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Doing Good Anytime, Anywhere with Mobility and Collaboration Technologies

These two tech platforms have a unique role in extending the reach of nonprofits.
  • by Alan Joch
  • Independent Business and Technology Writer |

Mobile and collaboration technologies can directly boost the bottom lines of commercial companies, but for some nonprofits, it can change lives. Virginia-based Operation Smile has supported 400,000 surgeries to address cleft lips and palates in impoverished patients around the world. Mobile and videoconferencing applications regularly help the organization connect medical staff with patients, foster collaboration among medical experts separated by great distances, and enable postoperative follow-ups and speech therapy — all while minimizing travel expenses. 

“When families are so poor that they may sell their only income-producing asset for bus fare to come to a mission site so their child can be cared for, we must find ways to lessen hardships as much as possible,” says Chris Bryant, Operation Smile’s senior vice president of technology. “We’re leveraging technology to do that.” 

The nonprofit uses a host of collaboration products, including Polycom’s RealPresence video, voice and collaboration systems, along with the RealPresence Touch interface. 

Whether they provide medical care or other services, nonprofits are reaping the benefits of mobile and collaboration technologies. But to get the full payoff, nonprofits must choose technology that won’t burden tight budgets and limited IT staffs, while still delivering valuable, reliable capabilities. That requires not only careful evaluation of the technology options but also finding partners who understand their unique requirements. 

Multiple Beneficiaries 

People served by nonprofits aren’t the only ones who benefit from mobile and collaboration platforms. Mobile devices, including smartphones and tablets, help field staff work more effectively. “Mobility is huge for people whose work takes them into the field,” says Ken Oestreich, senior director of product marketing at Citrix Systems. “There’s a big advantage for them to access enterprise data, whether it’s standard documents or rich 3D models.” 

Underlying capabilities that enable reliable access to information include mobile application management (MAM) and mobile device management (MDM) platforms, such as Citrix’s XenMobile suite. MAM services secure email communications, access to enterprise applications and web browsing. MDM offers central administration of mobile devices, so managers can automatically limit a device’s access to sensitive information, such as when a staff member is working in a country where there are concerns about network security. In addition, administrators can quickly erase sensitive information if a device is lost or stolen, or when someone who has been using a personal device for their work leaves the organization. Some MDM options enable managers to separate organizational and personal information, which helps staff members by keeping their personal data private and preserving that information if the organization decides to wipe its data from the device. 

On-the-go hardware also lets users update records and file electronic forms to speed up data entry and reduce errors. File sharing and document management tools within leading collaboration suites let staff members share and synchronize files and streamline workflows with electronic document routing and signatures. “You could say that reducing or eliminating ‘dumb’ tasks enables people to apply their intelligence where it's needed most,” says Charles King, principal analyst with Pund-IT. 

Web-based videoconferencing applications enable more personal communications with field staff and peers at headquarters, as well as supporting outreach to constituents and donors. When combined with mobile point-of-sale capabilities, these interactions allow organizations to accept new contributions when donors are poised to act. Mobile and collaboration solutions also reduce the need for physical travel. 

The benefits all add up to serving mission goals more successfully. “A host of mobile and collaboration technologies enables nonprofits to address global priorities on the ground,” says Brian Larnerd, Polycom’s director of corporate social responsibility. “Using these solutions, organizations can bring services even to areas that are remote and difficult to reach.”

40%

The percentage of global nongovernmental organizations that accept donations via text, among those that regularly send text messages to donors and supporters.

Source: Nonprofit Tech for Good, “2017 Global NGO Online Technology Report,” February 2017 

 

 
Network Connectivity: The Sky’s the Limit 

Nonprofits that routinely work in underdeveloped and remote areas share a common challenge: ensuring reliable network connectivity to support mobile and collaboration technologies. In some areas, the challenge is overwhelming. “There isn’t an established communications infrastructure in many of the countries we serve,” says Chris Bryant, senior vice president of technology at Operation Smile. 

But he holds out hope for the near future. “These countries are in a position to leapfrog older technology, so we’re seeing problems diminish in the last mile of communications links as we move forward in time.” 

Innovations include Google’s Project Loon, which uses balloons floating in the stratosphere to bring internet connectivity to Sri Lanka, sub-Saharan Africa, rural India and other regions. Bryant also cites initiatives by IBM and Microsoft that weigh whether unutilized television frequencies can be used for internet connections. 

Success Factors 

To realize the potential of mobile and collaboration technologies, nonprofits must carefully weigh their unique requirements when choosing solutions. Industry veterans advise looking closely at these three key elements. 

1. Analyze the pros and cons of cloud services.

The cloud helps nonprofits with limited resources by mitigating capital expenses for on-premises hardware. It also reduces the burden on small IT staffs for managing and maintaining software updates and staying current with security patches. Cloud choices range from communication services, such as Google Voice and Hangouts and Microsoft’s Skype, to affordable productivity platforms, including Google's G Suite and Microsoft's Office 365. “Many IT headaches and costs that have plagued small organizations and nonprofits have been substantially relieved” by these platforms, King says. But clouds also come with trade-offs. Some services risk locking organizations into a particular vendor’s offering because of the complex procedures and high costs associated with transferring data into and out of the service provider’s platform. “This can make it difficult to pull data out if you choose to switch vendors,” says Oestreich. Nonprofits should consider whether core data can remain onsite. If that’s not practical, IT managers should document the full costs of moving data to and among clouds before deciding on a service, he adds.

2. Tap the expertise of third-party partners.

Systems integrators and resellers can help to ensure that a cloud service will be a fit for nonprofit end users. For example, companies such as CDW work with service providers to maintain and tailor mobile and collaboration products for customers. “These partners excel in this area because they have a deep understanding of each customer’s needs,” says Oestreich. 

3. Don’t overlook security.

“Over the past couple of years, an escalating number of cyberattacks have proved that no person or group is safe, especially those with potentially valuable data assets,” King warns. On the plus side, many vendors offer solutions that address security concerns. For example, Google G Suite includes 128-bit or stronger encryption for data in transit and at rest. “But given the highly fragmented nature of the security industry, it's also critical for organizations to approach the process carefully and inform themselves before investing in specific solutions,” King advises.


CDW’s solutions and services can help nonprofits deploy game-changing mobile and cloud technologies.

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