Four tried-and-true, free tools that simplify the administrative work behind managing cross-sector partnerships well. Take advantage of this technology to make collaboration just a little easier.

The Collective Impact #ToolBox is a series of blogs featuring simple, practical tools that members of cross-sector partnerships can use to support their day to day work.

Managing a network of partners often comes with both technical and adaptive challenges to address. Cross-sector partnerships seeking to tackle complex problems must be willing to change the way they work together to get their intended results. They have to align very different institutions behind a shared result, agree to hold each other accountable to outcomes and data-based decision making, reconcile their unique organizational cultures and agendas, etc. Despite these often challenging adjustments, the seemingly simple things–like sharing documents, scheduling meetings, and managing action items–can also derail progress and cause frustrating inefficiencies. Easy-to-use, intuitive processes and tools that facilitate the partnership’s ability to collaborate more effectively make-up the essential infrastructure that facilitates more complex problem solving.

Here are four free tools that can bolster your partnership’s ability to truly work collaboratively, allowing more of your time and energy to be dedicated to addressing the bigger, complex challenges along the way.

1. Google Drive and Google Docs

There are multiple, free places to store your files online for easy sharing and access. Services like DropBox and OneDrive are both secure and relatively easy to use. Google Drive has the added benefit of seamless integration with Google Docs–which are excellent for allowing multiple people to work on documents simultaneously from multiple devices and locations. Shared folders allow everyone in the partnership to see the latest versions of the documents saved within at all times, and cuts out the otherwise cumbersome process of emailing multiple versions of the same documents over time. Google Forms allow you to gather input and feedback from stakeholders that automatically populate into those shared folders and Google Sheets. Additionally, applications are available for both desktops and mobile devices that make it easy to view, edit and save any document from anywhere with internet access, without having to go through your browser. The ability to save and open files from your desktop in much the same way you would in “my documents” adds a really important level of accessibility that encourages more frequent use and more seamless collaboration. Although one possible downside is that some corporate or government technology systems have firewalls that make it impossible to use Google Drive or Docs on their systems, most people have or are able to get a free Gmail account and access the files through their personal internet and devices.

All the Google Drive Offerings

Google Drive offers a variety of collaborative features through Google Drive.

2. Trello and Asana

Managing multiple streams of action items and tasks with a small team can be challenging enough. Add in the dynamics at play when trying to manage complex, interconnected strategies being executed by multiple partners across multiple sectors, and it can often feel unmanageable. To keep partners in the loop, traditional spreadsheets and project management software often require you to send out a new version every time you update your work. Or, they require expensive sharing contracts and lack modern features. Trello and Asana are both excellent, web-based project management tools with matching mobile applications that allow you to set-up task lists, attach relevant documents, assign tasks to team members, and set-up email reminders for due dates. Additionally, anyone can update the task lists, add notes, or mark tasks as completed at anytime, alleviating the need for one person to tightly monitor progress at the individual task level. Trello is particularly unique in its simplicity and ease of use. Asana allows for more complexity through the ability to create dependent tasks and sub-tasks. Both are excellent examples of free technology that can make remote project management just a little bit easier.

A screenshot of the Trello project management tool.

Trello offers a way to coordinate and manage tasks across projects and teams.

3. Doodle

Anyone who has tried to schedule meetings with multiple dedicated-but-busy people knows how time consuming it can be. Scheduling just one meeting can be a cumbersome and distracting process. Scheduling have have you going back and forth multiple times trying to compare schedules for availability, track down responses from various people, and so forth. Doodle is a free platform that vastly simplifies the scheduling process. It allows you to quickly and easily create a poll with as many potential dates and times as you like. Then, you can email out the link to the poll so that participants can enter their availability. Doodle alerts you when participants enter their information and displays the responses in a simple, color-coded chart that allows you to identify the times that work for all or most participants in one glance. Scheduling will always be a challenge when you are trying to coordinate with a bunch of busy people, but tool saves so much time and energy and again, it is FREE!

A screenshot of the Doodle scheduling tool

Use the Doodle scheduling tool to coordinate multiple calendars.

4. FollowUpThen

Despite my task lists, spreadsheets and carefully managed calendar, I still used to carry around stress as I worried I would forget to follow-up with someone, respond to a call or email, or drop some small-but-important task. I discovered FollowUpThen and I have been changed ever since. This tool allows you to set-up a free account using one or all of your email addresses. Once established, you can CC or BCC almost any date/time with @followupthen.com to your emails and you will receive an automatic reminder to follow-up. For example, if someone emails me asking a question that I need to research, but I want to avoid forgetting, I can forward the email to tomorrow@followupthen.com. The next day, the email will resurface as a new email at the top of my inbox so I don’t forget.

A screenshot of the FollowUpThen email and task management tool.

FollowUpThen will send you an email to remind you of a task at an appointed time.

This service also allows you to modify the settings so that you only receive a reminder if the person you are emailing doesn’t reply, receive notifications as text messages, or schedule recurring follow-up and task reminders. Getting in the habit of just adding 1week@followupthen.com to the BCC line of every email I send that requires a response allows me to put it out of my head and stress less. Once an email is sent, FollowUpThen ensures that you will be reminded when the time is right. This peace of mind is invaluable when managing a network of many people and organizations.

These are just a few of the useful, free tools out there in an ever changing technology landscape. What free apps and tools are your favorite? Share ideas in the comment section of this blog, or email them to bdebarros@livingcities.org.