What Every Nonprofit Needs to Know about Cloud Computing


Today marks the kickoff of Salesforce.com’s annual Dreamforce conference, which the company bills as “the cloud computing industry event of the year.” Cloud computing, or the use of the Internet to run applications and store data, emerged in the early 2000’s. After the dot.com bubble burst, surviving and newer companies, like Salesforce, Google, Amazon and others, moved from using the Internet as a medium to place orders or communicate with customers and instead developed online platforms that leveraged Internet connectivity as a crucial part of their services. Today, cloud computing has become so ubiquitous that many people are unaware they are even using it.

TechSoup Global recently released a report that surveyed more than 10,000 NGO’s across 88 countries to measure their adoption of cloud computing. “People often don’t know whether or not the technology they are using is cloud computing” says Marnie Webb, Co-CEO of TechSoup Global. “It’s only when we asked respondents about specific technologies that we discovered that they were, in fact, using cloud computing.”

The report found that 90 percent of survey respondents were using cloud computing in some way, and that more than half said they plan to move a significant portion of their IT to the cloud within three years. “At the enterprise level, after organizations use more than three cloud-based tools, that becomes the tipping point at which they decide to move a significant portion of their IT onto the cloud.” says Webb. “Once they start using cloud computing tools the benefits start to increase their motivation, because they have more experience with it.”

The cloud-based services cited most frequently by respondents were email, social networking/Web 2.0, file storage/sharing, web conferencing, and office productivity. The vast majority (91 percent) of respondents who used cloud-based apps were using at least one cloud-based tool that was more complex, such as WordPress, Quickbooks Online or Salesforce. The major advantages that survey respondents cited to using cloud computing included ease of administration, lower cost, improved collaboration, and greater data security.

For Rolando Brown, Evangelist and Community Manager at Grovo Learning, the benefits are much more straightforward. “What we in the social sector care about most is that we’re able to accomplish our goals and mission; i.e. solving community problems, promoting healthier behaviors, etc. With cloud computing, people can focus more on being better at whatever it is they do rather than being experts at technology. Before, I had to be a techie to take advantage of the web. I needed to understand code to launch a website. Now I can use WordPress and the technology is just available to me.”

Even so, organizations cite concerns about migration costs, data security, and lack of trust as common barriers to cloud adoption. Yet the largest barrier remains a lack of knowledge. According to Techsoup Global’s Webb, “While there is a ton of training and support resources available for any given cloud platform, the challenge for a user can be posing a question in a proper way in the proper forum to get the best available answer. Capacity building organizations and funders should think about how to do a better job at supporting modular solutions across platforms. For example, if a food pantry has developed a customized module for Microsoft Dynamics, we should think about how that could be leveraged for other food pantries.”

By all accounts, cloud computing will continue to increase over the coming years. According to Cisco, cloud Internet traffic is growing at twice the rate of traditional data center traffic, and by 2015 more than half of all workloads will be processed in the cloud. (Watch this cool video as illustration.) For nonprofit organizations, this shift will mean a new way of working that relies less on an IT person or department that develops and deploys applications that are run on a server in a closet and more on cloud-based services that are dynamically changing.

“Every generation has had a group of people that want to help other people,” says Grovo’s Brown. “And every generation has defined how those people more effectively get that work done. I think this generation is really embracing how the web can be used to help more people. Every nonprofit should be looking at how it can use the full potential of the web to help more people.”

John Hoffman is director of business development at ZeroDivide, a San Francisco-based nonprofit organization. He has more than 15 years of experience in marketing and development with the high-tech and nonprofit sectors.

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  • Boyd Fisher

    This article makes two interesting points for those unsure whether non-profits should consider using cloud-based technology. 1) Cloud computing is no longer a fad – 90 percent of survey respondents are already use cloud computing in “some way” (which makes sense when you consider Dropbox, Skype and other cloud-based apps as well as more complex applications); and 2) because it is simpler to deploy and manage, cloud computing allows users to “focus more on being better at whatever it is they do rather than being experts at technology.”

    Yet cloud computing can help non-profits beyond CRM and social media applications – which are probably the sort of cloud-based computing the 90 percent of survey respondents were citing. Now a proven, mainstream approach, the next clear step is for cloud-based computing to be used for finance and Human Resources. Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) solutions, for example, can also operate in the cloud.

    There are other benefits for non-profits to using cloud computing, including:
    • Because of lower capital costs, Cloud computing can be a more manageable alternative to traditional computing and allow non-profits to put more capital budget money toward their mission.
    • Cloud computing can provide easier access to non-profits that operate across different locations.

    While there is definite momentum for cloud computing among non-profits, it remains important that each organization clearly learn more about cloud computing so that they can evaluate their needs and work with a cloud provider who has the experience to deploy the technology to help them better accomplish the needs of the organization and its constituents.

    When exploring if deployment via the cloud is right for your organization, it is important to investigate whether the cloud offering from a potential supplier
    • Provides the level of security required by your organization;
    • Allows your organization to seamlessly change to other clouds and other cloud deployment platforms, or even revert to an on-premise solution;
    • Provides the capability for your organization to have release updates and upgrades scheduled according to your schedule and not theirs;
    • Provides a mature, complete solution via the cloud not just a subset of their on-premise offering; and
    • Allows for accident forgiveness so that you can quickly recover deleted data if a mistake was made by a user.

    Non-profits should start investigating where else cloud computing can benefit their organization. And as they extend more core systems into the cloud, they need to partner with providers who understand how they work.

    Boyd Fisher, Director, Public Sector at UNIT4 Business Software

  • Steve Sampson

    Great post. Getting a charitable endeavor rolling starts with good communication across all the stakeholders is paramount. Online collaboration tools obviously can pay big dividends. We tried about a dozen vendors in the collaboration workspace area, but settled on Centroy, mainly because it was very easy to use for those without technical skills and already had a lot of the features bundled in the core offering (things like document management, chat, discussions, video, calendar). I’m not the tech guy, but I am very much the planning guy, and stakeholder collaboration is a must-have. But unless it’s simply to use, all the other bells and whistles the technology guys push matter less if no one adopts. That’s the dirty little secret about most collab offerings, which disregard for the end-user experience. In theory collaboration can pay big dividends in terms of increased productivity and time-to-action; however, an important point missing here is that these tools need to be adopted in order to be useful, which means they need to be easy to use..Anyways, we’ve been pretty happy with Centroy. I’m not tied to them at all. Just happy we finally settled on something everyone uses.