TechFoundation plugs in nonprofits

By Todd Cohen

Nonprofits can go online to learn how to use technology, thanks to a deal between TechFoundation in Cambridge, Mass., and San Jose-based SmartForce.

SmartForce, which says it is the world’s largest e-learning company, is providing 10,000 “seats” for its Web-based information-technology training to TechFoundation, which is developing nonprofit-oriented teaching programs from SmartForce’s curriculum of more than 2,000 courses.

A subscriber, paying an administrative fee of roughly $100, will get access to a password-protected Web site featuring the teaching programs developed by TechFoundation on topics such as local area networks, Microsoft Office and tech planning and budgeting. Each program will offer a “pathway” through a series of related courses.

Subscribers can pursue their Web-based studies at their own pace, taking tests online and using multi-media features such as animation and audio tracks.

The deal is the latest move by TechFoundation, launched in October 2001 to deliver technology, expertise and capital to help nonprofits make more productive use of hardware, software and the Web.

The foundation provides and promotes technology grants, assigns year-long tech experts to nonprofits, offers tech workshops and runs an online marketplace that nonprofits can use to buy hardware, software and tech services at deep discounts.

In addition to adding online training, the foundation aims now to weave together the services it provides.

“We are attempting to build an integrated solution that brings together hardware, software and technology services, with the human expertise and finances needed to create a sustainable approach to information technology at nonprofits,” says David Altshuler, TechFoundation’s executive director.

TechFoundation employs 20 people and has raised $3 million in cash, mainly from individuals, plus more than $2 million in contributions of technology and tech services.

In the fourth quarter of 2001, the foundation awarded its first round of grants, giving a total of $86,000 to 10 nonprofits, mainly in New England, to help them acquire and use database technology. And last spring, the foundation awarded 12 more grants totaling $200,000 to nonprofits throughout the U.S.

Projects funded with that second round of grants, which the foundation expects to match this year with $300,000 worth of contributed hardware, software or services, ranged from developing a voice-mail system for homeless people in Boston to building a network to help 22 battered women’s shelters in Nebraska support their internal operations and provide tech access to their clients.

The foundation, which is raising money for a third round of grants it plans to make this fall, also launched a free monthly newsletter last December that features news about tech grants available from other funders.

In addition to its grant program, the foundation last November hired the first six tech experts for its Geeks for America program, and assigned them to six nonprofits in the Boston area.

The geeks, for example, are working with the Boys & Girls Clubs of Boston to provide safe and secure Web access for youngsters, building kiosks to tie together homeless shelters throughout Massachusetts and serving as the information-technology department for the Media and Technology Charter High School in Boston.

The foundation is preparing to recruit its second class of geeks for the Boston area, and plans to expand the program to three more cities late this year or early in 2003, providing four to 12 geeks per city.

Unlike “circuit riders,” which typically provide tech assistance to a number of nonprofits, each TechFoundation geek is assigned to only one nonprofit to provide full-time assistance.

TechFoundation contributes to the geeks’ salaries, which also are supported by local foundations and the nonprofits to which they are assigned. The Boston Foundation contributed $50,000 to help launch the program.

TechFoundation also has developed a series of TechConnect workshops that feature tech training. More than 750 nonprofits in eight cities have used the workshops, which focus on topics ranging from tech staffing and budgeting to strategic planning for technology and Web-based marketing for nonprofits.

TechFoundation aims to offer the workshops in at least a dozen cities in 2003.

The SmartForce Web-based training is the latest offering in the foundation’s TechMarketplace, which has sold more than $200,000 in discounted products and services from seven vendors, and expects to attract several hundred active customers and sell nearly $1 million in products and services this year, Altshuler says.

The SmartForce deal aims to help meet what TechFoundation has found to be a critical need among nonprofits for tech training. In a survey last spring by TechFoundation and Blackbaud, the software-maker in Charleston, S.C., nonprofit executives ranked tech planning and internal staff training as key needs.

While three out of four executives from more than 340 who responded said technology was vital to meeting their organization’s goals, for example, fewer than three in 10 said they had a written technology plan.

Staff training was ranked as the top tech need, with nearly eight in 10 respondents rating it “very important” or “important.” But fewer than half of respondents said their boards approve training budgets needed for ongoing training and professional development.

TechFoundation aims to integrate its SmartForce training with its TechConnect program.

“With a little help, nonprofits can access the technology and expertise they need to increase their ability to help people,” Altshuler says. “It’s a matter of connecting the dots. TechFoundation’s programs represent our best understanding of how to bring business resources to nonprofits to help nonprofits help themselves and dramatically improve their technological capacity and achieve their missions.”

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