The importance for charities of unified communications

The vital work of charities is too important to jeopardise by taking risks on unproven technologies. Charity managers and on-the-ground workers alike retain a healthy scepticism when it comes to supposedly silver bullet solutions that promise to transform the way they work for the better. Sometimes, though, a technology matures to the point where the benefits it offers become so compelling that it warrants a closer look. One such technology is unified communications (UC).

UC can keep managers happy by improving a charity’s productivity and cost efficiency, as well as enhancing the oversight and transparency of its operations. Just as crucially, it can simplify and speed up the day to day work of co-ordinating campaigns and fundraising undertaken by frontline staff and volunteers in offices, shops and out in the field.

Bringing together technologies

So what is UC exactly, and how can it help? Without getting bogged down in the technical details, it’s an umbrella term that brings together a series of well established technologies designed to improve communication and collaboration among individuals and groups. These include, but aren’t limited to, audio and video calling and conferencing, instant messaging, file sharing and "presence" (the ability to see instantly when someone is available).

While many people will have used some of this technology on an ad hoc basis, their experience might not have done much to convince them of its merits. For example, the frustration and miscommunication that can arise from a choppy video-conference call, with embarrassed IT staff fumbling to restore broken connections, is now such a familiar office experience that it has become a staple gag for the writers of workplace-set sitcoms.

But this cliché took root when the technology was still in its infancy and broadband internet service was far less robust and widespread than it is today. Implemented in the right way, UC is now just as reliable as more established methods of communication such as the telephone and email, while being both cheaper and considerably more versatile.

A key point is that all the components of a unified communications solution integrate seamlessly, using simple, common means of access. People can quickly and easily see who’s available, arrange and join meetings irrespective of how they’re connecting – whether they’re on a workstation in the office, a laptop at home, or out and about with their smartphone or tablet.

They can access shared calendars, documents, spreadsheets and other files (with changes being made to a central copy, thus eliminating the need for a long and confusing chain of disjointed emails and attachments).

People sharing ideas

People can call up a shared whiteboard during a call to sketch out ideas collaboratively or communicate points more visually when needed. They can record meetings to ensure these are available for later review and can be shared (or transcribed and shared) with those who weren’t able to attend. And more besides.

In other words, UC allows disparate networks of people to collaborate more effectively without technology or bureaucracy getting in their way or causing time-wasting bottlenecks. Given how most charities work, this clearly has many advantages. The business of gathering donations or applying for grants, for instance, generally involves many geographically dispersed people being able to collaborate as smoothly as possible.

For instance, a mental health charity had been struggling to co-ordinate efforts across 13 offices, a swathe of high street shops, plus volunteers, homeworkers and fundraisers spread all over the country. With UC, the charity is now able to ensure everybody is aware of the latest campaign messages and fundraising focus, and can mobilise teams at a moment’s notice.

The positive impact of the technology isn’t restricted to large charities or organisation-wide campaigns, either. Even something as apparently simple as setting up a fundraising stall at a local fête or market is made far easier. It often takes weeks of calls, emails and poring over diaries to firm up who’s labelling the jam jars, setting up the stall, leafleting the area and so on. With UC, a charity can organise the whole thing in a single call.

Dramatic cost savings

For charity managers, the technology brings other important benefits, most notably the potential for dramatic cost savings through productivity gains and vastly improved operational efficiency. This results in a higher proportion of their vital funding being spent on the causes they support rather than on things like travel, expenses and office expansion.

For example, UC lets charity managers make far better use of their existing premises through "hot-desking" – since anyone can sit down and work productively from anywhere. And the ease of setting up virtual meetings means they can eliminate the common costs associated with assembling a group of people in a room together – for instance, having to pay for them to travel perhaps an hour each way to attend.

Other operational staff, such as procurement and IT managers, see similarly positive results. Unifying communications across a charity simplifies what is often a messy mix of technologies and services, purchased ad hoc by different offices and departments, with one system or service often incapable of talking to another elsewhere. UC, meanwhile, can be delivered as a service at low cost, doesn’t require you to buy any specific hardware, and people joining in sessions simply need a web browser and a broadband connection.

Then there’s the whole issue of transparency. With all communications unified and on record, the technology gives managers an unparalleled ability to track and review a charity’s activity to ensure it is working in line with the Government’s Charities Statement of Recommended Practice, as well as any compliance requirements, so that it can remain fully accountable to the authorities, governing bodies, supporters and beneficiaries.

While much of the private sector has been investing in UC for some time, and is already reaping many of its benefits, charities have to date been slower to investigate the technology. Their caution is understandable. Commercial businesses are always looking to gain an edge over competitors so they’re prepared to take greater risks trying out new things. But when you’re a charity, you can’t afford to spend precious funds on a whim - you need to be certain any investment will allow you to serve your charitable cause more effectively.

Promoting cultural change

Because UC fundamentally alters the way people work and interact on a daily basis, it also helps to promote a cultural change throughout the organisation, and again some charities are reluctant to embrace such change because they see it as "more for the private sector". Cultural change seems to imply big, expensive programmes that divert funds away from an organisation’s core work, so many charities perceive it as a risk and don’t view it as a priority.

There seems to be a fear that by changing what they’ve done for a long time, and what people are used to, they might throw their operations into chaos and their staff into confusion – better the devil you know and all that.

This position is becoming increasingly self-defeating. Charities can gain so much by switching to unified communications that the sooner they follow the private sector’s lead, the better. But it is important to seek out and work with providers which understand the particular needs of the sector and can help you introduce the technology in the right way. With so many different suppliers and offerings on the market, that isn’t always easy.

As a rule of thumb, it’s best to avoid providers which only frame UC’s advantages in terms of cost savings and management efficiency (important though these undoubtedly are). Implementing UC from on high, with little thought to the cultural impact it might have on the organisation or any help to smooth the transition, can make it far harder to realise any benefits.

It’s vital when implementing UC for those responsible to spend as much time as needed supporting the frontline staff and volunteers who’ll actually be using this stuff. They need to understand not only to how to work it, but why it will help them do their jobs more effectively and, by extension, allow them to provide greater help to the causes they care about.

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