Monday, October 25, 2010

Let's Get Together - In a Virtual Way

Let’s talk about collaboration. Share-and-respond is at the heart of social media and community-building, but what really can bring people closer is working together on something. You and your small nonprofit know this, because collaborating on projects is what helps you in serving your mission. People in business know this because they often form teams to implement solutions. Get a great team together and there’s a much greater chance of success.

Pre-internet, collaboration was harder to do. In order to have collaboration, you often had to get everyone involved into the same room and that could mean a lot of travel for some, who then tried to work while jet-lagged and (eventually) homesick. These days, collaboration is an online application away.

Collaboration Tools

One of the tools that showed the most promise as far as I could see, was Google Wave. The ability to view a document online and have other people be able to simultaneously access it, change, discuss it, was incredible. Lots of reasons why it didn’t take off, but for me the biggest reason was timing. A lot of businesses are still weighing their social media options and Wave was just one more thing to confuse them with. Although nonprofits have taken to social media in a big way, businesses have been much slower to embrace it. So it may be a while before we get a cloud-based tool like Wave again, although Google has said it will be integrating some of Wave’s features into other products (maybe it will turn up as part of Google’s rumored social network).

A tool that’s taken the business world by storm may have some application for nonprofit work. Yammer started out as a Twitter-like tool for enterprise systems, but it’s added features. The basic service remains free and anyone with a verifiable company (agency) email address can sign up and then invite others into their network.  If you do a lot of field work or your staff have virtual offices, this would be a way to get nearly real-time updates on what’s happening without having to plow through your email inbox looking for flagged mail. It’s also really useful if you’re collaborating on an event – you can add an update and everyone in the network can see it – this can improve logistics.

Google Docs
A lot of nonprofits have moved to Google Docs to be able to access their documents from anywhere they have an internet connection. Of course, the old problems with collaboration on documents via email apply here. If several people are making changes independent of one another, someone has got to take all those proposed changes and merge them into one document. Chances for things to be left out are higher than anyone would like.

DropBox and Other Large File Drops
There will be occasions when you need to send or receive a large file – maybe pictures from a fundraiser – and there’s a limit on the file size you can send via email or the file is large enough that sending it to several people would probably result in a bogged down system and probably a failure to complete the send, but only after a long, long wait. With a service like Dropbox, you upload the file to the cloud where the people you want to have it can pick it up.

Other Collaboration Tools
By now, you’ve heard of SlideShare (and if you’re an MS Office user) MSOffice Live Workspace (in Beta). And there are a gazillion other tools out there to aid online collaboration. I’ve included a couple of links at the bottom that discuss some free offering or give a list of possible tools. Other tools can be found by searching using specific terms like "creating webinars" or "large file sharing".

It’s Not Just Staff
Remember, too that while you’re working to make collaboration between you and the other nonprofit staff, there are other opportunities for collaboration: with your board and with other small nonprofits. You recruited the board for a reason – many of the members have reach and pull and experience. Wouldn’t it be nice to be able to draw on that quickly without having to rendezvous at a coffee bar or wait until after work hours? Maybe they need a little training to get collaborative online with you – good news, there are tools for that!

One last word - just like social media, the tools for online collaboration are evolving quickly. Consider subscribing to the email for or to keep informed about what's new and what's changing. Yes, it's a pain in the patoot to have to try to keep up with technology, and yes, you should be careful and concerned about reliability and privacy. But the reality is that collaboration is part of your mission, and the internet is becoming part of collaboration. Live and learn.


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