Phillip Smith

Non-profit collaboration tools

When Terry Raininger asked me to give a short presentation at a recent day-long workshop on knowledge management for non-profit organizations and environmental NGOs, I thought I was going to cover the usual stuff: event registrations, e-mail communication, etc. However, the day of the event — freshly back from Web of Change — I had just one word that was stuck in my mind: Collaboration. 

We must work together to succeed!

Mark Surman is the probably one responsible for forcing me to understand the importance of helping organizations come together around common needs, ideas, or technology; he spent the later years at Commons Group pursuing that quest, and continues to do so though the development of a global network of telecentres. And I’ve continued to follow that path in my own work by helping to convene similar conversations, including one that is exploring how independent media and progressive publications can work together.

And, after all these years, one thing is clear: our ability to create knowledge efficiencies in our own organizations is not just important — it’s critical.

It’s critical because:

  • The volume of information that we need to process on a daily basis is increasing;
  • As funding shifts: we need to do more work with less resources;
  • The Web’s continuing evolution is creating a knowledge divide between those who are able to find what they need and quickly share it with others, and those that are still “surfing” though an ocean of unmediated data. 
  • Our organizations are knowledge organizations: we move information into the hands of communities that need it; and our ability to do that with more efficiency can have a direct impact on the work that we do.

So, how do we do it? Well, here are a few notes from the presentation (and the slides are attached below):

Mailing lists and groups

As one of the most basic — and most powerful — tools available to help you collaborate with your peers, team, and community: the automated mailing list still tops my list. Incredibly underutilized still, these lean and mean tools can be set-up quickly and cost very little (if anything) to maintain. 

Biggest benefit: they arrive in your inbox. And, for those who are e-mail overloaded, there’s usually a handy “digest” mode that delivers all the day’s traffic in one simple, handy, message. Personally, I’m a big fan of the classics like Mailman and Sympa — both of which have evolved significantly over the year.

For those that are more Web-centric, another simple option is “Groups” software. From hosted and no-cost software like Google Groups and Yahoo! Groups, to hosted versions of open-source software like NPOgroups (low-cost) and (no-cost) — these tools make group-based communication a breeze and take minutes to set-up.

Put simply: if they could be used to organize one of the biggest anti-globalization meetings in recent history — just imagine what they could do for your organization, community, or team.

Multi-author blogs

Yah, yah: we all should blog. But, seriously: multi-author organization blogs can be an incredibly powerful tool for both sharing information internally and providing a view inside the organization for your constituents. They can act as an organizational “hub” — the central repository for new thinking —  and a knowledge collector, to capture resources and day-to-day learnings. 

Groups that have managed to make the multi-author organizational blog work often implement one of the following to support it:

  • Build blogging into people’s workplan;
  • Create incentives around regular posting, e.g., real rewards for top posters;
  • Make the organizational blog a part of people’s evaluation and review.

The example that I pulled out was the Aspiration Technology Foundation’s blog. I’m sure there are others (and, if you know of some good examples, please post them in the comments below!). 

Collaborative authoring

This is a space that’s really matured in the last year. No longer is their a need to shuttle documents back-and-forth between your home and work computer, or between you and the other authors on the project — which can often lead to a problems with knowing which version is the most recent, etc.; collaborative authoring is now a reality. Once hard-to-use and notoriously geeky, tools that allow many people to work on the same document — or group of documents — are now commonplace and inexpensive. 

At one end of the spectrum is the class of tools generally referred to as Wikis. This are workspaces that allow many people to edit many “pages” (sometimes simultaneously) as easily as typing an e-mail or a letter. Different versions of each page are saved so that authors can compare the version side-by-side and, if necessary, revert to earlier versions. Some of the more notable Wikis are sites like Wikipedia that support thousands of authors and potentially millions of pages. 

On the no-cost end of the Wiki spectrum are hosted products like pbwiki and Wikia. There are also hundreds of free and open-source software options for a Wiki — you can find a good list here — that can be installed on your own server. And there are many low-cost hosted options too, like Socialtext and Stikipad.

At the other end of the collaborative authoring spectrum are real-time, simultaneous, editing tools like Google’s Writely (for multi-author editing of Word documents) and Google’s Spreadsheets, and tools like Thumbstacks for collaborating on presentations.

And, if you really want to get geeky, you can explore tools like Gooby and SubEthaEdit that support real-time co-authoring complete with chat. 

Social bookmarking, folksonomies, and newsfeeds

Because I’ve already written at length about how non-profits can leverage social bookmarking, folksonomies, and aggregation of newsfeeds, I’ll just point you in that direction.

Persistent chat

Probably one of the oldest technologies to those who work in distributed organizations, and one of the newest to arrive to a place of general acceptance and usage is “persistent chat.” Unlike instant messaging — which interrupts the other party — persistent chat is often asynchronous, occasionally synchronous, but always there. Imagine a room that was reserved for just you and your team, but the walls were all blackboards and you could leave messages for when the next team member was around; mostly you’d leave messages or read messages when you had time — but, occasionally, you’d end up in the room with each other and have a real-time conversation — that’s persistent chat. The beauty of this is that it’s like a conference call that never ends, and no matter where you join the conversation you’re always able to read back through what was already said. 

This is a must-have for time-zone challenged teams. 

Traditionally, this was only available in the extremely geeky world of Unix tools like IRC or SILC when combined with something like the Screen. However, products like Skype and Campfire have started to bring these technologies to even the least technically inclined.

Project workspaces

Finally, for those wanting to support many of these features — and the tools commonly associated with project management like to-do lists, milestones, and file sharing — with groups working on specific project, there are a number of low-cost (hosted) and open-source software options now available in the “project workspaces” category.

Of note are:

  • Basecamp — low-cost hosted solution
  • activeCollab — free and open-source software (needs to be installed on your server)
  • dotProject — free and open-source option</p>

Finally, there is no excuse for not having a central place to store, manage, track, and report on projects that your organization is working on. And, for those of you new to this space, there are free or online demonstrations for each of these tools — so try before you buy… but, more importantly, try it!

The Web has evolved to the point where the Web browser really is the application (as was once predicted by someone way smarter than me) and it’s time for you to think about the impacts this could have on the way your organization — and your teams — are collaborating and sharing information.

Feel free to download the slides. And, if you have other resources to offer, please post them in the comments.


Hi, I'm Phillip Smith, a veteran digital publishing consultant, online advocacy specialist, and strategic convener. If you enjoyed reading this, find me on Twitter and I'll keep you updated.


Want to launch a local news business? Apply now for the journalism entrepreneurship boot camp

I’m excited to announce that applications are now open again for the journalism entrepreneurship boot camp. And I’m even more excited to ...… Continue reading