The Nonprofit's Guide to Effective Document Management in the Cloud

A person uses a smartphone while another person uses a tablet.

Digital documents have improved our productivity since the earliest versions of word processing software.

Decades later, it seems that nearly everything exists not only in digital format, but also beyond our laptops and desktops — in the cloud.

The cloud-first world we live in today has allowed for levels of collaboration, security, mobility, and productivity that we never thought would be possible. But with more solutions at our disposal, we are also challenged to use these tools effectively. And this can be a daunting task to nonprofits that are primarily focused on their missions.

Let's take a look at some strategies for effective management of digital documents, along with some of the tools that are available to your nonprofit.

Set Up an Easy Naming Convention So You Can Find Files Easily

No matter which software you use, it's important to develop a consistent naming system for all your files. Approaches differ, but whichever one you choose, continue to follow that system.

Here is one example of a good format: DATE_TITLE_AUTHOR. And here is an example of a file named in this way:

20180812_An Amazing Blog Post_SJ

This system is particularly helpful because it will automatically sort files by date. Beyond that, be mindful of folders and subfolders. Don't be too broad — or too specific. The easier it is for people to navigate online storage, the better, because this ease of navigation translates into increased productivity and reduced clutter.

Manage Collaboration in the Cloud

One of the best features of cloud-based document management is the ability to collaborate on a single document from anywhere in the world. No matter which cloud solution you are using, there's always functionality built in to edit, comment on, and share whatever it is you are working on — from any device.

Box and Office 365 allow you to work collaboratively on documents in the cloud. If you now share static, downloadable files for review, then you should consider a cloud-based solution. Functions like "real-time updates" and "version history" make real-time collaboration easy, and they ultimately let projects move much more quickly. It's still important to be mindful of how you name documents for collaborative purposes. For example, a document might undergo a full round of edits. In that case, the best practice might be to make a copy of it, rename it, and share it with the same group of people.

If you're not ready to fully move to the cloud, you can still take a small step in that direction. Use a system that synchronizes — like Microsoft SharePoint or Box — to upload all your local files to the cloud for added protection and access.

Use E-Signatures to Build Efficiency

Here's a familiar scenario: You receive an email with a form attached that requires a signature. You download the form, print it, sign it, scan it or take a picture of it with your phone, and send it back as an attachment of your own.

Although this routine is definitely an improvement from waiting for forms to be mailed, it's still a clunky and cumbersome process. The solution? Use e-signatures.

DocuSign is a cloud-based service that allows you to upload and send documents for electronic signature. It lets you share a document with any user and allows users to add a signature from virtually any device. The recipient does not need to have DocuSign software to add a signature. There are many potential scenarios in which this is useful for nonprofits, including volunteer waivers, donation pledges, or contracts.

DocuSign also integrates seamlessly with other solutions you might now use at your nonprofit, such as those by Microsoft, like Word, Outlook, and SharePoint. For example, you can send a Word document in need of a signature as a single attachment. Or you can send a document that requires a signature directly from Outlook.

Increase Security with Permissions Settings

Management of cloud-based digital documents offers robust control over who has access to files, as well as who has permission to edit or modify them after they're received. This functionality is particularly important when you send or collaborate on sensitive material.

Box allows for files and folders to be encrypted, and a centralized dashboard makes it easy to manage access to all your files from a single place. There are also remote logout and data-wiping functions. These functions can help to keep your data out of the wrong hands in the event of a theft or another unforeseen circumstance.

Cloud-based applications allow for a wide range of access settings. They offer options to share files both internally and externally. For example, you can make a document a read-only attachment, and you can control whether or not a particular document can be downloaded from SharePoint.

Apps within Office 365 (such as Word, Excel, and PowerPoint) also allow for a wide range of access settings, as does SharePoint. Each app offers options for you to share both internally (with others who have Office 365 in your organization) and externally. You can make Word documents read-only attachments and control whether they can be downloaded from SharePoint.

Furthermore, Office 365 and other cloud applications provide additional security features that automatically scan for sensitive data and personally identifiable information. They can also check to ensure that sharing is deliberate. In this way, you can prevent the accidental spread of sensitive information such as donor credit cards and the identities of beneficiaries.