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CCF/SCF Tools Going Virtual: Collaborating and Sharing Resources Online

Published: September 12, 2012
Strengthening Communities Fund (SCF), Compassion Capital Fund (CCF)
Guidance, Policies, Procedures, Tools




This tutorial will explore two tools for collaborating and sharing resources online.

This tutorial will give you a basic overview of two tools for collaborating and sharing resources online: Google Apps (including Docs, Groups, and Sites) and Zoho Wiki. Each offers its own advantages and disadvantages, but they each can help you use the web to share information and collaborate online.

Sharing information online can increase your efficiency.

These web-based platforms offer streamlined solutions for managing, sorting, and sharing information across your entire organization. They provide viable alternatives to “offline” resource-sharing, which too often includes digging through papers, old emails, or photocopied notes. The web eliminates the clutter and creates a centralized place to share resources and ideas.


1. Getting Started

The web allows you and your staff to easily preserve and share information in a central location.

Why use the Internet to collaborate? Using a web-based platform to share resources can save you time and energy. When you’re training new staff or volunteers, working with people across distances, or revising documents, a web tool offers a centralized place to store and organize information. The tools we’ll review here can also help you preserve document versions, manage knowledge across your organization, and network with your staff and volunteers.

The report card and feature comparison table evaluate and illustrate the different features of each tool.

This tutorial will review Google Apps (Docs, Groups, and Sites) and Zoho Wiki. Each tool will be “graded” using a report card template. The report card explains each application’s cost (if there is one), key benefits and drawbacks, level of security, and time required for initial setup and ongoing maintenance. It also rates how difficult the tool is to administer and the skill level required for a user.

The feature comparison table outlines basic features and customization options and compares the tools. You can download these documents and add to or adapt them for your own organization. Please click the video below to learn more about the report card and comparison table.


2. Google Apps: Docs, Groups, and Sites

Google Docs lets you create and share documents, spreadsheets, and presentations online.

Google Docs is a way to share your work online and collaborate in real time. The platform is free to use, and you can access your documents from anywhere you have an Internet connection (including through a BlackBerry or iPhone). Google Docs allows you to create and share documents, spreadsheets, presentations, drawings, and forms. The interface is very similar to Microsoft Office programs like Word, Excel, and PowerPoint. If your organization uses files that were created in these programs, you can upload them to Google Docs and they will retain their formatting.

Multiple users can edit the same version of a document in Google Docs.

Once you have created or uploaded a file to Google Docs, you can email a link to it to as many people as you want. Each user will receive a secure link to the document, and based on your specifications, the user can view and edit the document, or just view it. The platform tracks changes and saves previous document versions. Users can even make edits simultaneously, and their changes will show up in real time. Because the document is stored online as one version, you can avoid passing multiple drafts back and forth via email. This method will reduce the time you spend sorting and merging multiple people’s edits, and it eliminates confusion over whether everyone has the most up-to-date version of a file.

To get started, visit http://docs.google.com
Click below to open interactivity Google Docs lets users edit one document, rather than working in multiple versions.

Google Groups incorporates documents, but is also a system of robust communities.

Where Google Docs is mainly a platform for storing and editing files in a central location, Google Groups allows you to connect with users on a deeper level, with greater interface customization. If you’re not familiar with Google Groups, it is essentially a huge collection of discussion groups centered on a wide variety of topics. By going to http://groups.google.com, you can search or browse for information in existing groups, make a group of your own, or join a group. Groups are public or private; if you want to join a private group, you simply have to click a link to email the group administrator and request an invitation.

From within a group, you can reply to discussions or post a message or question of your own. You can read discussions right on the group page, or choose to receive group messages and updates via email. Google Groups also allows you to create webpages right inside your group, which will be explained further in the section below on Google Sites.

Members can customize the group’s appearance and create personal profiles.

You can incorporate your organization’s branding by selecting photos, colors, and styles to give your group its own distinct look. As with Google Docs, group members can upload files and share their work with others. Each group member can also create a personal profile, including a picture and a quote. This feature allows you to share information about yourself and learn more about volunteers and supporters who may work or live remotely.
Click below to open interactivity Send a monthly newsletter through your Google Groups membership list.

Google Sites lets you share information and can be edited by multiple users.

Many nonprofit organizations use Google Sites as a tool to easily build websites and share information. Google walks you through the process so that building a site is as simple as editing a document. Google Sites acts as a single place to bring together all the information your organization needs to share, including docs, videos, photos, calendars, and attachments. You can collaborate with staff, volunteers, or members of your organization to edit the site to keep it fresh and current. You may let as many or as few people view your site as you want.
Google Sites lets you share information and can be edited by multiple users.

Google Sites is great for sharing information in a professional-looking way at no cost. As with Groups and Docs, the site owner can customize privacy settings so that the site is public, private, or viewable by a list of designated users. You can also specify who can edit your workspace by inviting others to be owners, collaborators, or viewers. The “File Cabinet” is an online place to store and share files. Use the “Insert” feature to embed all types of content on the site, including videos, calendars, documents, spreadsheets, photo slideshows, and gadgets.

If your goal, however, is to build an online community for members of your organization, Google Sites is not as robust as Google Groups. While you can create a page about an individual (e.g., an online resume), Google Sites does not have a designated “member profiles” feature. Additionally, there’s no discussion board. You can post announcements for site viewers, but this feature is more of a one-way communication tool. Users cannot comment or respond to the announcements on the site.

Explore Google Sites by clicking here: http://sites.google.com
Click below to open interactivity This video provides an overview of Google Sites.

Report card: These Google applications are free, but offer different capabilities.

Google Apps are all free to use.  (Note: Google does have an Apps package available for businesses, and nonprofits are eligible for a free version of this more advanced service.)  Each of these Apps has capabilities that differ slightly from the others, so when you’re exploring them for your organization’s use, consider which features are important to you.  Here’s an overview of each App’s pros and cons:

Google Docs:

  • Benefit: Easy to upload existing files; great for collaboration in one central location.
  • Benefit: Multiple users can make edits simultaneously; edits tracked in real time.
  • Drawback: Not great for building an online community; lacks discussion board and member profiles.
  • Security: Low; option for users to enter a password, but you should not post confidential material.
  • Skill level: Moderate for administrators (should be comfortable posting content to sites such as Facebook); easy to moderate for users.

Google Groups:

  • Benefit: Quick and easy to set up; great for sharing ideas and staying in contact.
  • Benefit: Discussion boards and member profiles.
  • Drawback: No real file structure for organizing documents.
  • Security: Low; option for users to enter a password, but you should not post confidential material.
  • Skill level: Moderate for administrators (should be comfortable posting content to sites such as Facebook); easy to moderate for users.

Google Sites:

  • Benefit: Easy and quick to set up; great for sharing ideas, staying in contact, and creating an online community.
  • Benefit: Can post video and customize a site’s look.
  • Drawback: Requires more time and skill to set up than Groups.
  • Security: Low; option for users to enter a password, but you should not post confidential material.
  • Skill level: Moderate for administrators (should be comfortable posting content to sites such as Facebook); easy to moderate for users.

The report card and feature comparison spreadsheet, available for download in Chapter 1, displays a full evaluation of these Google Apps.


3. Zoho Wiki

Wikis are collaborative websites.

A “wiki” is a website that allows users to easily create and edit any number of interlinked webpages. Users create and edit pages via a web browser using a simple “WYSIWYG,” (or “what you see is what you get”) text editor. Powered by special software, wiki platforms are often used to create collaborative websites, to power community websites (e.g., for a nonprofit), or as knowledge management systems. The most famous wiki is probably Wikipedia, the online, user-generated encyclopedia.

Zoho Wiki lets you build organized sources of information in a centralized place.

Zoho Wiki can be used by anyone, for any purpose. For nonprofits, Zoho Wiki is a great way to put together your thoughts, brainstorm, and share valuable information with other members of your group. You can host photos, post agendas for your events, and organize event schedules for your staff and volunteers.

Using links, you can hierarchically arrange (in a folder structure) and tag your pages, which aids in fast and easy navigation. Tagging pages is an effective way to provide detailed data for your site visitors. By adding a tag (a keyword that describes the content on a particular page), you can quickly filter and categorize information. Tagging also provides an easy way to search for relevant content. With Zoho’s “SiteMap,” you can reorder pages and subpages using a simple drag-and-drop function. You can also alphabetically index all webpages in your wiki, and create a table of contents to build sections for your site.
Click below to open interactivity Explore Zoho Wiki.

Zoho Wiki makes monitoring site changes simple.

As with Google Apps, Zoho Wiki allows you to administer permission settings, so you have full control over who can create or manage groups, edit pages, read pages, or customize the look of the site. Additionally, users can create their own “watch lists” of pages or wikis, which means they will be notified every time that page is updated. Users can also keep track of changes made, including who edited the page, what file versions were attached, and when it was done. They can also view comments and revert back to a previous page version, if necessary.

Report card: Zoho Wiki is great for organizing information, but requires a higher level of technical skill.

Zoho Wiki is a great tool for creating an organized page structure with multiple “layers.” Zoho offers other products and services (such as Zoho Meeting, a tool for web conferencing) that interact with each other. In fact, Zoho is useful even if you already use Google Apps. “Zoho for Google Apps” integration means you can log into Zoho with your Google name and password, access Gmail, Google Docs, and Google Calendar from inside Zoho, and embed Zoho Projects in Google Sites.

If some of that sounds overwhelming to you, then you’ll understand why Zoho Wiki’s key drawback is that it requires greater technical skill. For both administrators and users, Zoho Wiki is rated as fairly complex to use. If you want to implement Zoho tools in your organization, consider whether your staff and volunteers are tech-savvy enough to easily adapt to it, or whether someone has experience with wikis and could help train others.

Security is low on Zoho Wiki. You can set permissions for who can edit and view certain pages, but you should not post confidential information here.

Zoho Wiki provides two wikis and 50MB of storage space for free. For $12 a month, you get five wikis and 250MB of storage, and pricing packages go up from there. Nonprofits receive a 15% discount.

To get started, visit http://wiki.zoho.com. To explore Zoho for Google Apps, visit http://www.zoho.com/google-apps/index.html.


4. Next Steps

Talk to your stakeholders and consider staff time investments.

Before implementing any tool, you’ll need to identify and understand the needs of the people who will use it, such as your organization’s volunteers or partners. Consider whether consultants, clients, or even your board of directors will be impacted by your decision to use an online tool for collaborating and sharing resources.

Additionally, consider the amount of time it may take to set up and administer Google Apps or Zoho Wiki. You’ll need to invest some staff time for training and ongoing maintenance. Review the comparison tables that provide guidance on time required for each tool.
Compare and prioritize features.

Consider your organization’s needs when deciding how to go about collaborating online. What is most crucial to you? Is it internal file sharing, community building, or sharing information externally? Are you seeking a combination of the three?

Once you’ve identified your needs, take the time to compare the features that meet those needs. You can begin by using the comparison table and report card provided in Chapter 1. Build upon these tools and adjust them for your organization.

Effectively prepare for and address change management.

Once a tool is chosen and the adoption phase begins, consider:

  1.  How will you let members of your organization know?
  2.  How will you train staff or volunteers to use the tool?
  3.  What is your plan for ongoing maintenance?


Once your organization has selected and begun using Google Apps or Zoho Wiki, you’ll want to evaluate its effectiveness.  Talking to your staff and volunteers and gathering their opinions on the tool will help you gauge how useful and meaningful it is to your organization.

An action plan can help your staff see the value.

These sites do not require major investments of money or time, so the decision to use one (or more) of them may not majorly impact your organization. Still, it’s a good idea to make sure your staff understands the value they add.

An action plan can help you organize your thoughts on paper. Include what you want to get from an online collaboration tool, a list of identified stakeholders, and steps for moving forward. To begin creating your action plan, download the action plan template.


5. Summary

These web tools are low-cost and relatively simple online collaborating options.

Thank you for taking the time to watch this tutorial. The online collaboration tools reviewed here were selected because they are either low- or no-cost, web-based, require no programming or advanced technical skill, and fit the needs of many nonprofits.

Here’s a summary of the tools reviewed.

Remember, you can use the comparison and report card spreadsheets for an at-a-glance look at the features, benefits, and drawbacks of each tool. (For your reference, here they are again: Collaborating Report Card and Collaborating Feature Comparison)

In summary:

Google Docs: Easy to upload files and collaborate in one central location, but not robust enough for building an online community.

Google Groups: Quick and easy to set up, and great for sharing ideas and staying in contact; lacks a file structure for organizing documents.

Google Sites: Quick and easy to set up; great for sharing ideas, staying in contact, and creating an online community. Requires more time and skill to set up than Google Groups.

Zoho Wiki: Very effective for organizing information, but requires a higher level of technical skill.