A click away – One-stop tech shop branching out

By Todd Cohen

SEATTLE – A Seattle group aims to cut tech costs dramatically for nonprofits – and make it easier for them to measure how effectively they are using technology.

And with an expected push by Microsoft, one-stop tech service centers for nonprofits quickly could sprout in communities throughout the U.S.

NPower, a nonprofit that provides tech help to nonprofits in the Puget Sound area, is spearheading the effort to create the one-stop tech shop.

Launched last March by Microsoft and other Seattle funders, NPower now wants to expand its services by offering nonprofits the same kind of “subscription-based computing” already available to small and mid-sized businesses.

Subscription-based computing lets organizations lease rather than buy the tech tools they need, along with the support needed to operate that technology.

By leasing technology rather than buying it, and by sharing costs with other subscribers, nonprofits should be able to lower their costs by 40 percent to 60 percent, says Joan Fanning, NPower’s executive director.       

The subscription service would be available through NPower, possibly in partnership with other nonprofit and commercial tech providers, and would feature a broad range of software, hardware, telecommunications and technical support.

Services could range from management of internal networks and hosting of email and accounting systems to operation of client-tracking and human resources systems.

NPower, in turn, would offer subscriptions to nonprofits throughout the U.S. through its tech-assistance counterparts in other communities.

“Nonprofits can have access to mission-critical tech tools without needing to absorb the total cost individually,” says Fanning. “Basically they share costs with a lot of other organizations, and that’s what brings the cost down and increases access.”

NPower is completing a five-year business plan for the subscription initiative, including a one-year pilot project. The effort won’t begin until funding is secured for at least five years, Fanning says.

“We will take seriously our commitment to running software tools on which nonprofits depend,” she said. “And we will make sure we’re in a position to do that well for at least five years before we roll out the service offerings.”

Major funders and tech companies are expected to support the initiative, she says, both with grants and technology.

“Our intention is to offer no-cost or low-cost services, so we’re expecting the bulk of services will be subsidized by the funding community,” she says. “Essentially, this is an effort to provide incubation services for the nonprofit sector overall.”

The idea, she says, is to help nonprofits clear their biggest tech hurdle – the cost of hardware, software, maintenance and staffing – so they have a chance to truly integrate technology into their operations and see its impact.

The combination of philanthropic support and low subscription costs also will give nonprofits a chance over the long term to begin to build tech costs into their budgets.

Another critical challenge for nonprofits will be evaluating technology’s impact on their operations and services, Fanning says. But many nonprofits don’t measure their tech use, she says, because they don’t know how, or believe they can’t afford to or simply don’t think about it.

To help nonprofits evaluate their tech use, NPower is teaming up with InnoNet, a Washington, D.C., nonprofit that offers free online tools to help nonprofits create and evaluate programs, budgeting and fundraising.

NPower and InnoNet are opening a joint office in Seattle offering tech help and evaluation. The move is a first step toward a closer relationship between the two groups.

NPower’s twin moves toward subscription-based computing and wedding tech support and evaluation have big implications.

NPower was created a year ago by Microsoft and other Seattle-area funders to provide tech help to local nonprofits – and to be a model that other communities could use to set up their own nonprofit tech assistance groups.

Microsoft is supporting Technology Works, a new tech provider in Washington, D.C., and is likely to back a similar group in Dallas as part of a broad effort to franchise the NPower model in communities throughout the U.S.

“Our plan is to develop community-based, community-designed nonprofit technology assistance programs and centers nationwide,” says Jane Meseck Yeager, an NPower board member and Microsoft’s program manager for community affairs.

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