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By Todd Cohen

United Way of New York City wanted to help the Community Food Resource Center revamp its database so the agency could better identify people eligible for food stamps.

So United Way, which over four years has spent $1.7 million to help nonprofits better use technology, turned to NPower NY.

The Community Food Resource Center this summer is launching the new database, which United Way is giving to five other community groups, along with training from NPower NY.

NPower NY has “increased our own understanding of technological needs and technology challenges that nonprofits face,” says Stephanie Copelin, United Way’s director of targeted needs.

Backed by Microsoft, Accenture and other funders, the nonprofit organization is part of a national NPower network that grew out of a Seattle group launched three years ago to help local nonprofits better use hardware, software and the web.

The NPower network itself is part of a broader movement to deliver tech help to nonprofits. After initially targeting basic operating needs, some local tech groups are expanding to help nonprofits use technology to shape their strategies and programs.

Modeled on tech-assistance groups like the IT Resource Center in Chicago and CompuMentor in San Francisco that were launched in the 1980s, NPower quickly has built a federation of local affiliates that serve nine cities or states, with more in the works.

“They’ve done a very good job at the first level of thinking about technology strategically,” says Tim Mills-Groninger, associate executive director at the IT Resource Center. “Time will tell about their full impact on taking technology much deeper into organizations as a critical agency resource.”

The NPower network served more than 1,285 nonprofits in 2002, up from 179 nonprofits that Seattle’s NPower served in 1999.

Spearheaded by Microsoft, which agreed to contribute $15 million in cash and $10 million in software, the network now includes Arizona, Atlanta, Colorado, Indiana, Michigan, New York City Seattle and Portland, Ore.

Los Angeles, Charlotte, N.C., and probably Technology Works for Good in Washington, D.C., will join the network this year or in 2004, and a foundation in Alaska is considering funding an affiliate there.

Microsoft will continue to support the NPower network and likely will extend its support for the first 12 local NPowers beyond the first three years, says Jane Meseck, community affairs manager at Microsoft.

The network also has teamed up with the SBC Foundation in San Antonio and with Living Cities, a consortium of funders that support community development corporations, to provide tech help to nonprofits in targeted geographic regions or fields of interest.

The SBC Foundation has contracted with NPower to help boost the tech “capacity” of small nonprofits in the 13 states that SBC Communications serves.

While offering a range of services, local NPowers mainly provide nonprofits with basic tech planning and support, helping them see how technology can advance their mission, identifying the hardware and software they need, and training them to use it.

Microsoft provides support over three years to each local NPower, which sets its own focus and raises its own money.

NPower NY offers different packages of network, database and web services, ranging from “basic” and “moderate” to “advanced” and “emergency,” says Alison Marano, senior manager of administration and finance.

The most popular service for the organization, which in 2002 served more than 250 nonprofits, is “scheduled” support delivered to a nonprofit client every few weeks, Marano says.

Each NPower charges clients on a sliding scale based on their annual budgets, and gives some free assistance to clients and other community groups.

At NPower NY, fees range from $70 for a four-hour class and $55 for an hour of scheduled consulting for nonprofits with annual budgets under $500,000, for example, to $120 for a class and $105 for an hour of consulting for nonprofits with annual budgets over $10 million.

While many New York nonprofits need basic tech support, others want to use technology strategically to support their mission, says Barbara Chang, executive director.

“As nonprofits get more sophisticated in their use of technology, we have to adapt to meet those needs,” she says. “They need us for more of a vision for where they’re going as an organization.”

NPower NY wants to strengthen its expertise to better advise nonprofits on how to use technology to improve business processes and redesign their organizations, she says.

To help do that, NPower NY has created a network of “preferred providers” it can work with to deliver tech consulting and services.

Other tech-assistance groups that were models for NPower also are expanding their focus.

Launched in 1987 to match volunteer tech experts with nonprofits that needed their help, mainly in the Bay Area, CompuMentor now also distributes donated hardware and software to nonprofits throughout the U.S., and operates the TechSoup web site to help nonprofits find and use technology and tech services.

CompuMentor, which has provided consulting services to more than 2,600 nonprofits and served more than 120,000 nonprofits through TechSoup, has grown quickly in recent years, says Mark Liu, director of program development, evaluation and research.

In the past year alone, the value of donated products it distributes has at least tripled, to $75 million, on an annualized basis, he says.

CompuMentor joined the NPower network in October 2001, but ended its affiliation in April because both groups “wanted to have a relationship that would allow us to work together better in a national way,” Liu says.

CompuMentor plans to work more closely with national groups to target segments of the nonprofit world, such as community tech and health centers, he says.

In Chicago, the IT Resource Center continues to focus on serving local nonprofits, but aims to deepen its role, says Mills-Groninger.

Founded in 1984, the group now is working to help nonprofits develop strategies to pay for technology and use it to solve business problems and train and keep staff.

It also is working with foundations to help them increase their impact by delivering tech help to nonprofits they fund.

And it is helping to establish and strengthen 25 Cook County community technology centers, and aims to help them offer to neighborhood residents the tech training it provides to nonprofits.

A big challenge for the IT Resource Center, NPower and other tech-assistance groups, says Mills-Groninger, is to better market the range of services they offer and help nonprofits understand they can use technology to shape their operations, programs, staff and business strategy.

“We’re addressing that paradox of ensuring that technology is integral to everything an organization does by becoming transparent,” he says. “Technology has its biggest impact when it’s used but not noticed.”

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