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In the Cloud, Small Nonprofits Find the Sky’s the Limit

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Shanita Hill, a mental health coordinator at BronxConnect, spent years painstakingly transferring handwritten notes on her dozens of clients onto paper forms after returning to her desk. The nonprofit, located in a borough of New York City, works tirelessly to keep young people out of jail and eliminate barriers to success. The conversations Hill has with her young clients are personal and cover a lot of ground, all aimed at getting them support services and vital resources to prevent gun violence and incarceration.

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When BronxConnect recently migrated to a cloud-based CRM system, Microsoft’s Dynamics 365, Hill saw the benefits of improved efficiency and industry-leading cybersecurity. “Instead of calling three people to get an update on a client, I can now type in a person’s name to see what they’ve done, other case notes, and progress through a program,” says Hill. “This technology gives me more time to sit with individuals and assess their needs.”

The nonprofit’s cloud technology changed their work in other meaningful ways, such as providing case managers secure, remote access to birth certificates, social security cards or resumes. BronxConnect’s small staff had wanted to break the tethers to their desks and be mobile, meeting their clients where they were – whether a neighborhood park, a church, or a courtroom.

“Whether we’re in the office, on a mobile device, or working from home, we now have all the documentation needed to provide quality service,” says case manager Sekou Shakur. “We’re always connected so can access other coworkers, resources, and departments to get the job done.”

That ability for cloud technology to enable seamless connection, and provide even more outreach, is important to Michael “Love” Rodriguez who worked his way up in the organization to become an outreach worker supervisor. The 18 years he spent in prison serve as an opportunity to connect with young people who are risk of entering, or have already been involved in, the criminal justice system. “They don’t feel alone,” Rodriguez says of the young people he works with. “They know there’s somebody out there who cares.”

Like BronxConnect, most nonprofits, no matter where they are located, are small. An estimated 80% have fewer than 10 full-time staff. Microsoft Cloud technology uniquely meets the needs of small organizations by providing them with the capabilities they need to collaborate, store information, and manage critical processes - with very little IT overhead.

“Most nonprofits are constrained in the amount they can invest in tech which makes sustainable models of corporate philanthropy that much more important,” says Erik Arnold, Chief Technology Officer at Microsoft’s Tech for Social Impact, and a former CIO at a global NGO focused on public health. “As a company, we are evolving beyond traditional a private donation model to combining technology services and support, helping nonprofits create a tech intensity and capacity building that supports their missions long-term.”

Like real clouds, cloud technology can take many shapes. For some nonprofits, it may power productivity software or business processes through solutions like Microsoft 365, Teams and Dynamics 365. Nonprofits may use a cloud database like Azure, taking advantage of our $3,500 grants, to derive intelligence and gain insights that inform program delivery. Through the Microsoft Cloud for Nonprofit, they can drive deeper donor engagement and efficient fundraising through solutions like Fundraising and Engagement, which is key for so many nonprofits today.

“Whether it’s our Modern Work, Azure or Dynamics 365 donations or grants, by providing nonprofits this broad spectrum of cloud first services, we’re able to keep them secure, keep them modern, make them productive and drive more of an impact,” says Justin Spelhaug, Vice President and Head of Microsoft’s Tech for Social Impact.

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In 2019, the American Council of the Blind (ACB) recognized the urgency of their IT problems. Their on-premises servers were crashing nearly every day, disrupting staff’s work and their members’ ability to access programs and advocacy information. Across 68 state chapters and affiliate organizations, the ACB, with a full-time staff of 13 people, works to increase the independence and quality of life of people who are blind or visually impaired.

In addition to going down frequently, ACB’s servers were experiencing corruption and data loss issues; a frightening prospect to an organization with more than 20 years of institutional records stored. ACB chose to modernize its infrastructure, completing its migration to Azure in June, 2020. Members could instantaneously and securely access content ranging from updates on advocacy efforts, to music performed by artists who are blind, to cooking shows and more.

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With the COVID-19 pandemic having forced ACB’s 2020 and 2021 annual conference to be online, ACB launched major promotional efforts driving traffic to their website and participants at the convention. ACB aggregated all media channels – radio streams, podcasts, videos, blogs and more – with the Azure-hosted network serving as the backbone. The outcome has been a success, especially with the rapid move in May, 2021, to get all content onto in just a matter of weeks. “It’s pretty remarkable that we got all of that done so quickly, and no question, Azure enabled that,” says Rick Morin, ACB Media’s Technical Director.

Virtual attendees to the 2021 conference viewed the website 30,000 times during the one week conference in July, with 166 breakout sessions offered. Thanks to the nimble technology, they were quickly made available as downloadable podcast segments. “The server stayed lightning fast,” says Eric Bridges, Executive Director of the American Council of the Blind. “It’s costing us literally half of what we were paying previously, but we are getting four to five times the value in performance.”

For Bridges and ACB, the technology journey will allow the organization to reach even more blind and visually impaired people, and thus effect more change. “These tools have worked beautifully,” says Bridges. “There’s a big blue ocean out of there of folks to communicate with and tell them of our good work and get them engaged.”

For its part, BronxConnect will continue to build out the pool of data in its Dynamics 365 platform to identify trends, extract statistics and expand its services. The power of Microsoft’s cloud means more impact. “I don’t call our kids high-risk. I call them high-potential, low-resources,” says Rev. Wendy Calderon-Payne, executive director of BronxConnect. “This work is about love, action, and redemption. You never know the ripple effect of what you are doing.”

This content was paid for and created by Microsoft.

The editorial staff of The Chronicle had no role in its preparation.

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