Useful Tools: Cloud storage

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Every month I’ll be highlighting a free or low-cost tool that community groups and not-for-profits can use to improve their marketing and communications. This month’s focus is on cloud storage.

Cloud storage—where your documents are stored online in ‘the cloud’ rather than on your computer’s hard drive—has been around for a while now, but many volunteer organisations still aren’t taking full advantage of it. As well as being a good way to back up your documents, cloud storage also provides a better way of collaborating on files than emailing them back and forth, especially if your files are large. By keeping a single copy of a file in a shared drive and instituting some practices for tracking edits, you can ensure that everyone on your committee always has access to the most up-to-date version. You can also share links to specific files or folders with people who aren’t members of your group, which will enable them to see only that specific document or folder.

Below are some profiles of three of the most popular cloud storage sites, although there are many more available. The main thing is to ensure that everyone in your organisation who needs access is set up with an account to whichever storage service you’re using. Accounts on all these sites are free for the basic model, but you’ll need to upgrade to a paid plan if you want more storage. Most cloud storage sites also have apps so you can access your files wherever you are.

Dropbox

Dropbox, which started in 2007, is one of the original cloud storage sites. It has 2GB of free storage, although you can earn more by referring people (500MB for every person who signs up, up to 16GB). You can either access your files through the Dropbox site on your web browser or install a version directly to your computer so that it shows up in your file explorer, allowing for easy drag-and-drop.

Google Drive

Two main advantages that Google Drive has over its competitors are, firstly, it’s integrated with Google’s other products, such as Gmail, Calendar and Docs, so you only need a single account to access them all; and secondly, it provides much more free storage, with 15GB on its free plan.

Google Drive should not be confused with Google Docs, which is a collaboration tool that lets you create web-based text documents, spreadsheets or slides (stored online until you download them) that can be edited by multiple people simultaneously. Google Docs now sits within Google Drive. If you think of it in terms of your computer, Google Docs is like a mashed-up version of Microsoft Word, Excel and PowerPoint, while Google Drive is like your computer’s hard drive, where everything is stored.

OneDrive

OneDrive (previously known as SkyDrive) is Microsoft’s cloud storage service. It works with Microsoft Office Online, meaning you can edit documents directly in your browser (much like Google Docs). It provides 5GB of free storage, but it is not as widely used as Dropbox or Google Drive, meaning many people in your organisation may already have accounts for one of those other services rather than for OneDrive.

iCloud

iCloud is Apple’s cloud storage service, which it launched in 2011. Although it is an Apple product, there is a Windows version available, although this has to be installed on your PC rather than accessed through a browser. As well as storing your files, iCloud lets you back up your iOS device to it directly (provided you have enough space) and locate lost devices through the Find My iPhone service. iCloud comes with 5GB of free storage. In 2013, Apple launched iWork (a suite of office applications similar to Google Docs—Pages for word processing, Keynote for presentations and Numbers for spreadsheets). It also has iCloud Drive, which is a storage solution similar to Dropbox or Google Drive, although it’s not as user-friendly as these two and nowhere near as streamlined for collaboration.

If it’s properly managed, cloud storage can really help streamline your organisation’s processes. It can also be an effective way of maintaining an offsite backup of your documents (including your website) in case of a major technology failure or other disaster like a fire.

When to call in the professionals

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Because many volunteer organisations are operating on a shoestring budget, they’re often reluctant to spend money on professional design, editing or copywriting. This simplistic calculation, however, often fails to take into account the hidden economics of the decision.

Reputational damage. The longer-term impact on your brand from appearing unprofessional can have flow-on effects that outweigh the cost of employing a professional—such as failing to gain new members, or selling fewer tickets to your performance or event. Nothing turns people off faster than terrible design or sloppy writing. The assumption is that if you don’t know what you’re doing in these areas (or worse, you don’t care), you may not be great at organising the other, more important parts of your group either.

Money is obviously the catch with most volunteer groups, but you need to calculate the outlay against the return. If you’re running a fundraiser or a concert and a professionally designed poster will lead to more ticket sales, then it’s worth the upfront cost. Similarly, if you’re a theatre group producing programs, you’ll be able to charge more for something that’s well-designed and laid out (as opposed to put together in Microsoft Publisher, or, worse, Word!).

Time and opportunity costs. Unless you have volunteers with specialist skills such as graphic or web design, or editing, it will inevitably take them much longer to produce something of much lower quality than a professional. This is time they could be spending doing other tasks that better serve the organisation and that are a better fit with their skill set. In short, think about time as a resource. Are you spending it in the way that gets you the greatest return on your investment?

To take a personal example: I want to renovate my shed to turn it into an office. I could do it myself, fitting it around my other work, and teach myself the skills I need as I go. But I also don’t have the professional tools, so I’ll need to buy those too if I want to create something half decent. In summary, it’ll take me a lot longer than it would a professional, the quality won’t be as good, and I’ll have an outlay for tools as well. I’ll gain some skills, but I’m never going to be a builder and I really just want the shed done. I make as much or more than a professional builder, so in the end it makes more sense if I do what I’m good at and make money at it, and then pass that money on to the professional builder so they can do what they’re good at. Then I get a high-quality result without losing time that’s more valuable if I spend it elsewhere, and we’re all happy.

With this in mind, here’s a simple flowchart to give you some guidance when you’re undertaking a project with major design or writing elements.

Is this a big deal for our organisation?

Basically, what is the potential reputational cost of a poor-quality job? Things that fall into this category include:

  • Anything that involves your branding (new logo, slogan etc.)
  • Major events (e.g. annual fundraising gala, major performance)
  • Anything where you’re trying to attract new people to your organisation or sell products (e.g. markets/expos that may require banners or other publicity material)
  • Any foundational information about your organisation that potential members or supporters are likely to develop a first impression from (website, flyers, programs)

Do we have someone in the group with the skills we need?

Some groups are lucky enough to have people with either formal training in design, photography, writing, editing or related fields, or who are self-taught high-level amateurs. If you have a resource like this, use them! But most importantly, don’t take them for granted. Make sure you give them enough lead time and don’t have unrealistic expectations. Especially if they’re professionals doing it for free, remember that they’re donating potentially hundreds or even thousands of dollars’ worth of their time to help you. Make sure you credit their work appropriately, and at least give them some chocolate to show your appreciation!

Do they have access to the tools they need?

You can’t do decent graphic design in Microsoft Paint—it just doesn’t work. So if you’ve got someone with the skills but they don’t have the professional-level tools to do what you want (and you can’t provide them), then you need to think about hiring a professional.

Doing it yourself

If you do decide to do it yourself, make it as professional as you can by using all the free and low-cost tools available to you. Graphic design sites like Canva are discussed in this Useful Tools blog post, and you can now get high-quality printing for banners, fliers etc. done relatively cheaply. Someone with good writing skills will be able to do a basic proofread, although you won’t get the same level of detail as with a professional editor.

Above all, remember you get what you pay for. Good graphic design, photography, copywriting and editing don’t always come cheap, but they can make a huge difference to the success of your brand. Don’t just take the cheap option because it’s cheap—take the time to do proper calculations on whether you can expect to reap a large enough return from an improved image (and potentially charge higher prices for a professional product) to justify paying a professional.

Working with freelancers

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Many community groups and small nonprofits are operating on very tight budgets and are forced to do a lot of the day-to-day work themselves. But every now and again you’ll probably find yourself in a situation where you need to hire a professional to help you.

If you decide that you need to hire a professional writer, editor, designer or photographer, the chances are they’ll be a freelancer. They may be working as a sole trader or as a limited liability company, but either way you’ll be engaging a small business.

So how do you go about finding a freelance professional?

  • Word of mouth. Most freelancers get at least some, if not the majority, of their work through word of mouth, so start by asking around. Like tradespeople, a good freelancer will get recommended.
  • Industry bodies. Industry bodies, such as your local Society of Editors (or equivalent), usually have freelance registers. Going through an industry body will ensure the person you hire has the necessary training and experience.
  • E-work sites. Many ‘e-work’ sites have popped up in recent years. Just a word of warning—you get what you pay for. You may find that you can get your work done cheaply through these sites, but this will often come at the cost of quality. If you’re not prepared to offer a fair price, you’ll find that highly skilled professionals won’t respond to your ad. In fact, many established freelancers don’t use these sites as they already get enough work through other means. These sites also run on commission, meaning that, unlike hiring a freelancer directly, not all your fee will go to the person who does the work.

Working with freelancers

Before you start working with a freelancer, there are a few things to bear in mind that will help keep the relationship running smoothly.

  • Don’t ever ask a freelancer to work for ‘exposure’. Would you ask your local restaurant to give you your meal for free in exchange for ‘exposure’? No? Then why would you ask it of a creative professional? By doing this you also risk developing a reputation as a time-waster client—established freelancers won’t work with you and they’ll tell their networks. And apart from anything else, it’s just plain exploitative.
  • Freelancers are small businesses. This means they have to cover the costs of everything usually borne by employers, such as tax and retirement fund payments, out of the fees they charge. So while a quote might seem high to you, remember that anywhere up to 50 per cent of it (depending on the freelancer’s financial arrangements) goes straight to the government. It also means that time is money, so don’t ask for a face-to-face meeting unless you’re prepared to have travel time built into the quote. Go for email, phone or Skype instead.
  • Have a realistic budget. You get what you pay for, and what you’re paying for is the years of experience that established freelancers have behind them. The cost will vary according to the size of your project, the market in your location and the turnaround time, but it’s safe to say that $50 or $100 won’t cut it unless the job is very small.
  • Know what you want and write it down clearly. Freelancers of all stripes do their best work when they’re properly briefed. The quote you receive should outline the scope of the project, and for anything beyond that you may be charged extra. So knowing what you want will help you avoid ‘scope creep’ and will save you money.
  • Give them plenty of time. Rush jobs are always more expensive. Also, many experienced freelancers are booked up weeks or months in advance, so do some planning and enquire early.
  • Make sure you understand and adhere to the terms and conditions. Many freelancers will have terms and conditions listed that you agree to by accepting a quote. Make sure you understand and adhere to these—especially regarding payment and intellectual property—and if you don’t like them, don’t accept the quote. Some freelancers may also get you to sign a contract, depending on their business and the size of your project.
  • Pay on time. This is huge. Many established freelancers ask for full or partial upfront payment, and this is done for a very good reason—many clients don’t pay on time and freelancers have to pay their bills in the meantime. You are responsible for your organisation’s cash flow, not the freelancer, so if you don’t have the money to hire someone, don’t. You may be charged late fees if you fail to pay within the terms of the invoice, or in extreme cases you may be referred to a debt collection agency. In addition, many freelancers—especially graphic designers and photographers—won’t release the final product to you until the final payment has been received, and if you use the product without paying for it under these circumstances you’re violating their intellectual property and could leave yourself open to legal action. So make everyone’s lives easier and pay on time.
  • Be flexible and easy to work with. All freelancers get the occasional client from hell, and they usually only work with them once. Don’t be that person. This means keeping communication open and recognising that the freelancer will probably need to fit you around other projects, so stick to agreed deadlines and keep your expectations reasonable.

Rapid changes to the workforce mean that more and more people are choosing to work for themselves. A good relationship with a freelancer can be of enormous benefit to your organisation, and a relatively small investment in something like professional graphic design can have huge payoffs in terms of your organisation’s professionalism and ability to reach its audience. And, as I never tire of saying, a little planning goes a long way!

5 steps for scoping a project

For many volunteer organisations or community groups, scoping out a large project can be a daunting task. We’ve all been there – when confronted with a massive undertaking, such as developing a new policy or procedure, it can be hard to know where to start.

But learning to outline a project effectively is imperative – having a properly-scoped project will help you complete it on time and on budget. If you’re looking to work with an outside professional, such as a freelance designer, writer or consultant, you’ll also need to have a good idea of what you want before you approach them, because they’ll need to know details and timelines. So here are a few simple steps to make the process easier.

1. Start with the big picture. What is it you want to achieve with the project and why? E.g. “Develop a sexual harassment policy for our organisation to bring us into line with best practices and ensure we meet our legal and ethical obligations.”

2. Break it into chunks. Almost all projects can be compartmentalised to a certain extent – a long document can be broken into chapters or sections, for example. A large project becomes much more manageable once it’s in smaller pieces.

3. Prioritise the most important things. In most projects, there will be some areas that are critical and some that are less so. Figuring out what your priorities are will help you decide which tasks you need to complete first and/or which you need professional help with. This is particularly important if you’re working with a professional but don’t have the budget for them to complete the entire project. You can use a system such as MoSCoW to help align your priorities – list the things you Must do, Should do, Could do, and Want to do.

4. Develop concrete tasks. This is about translating your project from the ‘why’ to the ‘how’ – from a great idea to something that can actually be done. Your tasks need to be as specific and detailed as possible, so that the people doing them know exactly what they need to achieve. This is particularly important if you’re outsourcing some or all of them to professionals, because they’ll be working off what you tell them and any late changes could lead to an increased cost. Take each of the areas you’ve prioritised above and work out exactly what you need, e.g. “500 words outlining the history of our organisation, based on existing documents.” Make sure you think about all aspects of the task, including the amount of research or development that needs to be done, and a realistic timeframe for achieving it.

5. Set deadlines. Decide on an overall deadline for the project, and then work out individual deadlines for each task according to its priority. Make sure you factor in things like final proofreading for written documents, or board sign-off. The deadlines should be realistic, especially if you’re working with a professional, because quick-turnaround tasks will cost more. Note: ASAP is not a deadline!

Scoping a project takes time, and it can be frustrating when you’re enthusiastic and just want to launch straight into it. But it’s worth investing the time at the start to ensure you’ve got a really clear idea of how it’s going to run – it’ll save you a lot of grief down the track and will also help you maintain good relationships with any outside providers you’re working with.