Revised as of August 13, 2015


 
Collaborating With Volunteers (& Others) Online
 
Right now, right this minute, often for free, you could share a calendar, share files, share databases, conduct online polls, collaborate on documents and spread sheets and presentations, and more, with volunteers, remote staff and other groups as part of your work for a nonprofit/NGOs/civil society organization.

It's new name is cloud computing, but it's been around for many, many years before it got its snazzy name.

Sharing and collaborating over this kind of information online in a private space where only those you choose to see it may do so (such as volunteers) cuts down on email for everyone, prevents anyone from losing a file, and means those of your choosing can view the information from any computer with web access.

And the good news is that there are many FREE tools you can use to get started.

In addition, learning how such free, simple applications work means you will be training yourself and those you work with to use more advanced, customized systems down the road. It means that, when a technology professional starts talking to you about an advanced sharing system or other technology tool, you will understand more about what he or she means -- and be able to express YOUR wants and needs.

Sharing files and collaborating online takes a very different way of thinking that comes from a commitment to being open in your work, more than it takes any technological expertise. You will be letting other people see and comment on your work, something that only the marketing manager used to have to deal with at a nonprofit organization! This is a new way of working for most people, and it can feel scary. But the potential benefits far out weight the risks.

For instance, a volunteer manager might

That is going to invite a lot of comments and criticisms, but it will also better show to a wider audience your value as a volunteer coordinator.

Tools

In most cases, tools specifically for online collaboration allow you to make a work space as public or as private as you like, and allow you as much control you want: you can be the only person allowed to change or add content, you can allow only certain other people to do so, you can allow people to submit information that isn't shared until you approve it, etc.

My favorites:

You may want to create a Yahoo ID or a Google ID specifically for your role, so that your ID can be inherited by whomever fills your role at the organization in the future (as opposed to using a Yahoo ID or Google ID you already use for your personal email or personal online activities). For instance, the work-specific YahooID or Google ID could be:

One more positive about using GoogleApps or YahooApps - they have smart phone app counterparts. And as more and more people are using smart phones as their primary Internet access, rather than lap tops, this is something you should consider in choosing online collaboration tools.

Web-based spaces can provide a much easier way to collaborate on documents and other files. These document-management and shared-work platforms are accessed through the Internet (or, sometimes, a local area network - offline from the world, online only for people at your organization), and are private, for pre-approved users only, usually everyone working in your office or for your company. Everyone can update the file in one location, which greatly simplifies version control, compared to having multiple versions of the file. All revisions are tracked, but the changes might not be shown within the document itself - instead, the changes may be shown in a separate revision history in some of the tools. The functionality also lets editors "check out" and "check in" files to prevent multiple people from making different offline changes at the same time.

Options for web-based spaces in addition to what I've mentioned include (links go to official web sites):

Zoho
ThinkFree
Wikispaces

Office Live Workspace
Microsoft SharePoint
Drupal

How does sharing documents online really work?

Here's an example of how a virtual team would work on documents and files that need to be edited/reviewed by several people:

  1. It is vital that everyone understands that there are deadlines to be met, and that the deadlines are real. Provide a calendar to all document/data reviewers and contributors that highlights all deadlines: for content submission, first edits, second edits, phone/video conferences, final edits, etc. Reinforce these deadlines by sending an email reminder to reviewers two working days before each deadline date.

  2. ONE person will need to be ultimately responsible for reviewing all of the comments and data, and attempting to incorporate the changes into the document or file. If you have more than two people reviewing a document or file and submitting changes, it will probably be impossible to incorporate all of everyone's edits; the final editor must be empowered to make decisions regarding which edits to accept and which to leave out.

  3. Consider having at least one online chat and conference call or online call regarding the document after first edits are submitted by reviewers, so that everyone can highlight what they think is most important about their own edits and additions.

  4. In addition to a conference call or online call with everyone, remember that some people may not feel comfortable sharing their feedback in a group setting; provide one-on-one opportunities for each person to provide feedback. Some people may even want their feedback to remain anonymous.

  5. Keep track of who has not provided feedback, and seek them out specifically to find out if they have read the information and have comments.

  6. Let reviewers see a later version of the document or file, to see how their edits were -- and weren't -- incorporated. Encourage them to provide feedback and, if there is some edit they feel strongly about that they don't see and still want, to highlight and, if needed, resubmit such.

  7. THANK REVIEWERS at EACH stage. Even if they are staff and it's part of their job to review such, you need to make an extra effort to thank them for their remote contributions; it will make it easier for future remote collaborations, because they will see and feel the value of the time they spent reviewing and editing. Thanking contributors by name in an email to everyone who was supposed to review a document also reminds those who did not submit edits how important such submissions are, and can prompt their participation next time.

Here's a TERRIFIC primer that can get you thinking about sharing information online, and working together on files: Collaborative Writing, from Web2practice: Emergent technologies and innovative practice. Each guide consists of a short animated video explaining the key concepts, supported by a more in-depth printable overview of the topic, covering the potential uses, risks and how to get started. The guides and the resources used to create them can be downloaded, modified and shared under a creative commons licence.

Caution

A caution on the sharing of designs, from consultant Jack Vickery of Vancouver:

"Designing web pages when there is a significant difference in resolutions or the restriction of colours used can be extremely frustrating. I once spent several days of back and forth emails with a client who was complaining that the photos I had placed on her web site looked horrible. It was not until I saw the web site on her computer that the penny dropped, she had the resolution set to 600 x 480 and 16 colours (required by a scrabble game she liked to play). Once I showed her how to reset to something more common the problem (literally) vanished.
Also, realize that most people cannot have a new, advanced system thrust upon them; the more advanced a new system, the more guidance they are going to need in using that system. So consider starting with a very simple, free platform, and getting your team used to working together online, before you invest in a highly-advanced file-sharing / collaborative workspace platform.

The most important factor

Don't get bogged down with trying to pick the "right" tool; sharing files and work online takes a very different way of thinking, and success in using these tools takes everyone shifting their thinking. The key to working together collaboratively online isn't your computer technology or your budget; it's how the other humans you are trying to work with save, share and respond to information and requests for feedback. It's mostly about trust-building, good organization and good management.

Also, building it does not guarantee they will come. You must make a commitment to use these tools regularly if you want other people to use them as well. For instance, you must keep the calendar regularly up-to-date if you want volunteers to find it of value. You have to log in to your instant messaging account if you want volunteers to see you online and know they can send you an instant message.

Ultimately, no matter what method you use to share information and solicit feedback, trust and participation will make or break the system: everyone involved in the process should feel that you can be trusted you to hear and value their feedback, they must quickly and easily "see" the value of their participation, and they must see the results of the time and energy they spend in reviewing information and providing feedback. No software in the world can build trust or guarentee participation; only the way you respond and relate to others, and your own commitment, can do this.

Do you have other tips for working on documents remotely, without having to purchase special software? Send me your suggestions!

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