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Collaboration & Productivity: Spend more time on what matters

April 7, 2011

By: Tierney Smith

This article is Part 3 in our series on Technology Planning for nonprofits. In Part 2, we discussed how technology strategy can be integrated with your mission. Starting with this article we will be looking at how technology planning applies to different aspects of your work.

Collaborating on documents, sharing files, instant messaging, web conferencing, task lists and project management are all examples of ways you can use technology to improve your collaboration and productivity in your nonprofit. These things are important because they help you save time on the things you don’t want to be doing (searching through your email for files, travelling from place to place, etc.) and spend more time on what matters.

When it comes to choosing any new technology you want that choice to be part of a broader technology plan. However, in all the excitement around website improvements or whatever else is high on your priority list, don’t overlook the collaboration and productivity tools that can help you organize your work on a day-to-day basis. Even better, many of these tools are available for no charge (though any new tool requires staff time to set up and learn about the new system). This article lists some questions to think about to help you explore and plan for your collaboration and productivity needs.

In this article:

Do you ever work from home?

To be able to work most effectively from home you need access to all the files and systems that you use in the office. If this doesn’t apply to you because your staff always work at the office, remember that being able to work from home is a good business continuity plan, which will allow you to keep some things up and running if there is a disaster. Also note that almost everything described here requires a high-speed internet connection.

The most secure and complete method of working offsite (used by banks and other large companies) is a Virtual Private Network (VPN) which allows you to remotely access and your work computer like you are sitting in the office. Setting up VPN requires some infrastructure so it won’t make sense for most small-to-medium organizations.

Fortunately there are other ways to get to your work files and systems from outside the office, most of which are made possible by cloud computing. Tools such as Dropbox and let you securely share files across computers and access them online. Using cloud-based tools instead of/as well as desktop-based tools means that they can be accessed from anywhere (for example using Microsoft Office Web Apps or Google Docs as well as Microsoft Office). In order to manage the multitudinous usernames and passwords this may lead to, try a password manager like Roboform or LastPass. If you are thinking about moving some systems to the cloud or have already started and you want to learn about security, see Security in the Cloud.

Do you travel for meetings?

There are some times that being somewhere in person makes sense - going to a conference, meeting a team for the first time - because there’s really no substitution for talking with someone face to face. However, travelling can be expensive in terms of money, time and the environment, so finding other ways to meet whenever possible makes a lot of sense. Fortunately, the technology to do this is pretty good and will only get better with time.

For a typical meeting with multiple participants contributing, you can use web conferencing software. These tools generally have audio (so participants can talk to each other) and let one of the participants share their screen with everyone else. See Web Conferencing Tools: Right for You? for a comparison of different web conferencing tools.

Webinars are a special type of web conference where one presenter presents to a large number of attendees. Depending on the tool used, attendees may only be able to listen in to the presentation and type in questions.

For a more in-person experience, you can use video calling. This works best between two people (though more options for group video calling are emerging) and requires a webcam for all participants. For example, Skype offers two person video calls for free and group calls for a charge.

For more informal discussions, instant messaging is a quick way to communicate with others.

Do you get overwhelmed by the amount of email in your inbox?

This is a very common problem and there may be various reasons why this is happening. Spam shouldn’t be the reason given that most email programs have good built-in spam filters, but if this is an issue then consider buying an additional spam filter (TechSoup Canada offers spam filters and security software with built-in spam filters).

Rather than spam, it might be bacn that is clogging up your inbox (see this infographic for some stats). If you don’t want to actually unsubscribe from these emails, filters may be a good option. Filters allow you to identify emails based on certain criteria (e.g. who it is from, the subject line) and deal with it automatically (e.g. move to a folder, mark as unread). Most email programs have filters built in.

Some email programs are starting to go to the next level and automatically sort out the important emails for you. For example, Google Mail provides this capability through Priority Inbox.

For some more ideas, see 11 Tips for Dealing with Email Overload. Finding new ways to schedule meetings and share documents (below) will also help reduce how much email you get.

Do you struggle to find a meeting time that works for everyone?

Within your organization, sharing calendars (so you can see when others are busy or free) is the most common method to simplify meeting scheduling and most calendar systems designed for organizational use (e.g. Microsoft Outlook, Google Apps Calendar) allow for calendar sharing.

Calendar sharing isn’t always feasible when working with people outside your organization who aren’t on the same calendar platform. There are various different solutions to this issue, some of which are meant for a specific email program. For example, Microsoft Outlook offers a method of publishing your calendar online, with options to restrict what is shown and who can see it. Other options are not tied to a specific program, for example Doodle (which polls invitees to find a time that works) and

Do you frequently email documents back and forth?

This can be avoided at a basic level by having a good system for sharing files. The most commonly used solution is to have a file server. Other options include using a cloud-based file sharing system such as Dropbox or (discussed above) or a document management system like SharePoint. For a more in depth discussion, see A Few Good Tools for Sharing Files with Distributed Groups.

For documents to which multiple people are contributing (as writers or reviewers), consider document collaboration software which allows multiple people to see and edit a document in real time. Google Docs popularized this idea and now there are various other options such as Zoho and Microsoft Office Web Apps. A good document collaboration tool will automatically track your revision history, so it is easy to go back to a previous version if needed.

Do have a way to organize your tasks and projects?

Project management means many things to many people and different organizations will prefer different levels of formality in their approach. There is a broad spectrum of options, from writing your tasks down on a piece of paper to an online task management tool to a formal project management system. For more information on different options, see Six Views of Project Management Software.

Technology and Your Processes

This article does not provide a comprehensive list of questions - there are many other types of software that can improve your collaboration and productivity. What matters is that the tools you choose support your organization’s processes. Software is designed with a certain vision of how it will be used, and this may or may not match the way you work. For example, if your project management system only allows each person to be assigned to one project at a time but your staff are always working on multiple projects with multiple teams, then the tool is not supporting your process.

Choosing a new tool is also a good time to re-evaluate your processes and consider if they can be improved - sometimes it’s not the tool that’s the issue, it’s your process.


There is one more important piece to consider: how your tools integrate with each other. Does your project management tool link with your calendar system, or the place you keep your documents? Does your email integrate with your task manager? Good integration can make a big difference when it comes to how much time you spend re-entering data into different systems, and how much you use the systems in practice. Timeraiser is a good example of a nonprofit that has significantly improved their productivity and ability to collaborate by making integration a high priority in their technology strategy.

In Part 4 of Technology Planning for nonprofits we will look at how you can use technology to manage your relationships with donors, funders, volunteers and clients.