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We released our report on the 2012 TechSoup Global NGO Cloud Survey in September of 2012 and have now had a few months to ponder the findings and talk to several of you about what you think of them. We thought it would be interesting for us to share our thoughts with you on what we're believe ought to be done about our survey findings.

This is the second installment in a series of explorations on this. Find the first post in this series online. Like the Pew Internet & American Life Project, we believe that over the next decade most people will access software applications online using several different types devices rather than depending primarily on tools and information housed on their individual, personal computers.

Many NGOs Find Cloud Computing Confusing: Why?

TechSoup Global's NGO cloud survey found plenty of contradictions and confusion about cloud computing. We take heart that this is consistent with NTEN's State of the Cloud survey findings, where U.S. nonprofits often didn't know they were already using cloud services. The general public is vague on the subject as well.

According to a recent survey of Americans by Wakefield Research on behalf of TechSoup donor partner Citrix, a majority of Americans respondents thought that cloud computing has something to do with the weather and that stormy weather may in fact interfere with their cloud computing.

We hoped to reduce confusion by defining the term near the start of the survey:

Cloud computing allows you to access software via the Internet instead of from your computer hard drive or your local computer network. When you use cloud-based software, it is available anywhere you can use the Internet — not just in your office.

We also believe that our survey attracted respondents who may already be familiar with some IT, so the confusion among our audience seemed to entail people having better recognition of specific cloud services rather than categories of services. For example, when we asked respondents if they were using a specific cloud-based app (such as Skype), responses were different than when we asked if they used a cloud-based app to perform a function, such as web conferencing.

In a good survey it's useful to ask a particular question from different angles to try and gauge the understanding of the audience. We did that in our survey, so we hope we sorted things out in regard to what cloud services people are actually using.

Cloud Contradictions in the NGO Sector

We did, however find some contradictions in the survey results that remain baffling. Here are some examples: 

  • 62% of global respondents cite cost as an advantage to adopting cloud computing.
  • 49% of respondents cite cost-related issues as a barrier to adoption.
  • 54% of respondents cite better data security as an advantage to cloud computing.
  • 45% of respondents cite data security-related issues as a barrier.
  • 60% of respondents cite lack of knowledge as a barrier to cloud adoption. That's, in fact, the largest barrier to adoption that was identified in the survey.
  • A significant percentage of respondents, (37%) said that lack of knowledge about cloud computing is a motivator to move to the cloud because it offers good training opportunities for organizations.

How to Fix the Confusion

We're not entirely sure whether this means that nonprofits are confused about cloud computing costs and security. They may simply be ambivalent, finding for instance, reports of hacking and service interruptions for major cloud services to be troubling, but also being worried about the security in their own computer systems.

One thing this finding does tell us is that NGOs need good, clear information on cloud service costs, because the new paradigm of paying monthly for cloud services is very different than buying software once and owning it. Total costs of cloud services over time is not a simple calculus, when also trying to factor in whether or not it will save an organization money on IT staffing. Data security is also a very technical subject both for on-premises software and cloud services.

To quote TechSoup Global's Dan Web:

We need solutions that include an ability to ask a question of an expert or another NGO user. We need solutions, like those from AidMatrix, that are for specific types of organizations. We need solutions that address security concerns in language organizations can recognize.

Here are two more things that surprised and puzzled us in our survey.

Medium-Sized Organizations and Those in Lower-GDP Countries Plan to Move Faster

Our survey found that planned cloud adoption timeframes vary by organization size. Medium-sized organizations (between 10-44 full-time staff and volunteers) appear to be moving the quickest to the cloud, and like large organizations, they also seem to be interested in moving their database functions - a crucial part of NGO IT - to cloud CRM platforms.

In addition, one of the most surprising findings from our survey is that NGOs in the lower-per-capita-GDP countries (around $10,000 per year or below), like India, Egypt, South Africa, Bulgaria, and Mexico are planning to move a significant portion of their IT to the cloud faster than higher GDP counties. Indian NGOs plan to move to the cloud most quickly – 66% within two years. Egyptian NGOs are a close second with 61% within two years. The global NGO average is 36%.

This is surprising because the lower-per-capita-GDP countries in our survey reported facing serious obstacles in moving to the cloud. These obstacles include things like unstable electric supplies and also expensive broadband Internet access. The greatest motivators for moving to the cloud among lower-per-capita-GDP respondents were things like easier set-up and good training.

We suspect that medium-sized organizations occupy a middle ground where they are somewhat more likely to have dedicated, knowledgeable IT staff than smaller organizations, which tend to rely more on "accidental techies." Respondents at large organizations (with 45 or more full-time staff) tend to have more systems in place, more data to secure, and more steps in their decision-making processes, which likely contributes to their slower timeframe for adoption. Large organizations may have less need to adopt cloud services because they have already invested heavily in their own infrastructure.

Medium-sized organizations appear to be something of a sweet spot regarding NGO cloud adoption, not having invested extensively in their own infrastructure. We don't really know why, but it is useful to observe that they consistently report in as early adopters among NGOs around the world.

We are even more speculative regarding the fast adoption plans of NGOs in lower-per-capita-GDP countries. We suspect our respondents in those countries may be something of an NGO technology elite. Lots of NGOs in places like India don't yet even have broadband or adequate IT equipment and we conducted our survey via the Internet using the online service, FluidSurveys.

We do have a working hypothesis that NGOs in lower-per-capita-GDP countries may be leapfrogging IT; in much the same way as people in those countries adopted mobile phones much faster than older landline telephone technology. They may be well aware of the possibility of not having to bother with building server-client local area networks in favor of a more agile cloud-based IT infrastructure for their offices. In any case, we are very interested in serving NGOs and their crucially important work in developing countries.

To quote TechSoup Global's co-CEO, Marnie Webb:

We still have significant externalities that an impact organization's ability to take advantage of technology. We need to be supporting the good work that people like Inveneo are doing to help make those externalities - no reliable power! no Internet! - a thing of the past. But that support needs to be there, in equal measure, for those organizations who can connect but, for whatever reasons, have not yet done so.

Low Cost and Free Cloud Tools for Nonprofits

One final thought is on the cost of cloud services, which is one of the large and contradictory issues of cloud computing for NGOs. Nonprofit Tech 2.0 recently published an astonishing list of 85 Low-Cost or Free Web-Based Tools for Nonprofits. It is a roster of cloud tools that help nonprofits, NGOs, and libraries increase communication capacity for social media. That area of the cloud is certainly a low-cost, low-risk area of entry to try out cloud computing on smartphones, tablets, and conventional PCs. One good thing is that such cloud tools are accessible in most places in the world where there is Internet.

We'll continue our exploration of our 2012 TechSoup Global NGO Cloud Survey results over the next several weeks. We welcome your thoughts in the comments below!