By Todd Cohen
Launched in 1987 as a modest effort to convert members of a local online community known as The Well into volunteer tech consultants for nonprofits, San Francisco-based CompuMentor has emerged as the nonprofit sector’s main hub for tech products, services, support and information.
“They really are the central exchange for nonprofit technology,” says Vince Stehle, program officer for nonprofit sector support at the Surdna Foundation in New York City. “They have the products, they have the information, they have the relationships to deliver that.”
Now, with $750,000 from Surdna, the latest in a series of grants from the $600 million-asset foundation and the biggest it ever has made through its nonprofit-sector program, CompuMentor aims to expand the collaborative network that has fueled its growth.
Its strategy is to increase its distribution of donated and discounted technology and tech know-how by teaming up with other tech groups, expanding its online tech portal at techsoup.org, and targeting nonprofits in specific regions and fields of interest.
“We have tried to respond to needs in a changing environment,” says Daniel Ben-Horin, a former journalist and CompuMentor’s founder and president. “We don’t have all the pieces, but we would like to put together over three to four years a program that builds capacity nationwide, including players not currently in the picture.”
CompuMentor, with a staff of 80 people and an annual budget of nearly $10 million, aims to finance its plans by raising $12.2 million over the next four years in addition to earned revenue.
The new grant from Surdna, which had given CompuMentor $630,000 over the past four years, is the first donation resulting from a plan that Ben-Horin pitched last January to representatives of 30 funders who convened in person and by teleconference and phone.
“The scale of this thing has grown exponentially,” says Stehle. “It’s beyond our wildest dreams.”
CompuMentor was launched in 1987 with a $2,500 grant from a now-defunct family foundation in nearby Oakland.
Three years later, CompuMentor hired an underemployed jazz avant-garde saxophonist to drive a truck to collect free software discarded by local firms, and distribute it to nonprofits.
Teaming up with Microsoft in 1995, CompuMentor expanded that software donation program and, with the Surdna grants, launched TechSoup in 2000, which spawned an online product-donation site known as DiscounTech in February 2002.
This year, DiscounTech received one of four $100,000 grand prizes in the inaugural nonprofit national business plan competition, created by the Yale School of Management and The Goldman Sachs Foundation in New York City, that attracted 655 entries.
CompuMentor’s business has grown rapidly, with TechSoup averaging 72,500 unique monthly visitors this year, nearly 13 times its traffic three years ago, while subscribers to TechSoup’s e-newsletter have grown by nearly half in the past year to more than 34,000.
The retail value of donations through DiscounTech this year will total an estimated $150 million. Microsoft products account for 86 percent of the total, which also includes contributions from Macromedia, Symantec, Intuit and Cisco.
CompuMentor estimates that, as a result of its planned expansion, the value of products it will have channeled to nonprofits by 2007 could total $1 billion.
Stehle says a key attraction of CompuMentor for software makers is the fact that their donations are delivered to nonprofits through a web site that includes information and resources to help them learn how to use technology
And a key attraction for Surdna, he says, was CompuMentor’s commitment to work in partnership with other organizations and to function as a kind of online co-operative.
“They really run TechSoup as a venue through which anybody who has got a useful point of view, an important piece of information, a valuable product, can represent it at TechSoup,” he says. “It’s a service for the field, and everything on it comes from the field and then is reflected back out to the field.”