TechSoup@PND

Through an arrangement with TechSoup, PND is pleased to offer a series of articles about the effective use of technology by nonprofits.

Web Conferencing Tools: Right for You?

Even if your nonprofit is headquartered in a single location, your employees, volunteers, and funders may be scattered across the country — or possibly the world. And while your organization likely uses email or telephone for the majority of its long-distance communication, sometimes a full-blown meeting is the only way to hammer out the details of an important initiative.

Rather than stretching your tight budget to fly out key project team members for an in-person meeting, you might consider using a Web conferencing service, which lets anyone with an Internet connection and a Web browser meet and collaborate online in real time.

In general, Web conferencing tools work in the same way. The person initiating the conference sets up a new meeting in the tool and then invites participants to join by sending them an email containing the meeting's time, date, password, URL, and login instructions. Some conferencing tools require participants to install a piece of software on their own computers before they can participate, though others are entirely Web-based. All require an Internet connection.

The tools diverge primarily in the features they provide for collaboration and communication. For instance, some let participants speak to one another through their computers' microphones while others let everyone interact via video.

To help you choose a service that suits your nonprofit, we've pointed out features commonly found in Web conferencing products and explained other considerations you should be aware of. If you're curious as to how various commercial and free Web conferencing services stack up, download the comparison chart below, which compares the features of the following ten products:

  • Adobe Acrobat ConnectPro
  • DimDim
  • GoToWebinar (donations available to eligible organizations at TechSoup)
  • IBM Lotus Live
  • Microsoft Office Live Meetings
  • ReadyTalk (donations available to eligible organizations at TechSoup)
  • Cisco Webex Meeting
  • Yugma Pro
  • YuuGuu
  • Zoho Meeting

Installation and Setup

  • Required Software
    As previously mentioned, certain Web conferencing services require that the meeting initiator — and in some cases the attendees — install a software program or browser plug-in. If you decide on a service that requires such software, you'll need to make sure before your first meeting that the appropriate parties are willing to install the application and understand how to do so. Also, you should check to make sure that meeting initiators and attendees are running an operating system that's compatible with the software.
  • Integrated Invitation Features
    Many Web conferencing services provide features that interface with Microsoft's ubiquitous Outlook email application. If your organization plans to hold regular or recurring meetings with a large number of attendees, choosing a service that adds the meeting's details to participants' Outlook calendars can help ease the planning process. For added convenience, some Web conferencing tools also let you schedule or join meetings from directly within Outlook.

Collaboration Features

  • Screen-Sharing Capabilities
    One of the most common collaborative features found in Web conferencing services is the ability to share resources on one computer with the entire group. While the majority of Web conferencing tools will let the presenter show attendees' his or her desktop or certain documents, others go one step further by sharing chosen applications in a full-screen view or by allowing the presenter to highlight a specific portion of his or her screen.
  • Multiple Presenters
    Since meetings frequently include staff members and volunteers who have expertise in different areas of a project or an initiative, the initiator may want to hand off presentation duties to someone else. If your organization needs to run meetings this way, look for a conferencing service that allows for multiple participants to assume presentation duties.
  • Drawing and Annotation Tools
    In the course of presenting a document or a Web page to your colleagues, you might need to underscore certain points or note ideas generated during the discussion. To this end, many Web conferencing services provide annotation tools — such as pencils, pens, and virtual sticky notes — similar to those found in popular graphic-design applications.
  • Whiteboard
    If your organization routinely uses dry-erase whiteboards to capture notes and thoughts when holding in-person meetings, you may want to look for a Web conferencing service with a virtual equivalent. A whiteboard gives meeting participants a dedicated space for brainstorming ideas or outlining projects, a potentially useful feature when you're bringing people together to collaborate rather than simply presenting information.

Communication Features

  • Text Chat
    Instant-messaging (IM) is a rapid form of text communication that can often be more efficient than sending email back and forth. Just about all Web conferencing services offer a built-in text-chat tool that participants can use to communicate with specific attendees or the entire group, eliminating the need for attendees to install or use a third-party IM client.
  • Teleconferencing
    Just because you've moved your meetings to the Internet doesn't mean that you have to abandon traditional conference calling. Most Web conferencing products include some form of voice-calling feature, allowing you to talk to fellow participants while the meeting is in progress. While some services include a free teleconferencing option, others charge to use this feature; in either case, your organization will need to foot the bill for any long-distance fees it accrues. Also, if your nonprofit already uses a third-party teleconferencing provider, you may want to check whether it can be integrated with online meeting tools.
  • VoIP
    Besides teleconferencing, some online-meeting services also offer audio communication in the form of Voice-over-Internet-Protocol (VoIP), a technology that allows users to make telephone calls over the Web. Generally speaking, VoIP offers cheaper calling rates than teleconferencing services, though the quality of the calls is often not as good. Note that in order to use a VoIP application, all callers will need to purchase headsets that can be connected to their computers.
  • Videoconferencing
    If you need your online meetings to closely resemble an in-person gathering, consider a service that offers a videoconferencing feature. Videoconferencing lets participants with webcams — small, inexpensive cameras that send images over the Internet — to broadcast a video image of themselves into the online meeting. While videoconferencing can help lend an immediate feel to web-based meetings, many services that offer this feature will also charge your organization a fee to use them.

Other Considerations

  • Recording
    One advantage that many Web conferencing services have over in-person meetings is the ability to record entire meetings (including audio) as a video file. This way, if meeting attendees forget important points or need to reference presentations at a later date, they can simply view the recording rather than contact other participants with questions. Some services allow meeting initiators to store recordings on their local machines, while others host the files on their own site, a point to consider if your nonprofit's computers are short on hard-drive space.
  • Subscription Versus Pay-Per-Use Plans
    How often your organization plans to hold online meetings is a key factor in deciding whether you should select a service with a subscription model or one that charges you on a per-meeting basis. If you just need to hold occasional, small meetings, a pay-per-use plan — which generally costs around 30 cents a minute per participant — might be the most economical choice. On the other hand, nonprofits that need to hold larger weekly meetings may find it cheaper to subscribe to a service that charges a flat monthly (or yearly) fee for a set number of participants. If you do decide that a subscription makes the most sense for your organization, check to see whether the service locks you into a contract, and make sure you're comfortable with the terms.

Web Conferencing Comparison Chart

Now that you're familiar with the range of features offered by web conferencing services, you probably want to know which services offer which tools. To help you narrow down your choices, the downloadable spreadsheet below compares major features found in 10 popular web conferencing services.

Download the Excel chart: Web-Conferencing Software Comparison Chart (29 KB XLS)

Copyright � 2010 CompuMentor. This work is published under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 License.