Office 365 Helping NGOs Operate Globally

Surya Sayed-Ganguly, Board Member, InsideNGO
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Surya Sayed-Ganguly, Board Member, InsideNGO

Surya Sayed-Ganguly, Board Member, InsideNGO

Through the late noughties the nonprofit and Non- Governmental Organization (NGO) sector was engaged by tech companies using their Small and Medium Enterprise (SME) marketing model. International development organizations like CARE, World Vision and OxFam with thousands of staff across hundreds of countries and more than a billion dollars in revenue were offered the same menu of products and services as the local laundromat chain. Consequently sales were fragmented, the sector developed little cohesion in IT strategy or best practices, and quickly spat out mismatched SME solutions that did not scale well (RIP Microsoft SBS/WSE). Requirements like multi-currency support, SSO across the enterprise stack, language translation, overseas data hubs, a complex chart of accounts and strong encryption – more like the needs of multi-national oil companies than that laundromat chain – quickly surfaced and became critical business drivers for the flight to the cloud by NGOs starting around 2010.

Microsoft stepped up to the plate, first with the short-lived BPOS, then in 2012 with a compelling licensing and product package with the E1-E5 nonprofit license pack for Office 365 (O365). NGOs were no longer the step-child of the product strategy group, with a full-featured, industrial strength raft of Office applications, tight desktop integration, a modern UI and (nearly baked!) enterprise administrative tools. Adoption started with a trickle, but in 2016 grew to a majority of US-based NGOs licensing some flavor of O365 for their staff. From hesitations about cloud data governance to hangovers from poor on-prem SharePoint 2010 experiences, many barriers to adoption melted away in the face of the reasonable licensing scheme, excellent desktop integration, solid reliability and easy administration baked into O365.

  The NGO sector has long boasted an impressive, professional cadre of seasoned knowledge workers. Office 365 has caught up with their need for a reliable, consistent, high performance set of productivity and communication tools 

For the highly educated, highly mobile staff in the average international development NGO, producing large numbers of collaborative documents in often marginal infrastructures across the developing world, O365 answers a real productivity need. For sponsors and champions of the platform, while Microsoft has made enterprise business tools affordable to the nonprofit sector, the NGO use case is not completely covered. I asked three nonprofit operational leaders to share their experience implementing O365 in the last two years.

Kimberli Jeter is Chief Learning and Partnerships Officer at Pyxera Global, an NGO that facilitates mutually beneficial partnerships between the public, private, and social sectors to create opportunities for purposeful global engagement, providing pathways for organizations and individuals to positively contribute to complex global issues. Jay Mehta is Manager of IT at InsideNGO, a membership association of 330 NGOs in the international development and relief community, that seeks to strengthen the operational and management capacity of international NGOs through effective collaboration, practical solutions, professional development, and advocacy. Alex Banh is Senior Program Manager at The Asia Foundation, which works through offices in 18 countries to address the critical issues affecting Asia by: strengthening governance, expanding economic opportunity, increasing environmental resilience, empowering women, and promoting international cooperation.

Q. What are the most impactful pieces of O365 for your staff and organization?

KJ: As an international NGO that is built on a foundation of partnership and engagement, we are building out O365 to ensure that we are living our mission internally and externally. Skype for Business, OneDrive and SharePoint are key tools that enable us to discover, connect, and engage our global teams. We are still in the early stages of our international roll-out, but our international staff are already sharing stories of how these tools have improved their connection to PYXERA Global.

JM: I have a list!

• Office software licensing administration was simplified through the O365 admin portal. Staff or interns can be added and removed on a monthly expense basis rather than annual nonprofit licensing commitments through consolidators like Techsoup.

• With Azure AD, single sign-on and retention polices can be rationalized across locations and integrated with 3rd party applications for Azure AD authentication, accessible 24/7.

• New PCs can be joined to Azure AD directly making local domains and the associated management overheads redundant, letting NGO field offices focus on their mission.

AB: O365’s unified system for email, messaging, and Intranet has helped transform The Asia Foundation, a decentralized and geographically dispersed organization. O365 has brought our staff closer together, from posting project photos on Yammer to hosting Skype webinars on operational best practices, to sharing reports and resources on SharePoint. SharePoint’s out-of-the-box forms and workflows functionality allowed us to quickly automate formerly labor intensive processes, leading to a more efficient, paperless organization.

  For the highly educated, highly mobile staff in the average international development NGO, producing large numbers of collaborative documents in often marginal infrastructures across the developing world, O365 answers a real productivity need 

Q. If you could talk to the product design team today, what would be on your wishlist?

KJ: I am excited about the new tools like Groups and Teams and the ability to use Yammer as an engagement tool. However, the tools are constantly evolving at such a fast pace that we have a hard time keeping up. It would be great if Microsoft would develop tools like the ones in FastTrack to help us learn the new features and incorporate them into our environment. O365 has helped us transform our vision of IT. We believe IT is a key strategic partner in the business and essential in our efforts to discover, connect and engage our global talent. If our journey ended with our internal impacts, I’d be satisfied. However, I believe we can do so much more with the tools if we had someone from Microsoft’s development team embedded in our organization. PYXERA Global is committed to reinventing how public, private and social sector partners engage to solve global challenges. We engage our internal and external stakeholders to discover, create, adapt or scale solutions to complex problems. A Microsoft partner in our organization, or an NGO like us, would be able to help us secure internal data while creating a robust external platform for engagement and collaboration.

JM: I wish we could live in the cloud 100 percent. It feels tantalizingly close, but there are missing pieces. For instance, the continuing need for a local AD controller for authenticated WiFi (RADIUS-based) access to a local network holds us back from jumping into Azure AD completely. New features and license upsells – like PowerBI and CRM –have clear value for NGOs but the admin portal does not promote easy understanding of these products or provide a clear on-ramp to the NGO business use case. My Salesforce account rep calls once a year to talk about NGO specific products and the roadmap. It would be great if Microsoft could do something similar for its NGO clients.

AB: O365 storage strategy needs clarity. SharePoint starts with only 1TB of storage and additional storage is not competitively priced. We produce a lot of media content which we want to move to the cloud, and currently we have to look at Microsoft’s competitors for better DAM storage options.

Q. Can’t all be roses. As a product champion what are your biggest challenges related to O365 adoption and management?

KJ: I have a few!

• Groups, Teams, and Yammer have overlapping functionality and the roadmap and use case for each is not very clear – how do I pick the best tool for my org?

• If I try to scale a solution globally to engage external partners in a solution, how do I manage that growth without putting undue management burden on our IT staff ?

• What’s the best way to use the tools at the last mile where we want to deliver services, but the infrastructure and bandwidth are inadequate?

JM: Generally, the pace of product change is very quick. Just as staff gets comfortable with a tool or a paradigm, it’s time for a change. For instance, as soon as my staff got used to Clutter (suppresses spam) in their Outlook Inbox, our O365 tenant was moved to Focus (surfaces important emails). Some staff have reported feeling the O365 UI can feel a bit schizophrenic in terms of UI changes.

AB: We now have multiple group messaging products with some differentiation but high overlap - Skype for Business, Yammer, Groups, and Teams, not to mention SharePoint’s legacy Newsfeed and Discussion Board features. This is confusing for staff, leads to fragmentation and erosion of a cohesive digital “home.”

The NGO sector has long boasted an impressive, professional cadre of seasoned knowledge workers. Office 365 has caught up with their need for a reliable, consistent, high performance set of productivity and communication tools. Administering and scaling it presents a different set of challenges to IT, knowledge and learning managers. Thoughtful road-mapping, change control and planned obsolescence are on their minds, as are effective data governance, syndication and federation with other enterprise app suites, easy-to-use strong encryption and MFA, managing mobile devices without being on the hook for personal data, in fact not very different than the elements an oil industry CIO might worry about.

NGOs attract smart, professional, hard-working staff who work to make our world a better place to live in. Tools like Office 365 enable this work, while freeing up thought leaders like CIOs and program leaders to focus on mission – increasing cups of soup served or journalists trained – rather than worry about keeping email and file servers running. Bring on the NGO Cloud!

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