Is Microsoft Office 365 Right for 501c3 Nonprofits?

A low-cost cloud solution. It’s an attractive concept, and one Microsoft has been working overtime to promote in the form of their Office 365 services.
It’s a smart business move on their part: historically, Microsoft’s revenue has been tied directly to their product upgrade cycles—what better way to supplement the stream than by
creating a cloud offering that provides a steady, recurring cash flow?
Besides being a game-changer for Microsoft’s own operations, it’s a solid product overall; in the spirit of old clichés turned new, nobody ever got fired for buying Microsoft.
When it comes down to it, though, does mass appeal mean that Office 365 is a wise choice for 501c3 nonprofits in particular? For your organization specifically?
As a cloud provider, a Microsoft partner, and a firm that currently serves multiple clients with various Office 365 packages, we’re no stranger to the draw of the solution and all of the questions surrounding it. As an organization that has been serving the DC nonprofit community for over two decades, we’re also no stranger to what makes a good technology solution for that sector.
To help you assess whether or not this solution will fit your nonprofit’s needs, we’ll break down what Microsoft’s Office 365 solution consists of, and what factors might (or might not) make it the right solution for you.

What is Office 365? 

Office 365 encompasses a number of different Microsoft services, some of which are cloud-based and some of which are not. These services come in a number of different combinations depending upon which specific package you select.
The key elements are as follows:

  • Hosted Exchange email
  • Full Office licensing for up to 5 workstations
  • Full Office experience on up to 5 mobile devices
  • Online versions of Office
  • OneDrive file storage and sharing
  • SharePoint collaboration tool
  • Lync instant & video messaging
  • Yammer corporate social network
  • Team sites

The variable that most directly impacts package pricing is Office application licensing: lower-level packages will include the “online versions” of Word, Excel, and PowerPoint (think Google Docs), while the highest-level packages will include full licensed installation of Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Outlook, Publisher, and OneNote on multiple workstations.

What makes Office 365 a good fit for 501c3 nonprofits?

Academic and charity pricing for Office 365 is impossible to ignore.
Microsoft is very quickly becoming the market leader for hosted email services, and 501c3 organizations can oftentimes get Exchange services via Office 365 for no cost whatsoever.
Not only that, but with the right eligibility, nonprofits can get an all-inclusive package for as low as $2 per user per month. This is especially appealing when it comes to the Microsoft Office applications we’ve all come to depend on; purchasing this licensing through an Office 365 bundle can provide sizeable cost savings when compared to upgrading your software on a 3-year cycle.
(Note: As an alternative, 501c3s can also secure very low-cost Office licensing through Microsoft’s charity program, or through

What makes Office 365 not a good fit for 501c3 nonprofits?

While your organization probably does not rely on document management quite as heavily as, say, a law firm would, having a functional file sharing strategy in place is still critical to your operations. With Office 365, this strategy is a bit convoluted. Take a look at this guide and you’ll see what I mean—there are multiple moving pieces in play for document storage and sharing, and the risk of confusion and improper storage is incredibly high.
This means that you’ll likely need to invest in another solution to give you that strategy, whether it takes the form of storing documents on a file server with your own file naming conventions, or using a separate software solution.
What’s more, if your organization is approaching Office 365 as a comprehensive cloud solution, there’s a fair bit left to be desired; while you’ll get some mobility from the online versions of Office, your organization will still need its own machines, and may very well still need on-site servers for any donor management or fundraising software. The biggest drawback here is that you won’t be able to avoid the large capital expense of upgrade projects.
Through our partnership with organizations that use these services, too, we’ve personally experienced frustrations with Office 365 support, which tends to not be terribly responsive. As a rather telling example, we’ve seen it take an entire year to fully implement Office 365 for a global 501c3 organization due to the slowness of Microsoft’s support.
All told, then, organizations with less intensive technology and support needs may find both significant cost savings and sufficient functionality in an Office 365 solution.
But if you were hoping to abandon your existing infrastructure in favor of Microsoft’s cloud, you’ll need to investigate some alternative solutions.