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Wired for change – ‘Reluctant technologist’

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By Todd Cohen

Michael Gilbert’s passion is helping nonprofits do a better job. To do that, he studies nonprofits as organisms and then looks for ways to use technology to build on their natural strengths and way of doing business.

That’s not surprising. The Swedish-born Gilbert, who grew up in Austria, Berlin and Los Angeles, was trained as a biologist, has tinkered with computers since high school in the mid-1970s and spent the last 20 years as a nonprofit consultant.

And while he calls himself a “reluctant technologist,” he has emerged as a national leader in efforts to help nonprofits make more productive use of computers and the Web.

Based in Seattle, Gilbert operates a cluster of virtual organizations that function as an incubator of products and services for nonprofits.

His group includes the Gilbert Center, Internet Nonprofit Center and Nonprofit Online News – all nonprofits – as well as Social Ecology, a company that designs software and Web-based communications systems.

And Gilbert recently was elected the first head of the board of directors of the Nonprofit Technology Enterprise Network, a newly formed nonprofit that aims to support individuals and organizations providing tech assistance to nonprofits.

Gilbert approaches nonprofits as organisms that are part of larger ecosystems – and he uses technology to help nonprofits cultivate and manage relationships and knowledge, both internally and externally.

That “systems-design” strategy has led Social Ecology to join a growing industry of “application service providers,” or ASP’s, that lease Web-based products and services to nonprofits.

Building on its own Web-based systems that distribute email and manage internal data, Social Ecology’s newest product is designed to help nonprofits manage online relationships with donors.

The product, DonorLink IT, integrates donor databases and email, letting nonprofit fundraisers send and receive email, and track and search their online correspondence with donors.

Nonprofits also can integrate their online correspondence with their own databases containing information about donors.

Social Ecology has teamed up with a handful of firms – including Charitableway.com in San Carlos, Calif., and San Francisco-based Entango — that process online donations for nonprofits.

Under the collaborative arrangements, data on donations processed through the Web-based systems of its partners automatically are fed into DonorLink so that Social Ecology’s nonprofit clients can track donor activity.

“Email is the most powerful relationship-building tool,” Gilbert says. “It’s personal. It arrives in your email box. It invites a response. It’s right there.”

Yet databases that manage donor data stem from the era of desktops, before the explosion of the Internet, Gilbert says.

“They were designed as tracking tools and not necessarily as relationship-building tools.”
A big challenge for the nonprofit world is to help fundraisers and other nonprofit professionals “apply the skills they already know to the world of the Internet,” he says.

“The opportunity the Internet gives us,” he says, “is the opportunity to carry one-to-one relationship-building to a whole new scale.”

Despite his focus on technology, however, Gilbert says the future of philanthropy depends on the passion of people involved in nonprofit work.

“That passion,” he says, “will bring insight and commitment that a  capital- or tech-driven company will never achieve.”

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