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My interview with Bob Lynn, the technology manager at the Omaha, Nebraska branch of Habitat for Humanity, is a lesson in the advantages of remote work tools. We are both at home, speaking over the phone and recording our conversation on ReadyTalk. I am taking notes on OneNote, where the notes can be automatically updated, edited, and viewed by my colleagues in the office.
Habitat for Humanity has been working to serve the nearly 100 million homeless and 2 billion people living in slum housing around the world since 1976. Habitat builds or renovates simple, decent houses for low-income families who pay for the houses over time with zero percent interest.
Habitat for Humanity of Omaha has partnered with more than 993 local families since 1984, and has doubled in size twice since Bob Lynn joined the team in 2008. This amazing success would not have been possible without TechSoup.
When Bob arrived, Habitat was using two different phone systems and outdated technologies, resulting in constant "busy" signals when families called. The organization's ineffective software and hardware had also slowed operations to a crawl.
For an organization with more than 80 employees and volunteers, Bob also needed tools to help people work outside of the office. With people constantly out of the office attending conferences, building houses, or taking care of kids during snow or sick days, Habitat needed tools that were as flexible as the lives of its employees and still allowed them to accomplish the mission.
Bob, a self-taught techie, went to TechSoup searching for a solution. He found it in hardware from the Cisco donation program, the Microsoft donation program, and Microsoft Office 365 Nonprofit.
Habitat uses both Office 365 Nonprofit and Microsoft Office. Its staff members began using Office 365 last year, and have already benefited from the cloud-based office productivity suite's collaboration features. For example, Excel Online allows multiple users to update a spreadsheet simultaneously. Bob calls this feature "one of the best advantages of Office 365" and notes that it makes collaboration "much more dynamic."
Another of the "really cool tools" Habitat uses is Microsoft OneNote, which is available both through the latest version of Microsoft Office and Office 365. This note-taking software helps users capture, organize, and share information across an organization. As Bob said, "It is amazing how flexible it can make a remote meeting. We will create a meeting notes folder, so there is one notes folder and everyone has access to the same thing. You don't have everyone furiously taking notes at the same time, but one person can take notes, and everyone can go back and contribute or add or edit whatever they need to do."
Habitat also uses Lync, Microsoft's all-in-one communications tool, for conferencing and remote meetings. Bob appreciates that Lync allows staff members to share their desktops with him, so he can see what's happening on their computers. Bob, laughing, told me, "Nobody knows! They can just share their desktop with me, and I can go in there and help with things, and nobody knows if I'm in the next room or sitting at home."
Habitat also benefited from consolidating its phone systems and replacing them with a Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) system. The VoIP system eliminated the constant busy signals.
The VoIP system also helps Bob and other Habitat staff members stay connected wherever they go: "I have two work phones that are paired, and I can use one plugged into any Internet connection. Normally I have it at home, but I am currently working from Denver for the week and brought the phone with me. I can provide a phone like that for any of our associates that need to work remotely."
Because they are dependent on Internet connectivity, both VoIP phone service and Office 365 require a robust and stable network. Habitat relies on hardware from the Cisco donation program — including routers, switches, and wireless access points — to keep its network up and running.
So how does all of this affect the mission?
As Bob explains, first there are the savings through TechSoup's discounts: "I venture to say we have saved tens of thousands of dollars through the TechSoup program. Cisco routers alone probably saved $20,000."
Not only did Habitat save money by acquiring technology through TechSoup, but also, Bob calculates that improved efficiency has saved the organization hundreds of thousands of dollars:
"It makes a real impact. That's like two homes, two property taxes paid to the city. …If we hadn't found TechSoup, we would still be stuck with old, outdated technology, we wouldn't have been able to experience the growth we've had. …We aren't waiting on busy signals all the time or on faulty hardware. Plus there are a couple of hundred thousand dollars we have saved as well."
Most important of all is the impact that Habitat makes on families and whole communities. Bob often gets to help build houses with the families who will soon inhabit them. Seeing the look of excitement on the faces of parents and kids helping build their future home, and "…to hear them express their appreciation for the new homes, it is just amazing. It keeps me going and that's why I keep coming back year after year."
Remote work is not always the sexiest of subjects. But the right technology can make any nonprofit's job easier by allowing employees and volunteers to still work on accomplishing the mission when circumstances mean they can't be in the office physically.
Remote work tools mean you can work from anywhere and still be productive, making a nonprofit's job faster and more efficient, which makes the people it serves a whole lot happier.
Habitat for Humanity of Omaha was the first-place winner in TechSoup's January 2015 Remote Work Success Stories contest.
This post was written by Wesley White, New Sector Alliance RISE Fellow at TechSoup.
Images: Habitat for Humanity of Omaha