Those of you that have anything to do with the Methodist Church of NZ may have seen in the March eMessenger an article encouraging parishes to use Microsoft Office 365 for free instead paying for Microsoft Office. “Free” is always an attractive price-point for churches and other charities, so let’s look at this offer a bit more closely.

This is not a Methodist specific offer. Microsoft has a global philanthropic program where they donate licences to their own products to qualified charities around the world, administered by a global charity called TechSoup Global. The criteria for eligibility is “Non-profit and non-governmental organizations that are recognized as charitable organizations in their respective countries. Eligible organizations must also operate on a not-for-profit basis and have a mission to benefit the local community […]”. Microsoft has an Eligibility webpage with detailed explanation of eligibility criteria and links to country specific eligibility criteria.

Because the licencing is essentially a donation from Microsoft, there are some conditions attached. Firstly, the donated software must be used to further the charitable purpose of the done organisation and cannot be primarily for personal use. Reasonable ancillary use is accepted, but organisations should endeavour to ensure that the software doesn’t become a volunteer’s primary [personal] e-mail address, for example. Microsoft has a specific guideline on whether volunteer’s are eligible for Nonprofit licences; the volunteer is accountable for specific activities and results, the volunteer’s role is year-round on-going (or seasonal recurring annually) and the volunteer will not use the software for activities related to personal gain. Use by employee’s should be governed by a “reasonable use” policy. Secondly, I understand that as a donated item, charities should be recording the full commercial value of the software as a “donation in-kind”. (If there is someone reading this who can clarify this, I’d appreciate hearing from you.)

So what can one get for free? In the context of Office 365 services, the answer is 2 specific plans, “Nonprofit Business Essentials” and “Nonprofit E1”. The equivalent commercial versions of these plans are currently worth $9.00 per user per month and $11.90 per user per month (plus GST), so the magnitude of the donation is quite significant. The 2 plans are functionally quite similar – the “Business” plans have limitations in the number of users, migration options and some back-of-house functions that make it more suitable for smaller organisations.

The key components included in each license are as follows;

  • Email service with 50GB mailbox, calendar and contacts
  • OneDrive file-sharing with 1TB storage (which means capability to access anywhere from any device)
  • Unlimited online meetings with HD video, web-conferencing and messaging
  • Organisation Intranet (Sharepoint)
  • Team workspace and collaboration tools (Teams)

So, if you are at all familiar with traditional Office, you will be wondering where Word, Excel, PowerPoint and Publisher have gone. Well, they are there – sort of. The free plans only include the Online version of these applications. There is nothing wrong with this – while you wouldn’t want to write your thesis paper with the online versions, they are quite capable, though a little different in some usability respects. But, at the risk of some over-simplification, you may need to be online while you edit. To my mind, ideally you would want your main computer to have Desktop Office program versions installed and just use the online versions for a quick review or last minute tweaks when you are away from your computer.

In the final analysis, the Desktop Office programs are also available through Microsoft’s non-profit program, heavily discounted compared to commercial pricing, but not free. They are available either as a DVD that you can install, or as a different Office365 plan (probably the Nonprofit E3 plan for most) where a monthly per user fee gives access to the desktop versions as well as the online. This decision can be made on a user by user basis – licence plans can generally be mixed and matched to match individual requirements. For example, you can have one user on E1 with no desktop office, another on E1 with desktop office from another source and another on E3 with desktop office available from the cloud. Almost all software products are transitioning to cloud based licenses, so I suspect it is only a matter of time before this becomes the only option available.

As always, happy to address any questions you may have. Contact me at or via the editor. This article is published at (and all the links are clickable there?).


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Author - Peter Lane

Peter Lane is Principal Consultant at System Design & Communication Services and has over 30-years’ experience with Technology systems.  We invite your questions, suggestions and ideas for articles.  These can be submitted either through the editor or by email to  We also operate a website focused on building a community of people who are interested in improving the way we can use technology located at

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