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How to Work Effectively with Google Apps

ProductivityCollaborationCloud Computing

You heard about cloud computing, about how effective and efficient it is, but you’re not sure how to actually implement it into your day-to-day work? Or perhaps you received a donation of Google for Nonprofits, but are just learning the basics of Google apps?

Well, you’re in luck!

In this blog post, we’re going to tackle three common challenges that nonprofits encounter at work and share how our team here at TechSoup Canada has implemented Google Apps to solve the issue. We’ll also share a few practical tips for you to try at your nonprofit.

Not using Google Apps? Many of these practices can also be implemented with Office 365 and other back office cloud suites.

A word on cloud security: Cloud security is a common concern for many nonprofits considering the cloud. Read our article on cloud security & privacy to learn more about this topic.

Challenge #1: Working collaboratively is time-consuming and inefficient

Working on a project with your colleagues, volunteers or Board members can be a daunting task, as compiling everyone’s feedback generally involves:

  • Attaching and emailing documents to the team
  • Receiving multiple copies of the same document with slight changes in each file
  • Losing track of which version is up-to-date
  • Running back and forth to collect remaining feedback from your team
  • Calling a bunch of meetings for final approval

Our solution: Google Drive + Google Documents

We create a Google document (e.g., Google docs, spreadsheet, forms, presentation or drawing) and save it in Google Drive. When we need to collaborate, we send a link to the Google doc instead of attaching the actual file to the email:


The link takes us to the Google doc, where we all work together on the same document, in real-time, to make our changes and suggestions. Google’s office suite -- documents, spreadsheet, presentations and drawings -- allow multiple editors to collaborate in real-time, which helps us to control versioning more efficiently. 


[TIP] Are you fan of Microsoft Word’s Tracked Changes? Google Doc has the same feature, called “Suggesting” mode 


Give it a Try: The next time you want to attach a file to your email, upload it to a cloud drive and send the link.

Challenge #2: Staying on top of your nonprofit’s generic email address

Does your nonprofit have a generic email address, such as or If you do, chances are that the generic email is setup as a listserv (ie. a mailing list) and have multiple people are copied on the generic email address. When a supporter sends an email to the generic address, each person copied on the address will have a copy of the supporter’s email in their own inbox. You don’t have an easy or obvious way to track who has read the email, so you end up contacting your colleagues to double check whether the email has been handled or not.

Sound confusing? It is, but it doesn’t have to be.

Our solution: Create a generic email account and allow multiple people to manage it

Instead of using listservs for your generic email addresses, we recommend creating an email account and allowing multiple people to manage the inbox. An email account, as opposed to a listserv, has its own inbox that can send and receive email messages.

For example, our email is setup as an email account and our entire team has access to this account.

Instead of contacting each other each time an email comes into our vetting inbox, we use tags and filters to indicate:

  • Who should handle an email
  • When it should be handled
  • What kind of information is contained in the email


[TIP] In Gmail, you can drag and drop your labels. This feature can save you time and allow you to easily label an email with multiple tags.

We also have the following business rules to avoid further confusion:

  • Unread emails indicate that no assessment/assignment has been done
  • When assessing a new email, immediately start a reply to show that the email is being worked on
  • Once the email has been assessed and labelled correctly, remove the inbox label
  • If further action is needed, mark the email as unread

By using tags, filters and following our business rules, we’re able to get back to our members quickly, no matter what type of inquiry we receive.

[TIP] Setup meaningful filters to help clear the clutter. Filters can help organize your incoming emails by automatically assigning a label and/or skipping the inbox (e.g., if you’re signed up to several nonprofit newsletters, create a filter so that emails sent from the other nonprofit newsletter’s domain are automatically labelled as “newsletter” and skip the inbox).

Give it a Try: The next time you need to create a generic email (ie., create an email account and provide access to multiple users.

Challenge #3: Organizational knowledge is hard to find, share or update

Have you ever needed a document from a colleague, but …

  • … you can’t access it because they saved it to their computer’s local C:// drive?
  • … they left your organization and you’re not sure where they saved the document?
  • .... the document is saved in a shared drive with indecipherable folder hierachies (ex. Joyce1, subfolder mytempfolder, etc)?

Worse yet, you may find out that your colleague never documented the information. Now you’re in the unfortunate position of having to document the information or process yourself. In situations where organizational information is lost or hard to find, it costs you and your organization valuable time to search for it or re-create it from scratch.

Our solution: Google Drive + Google Sites (wiki)

We work directly in Google Drive by saving all of our files and documents in the shared drive. To make it easier, we also installed Google Drive to our desktops, so the shared cloud drive appears in our local computer’s file structure. For more details, check out our blog on “How to Use Google Drive as Your Nonprofit’s File System".


To help us navigate our shared drive, we have business rules around folder hierarchies and naming conventions:

  • Name and file documents by category (ie. HR, Finance, Marketing, Donations Program)
  • Use long descriptors as filenames (ie. Content Evaluation for 2014.doc vs. content2014.doc)
  • If we need to include dates in our filenames, we use the following format, YYYY-MM-DD, to ensure our files can be sorted chronologically by created date and by filename

[TIP] Use Google Drive’s Detail and Activity view to see who has last made changes to the shared drive and who has permission to make edits


We also create and maintain an internal wiki to keep track of our processes & operations -- everything from program tasks to office management.

Viewing and editing permissions are managed and set in Google Sites. Anyone in our organization can view, edit, add and delete, so we share the responsibility of updating our program knowledge and processes. We also integrated our internal wiki into our day-to-day operation, to ensure all of our information is up to date. To see how we integrated our wiki into our work culture, read our blog “Your Nonprofit Needs a Wiki: How to Revitalize Your Knowledge Management”.

All content in the wiki is indexed using the same algorithm as Google’s search engine, so any time we need to find instructions on how to accomplish a certain task, we simply search by keywords.


[TIP] You can embed external websites and apps directly into Google’s wiki pages. Below we embedded an external Zoho report so it displays out data in real time.


Give it a try: Instead of using a static HTML page to host your intranet, create a wiki and allow multiple people to manage it.

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