U.S./world – Peer to peer – Building a network

By Todd Cohen

David Rynick is booting up the Massachusetts nonprofit he heads.

A year ago, although he believed technology was “changing the way we need to think about what we do and how we do it,” Rynick also recognized that his organization had not thought systematically about building technology into its ongoing planning and operations.

So last fall, he enrolled in a pilot program to equip executive directors to help their nonprofits embrace technology, and in the process become stronger organizations.

“We’ve created a different culture around technology,” says Rynick, executive director of Worcester-based Dynamy, which provides after-school and residential programs for low-income high school students.

Rynick is one of 20 executive directors at nonprofits in Worcester and nearby Springfield who took part in Strategic Technology, the pilot leadership-development program.

Offered by Summit Collaborative, a consulting firm in Amherst, Mass., the “peer-learning” program is rooted in the idea that teaming executive directors with one another – and helping them plug into their own staffs — can give them the confidence and support they need to be their organizations’ tech leaders.

The program, which Summit is expanding to other U.S. communities, includes sessions at which executive directors learn about the importance of technology and tech planning, and learn to lean on and support one another.

It also requires that they create technology teams and strategic tech plans at their own nonprofits.

The goal is to help nonprofits make technology second-nature to their operations, and also to change the way they themselves work by involving the entire staff in tech planning and decision-making.

“This program is about building nonprofit power and improving effectiveness, with technology planning and thinking and learning built into it,” says Marc Osten, the consulting firm’s founder and principal. “It pays to collaborate. It pays to sit down with other nonprofits and other peers and spend time to do some work together.”

Ann T. Lisi, executive director of the $90 million-asset Greater Worcester Community Foundation, says the program has helped change how her organization thinks about and uses technology.

“I was a reluctant participant,” says Lisi, who enrolled in the pilot training program after her foundation helped fund it. “I thought tech planning was about upgrading your computers and getting on the Internet. We had done all those things.”

But because the program helped her better understand the role that technology could play in her organization, she says, she found she could foster a “culture where we all can use technology and not be afraid of it.”

What’s more, she says, she concluded that everyone on her 11-member staff has “a role to play in the decisions about technology and the use of technology, and that is just a good management awareness for me to have in other things.”

Rynick of Dynamy says the program helped him expand the discussion about technology “just from me and the board of directors to everyone in the organization.”

Now, he says, “it’s not just a matter of buying machines but how we do what we do.”

Dynamy, for example, has integrated technology into its $700,000 annual budget, which now includes separate line items for hardware, tech support and training.

The nonprofit, which employs 12 people, also has a three-year plan for capital spending on technology.

And it plans to use email and its Web site more effectively to recruit students for its year-long residential program, and to communicate with students, prospective students and their parents.

Another participant in the pilot program was Patsy Lewis, executive director of the Worcester Community Action Council.

Based on a strategic tech plan it created as part of the project, the anti-poverty agency has hired a systems administrator and begun to use email to communicate with board members and send them meeting agendas and minutes.

“We’ve got a lot of catching up to do,” say Lewis, who adds that the nine-member tech team she created as part of her training continues to operate.

“I don’t think we can think about any aspect of the organization now without thinking about technology,” she says.

This fall, Summit Collaborative is teaming up with Technology Works for Good, a nonprofit tech assistance group in Washington, D.C., to offer the training program to local nonprofits.

John Zoltner, director of communications and strategic alliances for Tech Works, says he hopes the training program will help create a network in which nonprofit leaders in the area continue to talk to one another and work together on tech projects.

“We want to make nonprofit executive directors feel secure that they have the skills necessary to talk about technology and make decisions about it, so they’re not being led on by for-profit solution providers or in-house tech staff,” he says.

“We believe they’ll get a lot more out of discussing it with executive directors of similar size organizations than they would in a classroom where we were just discussing it with them.”

Osten of Summit Collaborative says he plans to work with local partners to offer the training program next year in up to 10 other communities.

He also is seeking national and local matching funds to continue to develop the curriculum and tailor it to local needs, and to support ongoing collaboration among local participants.

In Worcester, for example, the 10 profits that took part in the pilot project have launched a joint effort to train two staff members from each organization who in turn will train other members of their staffs.

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