Google Voice for Nonprofits

Google Voice Icon

Google Voice for Non­prof­its” isn’t a new Google offer­ing intend­ed for non­prof­it orga­ni­za­tions. It’s a ques­tion.

Is Google Voice right for non­prof­its?

As with any worth­while ques­tion, the answer is “it depends”: on the organization’s size, its cul­ture, its work needs, and plen­ty of oth­er things. This arti­cle takes a look at some issues to weigh in con­sid­er­ing Google Voice for pro­fes­sion­al use.

Who this arti­cle is for.

Peo­ple won­der­ing what Google Voice is.

Peo­ple won­der­ing whether and how to use it for busi­ness.

What to expect.

A light overview of the ser­vice.

Some frowny faces: why it might not be right for you.

Some smi­ley faces: why it might.

Links to oth­er sites that can help you decide.

What is Google Voice?

First and fore­most: Google Voice is pret­ty awe­some.

You can get a great overview from a series of bite-sized videos from Google. Voice is a phone ser­vice from Google that gives you, among oth­er things:

  • free, unlim­it­ed call­ing with­in the U.S.
  • inex­pen­sive inter­na­tion­al call­ing
  • inte­gra­tion with Gmail, let­ting you make and receive calls from with­in the Gmail appli­ca­tion
  • voice­mail acces­si­ble from your phone or your brows­er
  • a voice­mail tran­scrip­tion ser­vice that—despite all the jokes about its quality—is real­ly very cool
  • greet­ings you can per­son­al­ize for groups of callers or even indi­vid­ual callers
  • one num­ber that can ring mul­ti­ple phones at the same time
Google Voice options screen

Google Voice options screen

The idea of using Google Voice can be mighty appeal­ing to a cash-strapped non­prof­it or small busi­ness. There’s been no short­age of peo­ple who are advo­cat­ing for busi­ness use of Voice, and they make some great points.

But years (yikes… make that decades) of geek­ery have left me a Skep­ti­cal Enthu­si­ast. When con­front­ed with shiny things, things I want to want, I can’t help but ask: what’s the catch, and what’s the match?

What’s the Catch?

Free things are a life­line for small and mid-sized non­prof­its. So giv­en the prospect of free phone ser­vice, what’s not to like?

Unfor­tu­nate­ly, a few things.

Support for a shared number

Google Voice is no replace­ment for an actu­al phone sys­tem / PBX, and it doesn’t want to be (or at least not yet—see below for the future).

I take that back. You can put peo­ple on hold and trans­fer them, but it sounds like this: “Hold on a minute. HEY MARY! PHONE!!”

If six peo­ple work at your non­prof­it and some­one calls your Voice num­ber, the num­ber can ring some or all of their phones at once, which is a great start. But peo­ple can’t have their own exten­sions with­in the main num­ber, and there’s no way to put some­one on hold and trans­fer them to anoth­er phone.

Well, I take that back. You can put peo­ple on hold and trans­fer them, but it sounds like this: “Hold on a minute. HEY MARY! PHONE!!”

You can place callers into pre­de­fined groups for auto­mat­ic rout­ing, but it’s a sim­ple rout­ing table: callers in a giv­en group get rout­ed to a spe­cif­ic phone num­ber (or list of phone num­bers).

Getting a new phone number

You can set up Google Voice to use an exist­ing num­ber, but in doing so you lose a lot of the ben­e­fits that make Voice appeal­ing. Still, if you’re inter­est­ed in this option, you can learn more about the trade-offs in the Google Voice Get­ting Start­ed Guide.

Assum­ing you want all the fea­tures Voice has to offer, you need to begin by pick­ing a new num­ber from the set that Google owns. That means updat­ing all your let­ter­head, newslet­ters, phone list­ings, busi­ness cards, email foot­ers…

A very old-fashioned telephone

Look­ing for an excuse to ditch that old phone num­ber?

Image cred­it: qousqous

Regional phone number shortages

That leads us to the next prob­lem: Voice might not have num­bers in your local call­ing area. It’s impres­sive how wide­ly they’re avail­able, but in some areas—including some major met­ro­pol­i­tan areas—you’re out of luck. As of today: Chica­go, yes; Seat­tle, not so much.

In this case you might be able to get a phone num­ber in the same area code, but not in the same local call­ing area. That means two things:

  1. Peo­ple who call you might need to pay “local long dis­tance” charges, which are small but poten­tial­ly annoy­ing.
  2. Maybe more prob­lem­at­ic, peo­ple will like­ly need to dial your area code when they call you—and if it’s the same as their own area code, they almost cer­tain­ly won’t think to do that. If they for­get to include your area code either they’ll get a mes­sage remind­ing them to dial it, or they’ll just think your work num­ber doesn’t… well, work.

So far Google isn’t announc­ing when new num­bers will be avail­able, so if you vis­it the Google Voice help forum and ask, you’re almost guar­an­teed to get this advice: just keep check­ing for new num­bers, dai­ly if pos­si­ble.

Technical glitches

This is more of a nui­sance than a deal-break­er, but there are lit­tle quirks. For exam­ple:

  • Rou­tine­ly I hear brief echos of my voice scat­tered through a call. My callers don’t seem to notice, but hear­ing my own voice on a time delay is a lit­tle dis­tract­ing, even if it’s only an occa­sion­al syl­la­ble or two.
  • Occa­sion­al­ly the call doesn’t dis­con­nect cor­rect­ly at the end, leav­ing the line open.
  • Infre­quent­ly a call won’t go through and I’ll have to try again.
  • There have been com­plaints about incon­sis­tent call qual­i­ty and vol­ume lev­els, though I haven’t per­son­al­ly had sig­nif­i­cant prob­lems with that.

No on-demand support

Google doesn’t cur­rent­ly offer direct sup­port if you have a prob­lem with your line. And real­ly, why would they (and how could we expect them to) for a free ser­vice?

There’s a Google Voice help forum, but that’s not the same as hav­ing some­one on call to trou­bleshoot your par­tic­u­lar prob­lem right when you have it.

Man on phone with comically distorted face

I guess if some­thing goes wrong you could always call this guy.

Image cred­it: Bob Goyetche

Where’s the Match?

Google Voice is a sweet match for per­son­al use, and it can be a good match for cer­tain non­prof­its too. But for me to con­sid­er rec­om­mend­ing it, the non­prof­it would need to be:

  1. Small (per­haps a cou­ple of peo­ple work­ing at the same time).
  2. In an area that has local num­bers avail­able.
  3. Ok with the idea of los­ing their old phone num­ber.
  4. Slight­ly geeky—at least enough to be excit­ed about using new, evolv­ing, and not-yet-entire­ly-sta­ble tech­nol­o­gy.
  5. Tol­er­ant of tech­ni­cal glitch­es.

And non­prof­its are using it, whether as their pri­ma­ry busi­ness num­bers, or sup­ple­men­tal­ly through staff using their per­son­al Voice accounts for work pur­pos­es.

Here’s a great exam­ple of a sit­u­a­tion that makes it worth con­sid­er­ing voice, keep­ing in mind the above con­di­tions:

I work with a non-prof­it com­pa­ny that’s hav­ing a lead­er­ship change. Cur­rent­ly our phone num­ber is the Exec­u­tive Director’s cell phone. He is leav­ing. We were con­sid­er­ing set­ting up a Google Voice num­ber so that we could have a num­ber for the com­pa­ny that nev­er changes. We could sim­ply reas­sign the Google Voice num­ber to ring the new Exec Direc­tors home/office/cell. This would be good in case there is an acci­dent, or he/she goes on vaca­tion and anoth­er man­ag­er or board mem­ber can take over the phone num­ber.”

Even using a per­son­al Voice account can help sim­ply by mak­ing you more effi­cient, mak­ing it eas­i­er for you to jug­gle all your home and work voice­mail and text mes­sages.

If you think Voice might be a good match for you, either as a pri­ma­ry busi­ness num­ber or a sup­ple­men­tal one, please take a few min­utes to read through these oth­er peo­ples’ advice:

What’s in the future?

Old joke.

Patient: Doc­tor, it hurts when I do this.
Doc­tor: Then don’t do that.

Which is to say: if you use it in a way it wasn’t meant for, don’t be sur­prised if it’s uncom­fort­able.

In its present form, Google Voice isn’t a gen­er­al match for busi­ness. That doesn’t both­er me since it’s not sup­posed to be a gen­er­al match for busi­ness. Right now Voice is in a con­sumer incar­na­tion. In fact, at first it was offi­cial­ly Not Ok to use Google Voice for busi­ness, though they’ve okayed it now.

But there’s a big dif­fer­ence between Google say­ing, “We don’t mind if you use this con­sumer-focused appli­ca­tion for busi­ness pur­pos­es” and say­ing “This is a busi­ness-focused appli­ca­tion”. It’s not. It’s an awe­some per­son­al tool with some busi­ness appli­ca­tions for cer­tain busi­ness­es in cer­tain sit­u­a­tions.

How­ev­er, expect to see bet­ter busi­ness sup­port soon.

Google’s been eager­ly pur­su­ing the Enter­prise mar­ket with its Google Apps suite, and it announced in Feb­ru­ary that it plans to roll out an enter­prise ver­sion of Google Voice this year.

That’ll be good for non­prof­its since it’ll be bet­ter able to han­dle their needs. Whether it’ll be good for non­prof­its’ pre­car­i­ous bal­ance sheets remains to be seen. The price is like­ly to be com­pet­i­tive, though.

And already today, at least one PBX ven­dor has updat­ed their sys­tem to incor­po­rate Google Voice ser­vices. Oth­ers are like­ly to will fol­low.

Yea or Nay?

For now, I con­sid­er Google Voice a great tool for per­son­al use (assum­ing you can get a local phone num­ber), and a rea­son­able tool for busi­ness use if you’re the right kind of non­prof­it.

Am I miss­ing some­thing? Have you had great expe­ri­ences with Google Voice as a non­prof­it busi­ness tool? Or less-than-great expe­ri­ences?

If so I’d be hap­py to hear your com­ment.

Post image cred­it: Tem­pest

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