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Office 365 in the non-profit sector

The launch of Microsoft's Office 365 gave businesses the mixture of traditional, familiar and productive software with the benefits of the market changing technology that is cloud computing.

Rather than long licenses and heavy storage needs, companies could sign up to the productivity suite - featuring Office, SharePoint, Exchange, Lync to name a few - and utilise Microsoft's own infrastructure to give it all the capacity it required, whilst only paying for what they used.

The downturn in the economic climate meant all organisations were watching the pennies and looking for new ways to save cash, while keeping up office productivity, but nowhere was this impact felt more than in the non-profit sector.

When an organisation is relying on Government grants and public donations, income is always set to tumble in a recession. However, the services they provide are needed more than ever as more people look to them to help in their times of need.

New technologies can provide charities the tools to run their organisation, but they cannot afford a huge payout for internal hardware or expensive software to make these things happen.

When Microsoft introduced Office 365 last year, it emphasised that the suite should be available to all, from the smallest company to the largest enterprise, and it didn't miss out the non-profit companies it knew could truly benefit from the technology.

Microsoft provides charitable discounts for organisations looking to take on Office 365, which not only encourages them to try out cloud computing - which itself can significantly reduce spend - but means important resources are not wasted on pricey hardware and installation costs.

Chris Seely heads up the ICT Business Development division at The Wise Group, which with funding from the Scottish Government, focuses on improving ICT infrastructure across the third sector, with a view to injecting some "cloud DNA" into existing systems.

He said the group itself had adopted Office 365 and saw the benefits straight away. He is now keen to bring these benefits to other public sector organisations deciding where to go with their IT.

There were many options to consider before heading to the cloud, however.

"The first option we faced when building our technology roadmap was to either trundle down the traditional route of an on-premise solution or to migrate to the cloud," said Seely.

"At that particular point in time we were tendering for Government contracts which required high levels of security compliance."

The Wise Group initially looked at the in-house option to ensure the correct compliance, but for an organisation with limited funding, the cost was very high.

"To keep our information in-house would have required large investment in our security infrastructure to protect our server room to achieve compliance on the contracts," added Seely.

"Further to this we were also aware that in becoming successful in winning the contracts would require adequate headroom in provisioning staff members."

When business continuity issues and risk were also added into the decision, Seely claimed they had to look to the cloud to find a more "robust" solution.

Clearly, IT is an important part of The Wise Group but for many non-profit organisations, it is a means to an end. They don't have the staff to run IT departments but need the functionality to make their organisation work.

Cremyll Sailing is one such charity. The group takes disadvantaged children and young people sailing, giving them the opportunity to meet others their age and learn a skill that would never have been available to them otherwise.

While there are charity workers out on the boats teaching the children, there still has to be someone in the background keeping the organisation itself running and that role falls to Peter Morris.

"What is important [to us] is to have a central place where we can all go to find all the information we need," he said. "Somewhere where the information can be consolidated and held and we can all access it from wherever we are."

Cremyll Sailing was an early adopter of Office 365 and the capabilities it offers to keep all their data in one place, while allowing those in the office or out at sea to access what they need, ticks all the boxes the group's IT solution should.

"Although you work on your computer, your document is there when you need it, [even] on your phone," added Morris.

"We don't need an IT department now because Office 365 provides most of what an IT department would provide."

Removing the need for both dedicated infrastructure, as well as dedicated staff, means more of the money going into the charity can go where it helps people most; in this case, out on the high seas.

However, often when you are working for a non-profit organisation or charity, there is some sensitive information on file. The groups need to examine carefully where they put their data and make sure it doesn't put anyone vulnerable at risk.

Shine Therapy is a group of occupational therapists, speech and language therapists, and physiotherapists that service schools and local authorities to help children progress in their lives.

The organisation was another early adopter of the service and one of the therapists, Sara Honey-Smith, was keen to sing the praises of what Office 365 has given them.

"We are a really virtual, mobile unit with it," she said. "We can upload all of our clinical, confidential data onto a secure site [and] we are not having to carry any of that data around with us on our laptops."

But it is also about the ease of use. None of the above organisations want a complicated way to handle their documents and data. Instead, they want a simply managed and useful tool to help them on their way.

"Across our more traditional projects we also had to take into account the 'coal face' nature of getting out into the community and helping people," said The Wise Group's Seely.

"We needed mobility in our communication systems that could be managed very easily."

Honey-smith added: "I am not the most technical of people [but] after a little bit of training and a little bit of fiddling and getting your head round it, we now all use [Office 365] all the time."

"If I can get my head around it, anyone can!"

Charities and health workers have shown their positivity, but it seems the even more traditional institutions are backing the advances Office 365 can bring to them

All Saints Church in Isleworth, West London, has signed up to the service to help bring together the community of 200 parishioners, including volunteers and educational contributors.

Before adopting Office 365, all documents and data, including contact details of parishioners, were kept on separate computers or USB sticks, making it difficult to access, while needing a lot of organisation to exchange.

The church signed up when Microsoft was still putting the solution through its beta testing, but was pleased with the results.

"We certainly believe that adopting Office 365 will save us money, which is especially important as a church because those are resources we can instead use to support our community," said Anna Brooker, vicar of the All Saints' Church

So, it is clear Office 365 helps with the daily functions of running a non-profit organisation and comes at a much lower cost when compared to other solutions, but what about the future?

The Wise Group believes it is because of Office 365, that the organisation is able to look at bigger and better things, and able to help more third sector organisations than ever before.

"It helped us win tenders and we [have] scaled our business up quickly and efficiently," said Seely. "It has empowered our staff members to forget about technology and get on with their jobs."

"It has also allowed us, through the use of technologies such as Lync, to work in different ways; helping bridge the gap between head office and satellite workers. The Wise Group were so impressed that we now run our own successful cloud practice for the third sector."

Many organisations, both in the public, private and charitable sectors, have seen that cloud computing can bring massive costs benefits and provide the extra functionality they are screaming out for. But with Office 365, it can not only save resources, but help charity workers focus on what they want to do; changing people's lives.

"Once the decision had been made to focus on cloud there was absolutely no choice but to choose Microsoft," concluded Seely. "There was not only greater transparency in pricing but we knew that the products themselves would meet all our requirements out of the box."

"The SLA which underpins their cloud offering gave us confidence and we could place a big tick against the security requirements of contracts."

Morris, from Cremyll sailing, just asked: "I don't know why I spend so much time in the office when I could now be out on a boat with [my colleagues]!"

Click here for more information on applying for Office 365 charitable discounts.