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$25M boot-up – Franchising Seattle model

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By Todd Cohen

Microsoft Corp. will contribute $25 million over the next five years to help launch local nonprofit initiatives to provide technology assistance to nonprofits in up to 12 U.S. cities.

Selected cities will receive funding, software and startup assistance to create independent franchises of NPower, a Microsoft-funded Seattle nonprofit that offers tech help to nonprofit groups in the Puget Sound area.

Each new local NPower group – which can be either a new nonprofit or a program of an existing group – will receive $100,000 to $250,000 a year for three years. Microsoft is investing $10 million in cash and $15 million in software in the initiative.

While receiving dollars and technology from Microsoft and using the NPower name and logo, each local group will be expected to find local funders to match Microsoft’s support, and to tailor its programs to meet local needs.

That approach reflects the startup of NPower, which was designed to meet the tech needs of Seattle nonprofits and received support from Microsoft and a handful of other local foundations and corporations.

NPower will continue to deliver local tech help in Seattle while providing technical support to help boot up and sustain NPower groups in other cities.

Together, local NPower groups also will team up in an ongoing network designed to help each local group learn from and support the work of the others.

Dallas and New York are expected to be the first cities that will get local NPower franchises.

The Dallas group will be a program of the Center for Nonprofit Management in Dallas.

The New York group is being led by the Robin Hood Foundation and Chase Manhattan.

Other cities that have voiced interest in the initiative include Atlanta; Austin; Baltimore; Boston; Cleveland; Denver; Detroit; Houston; Los Angeles; Miami; Minneapolis/St. Paul; Philadelphia; Portland, Ore; San Antonio; San Diego; and St. Louis.

NPower, which opened in March 1999, is a membership group that offers low-cost consulting and training to Seattle-area nonprofits.

In its first 12 months, the group enrolled more than 200 local members, delivered 2,500 hours of consulting, trained more than 1,000 nonprofit staffers and matched 400 volunteers with nonprofits.

By comparison, NPower had expected to enlist only 80 members, provide 400 hours of consulting services and train 600 nonprofit staffers.

NPower also had projected that fees would cover 30 percent of its costs. In the first year, fees actually covered half the group’s costs.

“We have a really solid business model,” says Jennifer Bright, NPower’s director of national outreach.

Any group interested in creating a local NPower organization in its city should contact Bright, she says.

Using tools provided by NPower, the local group would assess its community’s need for tech assistance and then prepare a business plan that would be reviewed jointly by NPower and Microsoft. All cities will be selected within three years.

“The services need to be driven by the need in the community,” Bright says. “We really want that to evolve out of the local community.”

Seattle-based NPower grew out of a study by Jane Meseck Yeager, Microsoft’s program manager for community affairs, who found that nonprofits receiving free software from Microsoft typically were not prepared to put it to productive use.

NPower, says Meseck Yeager – who serves on the nonprofit’s board — presents a key link in efforts to plug the gap between those with access to technology and those without access.

While the so-called “digital divide” focuses on poor people, nonprofits that serve poor people generally lack access to technology as well, she says, so delivering technology to nonprofits helps strengthen the communities they serve.

“Strong nonprofits,” she says, “are needed to serve communities in the digital divide.”

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