The Nonprofit Evolution of the Cloud

The nonprofit sector is in a bit of a technology evolution/revolution. As the industry looks to reduce costs, increase efficiency and engage with constituents that are living lifestyles that embrace mobile, digital and social technologies as never before. It is here that the benefits and options that cloud computing brings to the table are clear.

For most nonprofits, priorities are threefold:

  1. Engage and inspire donors, volunteers, advocates and other constituents through multiple channels;
  2. Manage lifetime relationships with constituents to maximize the value of each person;
  3. Streamline operations to more efficiently and effectively fulfill their mission.

Unlike many businesses, the nonprofit sector hasn’t rallied around a specific technology or solution that is embraced widely across the industry. Larger nonprofits, like Susan G. Komen for the Cure, Juvenile Diabetes Foundation, Greenpeace USA and the Humane Society of the United States, have led the way in adopting open cloud-based platforms to connect people and their cause.

Some new and smaller nonprofits, such as Fight Colorectal Cancer, the Colorectal Cancer Coalition (formally 3C), actually launched their organization in the cloud. They also manage their assets in the cloud. Still, for all its appeal, many nonprofits still use Excel spreadsheets and Outlook Contacts, to manage their bread and butter: the constituent database.

Similar to many businesses, nonprofits invested in on-premise solutions that required capital outlay and personnel to install and manage the technology. For single location nonprofits, the on-premise solution was certainly functional but nonprofits face many of the same challenges that businesses face in a global and transient world.

Borders matter less and less with global issues at stake; talent and expertise is spread throughout the country and throughout the world; virtual workforces need access to the same data and resources and, an issues for-profits don’t face as often, their mission-focus often means less money and resources for infrastructure, maintenance and upgrades.

Many non-profits are seeing cloud as the perfect match for the way they operate and manage business processes, deploy infrastructure and applications, and scale their operations up or down. And, as online fundraising grows, up more than 40 percent in 2010 over 2009, few organizations are in the position to invest in the infrastructure to support that rapid growth.

The evolution in the nonprofit sector mirrors much of what is happening in the wider IT world: the virtualization of IT to avoid costly fixed investments that don’t support a global world view. But where to begin?

The idea of changing to new technology can seem incredibly daunting and overwhelming, but the reality is that the new technology is here to stay and will eventually become mainstream. Non-profits that don’t look to cloud will be left behind — regardless of how compelling or important their mission happens to be.

Below are four issues for nonprofits to consider when making a move to the cloud:

Accessibility : How important is accessibility to the organization? Are there multiple offices or multiple people in multiple locations? A cloud-based database can provide 24/7 access to every member of an organization that allows multiple staff members to manage a single database from virtually anywhere in the world.

Cost : For nonprofits, cost is always a major factor. An on-premise solution or a workaround solution (such as Excel) might be sufficient enough and cost effective for smaller organizations with single offices and single access points, but for even organizations with two offices or even one staff member in another location, the capital investment in technology could prove costly. Cloud services come in a variety of flavors that don’t always require a significant investment up front.

Innovation : If there is one fundamental truth in this world (or Truth with a capital “T”), it’s that technology will always change. Innovation will always happen. The next iteration or generation of technology will come along that makes the current version seem not quite as complete.

On-premise solutions typically require time and money to stay abreast of latest developments, something that most nonprofits have in short supply. If any technology comes close to fulfilling the promise of being “future proof,” it’s cloud computing. In most instances, updates and upgrades happen seamlessly behind the scenes so you always stay current with the latest technology.

Audience engagement : Similar to for-profit business, nonprofits are trying to engage an audience in a very dynamic way. Traditionally, nonprofits have relied very heavily on direct mail to appeal to their audience for much-needed funds. Traditional channels still do, and will continue to, play a key role when engaging constituents. But the world is changing.

Digital channels are becoming the norm in terms of information consumption, and nonprofits need to stay current to be relevant to their audience. cloud solutions offer a variety of engagement tools geared for the digital/social/online world that provide most nonprofits with a very necessary multichannel approach to constituent engagement.

For most nonprofits, the cloud will provide significant dividends in both the short and long term, and will set up most nonprofits to be ready for the opportunities that exist both today and tomorrow.

John Stockton is VP of Product Management at Convio.Convio leads the way in connecting people and causes through on-demand, constituent engagement solutions that help nonprofits maximize the value of every relationship.