From time to time, clients ask me about changing over to Google Apps to control the email at their domain. This enables you to take advantage of the vast storage space that Google offers as part of its nonprofit program.
For many nonprofits, it’s a great option, because so many of us are familiar with using Gmail, and Google offers great tools for Gmail users. It also means that you can separate your organization’s email from your hosted website (so that if there are problems with one, it doesn’t affect the other).
The technical steps to move your domain’s email to Google Apps are fast, straightforward and well-documented. What’s harder — and what clients ask me about — is how to help your nonprofit’s staff change how they handle their email every day. For a transition like this to go well, there’s no way around you: you have to anticipate what is specifically going to change for each individual user. You also have to also assume that plenty of people don’t understand the details of how they retrieve their mail, and so need to be asked highly specific questions.
If you are the person who is managing a change in email hosting for your organization, here are my highly-detailed steps for how to approach a change like this to minimize headaches, email disruptions, and angry colleagues. If you are not this person, this is waa–aay more detail than you will ever need.

At least a month before switching to Google Apps email

You’ll need to create a Google Apps account (using the Google for Nonprofit account you created before) and have that fully configured to include domain-based email.
Login to your current email host and look for every email address currently in use at your domain. You’re going to need to know:
  1. Which real person checks that email address.
  2. How this person accesses the account. Do they download their mail, or do they view it right at the server (mail.yourdomainname.com) using a browser?
  3. If they haven’t been downloading their email using a program like Outlook or Thunderbird, do you need to migrate their past emails for them? Or are they willing to let go of all their old messages?
  4. What devices do they use to check email?
  5. Do they understand the timing of the transition? (More on this below.)
Your chart will look something like:
Email Real Name Software Devices Need to migrate old messages? OK’d Date?
Kathleen Kathleen Outlook Desktop, Iphone No Yes
News Jane Thunderbird Desktop Yes Yes
Choose two possible weekends when the changeover to happen. Start with weekends when your organization does not have a big event going on immediately before or after, and you are not planning on a high-volume of email traffic for any other reason. It should also be a weekend when you don’t mind working for a couple of hours on a Saturday.

Three weeks in advance

Talk to each user and ask them about the timing of the transition and how they access email now. Fill in that chart above.
Here are examples of questions to ask and details to explain:
“We’re migrating our mail server on this date: DATE (Friday-Monday) and the changeover can lead to some delays in mail delivery. Is this a weekend you’re planning to send or receive a lot of email, or sending any time-sensitive email?”
“Switching to Google Apps will make it easier to deal with your email, but that it means you may have to learn new things. Users that are using the mail-based systems at our server like Horde or Roundcube will experience the most disruption. These users will have to re-create their address books, their email signatures and if you have any saved message templates, you will have to recreate them in Gmail. How familiar are you with the Gmail interface?”
Ask them the questions to fill in your chart (don’t show them the chart, just ask them questions). You can also let them know, for example, that you’ll be changing all the passwords so that they’re secure, and they won’t be able to access email till they get the new password from you.
Let Outlook users know that as long as you have access to their computer with Outlook installed on it, they can continue to use Outlook for their email. They may want to consider changing to the Gmail interface, but it’s not required.
Anyone who *only* looks at mail using their web browser and a program like Horde or Roundcube will be most affected. They need to let you know so you can follow-up with them. The way they access mail will completely change — they will have to use the Gmail interface or a program like Thunderbird.
Anyone who checks on their phones/via home computers can ask for your assistance to update their devices. They should tell you *now* where else they check their work email (for example, their phone or home computer) that will require updating so that you can plan your time.
Also, if they want to adjust their email address (for example, to use just their first name), they need to let you know so that you can add it to your to-do list for this transition. You can set up the old address as a forward to the new one.
You’ll also need to find out how many of them want to get help setting up the Gmail interface.

Two weeks before you switch email hosts

By two weeks before the change you should have confirmed a specific weekend to change over. Set aside time on the Friday evening, the Saturday, and a little extra time on the Monday of the transition weekend for any needed troubleshooting. With good prep, there should be not too many problems, but fairly often, there’s something that needs tweaking.
For staff who check their email using browsers, confirm that either you will need to download all their email or it will be gone forever starting the Friday of the transition weekend. They will also need to know that the mail interface will look different. These will be your highest-maintenance accounts to change. Set aside 90 minutes per person for migrating mail and training.
You can set up your domain-based email accounts in Google Apps anytime you wish, including any new aliases or migrating any existing aliases. You can do this setup at anytime, since before the DNS records are updated, it has no effect in the real world. Assume about five minutes per email account for setup. Remember that you’ll need to set a unique password for each email address.

The week before you migrate to Google Apps email

By the Monday *before* the transition weekend, make sure you have a handle on all these details. If you don’t know what’s happening with every single email address and every single user, you’ll have to either get it all in order that day, or reschedule the transition weekend.
For any email accounts that are storing mail on your current server, set up Thunderbird or Outlook during the week and have the software download existing messages. Set it to “leave on the server” and let it check email manually. This way, it will create an archive over the course of the week and keep checking the old server until the previous server is no longer available. That will become their email archive.
This is also when you want to set up your user training sessions for staff who need them. There are lots of great tutorials on the web for using Gmail.

When it’s time to migrate to Google Apps email

When it’s time to set up the records that will change the mail settings, that info is at:
This part really does take only a few minutes, and is best done on a Friday evening to minimize disruption to your coworkers. During the first 48 hours of the transition, mail may get delayed. Plus, if you have updated people’s email passwords, they won’t have access to email until you update each and every computer and phone that checks email. Do this on Saturday morning, since it will take you time to hit all the workstations. Send test messages to addresses and confirm them yourself before telling users that mail checking is working.

The first workday after the change

Even if people have watched instructional videos, they may need some help configuring their new email settings. And inevitably, it will turn out that someone didn’t tell you that they also check their email on their home computer, and needs help getting that set up. This first day it’s important for people to have their questions answered quickly, so they don’t associate the new email setup with frustration.

Luckily, you don’t have to do this very often

With a little preparation for human error and by being attentive to what behaviors users are going to have to change, you can make this process go well for your staff… so that they’re less alarmed the next time you do it!