infrastructure services for nonprofits are Google, Microsoft, and Apple. Amazon’s cloud is also used extensively for on-demand servers. And social networking, of course, is entirely cloud-based.

Google has an advantage in this new workspace because they started out cloud-based, whereas Microsoft and Apple must maintain their legacy of local file storage while simultaneously moving customer data onto secure, hosted platforms.

For decades, Microsoft has also been the purveyor of “back-office” data center systems infrastructure: in-house servers that manage mail, calendars and files. Until recently, this was considered the best strategy. No longer.

In today’s Microsoft world, there are online versions of Outlook, Word, Excel, and PowerPoint, which are accessible through a browser. These versions do the basic tasks you need for most documents and spreadsheets (formatting, printing, headers, etc.).

That said, experienced users usually need the full version of Office (which is also peppier), so most workstations and notebooks still need Windows or Mac OS and Office installed locally, requiring ongoing maintenance and security patching. This overhead, however, is still far simpler and cheaper than maintaining a data center.

Like Microsoft, Google offers browser-based apps to work with files, email, calendars, contacts, word processing, spreadsheets and presentations, as accessible from tablets and phones as a desktop, so long as you’re connected to the Internet.

Apple’s cloud focuses on information sharing, like calendars, contacts, files, text messages, photos and music. Apple’s software (such as iTunes), maintains synchronized copies of files and data between devices and iCloud servers. This scheme is rooted in Apple’s legacy of local files stored under strong security. The synchronization is complex, and not always reliable. However, Apple’s endpoints (desktops, notebooks, tablets, phones) are unmatched for ease of use, and they work seamlessly with all the major cloud providers.

With the right gear, connectivity and configuration, you can have ubiquitous, nomadic access to everything that you need, often at lower cost.

How Nonprofits Are Using the Cloud
Here's are some of the ways nonprofits are using the cloud to succeed:
  • Finance staff can share a budget in real time with the board treasurer
  • Two or more people can simultaneously draft a grant proposal, while also talking to (and even seeing) one another
  • Home health care workers can access up-to-date patient info
  • You can replace that old MS-Access database that a board member created 10 years ago as a “favor”
  • Your IT folks can focus on users, not the server room
  • Single sign-on provides access to everything
  • Quickly and securely share timely information with volunteers
  • Reduce local storage of sensitive data, and, in case of emergencies, remotely wipe user devices (such as a lost phone) without losing information
  • Brainstorm a conference presentation with all stakeholders adding their ideas simultaneously.
What It's Like
In practice, these systems simplify sharing and tracking your work. For example, trying to figure out which is the current version of a document is history #147; there is only one current copy that can be accessed by anyone with credentials. Older versions are stored automatically as backups and can be recovered if necessary.

Most users are already familiar with Gmail and Outlook, so the learning curve is minimal. It finally feels like the technology is secondary to the task at hand.

Security and Cost
Online storage can be more secure than local infrastructure, eliminating the need to guard and patch server software while keeping track of threats. Cloud applications and security are continuously updated by their hosts.

A quick comparison can demonstrate the cost-effectiveness of these solutions in your organization. For example, Google’s G-Suite and MS Office 365 each currently cost $5 per user per month, or $60/year. The in-house costs of hosting these services, when you consider capital infrastructure, staffing, electricity, licenses, backups, etc. are usually far higher, as are the risks of everything from security breaches to power and hardware failures.

These platforms seek to ease the user experience, are consistent across platforms, and allow seamless, frictionless data flow between collaborators.

In this context, shifting to the cloud becomes a no-brainer.

David Gleason, Managing Consultant at IT for Progress, explains technology to nonprofit decision-makers. Call him at 617-803-5082 or email
June 2017