Nonprofit Culture in the Cloud: Key Findings and 9 Case Studies From a Study

Report published September 6, 2012 in NPTech Community, Software, Technology’s Impact

Flickr: marcp_dmozFlickr: marcp_dmoz[Editor's note: The following is an article written by Laura Quinn, Idealware, based on research conducted for NTEN regarding the ways cloud technology impacts organizational culture. You can read the individual case studies in addition to the article below, which summarizes our findings. We thank the team at Idealware for helping us conduct this research, and Google for supporting the project.]

Technology aside, it’s clear that the advent of Cloud-based solutions has had an impact on the culture of our work as nonprofits. It’s changed the jobs we do, both within the IT department and in more mission-related positions, and how we’re able to do them. From collaboration to telecommuting and distributed workforces to sharing back office services, it’s changed the way we think about mobility and how we define “the office.”

The idea of Cloud culture is somewhat nebulous. Where do you draw the line between the technology or the benefits it can bring, and cultural changes as a result of that technology? We asked a number of people—everyone from end users at nonprofits that have implemented Cloud-based solutions to IT people to shared back office service providers to consultants—and got a number of answers.

While no one was sure how to define the cultural changes that have been the result of the Cloud, everyone had examples of those changes to share. In those examples, we were able to find overlapping themes, and from those we drew a few conclusions. (You can read case studies of 10 of the organizations we spoke to on the case study section of our site.)

Here’s what we found.

1. IT is no longer the gatekeeper to technology “magic.”

With 900 million people on Facebook, the growing ubiquity of Gmail and online data storage and sharing solutions like Dropbox and Google Drive, technology is being rapidly mainstreamed. Such tools make home computing easier and more powerful than ever before. And if you have such best-of-breed tools at home, it makes sense to want them at work, too.

“The general public has become more aware of technology because of the consumerization of it,” said Marlina McKay, the IT Director for Atlanta-based Park Pride. “People want it faster—they want everything faster. Now their home computers surpass their work computer, and they’re antsy for them to catch up. … They’re experiencing these things in their personal lives so they ‘know’ it can happen here.”

Nearly everyone we spoke to mentioned similar cultural shifts as a result of this consumerization, which seem to play out in different ways. Mark Gillingham, a vice president in charge of IT at the Great Books Foundation, said the Cloud has raised the bar for his staff.

“People are using the same stuff as at home, and now they know how to use it already, and that raises their comfort level with it,” he said.

This also is proving true for consultants who see their clients’ level of knowledge about technology increasing, said Eric Leland, a consultant at California-based FivePaths.

“People come with more ideas because of the Cloud solutions they may have at home,” he said. “Technology is becoming less foreign, and now you’re much more likely to be in a room full of non-techies that’s full of ideas that are a lot closer to being right. In the past, they had no idea about IT, and were depending on you to tell them what to do.”

Ash Shepherd, who handles process and strategy at Minds on Design Lab, said the Cloud has changed IT staff and consultants’ “gatekeeper” roles by eliminating the model in which one individual knows the ins-and-outs of a particular system—now, everyone is in charge of their own data.

“The IT guy used to be able to sit back in his office and most of the users may or may not have been aware of new releases or anything like that—say, that Office 2010 just came out,” he said. “They’d just show up at the office and use whatever tools IT made available to them. Now sometimes people will say hey, there’s this new version and it’s got all these features, can we get it?”

“[The Cloud] takes away that gatekeeper mentality, but now you need to manage expectations. You have to think about change management.”

“There’s a shift,” Shepherd said. “It takes away that gatekeeper mentality, but also now you need to manage expectations for how and when things roll out. You have to think about the implications of change management.”

2. Staff and management can underestimate the complexity of enterprise-level Cloud solutions.

Dropbox and other tools like it have revolutionized home computing by eliminating many of the obstacles non-technical people have historically faced. Cloud applications have put powerful technologies within anyone’s reach—they no longer need high-end computers or technical knowledge to setup and install them—but those solutions don’t necessarily work on an organization-wide scale.

“Just because a Cloud solution works on an individual scale doesn’t mean it’s appropriate for an entire organization,” Eric said. “They’ll say, ‘We can just use this,’ but the solution needs to work—and work well—in their environment.”

We heard similar sentiments expressed by nearly every person we spoke to in an IT role. Johanna Bates, former director of technology and strategy for the now-defunct nonprofit Community Partners, said that more and more, people expect their work applications to be “really smooth, instantaneous, and slick.”

“Just because a Cloud solution works on an individual scale doesn’t mean it’s appropriate for an entire organization.”

“It’s been interesting to watch people who are not tech people, as more and more of them start using Google Apps and Facebook and Twitter and start asking, ‘If it’s so easy, why can’t it just be this easy all the time?’” she said.

David Owen, a founding partner of the IT contract firm Sinu Networks, said “the tools are getting better all the time—the flip side is we now compete against ideas.”

“Our customers will say, ‘We just want a fileserver in the Cloud,’ and we’ll tell them it’s not quite ready yet,” he said. “But they use Dropbox, and it’s great, and why can’t they use that? Dropbox is great for five people, but not for 20 people. It doesn’t do what you need it to do. The tools are not all quite there yet, but they’re getting there.”

That’s true for IT staff and consultants, Eric said. “You do need to come in as a consultant and understand that you’re dealing with folks that know more about technology. In the past it was, ‘I need a computer,’ and that’s as far as they’d go. How it worked, where it was located, all that stuff was really foreign. Now, you have conversations where it’s, ‘Hey, I‘ve heard of these three tools, or my executive director wants me to look into this one,’ and as a consultant your job is to move those actions into place.”

Part of the appeal of Cloud solutions for consumers is their ease of use. When you log into a hosted application, you don’t see all the work that goes on behind the scenes to develop and implement the solution, much less to keep it running smoothly. Increasingly, people expect that the systems they use at work should be every bit as simple and effortless, overlooking the role IT plays in making that happen.

“People see the Cloud as a switch you flip, not something they see you installing, and they think it’s going to happen immediately,” Marlina said. “With the Cloud, IT is not a project anymore, it’s magic. People think you don’t need to do training, and there’s no thought for user adoption that you’d manage with a software rollout.”

Eric said the Cloud has made it really easy to get into new things, “but now the expectation is that IT is no longer a project.”

Johanna agreed, and said that “the more people have gotten into the Cloud, the more their expectations have changed in that people who are using the Cloud heavily expect everything to be extremely easy.”

“When you’re working on a budget, that’s not always possible,” she said. “Oh, I want to just click like I do on Facebook and have everything work. To customize an Open Source application to be like Facebook would cost as much as Facebook spends on it. You’re paying for Facebook with your eyeballs, by watching ads. If there are no ads, you’re going to have to pay some other way.”

3. The Cloud has changed the role IT plays in an organization, but it has not diminished it.

As technology infrastructure moves out of the data closet and into the Cloud, the roles and responsibilities of IT departments are evolving. Implementing a Cloud-based application no longer involves setting up a box, connecting cables, and installing and upgrading software—but it does require other types of oversight. Every person we spoke with in an IT role told us some variation on this theme.

As IT director, Marlina said, her role is to vet every system thoroughly and make sure it’s an appropriate choice for the organization.

“I’m all about vetting,” she said. “Make sure there’s a business case for it before we install it, whatever it is, make sure we’ve vetted all the vendors, and then test it.”

Rose De Fremery, IT Director for the American Jewish World Service, said moving IT to the Cloud has changed the nature of the diligence she must do for each solution she implements, but it has not eliminated it.

“There’s more due diligence you need to perform because your eggs are now in someone else’s basket.”

“There’s more due diligence you need to perform,” she said, “because your eggs are now in someone else’s basket.”

At the Great Books Foundation, as at other organizations we’ve spoken to, the IT team has been able to turn its attention to more meaningful things rather than care and feeding of servers and proprietary software. Mark said his IT staff also spends much less time training staff on new technologies.

“To the extent that everyone has an email account or a third of our staff has a personal Google account or a Hotmail account, all these apps are so similar that there’s not a lot of training to do anymore,” he said. “I think Facebook is probably the number-one teacher of our staff, especially those under 35 or 40, whereas technology is so ubiquitous now and comes in the form of your telephone, and that in conjunction with Facebook and browsers on your phones and so on has gone a long way toward solving some of the issues we used to have to butt up against.”

4. The Cloud reduces the cost of entry and fear organizations associate with technical infrastructure.

The Cloud also makes technology more approachable for smaller organizations without technical staff. Traditionally, if you wanted particular software applications, you needed the right hardware and servers to run them and a staff person to set up and maintain them. That’s not true anymore, as Connecticut-based Danbury Youth Services shows. The organization shifted its technology infrastructure to the Cloud via a shared back office provider, eliminating in-house IT—and all the problems it had caused in the past.

“It’s definitely made us more efficient,” said Executive Director Julie Schmitter. “We needed to provide a safe environment for our documents, because we’re a client-based organization and we have a lot of client information. We wanted something where our info was going to be stored and safe. If anything was to happen, that information would no longer be lost.”

Similarly, Community Partners’ staff was reluctant to embrace a Cloud-based email system because of the changes they feared it would force upon their culture. Ultimately they liked those changes so much that they became evangelists for the technology and got a grant to help bring it to others.

“People expect nonprofits to function like they’re not businesses, but they are businesses, and they deserve business tools like everyone else,” Johanna said. “The Cloud has helped with that—it’s made it easier to get best-of-breed tools to these organizations more affordably.”

5. The Cloud allows remote staff to be more of a part of the team.

Cloud solutions have helped break down the walls between work and home by making it easy to check email, access data, share screens and video conference, and maintain a virtual presence that can be as effective as an actual physical presence. This has the benefit of enabling distributed staff, mobilizing workers, and facilitating telecommuting. Even though it’s made it possible for staff to work from multiple locations, it’s also resulted in increased collaboration.

Every person we spoke with echoed this sentiment. Some said Cloud solutions had these effects on their staff.

Headway Emotional Health Services, in Minnesota, is an excellent example of an organization that used Cloud technology to mobilize staff when it gave case managers based in the field smart phones and access to client data and calendars. Brad Kopecky, director of operations, said the move “turns them into a truly mobile workforce,” making them more efficient, more productive, and happier with their jobs. It’s also improved client satisfaction by making it easier to schedule appointments, eliminating the need to call the front desk and deal with a middleman.

“Technology used to cause silos, now it’s breaking them down.”

At the Great Books Foundation, moving to the Cloud made it easy for mobile staff to collaborate with office-based staff. “Technology used to cause silos, now it’s breaking them down,” Mark said. “ Staff outside of Chicago—mostly trainers and salespeople—had historically been “second-class citizens” to the rest of the organization as a side effect of their isolation, he said. But when they started using Google Apps, staff began to realize that the tools for collaboration and communication went a long way toward erasing the distinction between on-site and remote employees. “That’s been a noticeable change in our workplace culture.”

Eric said that, as a consultant, he sees other organizations using the technology in similar ways—including his own firm. He telecommutes, and is able to hire consultants around the country based on qualifications rather than their geographical proximity.

“There is a certain efficiency to working on close projects where you can brainstorm face-to-face, and there’s a benefit to the camaraderie you get from going to lunch together,” he said, “so I don’t want to overstate that you get all that by working virtually. But it really is the case that you can work remotely and be as effective as you were in the past, or nearly so.”

For it to work, organizations and their staff have to be open to the cultural changes.

“For some people, working remotely is a door that is hard to walk through until you realize that as soon as you get up and get on the computer, people know you’re there,” Eric said. “It’s sort of the equivalent of entering the office. Showing things no longer requires the same presence, and your office starts to become a bunch of people who work together instead of the place you all show up to every day.”

6. The Cloud changes the perception of when physical presence is necessary.

It wasn’t that long ago that you had to actually go to the office to check your work email, and to use some of the systems you needed in your day-to-day work that lived on the organization’s servers. As the Cloud makes it easier for people to work remotely, it’s also changing the way organizations perceive their workforce—the idea that people need to be physically present to be effective, or collaborative, is evolving beyond allowing occasional work-from-home days into virtual offices spread out across great distances. The effect that’s having can be felt in all corners of the nonprofit sector.

Ash Shepherd said he’s changed the way he interacts with consulting clients as a result of the Cloud.

“Over the big distances, being able to connect and work with people has made a difference,” he said. “But even in same city, being able to use Skype and video conferencing and things like that, you don’t necessarily see people face to face as often. But you’re now able to work with them in a more nimble, connected way, even though you’re seeing them in person less.

“A one hour meeting as a consultant used to mean two hours out of my day,” he said. “For the client, it meant an hour and a half, setting up a conference room, all that stuff. Why don’t we just pull up a Skype chat and I can share my desktop and show you that instead of setting up a training a week or so down the road? Without travel time and setup, it’s an hour meeting, and you start and finish on time. People are realizing you can connect, work, get things done, and as soon as the call is over you can flow back into your stuff.”

The Montana Legal Services Association uses Cloud solutions to break down the walls between its three offices spread out across an enormous geographical area as well as to deliver legal information and services to constituents statewide. Executive Director Alison Paul said that’s significantly changed how her organization functions both internally and externally, and it’s a good example of how presence matters less when you’re able to deliver the same level of service, or better, using the Cloud.

“We use almost everything in the Cloud,” Alison said. “We’re penetrating the state better. It’s absolutely made it easier to collaborate and work in different parts of state. It’s dramatically changed our culture.”

The Minnesota Child Care Resource & Referral Network’s Eager-to-Learn Program used the Cloud to deliver its childcare provider education to more people across a wider geographical area than it could do face-to-face with instructors, Program Manager Cory Woosley said. In 10 years, participation has exploded from less than 100 people to more than 2,000.

What Cloud Culture Might Mean for Your Organization

What’s to be learned from how the Cloud has changed the culture of the nonprofit organizations who have embraced it? Certainly that it can have real and dramatic impacts on everything from how you work to the technology you have access to and how you’re able to serve your constituents. But the bigger picture seems to be that just like it’s removed the walls of what we used to think of as “the office,” it’s also removing many of the lines between work and home and personal and professional.

Before mobile phones, houses had phone numbers, but now people have them. The Cloud is changing the computing model in similar ways.

Technology is no longer just a tool—it’s becoming a part of our lives. Before mobile phones, houses had phone numbers, but now people have them. The Cloud is changing the computing model in similar ways, making it possible to access all our data and applications and systems from anywhere and at anytime, blurring the way we interact with our data and with each other.

This can have significant importance for how we’ll think of work as we move further along these lines, and it seems helpful to be prepared to recognize opportunities to capitalize on what the changing models can offer us.

Community Partners’ example is a good one. Staff worked closely with healthcare outreach workers that were bogged down by paperwork and signature-gathering, and after embracing the Cloud internally, saw a chance to reinvent how these workers managed their day-to-day tasks. The organization got a grant to provide them with laptops and Cloud applications that made it easier than ever before to carry out their jobs.

“It kicked them up a notch into technology tools that it would have been years before they had access to otherwise,” Johanna said. “The more we used the Cloud ourselves, the more absurd it seemed that not everyone was using it.”

Alison Paul said the Cloud has immeasurably changed the way the Montana Legal Services Association works, both internally and externally.

“Now, when we interview for any position, you have to be comfortable with it or you won’t survive,” she said. “It’s such a big part of what we do now. We always have technology projects going on, and the Cloud has paved the way for these moving forward. We will use technology to make our lives and our clients’ lives easier. Without the Cloud, we wouldn’t have the ability to do any of that.”

Read the case studies: