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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