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Collaborating in the virtual space

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"Two heads are better than one", as the old saying goes, and it certainly applies when thinking about the benefits of collaboration. Whether it's one nonprofit partnering with a like-minded organization to tackle a common issue, or combining individual efforts on a project team, working collaboratively can be an effective means to find efficient solutions.

With technological advances happening at such a rapid pace, collaboration is quickly taking a virtual bent. Is your organization taking full advantage of the opportunities available?

Get your head in the clouds

The buzzword floating in tech circles and increasingly within organizations is cloud computing. In its simplest form, cloud computing is where data, computing power and software is distributed across a network. We used to store files and documents on a local computer. Now we have the capability to save this digital information in any number of machines around the world. There are a number of services that will allow your organization to save resources by relying on the Internet to transfer, access and edit data that would previously have sat on a desktop computer in the office.

There are a few pros and cons to this, of course. One key aspect is that the information stored in the cloud should be accessible from anywhere, whether it's a laptop, a smartphone or a terminal in the library. Since the files don't have to sit locally on your computer, bound by the limitations imposed by your own hardware, there is unlimited hard drive space at your fingertips. Big pro.

On the flip side, you do need to have a reliable Internet connection to manage your files. If there are problems with the server where your information is located, your data could be lost or damaged.

Nonetheless, it seems the future of computing is heading toward the clouds, presenting a great opportunity for virtual collaboration within and between nonprofits. There are many types of services and software available that could help facilitate and transform your next collaborative project.

Is everyone on the same page?

Documentation is vitally important for strong collaboration to happen — if everyone is (literally) on the same page and working from the same document, there are fewer chances for miscommunication. File sharing and management is a simple entry point for many nonprofits interested in harnessing the power of the cloud. There are plenty of web-based file hosting services on the market right now; one of the leaders is Dropbox.

Dropbox offers free and paid services: signing up for a free account gives users 2 GB of data (which can increase to 8 GB by referring new users to the service). Users who need more space can also subscribe to plans that provide 50 GB or 100 GB of space.

Users assign a local folder on their computer (eg, Walkathon 2011), which would hold all files that are to be synched to Dropbox's servers. Other users who are invited to share the same folder would have the latest version of the files downloaded onto their Dropbox folder. The fact that the service will continually update the files allows for greater efficiency. For instance, having all the updated graphic files for your nonprofit's logo easily accessible by your entire staff would ensure that the correct images are being used in promotion materials.

Similar services to Dropbox include SugarSync, YouSendIt and Box.Net. All offer free and paid services. Regardless of which one you select, file hosting services provide you with a central place for storing information that is accessible by as many people as needed.

A quick word about file management: it's critical to have a policy for naming, updating and deleting files when using services that automatically synch and update data. Make sure that staff are clear about these processes; you don't want 10 copies of the same document, the only difference being a slightly different filename!

An alternative to these web-based file management services is Google Docs, a suite of office tools offered for free for anyone with a Google account. The software, which is accessed through your Internet browser, includes a word processor, spreadsheet, presentation, database and drawing functions. These operate in a similar fashion to Microsoft Office or iWork, so there isn't a steep learning curve for new users. An advantage that Google Docs offers is the ability for multiple users to edit documents in real-time. For instance, your board of directors can review and edit a fundraising proposal; changes are made live and members can even use a chat function to discuss edits.

Another advantage to using Google Docs is that you needn't worry about upgrades. There isn't any software to install on your local computer and Google is continuously improving the product behind the scenes. You're guaranteed to be using the latest version whenever you log into your account. As with any other web-based software, you do need to be constantly connected to the Internet in order to use Google Docs.

Virtual brainstorming and mind-mapping

While collaborating live on word documents and spreadsheets is one way for virtual collaboration, organizations can also taken advantage of web-based brainstorming and mind-mapping applications. These tools are particularly suited for more visual thinkers, as users are able to capture their ideas and train of thought using a suite of text and drawing tools.

Mindmeister offers an extremely robust functionality through an Internet browser. A free account can be set up instantly and allows you to create and share up to three mind maps, as well as the ability to export your maps or publish them online. There are various levels of pricing available depending on the number of maps or desired functionality.Other web-based tools include Mind42, Bubbl.us and Think.

Brainstorming can also occur with social networking tools such as SocialCast and Yammer. Originally intended for organizations to improve their communications by enabling discussions via a messaging stream (think Facebook's Wall), these tools can be used to generate discussions around specific projects, especially if your organization has staff in multiple locations. In most cases, users can access the interface through the website, or can download a desktop application that can be run from their computer.

Conferencing with the web

When multiple people need to meet online (for instance, a board meeting), web conferencing provides attendees with an interactive environment that includes screen sharing, keyboard/mouse control and other functions. GoToMeeting, one of the leaders in this space, allows up to 15 attendees to join the web conference via a telephone number, or through your computer. If using VOIP, it's recommended to use a headset to eliminate feedback. While there is a cost associated with GoToMeeting (and their other products), there are a number of paid and free services — Yugma, Webex and Adobe Connect Pro.

For many nonprofits with limited resources, using Skype might be a sufficient conferencing (and general communications) tool. By downloading the free software and installing onto your local computer, you can instantly connect with any user who has a Skype account, or even call telephone numbers at a competitive rate. Voice and video conferencing, text chats and file sharing are just some of the many features offered by this popular tool.

Technology, while sometimes daunting, is your tool and your friend — virtual collaboration is just at your fingertips. The wide range of products and services available can help your nonprofit cut down on travel costs, ease schedules and create new opportunities to work with people at distant locations. Regardless of your needs and resources, these relatively new online tools will allow your organization to take its meetings, document management and brainstorming to the next level. Most of the services mentioned here have demo and/or trial versions, while there are many websites that review all the services to help you make an informed decision.

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