Written by Dave Chakrabarti of Nonprofitable
Buried in project documents at your organization? By simplifying the way we collaborate on writing (planning documents, outlines, wireframes, progress reports, or even wistful thinking), using the free Google Docs service can result in more efficient project teams, for goals as simple as reviewing the minutes from the last board meeting to collaboratively writing a Request For Proposal (RFP) document for a major website overhaul.
How often do you email a Word document to a colleague (or, worse, a group of colleagues), wait for their feedback, incorporate changes from multiple authors, and then restart the process again for the next round of revisions? You may even have given up on this process and tried having just one person document a project for the entire team.
Poor intern. It’ll get better soon.
Google Docs aims to solve the problem of emailing documents for feedback, revisions, and updates. Think of it as a wiki that looks like Microsoft Word, works like Microsoft Word, is entirely online (no software to install!), automatically backs everything up to the cloud, and lets you work with your colleagues on a document without emailing the doc around and waiting for changes. All you need is an internet connection.
Ok, that’s a lot of buzzwords (cloud, wiki, collaboration!). How does this actually work? Here’s the workflow I used recently for figuring out what equipment we’re going to need to buy for an organization’s new women’s self defense studio in Calcutta, India.
1. First, I fire up my browser (I’m using Google Chrome) instead of Microsoft Word, and visit https://drive.google.com to start Google Docs (now part of a project called Google Drive). You’ll need to log in to Google if you aren’t already. Then I grab my project proposal template. Chances are, you’re using something like this in Microsoft Word already (a saved version of an empty document with your organization’s logos, footers, and maybe some common text you find yourself reusing often). Saving this as a Google Doc means I can now access my template from anywhere...from a friend’s computer where I don’t have my work saved, from my home computer, from my tablet, or even from my phone.
2. Now I’ll do my first draft. In Microsoft Word, I might leave out the legal section for our lawyer to write, or outline the weight training equipment I think we’ll need but mark it for our strength trainer to review and update later. With Google Docs, I do the same thing. I can add comments to the doc for colleagues to review, highlight sections that need more review, or just add headings and leave sections blank to come back to later. No need to save it! Google docs automatically updates the doc every few seconds, so my doc stays updated on the Google cloud without my having to do anything.
3. Using the big blue “Share” button, I see that my doc, by default, belongs to me, and that no one else has access to it. I can now add my lawyer and my strength trainer to the doc. I just need to know their email address. Google docs will automatically make email addresses available from your gmail account (if you have one) for convenience, and it even warns you if you add people outside your organization’s domain. Since I’ve emailed them both before, their addresses are auto-completed for me.
I can now decide if they’re just going to need to read the doc or also write changes to it. In this case, I’ll need them both to make edits, so I’ll give them full access. I can also click on a checkbox to make sure they get an email notification, and add a personal note to the notification. In my case, since our strength trainer’s never used Google docs before, I add a note that says “Hey John! I started filling in some of the strength training equipment we talked about at our last meeting. Can you review this section and see if we’re going to need to budget for anything else? You can edit the document directly to make suggestions. Thanks!”
4. On the way home, I remember that we’d also discussed putting in judo mats, since a lot of our women’s self defense curriculum involves training on the ground. But I’ve already sent the doc out for edits! This would have resulted in a delay if we were using Word, since I’d have to wait till I got home, grab a copy of the doc from my USB drive or email it to myself, then edit it and send a new copy out, hoping my colleagues haven’t started editing theirs yet. With Google Docs, I just open the app on my tablet, see the doc as the most recent doc in my account, and edit it while I’m standing on the bus. I add in a quick note about the matts, and then share the doc with our head instructor to get his feedback. I also see that our lawyer has already filled in her sections of the doc.
5. When I review the doc the next day, I see that our head instructor has logged in from Sweden and updated the item on the matts, and our strength coach has finished the section on weight training equipment and added another section on gear that I’d forgotten about, and our lawyer’s updated our legal disclaimer. She’s using her Iphone to make edits while traveling, while our strength coach is using a Windows laptop at his office, and I’m using a Linux desktop since I’m working from home. Since Google docs works seamlessly on pretty much any operating system with a browser, we’ve stopped caring about the hardware or software we’re all using individually.
6. There’s a comment from our strength coach on the doc about a section that I’m not too clear about myself. I mark it down for research and update it again after I’ve had some time to figure it out. Meanwhile, I catch a few typos while reviewing the doc, so I go ahead and fix those. I can see our lawyer revising her section while I’m working, and we use the integrated chat system briefly to figure out what our waiver agreement will look like for guests and visitors to self defense workshops, and how parental consent works in India for school groups.
6. Looks like I’ve done three rounds of edits on this doc so far, my strength coach and lawyer have done two, and our head instructor has done one. The doc looks complete. I download a copy as a Word file (just in case Google Docs ever goes down; always good to have a backup!), and shoot the final doc to our director.
“Project management” in the nonprofit world usually describes a chaotic tangle of emails, phone calls, and barely-managed deadlines overseen by panicstricken staff. At the same time, most nonprofit projects at small or mid-sized organization don’t require the overhead and complexity of a dedicated project management tool. Using Google Docs, we’ve been able to dramatically simplify our workflow for managing projects, simply by letting teams form organically around documents that need to be developed. This saves us countless hours of meetings, scheduled document revisions, emailing document revisions back and forth, and coordination issues. We’ve even saved some money, since the more we move to the cloud the less we’re investing in constant hardware backups on our office computers.