Video Chatting Connects Operations

March 7, 2013       Zach Halper      

When Mike McFarland, director of operations at the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), needs to talk to someone he doesn’t dial a phone. He pushes a few keys on his computer and video chats with whomever he needs.

There was a time when using an Instant Messaging program at work was frowned upon and could get you fired. While nonprofit managers still don’t want their employees chatting with friends while on the job, the rise of video chatting programs has updated the way nonprofit managers communicate with staff and clients.

Laura Quinn, executive director and founder of Portland, Maine-based Idealware, said that Skype is ideal for organizations that have a lot of remote partners. “It’s a free way to do video conferencing,” said Quinn. “You are able to see people’s faces and gestures — things you wouldn’t get over a phone line. It makes people feel like they are part of the team even if they are far away.”

Originally viewed as personal use technology, Skype and software like it are becoming a bigger part of the workplace. Skype was first released in 2003 and has more than 600 million registered users. The program, which can be used on a smartphone or computer, allows individuals to call other Skype users (and non-Skype users, for a fee) and chat either through voice or video.

Aside from video calling, Skype offers features that could benefit nonprofits. One of those is desktop sharing, which allows a user on one end of the call to show what is on a computer. For example, a nonprofit executive on a Skype call with a potential corporate partner could bring up a chart showing a breakdown of the organization’s revenue.

Video chat can also be used for training employees. “You could Skype-in an expert to talk to your staff members about a particular topic,” Quinn said. “It’s a really interesting way to limit the geographic distances between people.”

That’s one of the reasons that Washington, D.C.-based HSUS started to use video chatting. McFarland said that he and others in the office have used Skype for the past two years to communicate with their colleagues who work overseas. He estimates that the organization saved thousands of dollars by avoiding international phone charges.

HSUS has also made use of Windows Messenger, which will soon be discontinued by Microsoft in favor Skype, which the software giant purchased in 2011 for $8.5 billion. While individual employees used Skype in the office, the organization as a whole is planning on making the switch to the Microsoft-developed Lync.

Described as a “unified communications platform,” it has the ability to call Skype users, and it integrates with existing Microsoft Office programs. For example, if you receive a voice mail through Lync, you will receive an email through Microsoft Outlook containing a preview of that message.

“It’s basically an enterprise version of Skype,” said McFarland.

“This year and the next year are going to be very important for us. With the combination of instant messaging, video calling, and desktop sharing, it’s going to open a lot of new doors for us,” he said.

Amy Sample Ward, membership director at Portland, Ore.-based Nonprofit Technology Network (NTEN), said the organization uses Google Hangouts, the video chatting function of the search engine giant’s social media site. NTEN has staff in five locations and uses Hangouts for staff meetings. Asked why Google Hangouts was chosen over another program, Ward cited convenience.

“It integrates with your account so it isn’t an additional application, in essence,” she explained. “When you are primarily speaking within your organization, and you already have a Google account open, just clicking on the video icon is pretty easy.”

Hildy Gottlieb, co-founder of Creating the Future (CTF) in Tuscon, Ariz., also uses Google Hangouts. CTF is a relatively new organization, having been in existence for just a year and a half and is still awaiting approval of its 501(c)(3) application. Its board is entirely virtual. Gottlieb said the organization experimented with Skype but found that it wasn’t ideal for hosting multiple people.

“When it’s more than one person, Skype gets a little glitchy,” explained Gottlieb, noting that Google Hangouts seamlessly supports up to 10 users.

Besides the simple fact that it works better for their setup, Google Hangouts offers some interactivity elements that Gottlieb said are perfect for the group’s mission. Board meetings are being switched to Google Hangouts Live, which records the meetings for sharing on YouTube. The meetings are also connected with a Twitter feed, allowing the board to field questions from followers using the hashtag #CTFuture. Gottlieb said for an organization that is committed to social change, it was important to openly engage an audience.

“From the very beginning, we engaged on our blog,” she explained. “If the board had a question they were pondering, they would blog about it and see what other people thought. This is the next step for that.”

While January 21 was the first CTF board meeting using Google Hangouts Live, all of its other meetings (internal planning, etc.) have been done using this method, Gottlieb said.

“All of our meetings in January so far have been done online. We’ve gotten amazing participation through this.”

While Google Hangouts is ideal for CTF right now, Gottlieb acknowledged she faces making a decision as the board grows larger. The program can only host 10 participants, so they will have to consider alternatives should the board grow beyond that number. This is a decision to which she isn’t looking forward. “I don’t know if we’ll be able to find a program that offers the interactivity that Google Hangouts has.”

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