Culture in the Cloud: The Case of Community Partners

When Community Partners, a now-defunct nonprofit that worked to reform healthcare in Massachusetts, first turned to the Cloud around 2003, staff struggled to accept the internal cultural changes it brought to the organization. But within a short time, the organization not only embraced the benefits it afforded, but worked aggressively to apply Cloud-based infrastructure to mission-related work, as well.

After making the shift internally, we began to think about our mission work differently, said Johanna Bates, Community Partners director of technology and strategy at the time. We began to think about the ways the Cloud could help us accomplish our goals better by getting people better healthcare coverage.

Those ways turned out to be numerous, she said.

It began with Google Apps, which Johanna implemented internally to replace a client/server-based mail system. Staff showed reluctance to adopt the new webmail platform, with many of them requesting that they be allowed to use their existing desktop-based mail clients.

I wanted to streamline things and use a better class of software, and Google made this best-of-breed tool that was available for free, she said. There were people who resisted. It evolved to the point where I said, OK, you can use Thunderbird or Eudora, but Im not supporting itif you want my help, then you need to use Gmail, or find help on your own. I cant support multiple platforms.

When she implemented Googles calendar application, there was a similar reluctance. People used it, she said, but they still used a paper calendar, too, making it redundant. I just dont think they trusted it yet, she said. Paper trumped Google.

At the time, the organization worked with a number of outreach workers statewide who traveled around enrolling lower-income people in the state-funded healthcare system to ensure they were covered. The outreach workers carried heavy binders stuffed with paperwork, and enrollment meant filling out long and complex forms and photocopying IDs.

The state system moved glacially, she said. It was a bureaucratic machine.

But as Community Partners staff began to realize the benefits of the Cloud-based applications they were using internally, which made it easier for remote or mobile staff to check email and manage scheduling, they recognized an opportunity to improve the efficiency of the outreach workers using similar solutions.

They applied for and received a sizable federal grant and used it to purchase high-end laptops, mobile printers and handheld scanners for outreach workers, and taught them to use them to complete enrollment forms and scan identification. They also provided the workers with electronic fax accounts that let them fax from the Cloud rather than a landline.

It kicked them up a notch into technology tools that it would have been years before they had access to otherwise, Johanna said. Even as Community Partners was making the shift, it was starting to happen everywherethe state was also making the shift, but they were making it slowly.

Massachusetts still required wet signatures, and would not accept them electronically, which Community Partners worked diligently to change.

We said, Look, for free, you could be using this and save hours of paperwork, and get people onto healthcare two weeks earlier because you dont have to wait for the mail, or because their signatures were lost in the mail, Johanna said. Youd hear these heartbreaking stories of people who sent in their Mass Healthcare application, and it got lost, and they had diabetes or whatever, and if you could have sent it in electronicallywell, it wasnt like Pony Expressing their wet signature. It was absurd to us. The more we used the Cloud ourselves, the more absurd it seemed that not everyone was using it.

That led Community Partners to become better advocates for the people it served by using better tools, and by helping them to use them as well.

We led the shift because we had made the shift ourselves, she said. People expect nonprofits to function like theyre not businesses, but they are businesses, and they deserve business tools like everyone else. The Cloud has helped with thatits made it easier to get best-of-breed tools to these organizations more affordably. That kind of martyrdom didnt serve any organizations mission.

Chris Bernard