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Unified Communications Options for Nonprofits

New solutions can streamline communications and spare the environment

Unified Communications Options for Nonprofits 
Elliot Harmon - March 06, 2012
Unified communications (UC) is a popular buzzword, but its broad usage makes it difficult to define. Generally, UC refers to a large family of technologies and organizational practices that simplify and integrate multiple forms of communications like phone conversations, email, video and web conferencing, instant messaging (IM), voicemail, fax, and SMS messages. Can UC improve the way your organization communicates?

Find tools and tips for greening your nonprofit through TechSoup's GreenTech Initiative, where social benefit organizations can share and learn more about technology choices that can help to reduce our overall impact on the environment.

What is unified communications (UC)? UC is a popular buzz word, but its broad usage makes it difficult to define. Generally, UC refers to a large family of technologies and organizational practices that simplify and integrate multiple forms of communications like phone conversations, email, video and web conferencing, instant messaging (IM), voicemail, fax, and SMS messages.

The idea behind UC is that if an employee can access and reply to a message using whatever device is convenient at the moment — regardless of what sort of device the message was generated on — there will be less lag time between replies and the organization will be able to communicate more effectively, both internally and externally. A communications system that allows for easy remote access means that employees can work just as efficiently in remote locations as they do in the office. That, in turn, reduces the organization's travel needs and minimizes its environmental footprint.

UC solutions can take the form of new hardware implementations, local software solutions, and hosted software-as-a-service alternatives. Different solutions are appropriate for different organization sizes and needs, but you can take some steps toward a unified communications environment at your nonprofit or library regardless of your size and budget.

If all of this sounds too corporate for your nonprofit (or maybe even too expensive), then let's take a step back and look at how UC strategies might have a measurable, direct impact on your organization's mission.

Why Implement UC Strategies?

Why should you consider implementing UC strategies in your organization? What's the bottom line for your organization's impact?

One criterion to consider is "telepresence" — the degree to which you're able to communicate with colleagues throughout the day regardless of your physical location. Telepresence is more important for some types of nonprofits than others. For example, if you work in human services or disaster relief, then a high degree of telepresence throughout the day and night may be crucial. The importance of telepresence also varies from staff member to staff member, depending on each person's duties and schedule.

Another important question to ask yourself is how much of your nonprofit's work happens in one office. Do you have multiple branches? Are some employees working in the field or telecommuting on certain days? Many people in the nonprofit world work long hours, and not necessarily from a single office. If your nonprofit uses a communications system that can't adapt to the versatility of your own staff, then it's probably placing an unnecessary limit on your impact.

Finally, a good UC strategy can reduce your organization's environmental footprint. Is your staff writing down messages on paper that they could be sending electronically? Are people driving to the office for meetings that they could join at home? The Telework Coalition estimates that 41 million Americans could work at home at least one day a week without changing their jobs. Those people working at home one day a week would save the U.S. $750 million a day, including commuting costs, cost of traffic accidents, and reduction in oil use.

Adopting united communications, like any new technology, involves a time commitment on the part of your staff. You should consider both time and money when budgeting for a UC solution. But if you plan a UC strategy carefully with an eye toward your nonprofit's future, you can save time, streamline your organization's communications, and deepen your impact for years to come.

Evaluating Your Nonprofit's Needs

Remember that UC refers not only to certain technologies, but also to business practices that encourage a smooth flow of communications among several media. Thus, before selecting a UC strategy, it's a good idea to take an inventory of how your organization currently communicates both internally and externally. Do employees communicate with each other more by phone or by email? Do employees use personal phones and email addresses for work? Do volunteers and other people outside of the staff use office telephones and email? Who will be in charge of maintaining your UC solution?

Outline the types of communication that happen in your organization, and watch for situations in which a more integrated approach to communications could increase your nonprofit's efficiency.

Above all, remember that staff adoption of UC is just as important as choosing the best technical approach. Train your staff to use new communications solutions and make sure they have time to learn and ask questions.

Selecting and Implementing a UC Strategy

Hosted VoIP Services

Voice over IP (VoIP) refers to the use of a broadband Internet connection to facilitate telephone communication. Most modern VoIP systems allow for seamless communication between VoIP-connected users and traditional phone lines. From a user's perspective, there's little or no difference between making a VoIP telephone call and using a conventional telephone.

Broadly speaking, there are two different approaches your organization can take to implementing Voice over IP. You can subscribe to a hosted VoIP service or implement your own using commercial hardware. Hosted VoIP services represent a smaller initial investment of time and money than hosting your own VoIP solution, but they're less customizable and come with a monthly fee.

A hosted VoIP service could be the right solution for a smaller organization or one with remote offices. There are numerous VoIP services on the market. Some offer extensive UC functionality while others are functionally identical to a POTS (plain old telephone service) line.

TechSoup partner BetterWorld Telecom provides VoIP and other telecommunications services exclusively to nonprofits and sustainability-focused businesses. BetterWorld offers a free audit, in which a representative can examine your current telecommunications setup and recommend a suite of services to improve your UC capabilities and reduce your cost and environmental footprint. Discounted prices on BetterWorld services are available to qualified nonprofits and public libraries through TechSoup. BetterWorld holds a strong commitment to environmental and social justice issues.

Two other hosted VoIP providers with a strong focus on unified communications are Vonage and 8x8. An organization can sign up with either service for a monthly fee of approximately $40 to $50 a month for each phone line. 8x8 uses a special, Internet-connected phone, while Vonage provides an Internet router with a standard telephone jack. Both services can deliver voicemail messages by email. Both also allow users to receive calls out of the office by ringing one or more phone numbers at the same time as the office phone. For an additional fee, Vonage offers a voice-recognition service that can transcribe voicemail messages and send them to users by email or SMS.

An obvious advantage of hosted VoIP services is their simple, fast installation. If some of your staff work in home offices, they can easily use a VoIP router or phone with their own Internet connection. Generally, VoIP providers let businesses set up their group phones at multiple locations and even let them move from place to place for travel or fieldwork.

Hardware-Based VoIP Solutions

Many corporations and very large nonprofits have used custom-built VoIP infrastructures to facilitate unified communications for years, but VoIP products and systems have recently become more accessible for small to medium-sized organizations, too.

Cisco offers a wide range of hardware-based UC systems, many of which are specifically intended for smaller companies and organizations. For example, the UC300 Series supports many features that help integrate communications. The system can be configured to deliver voicemail messages as .WAV audio files by email, and vice versa. Similarly, UC300 can deliver fax messages to the appropriate users as email attachments and receive emails to relay as faxes. The server can forward users' calls to their mobile phones at certain times of the day. It can also ring both an office and mobile phone simultaneously. Although setting up a VoIP infrastructure does require an investment of time and money, Cisco's administration interface is designed for users without specialized experience in telecommunications networks.

Communications Servers

A communications server might be a good investment for a nonprofit of any size, particularly if you're interested in integrating your office communications with constituent-management systems and other software applications. Communications servers enhance your existing email and telephone infrastructures, creating a unified system for delivering messages between them and allowing other applications to use them as well.

If your office runs on Microsoft servers, Microsoft's Lync Server is likely the easiest communications server for you to implement. Lync Server can interface with your existing telephony setup as well as Exchange Server's email capabilities. Lync Server works with your telephone system regardless of whether you have a VoIP system or a traditional PSTN (public switched telephone network) setup. The software adds instant messaging (IM), web conferencing, and document-sharing capabilities, all accessible from an interface in Outlook. Lync Server supports video conferencing and is compatible with various video conferencing devices. Microsoft has compiled a list of phones, video devices, and PCs that are compatible with Lync Server.

If you use Dynamics CRM to keep track of your clients or constituents, Lync Server can sync with your constituent records. You can initiate a telephone or IM conversation with a constituent directly from her listing in Dynamics. If IM presence information is available for the constituent, it will be visible on the CRM record. When a client calls, his CRM record can be automatically brought up on your computer.

Lync Server is rather expensive commercially, but if your nonprofit qualifies for Microsoft donations, both Lync Server Standard and Enterprise are available through TechSoup. As with other Microsoft server products, you must acquire client access licenses (CALs) for each user or device that will access the server. For more information, see Making Sense of Software Licensing.

Voicemail-to-Email Online Services

If you are the only staff member at your organization or you are simply looking for a way to streamline and manage your own personal communications, you might want to consider a voicemail-to-email service.

In the past few years, numerous free or inexpensive voicemail-to-email services have gained popularity. These services serve as virtual voicemail boxes for one or more phone lines, generally allowing the user to access messages either by phone, online, or by email attachment. If you need to give a message to a colleague, you can forward it as an email from the online user interface or simply forward the email message. Popular services include Google Voice, YouMail, and RingCentral. Many of these services also let you have a single telephone number that will forward to multiple numbers at once.

Electronic Fax Services

If your nonprofit uses fax messages, you might want to consider an electronic fax service like MyFax or eFax. Electronic fax services make it much easier to send and receive fax messages, especially when you're away from the office.

Conclusion

Whatever approach or approaches to UC you employ, remember that strong organizational practices are more important than the use of a certain system or technology. Be sure your staff has a clear understanding of how and when to handle various types of communication. If your constituents are not receiving replies to their inquiries — or worse, of they're receiving multiple replies that contradict each other — no communications server or VoIP system will solve that problem.

Ultimately, the most important benefits of UC are the long-term ones. When staff at your organization are able to communicate with each other more quickly and conveniently, your capacity to take on projects and your effectiveness at carrying out your mission will gradually increase. Your organization will be more prepared to respond to a natural disaster or other emergency that impacts your work. Finally, implementing an appropriate UC strategy is an important step toward reducing unnecessary travel and other wasteful habits.

Image: Vector, Shutterstock