Is the future of nonprofit technology in the cloud?
Nine in 10 nonprofits already have one system hosted online, according to a recent survey of 780 nonprofits by the Nonprofit Technology Network. But it’s not ideal for every organization.
“It’s not like one-size-fits-all,” says Patrick Callihan, executive director of NPower Pennsylvania, a nonprofit that provides technology services to other organizations. “It’s technology.”
What’s right for your nonprofit? Mr. Callihan and other nonprofit information-technology leaders outline the risks and benefits of moving systems to the cloud.
Cloud services are housed on virtual servers and can move quickly between a provider’s physical machines, which means that outside experts can quickly manage disruptions and minimize the time staff members typically lose when their own servers crash, says Mr. Callihan.
Ease of expansion and predictability
Many cloud services bill on a per-user basis, so they can work well for small organizations that need only a few accounts. You also know exactly what you will be paying each month for services like e-mail and know how much to budget, says Mr. Callihan.
About 59 percent of people in the NTEN survey cited security, privacy, control, and access, as concerns about the cloud. But some cloud services may be more secure than systems that are managed in-house. Few nonprofits have a security expert on staff, but cloud services could have dozens of people who work to keep the data safe.
If you work at a small nonprofit, your days are already filled. With cloud services, your IT staff can spend less time dealing with hardware and more time working on your software and processes.
“The cloud is one way to keep your work focused on your mission and not have to worry about keeping a server alive,” says Holly Ross, Nonprofit Technology Network’s executive director.
Lack of control
You may not be managing the servers directly, but you still have responsibility for your data. Before choosing a cloud service, ask to see an audit or certification of its security, backups, and maintenance practices. Determine what happens to your data if the company changes hands or goes out of business, and make sure your organization still owns the information and can take it from the cloud when you want it.
“When you put your eggs in someone else’s basket, you have to be awfully careful,” says Rose de Fremery, director of information technology at American Jewish World Service.
Peter Campbell, information-technology director at the environmental-law nonprofit Earthjustice, says it isn’t possible for his organization to move completely to the cloud because of the systems it has already built. Earthjustice’s fundraising application, for example, requires a local server for its e-mail. “The more complex the technology, the more difficult it gets,” he says.
On most nonprofit accounting forms, servers are listed as a capital cost, but online services are operational expenses. Shifting what you spend between those categories can change how charity-ranking organizations and foundations view your nonprofit, Mr. Campbell and Mr. Callihan say.