Not if, but when: Taking your not-for-profit into ‘the cloud’

Do you work in “the cloud”? In 2012, TechSoup Global, a technology research group, asked that of more than 10,000 not-for-profits worldwide. It found that 90% of them used some form of cloud computing. If this sounds like a surprisingly high number, consider some of the most common cloud applications: Yahoo! Mail, Facebook, Skype and WordPress.

In a nutshell, cloud computing means using the Internet to access files and applications stored on remote servers, rather than on your organization’s server or your computer’s hard drive. While cloud computing comes with some risks, the benefits generally outweigh them.

Knowledge solutions

Despite their high use rate, 60% of the TechSoup survey’s respondents cited “lack of knowledge” as a major obstacle to cloud computing adoption. Fortunately, the cloud is the perfect solution for not-for-profit staffers who either don’t understand or don’t want to spend time dealing with IT issues.

Most cloud applications are simple and designed for use by nontechies. And when you shift software and storage online, the service providers maintain the hardware, upgrade programs, provide security and repair problems. Savings can be considerable. When not-for-profit Seattle Works traded in physical servers and hardware for Microsoft’s Business Productivity Online Suite, it trimmed $20,000 in operating expenses.

Other potential benefits include:

•    Off-site and mobile access to e-mail and documents,

•    The flexibility to grow or shrink operations and IT resources quickly, and

•    More time to focus on your not-for-profit’s mission.

Cloud computing can provide a particular boost to your fundraising efforts, making it easier for donors to give — for example, via cell phones and social media — and for you to manage their donations.

Security risks

For many not-for-profits, security and other concerns overshadow such enticements. Though it doesn’t happen often, it’s possible that a cloud service provider will lose data, share it with unauthorized users or have its network hacked. Reliability is another potential issue. Although most users can tolerate a brief network outage, one that lasts hours — or days — could bring your operations to a grinding halt.

To reduce these risks, screen service providers carefully. Ensure that they use up-to-date security software and conduct background checks on employees. Also ask for guarantees for network availability and support response times.

Microsoft and Google are two of the biggest players in the cloud computing arena. They’re also affordable: Microsoft Office 365 offers reduced not-for-profit rates, and Google for Nonprofits is free for use by most 501(c)3 organizations. Other popular applications include QuickBooks 2013 for accounting and Salesforce.com for managing donor and member relationships.

Making the move

If — that is, when — you decide to migrate to the cloud, be sure to ask for vendor recommendations from other not-for-profits as well as your financial advisors. You may be able to build your own cloud computing infrastructure, but larger not-for-profits usually benefit from the assistance of technology consultants.

For more information, please contact Matt Brackman at mbrackman@cshco.com

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