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Email systems are the lifeblood of non-profit organizations. You use them to solicit donations, make announcements, alert the public to special events, or rouse constituents to action. And one of the most critical decisions you make is whether to own your own or subscribe to a hosting service from a third-party email provider.

As with most owning-versus-outsourcing questions, what you decide typically comes down to cost versus control. Although it costs more to buy your own email system, maintain it on an email server, and support users – who are increasingly mobile and increasingly demanding – you also have much more control over issues of security, privacy, and performance. On the other hand, many vendors are offering hosted email providers are not only cost effective, but increasingly robust and secure. As with many other mission-critical applications hosted solutions are seen as quite viable alternatives to having the resources in house.

“It depends on the organization, its size and internal staffing capabilities,” says Beth Kantor, an independent nonprofit technology consultant and blogger based in Boston. “A larger organization probably has sufficient resources to manage the service, support users, and put the necessary security measures in place, whereas smaller nonprofits without even a single full-time IT person, might benefit from hosted applications.”

Some of the decision points that arise when determining whether to host or buy include the following:

Managing spam
At this point, as much as 80 percent of all email sent is spam. When you’re using a hosted email provider, much of this will be invisible to you, as it will be filtered out by your provider. Indeed, spam filtering is viewed as one of the most important aspects of a hosted email service. Although there are certainly spam filtering tools that an in-house email administrator can use to achieve the same degree of effectiveness, an important thing to keep in mind is that when you own the email server, the spam still comes into the organization – and you have to have the processing power, network bandwidth, and storage capacity to deal with it. As one of the hidden costs of managing your own email system, spam is often the make-or-break decision point of whether to go hosted or not, according to Kantor.

Avoiding getting on email “blacklists”
One of the worst things that can happen to a nonprofit is to get on an email blacklist, or the list of email addresses that a company or Internet Service Provider (ISP) will not accept messages from. Although intended to block spam, it is not uncommon for legitimate non-profits that routinely send out mass mailings to get onto blacklists. And once you get on, it can be very difficult to get your email domain name cleared.

A number of things get you blacklisted — and most of them involve not having sufficient internal resources to effectively manage email. For example, some blacklists are triggered by an unusually high number of “bounced” emails from addresses that are no longer valid. If you’re not manually combing through and deleting invalid names from your database before you do a mass mailing, you could get caught in that trap. Not acting promptly if people ask to be removed from your mailing list can also cause you to be blacklisted – and responding to such requests can be very time consuming. “In a worst-case scenario, all your email could be blocked from being delivered,” says Robert Weiner, president of Robert L. Weiner Consulting, in San Francisco. “For this reason, non-profits without adequate internal resources often turn to hosted solutions.”

Backing up
Anyone who has ever had a system crash knows the pain of losing data. And for many reasons, email represents one of the more catastrophic data losses. Many people track their daily tasks, interactions with others, or even manage projects using their email. Many keep their primary information about professional and personal contacts in their email address books. To lose any or all of this can feel catastrophic.

The good news about backing up when you own your email system is that you’re in control: you control all backup procedures; you own the server; you know where your data is at all times. The bad news is, again, that you’re in control, and – like other email administration tasks – making sure backups are taking place regularly and safely is your total responsibility. It takes time and attention to put the right backup mechanisms in place, and, most importantly, test regularly to make sure they work as expected. Many nonprofits like hosted solutions precisely because they can feel confident that their emails and address books will be safely backed up. Of course, it’s critical that you choose your hosting provider carefully – if it doesn’t do regular and complete backups, then you would be much better off doing it yourself.

Protecting email privacy
One little understood fact about most hosted email providers is that, if subpoenaed, they will hand over your emails and address information with very little resistance. “Whereas if you get subpoenaed directly, you might well refuse to comply, but instead fight it,” says Weiner. “For most organizations this wouldn’t come up, but for some nonprofits, this would be a very big deal.”

As with so many aspects of operations in the non-profit sector, cost and the availability of internal personnel resources are often the deciding factors in choosing between an in-house email system and a hosted solution. Although larger non-profits choose to manage their own email systems on their own email server, hosted applications are increasingly the route taken by smaller non-profits on tight budgets.

“If you need to have the technology staff to properly manage it, having your email system in-house is a perfectly reasonable solution. Not trivial, but reasonable,” says Weiner. “If you don’t have that staff and expertise, you should be looking at a hosted solution.” Last modified on Sunday, 19 May 2013
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