Shared Folders v Shared Drives

What’s the difference between a shared folder in Google and a Shared Drive? What does your nonprofit need to know about shared drives?

Google has made many investments and improvements in its Workspace platform from its early days. While we usually recommend Microsoft 365 to a new nonprofit organization that is starting fresh, both platforms provide more than adequate email, document editing, virtual meeting spaces, and cloud file storage services. A nonprofit organization can do very well with either platform.

If you are already using Google Workspace for Nonprofits, or using a hybrid system where you use Google Drive to share files in addition to any other file sharing, you may be wondering about the new Google Shared Drives vs the older concept of shared folders within Google Drive.

A Little History (and Science!)

The idiosyncrasies of Google’s cloud file storage implementation make it a different file sharing experience from other tools. Google brings to its service design the perspective of a company that began by delivering incredibly efficient search of the Internet’s information. The world’s websites are not organized in a hierarchal index, they are randomly distributed across the Internet – the Internet’s information structure is fundamentally “flat.”

Google figured the same structure could be done with its cloud file storage. Just save the file to the cloud, don’t try to organize it. When someone wants the file in the future, they can simply use Google’s amazing search function to find it. 

There are a lot of advantages to this approach. The Second Law of Thermodynamics assures us that entropy will always increase. Organizing files takes work, and maybe that work isn’t needed. Google imagines a world of people preferring to save files (or emails in Gmail) “wherever” and letting Google’s artificial intelligence algorithms find the files (or emails) for them later.

Shared Folders

This “non-organized” file system that relies on super search mostly works, particularly when you are the only person accessing your own files. That is the original use case Google had in what was originally a consumer-facing product. But there is a big downside to Google’s approach when files are shared in organizations, which almost by definition want their documents organized. Organizations have different levels of access and need of access, as well as various “private” files – whether private to an individual or needing restricted access to a department or group within a department such as HR or Finance.

Google introduced folders onto their original design many years ago, and this helps a lot. Folders can be shared with groups or departments, making it easier to restrict access.

But ownership of files is still the foundation of files in Google folders. This can cause havoc if the owner a) shares somewhere outside the group b) deletes “their” file.

In a folder in Google Drive, a file that you create is owned by you, regardless (almost) of where you save it, even if you save it to a folder owned by someone else and shared with you. It’s true that when you save the file to a shared folder, the file is automatically shared with anyone that the folder is shared with. You might think it belongs to the folder owner, but in fact you still own the file. File ownership is persistent. 

This means that folders can be less helpful than they might appear. A folder hierarchy might start with a folder created by the CFO and shared with the finance department, a subfolder might then be created by an accountant (saved in that CFO’s folder) and shared with a contractor who saves their reimbursement receipts to the folder. It seems like a straightforward folder hierarchy, but in fact there is a complex ownership structure underneath it that can potentially cause problems.

One example we saw recently was a folder created by a marketing director that was shared with a bunch of teenagers receiving services from the organization. The teens were asked to create short videos and save them to the shared folder (which appeared in each of their own Google Drives as “shared with me,” of course). It worked great; the teenagers did good work and the marketing director was pleased with all the videos she could see in her folder. The problem was that six months later, most of the videos were gone. The teens presumably had the free entry-level Google Drive plan and had run out of storage space so they deleted the old files they made months ago. The marketing director lost the work.

Shared Drives

Google’s solution to this challenge is relatively new and is something we strongly recommend to our Google Workspace clients: Google Shared Drives. These are storage buckets (drives) owned by the organization rather than by an individual user. People who have been given access to the Shared Drive have access to all of its contents, but when someone saves a file to the Shared Drive, they are giving ownership of the file (or folder) to the “drive” (that is, to the organization). 

In either scenario, files are still searchable using the awesome power of google search, so your files can be at your fingertips no matter where you save them. The advantage of the Google Shared Drive for nonprofits is that “your” work for a project or a team or a department stays with that project or team or department and remains accessible to the others who need it.

Creating Google Shared Drives doesn’t have to mean a return to a lot of time spent maintaining a complicated organization or hierarchy of files. You won’t be using the file/folder structure to find your files, you will still be using search. So the Shared Drives can be relatively simple; created by a department, a field office, etc.

Moving to Google Shared Drives does require some change management and thoughtful implementation. Particularly, organization staff will need basic training to begin to use the regular old My Drive space only for files that are really owned by them, and not for collaborative files that are better described as owned by a group or team within the organization (whether it be a department or a project team). Staff can and should create and use shared drives for storing any files that are owned by and need to be accessible to a group of people.

Google Shared Drive is an innovation in the Google Workspace suite that makes it valuable to nonprofits.

Ready get strategic about your IT?

We’ve seen real growth in the number of nonprofits using Google Workspace and we are one of the only Managed Service Providers of outsourced IT for nonprofits that confidently manages hybrid or all-Google nonprofit environments at the organizational level.

View our webinar video on Google Workspace where we answer a lot of nonprofit questions about this tool.

Community IT has been serving nonprofits exclusively for twenty years. We offer Managed IT support services for nonprofits that want to outsource all or part of their IT support and hosted services. For a fixed monthly fee, we provide unlimited remote and on-site helpdesk support, proactive network management, and ongoing IT planning from a dedicated team of experts in nonprofit-focused IT. And our clients benefit from our IT Business Managers team who will work with you to strategize your IT investments and technology roadmap, if you don’t have an in-house IT Director.

If you’re ready to gain peace of mind about your IT support, let’s talk.