NTEN Case Study: Managing Systems and Documents in the Cloud

The Nonprofit Technology Network (NTEN), whose mission is to help members strategically use technology to make the world a better, just, and equitable place, didn’t so much consciously move to the Cloud as come of age in it.

When IT Director Karl Hedstrom joined NTEN in 2006, a few employees had been working remotely, thanks to the Cloud. “Going forward we kept looking for those solutions because, with our size and capacity, the Cloud always managed to be the better option,” Hedstrom said. Today, roughly one-third of the 13-member full-time staff work outside NTEN’s Portland, OR, headquarters.

Employees, regardless of location, rely on a few key systems daily: Google Apps’ Gmail, Calendar, Drive and Hangouts. NTEN uses Avectra netFORUM for managing customer records, memberships and events, and, integrated with netFORUM, HighRoad Solution for e-marketing. The organization also uses LastPass Enterprise for password management and Dropbox, primarily as a backup system.

Cloud-enabled sharing and collaboration called for new policies and procedures for document management at NTEN. “Before the policy, staff sometimes had trouble finding the right document or the right version of a document,” Hedstrom noted. He saw how those types of seemingly minor issues could, on a larger org-wide scale, lead to lost productivity and duplicated efforts.

The resulting policy covers several critical areas: folder structure, file naming conventions and sharing policies. It works well, Hedstrom said, although there are (of course) hiccups. Shared access means anyone can move or delete files, deliberately or by mistake. And if a user doesn’t add new documents to the system, there’s no way for colleagues or IT staff to find them. Hedstrom and Brendan Blaine, IT systems manager, are exploring ways to improve administrator controls to prevent those issues.

Hedstrom and Blaine also are working on extending the Google Drive document management policy to Dropbox to ensure that when staff members sometimes use Dropbox instead of Drive for file sharing, the files are managed in a systematized way.

Selection criteria for new Cloud-based systems are few but fundamental: ease of use for staff and how well the product integrates with NTEN’s existing systems and processes. “A big part of the evaluation process is looking at how [a new system] will integrate with our database so that it’s seamless, so that we won’t have data siloes,” Hedstrom said.

Cost also is a factor when selecting new products, as is scalability, although that is typically implicit in Cloud-based applications. “With the Cloud, you can be ready for anything,” Blaine said, including preparedness for web traffic spikes, such as when NTEN opens registration for its annual Nonprofit Technology Conference (NTC). “We might have a couple of hundred people trying to register on the site at the same time. The scalability of Cloud systems generally soaks up that demand [without disruption].”

When new products and systems are implemented adopted, training takes place both in person — at twice-yearly staff meetings in Portland — and virtually. “We make liberal use of Google Hangouts,” Hedstrom said. “The screen share capability works well for remote (video) training.”

But the bigger issues related to training don’t go away with the Cloud. “No matter what, [for any technology], you have to take a step back to design and deliver appropriate training and follow up on that training [to identify further needs],” he added.

Google Hangouts’ remote desktop capability also facilitates troubleshooting. “Everyone hates sitting on the phone with tech support,” Blaine said, “so my being able to take control of an off-site staff member’s computer really cuts down on that type of frustration.”

Overall, maintenance of cloud-based systems is minimal. “Mostly we just contact the vendor,” Hedstrom said. “It takes a lot of the burden off staff so we can focus more on systems management and fine tuning policies to help staff do their work and the community get the most out of our website and programs.”

The Cloud, though, is not without drawbacks when it comes to a distributed team. “You’re beholden to Internet connectivity,” Blaine said. As staff size increases and people multitask and listen to music or watch videos, “you can start to get into that bandwidth crunch zone, where your changes aren’t pushed to the Cloud real-time” (which impacts employees working remotely). And, “as good as Google Hangout is, you still can’t replicate that in-person experience,” Blaine added.

For NTEN the downsides are worth the benefits. The Cloud has enabled NTEN to recruit and hire the best candidates regardless of location and to retain existing staff who relocate. “Without the Cloud, it would not be an option to have staff spread across the country,” Hedstrom said. It’s also made it possible to hire IT staff with different skill sets. Both Hedstrom and Blaine came to IT from the program side of nonprofit management and have less experience with hardware per se.

“Our roles are IT-focused now, but we haven’t lost that organizational-goal view,” Blaine said. “Instead of having my head buried in hardware and software weeds, I’m looking around to see where we’re making progress and where we’re not, and we can shape our systems to help funnel that progress [to meet our strategic goals].”

Kim Roth