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 MARYPHONE!!”

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 MARYPHONE!!”

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

There is one response to this post.

By Google Voice for Nonprofits [TechMatch] » Blazing Moon | Best-Phone on September 14, 2010 at 7:42 pm

[…] Read more here: Google Voice for Non­prof­its [Tech­Match] » Blaz­ing Moon […]

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