May 7, 2013

Managing Your Constituents in the Cloud

Many of us take “the cloud” for granted. We’ve grown accustomed to having anywhere, anytime access to our data and systems. But while surveys – such as NTEN’s The State of the Nonprofit Cloud Report (released in 2012) – suggest that the “vast majority of nonprofits are using hosted software,” many nonprofits and membership organizations have yet to move to the cloud.

What’s holding them back? As the report notes:

Cloud-based software might seem like a new concept, but it’s not—it’s the evolution of software accessed over the Internet, which we’ve used in one form or another for a decade or more. For some nonprofits, however, the mindset with which they approach the software has changed. Cloud solutions provide nonprofits with the opportunity to outsource something—like the maintenance of servers and software—that may not be their organization’s core competency.

The Benefits of Cloud Computing for Nonprofits and Membership Organizations

For membership organizations, especially small groups that rely heavily on volunteers to help with administration, there are a number of advantages to using “cloud-based” or hosted solutions, including:

  • Convenience and improved efficiency: There are many ways in which the cloud can increase efficiency – here are a few examples:
    • Database efficiency: Keeping member or supporter databases up-to-date can be a daunting task using installed software. When staff, board members and other volunteers need to view or update the database outside of the office, the data from the installed software needs to be exported or sent around as Excel files, which impacts data security and can lead to duplicate records, mistakes, etc. Alternately, when all data or files are stored online (in the cloud) files can be updated and shared remotely and easily. This means, no duplicate member lists or outdated email lists and no need to email or copy files onto USB sticks.
    • Saves time: Instead of staff making changes to member contact information or membership status, with cloud solutions, your members and supporters can quickly and easily update their own membership or contact information. In addition, staff or volunteers can update websites and manage event registration remotely and easily.
  • Increased Collaboration: Cloud software can facilitate easier collaboration. For example, using cloud-based software makes it possible for everyone involved to work and comment on a single file (e.g., meeting minutes, planning documents, spreadsheets, etc.) in real-time, so it’s easier to collect feedback and find agreement. Many cloud systems also allow you to see previous versions, so you don’t need to worry about editors accidentally deleting important information. In addition, staff or volunteers can work collaboratively in managing events, updating blogs, forums or posting information.
  • Reduced infrastructure and built-in backup: Most nonprofits and membership organizations do not have the resources necessary to update their systems and software, often leading to outdated systems, crashing computers and security holes. With cloud-based software or systems, the “burden of maintenance” is shifted to the vendor. Their automatic updates, backup and tech support save time and effort previously required for updates and infrastructure maintenance. In addition, with cloud systems there should be limited downtime since they have back-up servers as well as expert support to manage and minimize service disruptions.
  • Environmentally friendly: As the “How Cloud Computing is Saving the Earth” infographic illustrates, shared data centers (or “multitenancy” as they call it) save energy and maximize resource utilization by allocating resources depending on who needs them. What the infographic doesn’t mention is that the ability to share files among remote users also saves trees, since committees and boards can read minutes and background documents online instead of making a multitude of copies for association and nonprofit meetings.

Yet even with these obvious benefits, there is still some resistance to cloud solutions due to questions around control of and security for data stored online. There are also likely skeptics who are waiting to see if “the cloud” is a fad that will fade out.

Reassuring the Reluctant

There is certainly no need to fear being an early adopter at this point. As Ernie Smith noted recently in a post on Associations Now, you (and your leadership team) are probably using cloud-based solutions without even thinking about it. He reminds us that many big companies, such as Twitter, Tumblr, Reddit, Netflix and Pinterest, host their content on AWS (Amazon Web Services). Aside from these social networks, you might be using Gmail, Yahoo Mail or Google docs – all based in the cloud.

The NTEN report also notes that “it’s too early to predict the future of cloud computing—it’s not yet ubiquitous, but already it’s more than a fad. Traditional software vendors like Microsoft now offer online versions of many of their products, and in niche areas, like donor management software, new entries to the market have been almost exclusively cloud-based.”

Addressing Security Concerns

Offering reassurance around concerns about security in the cloud, means addressing issues around:

  • Storage in the cloud: Some people are uncomfortable thinking that their data or documents are stored on remote servers instead of on their own hard drive or server. But as experts have pointed out, “many cloud vendors have better capacity than customers to keep information safe.” This sentiment was echoed by a small nonprofit cloud user quoted in the NTEN report who noted that “with computers crashing and lost data that a hosted option seemed to make more sense than installed software. For security, too—she said she had no faith in her organization’s ability to keep people from hacking into its computers.” In addition, many cloud-based systems allow you to export key data to a local file such as a spreadsheet, so if you’re inclined toward covering all of your bases, you can have additional piece of mind by performing your own back-ups from time to time as well.
  • Access: While there may be concern about unauthorized access to data stored in the cloud, the NTEN report noted that “the experts [they] interviewed felt that nonprofits’ fears about unauthorized access were generally unwarranted. In fact, they believe the cloud offers increased security options over many traditional methods.” If there are additional questions around access to data within the nonprofit or membership organization, most systems enable sign-in access permissions specific to appropriate security/access levels.
  • Data Backup: Many organizations – large and small – struggle with adequate back-up of data. As noted earlier, cloud solutions are responsible for data back-up and are equipped with multiple back-up servers (and even server farms) to ensure data is backed up. In addition, they have personnel that are tasked with ensuring data safety and minimal downtime.
  • Trust: In the end, it might come down to trust issues. As one cloud user noted in the NTEN report, “There’s a trust relationship with the vendors who have your data—you need to decide who to trust.” To overcome the trust hurdle, your organization should take the time to thoroughly investigate any cloud service provider.

Making a Case for Moving to the Cloud

If you’re looking for additional support in making a case for adopting cloud technology at your organization, you might want to consider the analogy offered in the NTEN report:

As opposed to thinking of IT infrastructure as a fact of life, some organizations are beginning to think about it like electricity—something that you can rent rather than create yourself. You could put a generator in your basement to produce your own electricity, but then you’d have to run and maintain it yourself. In most cases, it’s more cost effective to simply pay the power company for electricity. Similarly, it may be more cost effective to pay a vendor for the use of their servers and software than to run and maintain your own.

Finally, if your organization’s leadership is still unsure about moving to the cloud, Ernie Smith suggests: “if the CIA can be sold on the value of the cloud, perhaps now’s the time to make the pitch to your organization.” In his post, “Cloud Intelligence: Why Amazon’s CIA Contract Is Worth Watching,” Smith notes, “Amazon’s big contract with the Central Intelligence Agency could help tamp down one of the key arguments against cloud computing—that it’s insecure—once and for all. If it’s good enough for the CIA, is it good enough for your association?

This post was originally published at: and reprinted with permission.

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Lori Halley
Interest Categories: Cloud
Tags: Cloud