Cloud Computing for Small Nonprofits: Lessons Learned from 5 Years in the Cloud

Submitted by Brett on Thu, 03/18/2010 - 8:26am

Judi Sohn, C3: Colorectal Cancer Coalition

When C3: Colorectal Cancer Coalition started in 2005, cloud computing wasn't the buzz word it is today. It was simply the only way we could operate and build the organization.

I was first touched by colon cancer in 1998 when my father was diagnosed with stage IV colon cancer. When he died in 1999, I connected with a community of colorectal cancer patients, caregivers, and family members online. In the years since, we were spread out across the country, working on various cancer-related projects and interests. Nancy Roach, a cancer survivor and vocal advocate living in Oregon pulled a group of us together to build a national organization focused solely on change and the needs of the colorectal cancer patient.

Shortly after the Colorectal Cancer Coalition was incorporated as an organization in March 2005 we hired an admin, bought her a laptop and gave her a desk in a tiny single room office sublet from another organization in Washington, DC. As a remotely managed organization, we relied on the cloud to help run C3 until we leased our own office space in Alexandria, Virginia in 2007.

Today, we are still a small organization with only seven staff members, five based in our Virginia office. While we're programmatically just starting to tip our toes into social media, we operate efficiently primarily using a variety of web-based services and tools.

We have never purchased a server and have no plans for one. A staff member or volunteer with access to a browser connected to the web has everything he/she needs to fight colorectal cancer with us. The services and tools we use to run and build C3 have allowed us to expand and add programs while keeping our operating expenses low, maximizing every dollar we raise.

Over the past five years of trying more web-based applications than I can count to support our infrastructure and operations and increase productivity, there have been quite a few ups and downs. There are services and processes that have worked out well for us, and others that have been less successful and have been abandoned. I know my co-workers cringed and ran every time another email from me began with "Try this..." and included yet another user name and password for them to collect. There's a tiny fine line between collaboration and distraction. I've developed a keen sense of when it's safe to cross.

While I still have the heart and spirit of an early adopter, I'm now far more strategic and measured about the services I choose to introduce to C3. In honor of C3's 5 year anniversary this month, I present to my fellow techies in young nonprofits my 5 simple lessons learned from 5 years of operating in the cloud:

1. Focus on solving problems, not adapting to solutions.

Many new web services promise features and advantages that you never knew you needed until you heard about the service. I can't even count how many shiny bells & whistles I was distracted by as we got started, only to be disappointed later down the line. Don't expect your co-workers to change their habits overnight, if at all. You know best (or should) your organization's communication style and capacity for change. Work with it. Roll out new features and services gradually, as need demands to solve a specific challenge.

Operationally, C3 has standardized around Salesforce's Force.com which we started using in 2006, and Google Apps which we started using in early 2008. Both are extensible platforms with strong nonprofit user communities. While implementation can get complex depending on the organization's requirements, both are easy for non-developer techie admins to manage and integrate with other services. We're especially excited about Convio's Common Ground, which we started using in our Salesforce environment last summer for donation and campaign management. This week, Google unveiled Google Apps Marketplace which allowed us to provide single sign on for some services we already use, such as Box.net for document storage. Even if data is repurposed across multiple services, it shouldn't feel that way to the end user. Which leads me to...

2. Create hubs and extend platforms.

Collaborative web applications that have to be loaded separately in their own environment with separate login credentials have been extremely difficult to adopt. I avoid them as much as I can now. Integration and data consistency are our top priorities, even if we have to give up potentially helpful functionality in another service. Instead we've focused on building on the platforms that have already been successful for us, repurposing the data to be most effective.

3. Keep a library of training materials.

Every web service has a "Help" button, but don't rely on it to support your colleagues. A few months ago I found Screen Steps, a fantastic desktop tool for creating step-by-step documents with screen shots or video. I don't write a manual no one will actually read. Instead, I solve a problem one step at a time. I frame every help document with "How Do I...?" and show colleagues how to perform specific tasks they need to be more productive. If someone sends me an email asking a question, I create a Screen Steps document with the answer. That way, it's now available for everyone to learn from.

I experimented with video, using Jing to produce screencasts. But those movies are harder to keep updated, as if one step changes the entire thing has to be redone. With Screen Steps, I can easily edit the file to replace an image or rewrite a step. Once I create the help document, I use the built-in tools in Screen Steps to, in a single click, upload to an internal Google Sites page we use as an intranet. Very easy. And kind of fun as only a techie will appreciate.

4. The cloud is a tool. It's not a destination (or a religious experience).

When we first rolled out Google Apps in early 2008 I had visions of a Microsoft Word burning party as everyone embraced Google Docs. Didn't happen. Truth is, there are times that a desktop tool is a better solution than an online compromise. If someone prefers to create a Word file rather than a Google Doc, that's fine. If they'd rather email a file than collaborate online, that's fine too. In the end, we just ask that no vital files are kept only on laptop hard drives. Even emailing a document is backing it up, since mail is kept online.

Another hybrid approach we take is in how we collaborate on graphic files. Documents are created in InDesign, saved to PDF and then shared for collaborative review to Acrobat.com. Team members can download the PDF, open in Adobe Reader and annotate directly on the PDF. When they save the document locally, the comment layer is automatically saved to Acrobat.com so other team members can see and comment on their comments. We've found this makes editing our quarterly newsletter a breeze.

5. Have a doomsday plan.

Thankfully, we've never suffered a digital catastrophe, although there have been some close calls. Within a span of approximately 2 months we had to replace 2 employee laptop computers, and reformat another's drive. In all cases, there was no significant loss of productivity or data. Long before we started using Google Apps and Salesforce, we kept all our data in WebEx's WebOffice, not realizing there was no functionality for exporting contact activity history. Now, we make sure that every byte of data that gets placed in the cloud can be pulled down as well.

If you're using Salesforce, did you know that you can schedule a complete backup of all your data on a weekly basis? For more frequent backups, there are third party solutions. Google Apps Marketplace lists some utilities for syncing documents to desktop computers. It's easier to be confident in the cloud if you know where your data is and how to get it out.

For us, the best part of operating using cloud services has been in how easy it has been to scale as our organization grew. I can only imagine how we'll celebrate 10 years.

Judi Sohn is Vice President of Operations of C3: Colorectal Cancer Coalition, a fancy title for someone who works barefoot a lot. Judi has always been a technology enthusiast, having served as editor of Web Worker Daily until early last year. When not trying out the latest cloud productivity app, she can be found @Judi217 or knitting.