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How to use Google Drive as your nonprofit’s file system

Document ManagementCloud Computing

Google Apps (free via Google for Nonprofits) is a popular option for nonprofits, however it seems that many people are confused about the file/documents part of the suite, Google Drive (GDrive). In this post I’ll discuss whether you should be using GDrive for your files and explain how to set it up for use at an organization.

Why GDrive?

Why would your nonprofit want to use GDrive for your files, as opposed to a network drive on a server or another cloud file system like Dropbox, or SkyDrive Pro?

In my opinion, the biggest advantage of GDrive comes for those nonprofits that are already using Google Apps. That’s not to say that GDrive can’t be useful if you’re not on Google Apps, but I’ll be mostly focusing on the former scenario.

Since cost is a key factor for many nonprofits, the first advantage of GDrive for Google Apps users is that it already comes included. The 30GB of space provided (as of the writing of this post; this includes email and documents combined) may be enough for most users; if not all you need to do is to increase the storage for the individuals who go over their limit (not for everyone) for a small monthly cost.

The second big advantage, and the reason I originally recommended that we use GDrive at TechSoup Canada, is that it lets you keep your files (e.g. Word and Excel documents) in the same place as your Google Docs. We had created a whole system for keeping our many Google Docs organized, which was similar but not quite the same as our system for keeping the rest of our files organized. There was always confusion about where things were stored and the need to check in two places. Using GDrive means that we can keep all of our files - including Google Docs - in one place.

Like other cloud file systems, GDrive lets you access your files anywhere by logging in to your Google account, makes your files easy to share, and keeps them secure and backed up for you. You can learn more about cloud computing in our post "A Walk in the Cloud: Is Cloud Computing Right for You?".

On the other hand, I do know some nonprofits who use Google Apps and have chosen not to use GDrive. In some cases, they have a network drive on a server that they are happy with. In other cases, they want a cloud file system that has more robust, enterprise-level features such as These are also great options!

How to set up GDrive

So if you do want to try GDrive, how do you get started? In my experience, if you want GDrive to feel like the “H drive” (or whatever you called the network drive on your server that you used to have), the key is proper setup and training for your team.

Here’s how I suggest you proceed:

  1. Designate one person as your GDrive Chief
    It’s easiest if one person handles all the setup and then rolls it out to everyone, rather than each person trying to do their piece. Whoever is the GDrive Chief should be the one to carry out these steps. 
  2. Enable and install GDrive
    Before getting started, you need to make sure GDrive is enabled for your account (it should be by default)  and installed on your computer. You will notice that you have two ways to access your files in GDrive: through your browser when you’re logged in to your Google account, and on your desktop through the program you just downloaded (using your normal file explorer, e.g. “My Computer”). I’ll refer to these as GDrive Web and GDrive Desktop respectively to try to keep things straight.
  3. Establish your file structure
    Before moving any files, decide on how your files and folders will be organized by mapping out a folder hierarchy (here’s one suggestion). This will enable you to identify your “top-level folders” that hold everything else. For example, some of our top-level folders are “Admin”, “Donations Program”, and “Marketing & Communications”. Each of these folders has many levels of sub-folders.

    In GDrive Web, click on “My Drive” and then select Create > Folder. Create a folder for each of your top-level folders.

  4. Set sharing settings
    This is also a good time to set up the sharing settings for your top-level folders. For each folder, right-click and choose Share > Share. By default, the sharing setting will be “Private - Only the people listed below can access,” with only you being able to see it. Change the settings for that folder to whatever makes sense based on your organization’s security policies. Whatever setting you choose will be inherited by every sub-folder and file, so you don’t have to set the sharing settings for each file individually.

    At TechSoup Canada, we’re pretty open and so most folders are shared to everyone in the organization with edit permissions. This makes things easy because if we have any turnover we don’t need to specifically add permissions for them to see all of our files, they have it by default. However, you may want to have more control over who sees what. This video tutorial does a good job of explaining the various options for sharing your folders and files.

  5. Migrate and organize your organization’s files and folders
    Check your GDrive Desktop preferences and ensure that all your top-level folders are being synced to your desktop. Since the majority of your existing files are probably documents such as Word, Excel, PowerPoint, PDF, images, etc., it’s going to be easier to do the next bit in GDrive Desktop.

    Move your existing files and folders to the top-level folders you have created, using GDrive Desktop. This can be as simple as copying and pasting your files and folders. Depending on how many files you have, this may take quite a long time and you may want to do it in chunks. It’s also a good opportunity to clean up and reorganize some files while you’re at it :)

    Now go check GDrive Web and wait for everything to sync. You should have a nice folder hierarchy with all your files!

    Note: don’t delete any of your files off your existing file system until this whole process is done and everything is working properly.

  6. Add existing any Google Documents to GDrive
    You may also have a bunch of Google Documents, Google Spreadsheets, etc. floating around. Now it’s time to add them. Find your Google Documents in GDrive Web and drag them into the appropriate folders or use the Folder icon.

    When you’re done, you should now be able to see all of your organization’s documents organized in one place.

  7. Setup GDrive for the rest of your team
    Your GDrive might be set up, but if anyone else on your team goes to their GDrive Web and look under My Drive they will find… nothing! So, you need to complete this one-time setup task to make sure they are ready to go.

    For each person on your team, open their GDrive Web and look under “Shared with me”. It will contain all sorts of files and folders. Look around until you find each of your top-folders, and drag them to “My Drive”. This will also move everything contained in these folders - i.e. your entire organization file system.

    I have sometimes found a bug where a top-level folder isn't showing under a coworker's "Shared with me" (usually with new team members) even though they have access to it. It's a bit quirky but the fix isn't difficult: send them the link (right click on the folder and choose Share) to each of the top level folders (via chat or email). Once they've clicked on the link and opened it for the first time, they can "add to Drive" and it should appear going forward.

    Now, help them to download GDrive Desktop and get that synced up. They should now be able to find all of their documents through both GDrive Web and GDrive Desktop.

    And you’re done! 

Tips for using GDrive

Before I end off, let me share a couple of tips to help you use GDrive successfully. You should train your team to use these practices whenever they use GDrive.

When to use GDrive Web vs. GDrive Desktop

Use GDrive Web for:

  • Creating Google Documents (including Spreadsheets, Forms, etc.)
  • Opening & editing Google Documents
  • Searching for files & folders (the Google search tends to be better than the one on your computer, making it easy to find things)
  • Quick preview of documents (especially if you’re using a computer where you don’t have GDrive Desktop installed)

Use GDrive Desktop for:

  • Saving, opening & editing other types of documents, including MS Word, Excel & PowerPoint, PDF, images, and various other types of files

Why? Let’s say for example you open a Word document with GDrive Web and you want to edit it. You then have to download it, make your edits, save it to somewhere on your desktop, and upload back to GDrive as a new revision. It’s possible, but a bit clunky.

On the other hand, if you open the same file from GDrive Desktop, you can make your edits, save it, and it will sync automatically. No extra effort needed, plus you get to deal with your familiar “My Computer”.

How to create new Google Docs

When you want to create a new Google Doc, the best approach is to open GDrive Web, navigate to the folder under My Drive where you want the file to reside, and then click the Create button and choose your document type. This will place your new Google Doc in that folder, and it will take on the sharing settings of that folder automatically.

If you forget to do this, you can always move the file to a folder later on so it’s ok!

Why? The important point is the file ends up under one of your top-level folders (though it can be in some subfolder if you want). If not, it will be orphaned and won’t be a part of your organization’s file system - though it may have been created by someone on your team and shared with people on your team. Keeping everything organized makes it easier to find later.

Ownership of file and folders in GDrive

In GDrive, each file and folder has an "owner", which you can see in the Sharing settings. The owner is the person who creates,uploads or syncs the document. There can only be one owner at a time.

It is very important that the ownership always belongs to someone with an official organization account (i.e., an account that is managed through your GApps account). You may have board members, volunteers, or anyone else external to the organization with personal Gmail accounts (i.e. or Google Apps accounts from other domains (i.e. who are shared on documents or are creating new documents. However, you need to make sure that documents are always created by someone within the organization, or that ownership is transferred to someone in the organization. As long as the ownership is internal, you can give external access to view and edit the document.

Why? If your organization doesn't own the document, you don't control it. If the document is owned externally and the owner (e.g. a volunteer) decides to change the sharing settings so you no longer have access, or deletes the document, there is nothing you can do about it. Whereas if the document is owned internally and that staff member leaves, the administrator of your Google Apps account can transfer ownership of all their documents to someone else in the organization

And there you have it! Of course each organization’s situation is a bit different, so these steps and tips are simply guidelines. Please feel free to share any additional insights or GDrive tips below in the comments.

- Tierney Smith, Community Engagement Manager


Documents in Canada


Can Google Drive be configured for storage only in Canada?

Not really, here's why!

Hi Bruce,
Great question! The short answer is no, data cannot be configured to be stored in Canada only. The long answer is that while Google does have some servers here in Canada, your data will not be exclusively stored in Canada because Google is a U.S. based company. So the US Patriot Act applies to all the data on their servers, whatever the geographic location is. Basically, do not expect for your data to stay in Canada if you are using any application based in the U.S. You can read our article on Data Privacy and the Law: Saving and Destroying Information to learn more about your data storage. We don’t want to leave you without any options for Canadian storage though! So we want to share that there are options in Canada. For example, Cloud-A is one company we found that could be an option for you, because they claim to guarantee your data will reside in Canada. However, please know that we have no relationship with them and have not vetted them, so we can’t make any claims regarding their quality of services and/or endorse them. They’re simply one of the few we’ve found online, so we’d advise you to do some research to see what would work best for you and your nonprofit. Let us know if you have any other questions!
Yasmine, Communications Coordinator

Suggestion for Organizational Photos?

This was a wonderful post and will change the way we are using Google Drive. Thank you! We are really in need of something to organize our photos (they come from a large number of volunteers and are used in course powerpoints). So we need to be able to browse via type of image and also know who took it to provide proper credits. Would GoogleDrive work here or is there something better considering the size of photos would make us reach our free limit so quickly?

GDrive Desktop as a synced back up

Hi there! I'm wondering if GDrive can be used to just sync Office Suite files? I have a staff member who does not use Gdrive to create files, nor does she work in GDrive. I need to find an option to back up her hard drive files. We currently use Google Apps and have 30G storage per user, ideally I'd like to just sync it all in GDrive. Is there a way to sync it automatically or on an hourly basis? Or do I just migrate everything over to the GDrive on her desktop and have her work in that folder all the time?



Great question. In short, the scenario you are describing is absolutely possible.

The approach I would suggest is pretty much what you are describing. You could create a folder on GDrive for her to work in, and then sync it to her desktop. Then ask her to move all of her files to that folder (and in various subfolders as needed). From there on, she should save all of her documents to the GDrive folder instead of something in My Documents or whatever she was using before. 

All the files in any folder under GDrive will be synced by default whenever updates are made. For Office documents, sometimes it doesn't sync until you close the document, so as long as she doesn't keep a document open forever and keep editing it then you will have it backed up to your GDrive.

Let me know if you have further questions and how it goes!


Community Engagement Manager, TechSoup Canada