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Change at Groundspring.org

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By Todd Cohen

The executive director and chief technical officer at Groundspring.org have resigned in a disagreement with the San Francisco-based Tides family of organizations about the technology nonprofit’s relationship with Tides.

But Groundspring.org, which provides technology to small and medium-sized nonprofits, will continue its efforts to expand from helping nonprofits raise money to helping them make better use of email and the web to involve people in their work, the nonprofit’s president said.

“We’re very committed to the strategic plan we have in place,” said Drummond Pike, founder and president of all five Tides’ groups.

Dan Geiger, the executive director, and Donald Lobo, the chief technical officer, wanted to spin off Groundspring.org so it could operate more like an internet startup, while Tides wanted it to remain within its network of organizations, Pike said.

“It was a hard decision for us to make because they’ve contributed so much to the organization,” he said. “It’s very amicable and they’re both working with us in a transition.”

Groundspring.org referred all questions to Pike, who said the parting involved no disagreement about “overall organizational strategy,” including Groundspring.org’s focus, pricing structure and shift to open-source technology.

“It was more about inter-organizational dynamics, how we manage the infrastructure,” he said.

Founded in 1976, the Tides network employs 130 people, with an operating budget of roughly $19 million a year for all five organizations, said Christine Coleman, communications manager.

Sharing services and resources such as phones, land, offices and human resources, and collaborating with one another to address key issues such as civic participation, the five Tides organizations aim to provide “self-financing, efficient, well-managed services and infrastructure that supports creative, progressive nonprofit activity and innovations,” Pike said.

Formed in 1999 as eGrants.org and initially set up to process online donations, Groundspring.org aims to give small and medium-sized nonprofits access to technology that is critical to their operations but that they otherwise might not be able to afford, he said.

“The big national name-brand organizations have lots of tools at their disposal, many of which are increasingly involved in the internet, helping them to communicate with their members, raising money, getting them to participate,” Pike said. “Smaller nonprofits don’t have the wherewithal to develop tools on their own.”

To address that “organizational digital divide,” he said, Groundspring.org wants to “develop a basic infrastructure with similar functionality so smaller nonprofits can make as much use of the internet as a vehicle for building their organizations as large organizations do.”

Groundspring.org, with a staff of 17 people and an annual operating budget of $2.1 million, has 750 customers for its four-year-old DonateNow online-giving software, and 300 for its EmailNow email-management software it launched a year ago, Pike said.

Groundspring.org earlier this year launched AdvocacyNow, online-advocacy software initially developed by ActionStudio, a Seattle-based group it acquired last year.

Foundation grants account for 80 percent to 85 percent of the annual budget for Groundspring.org, which by 2007 wants to reduce that to 20 percent to 30 percent by generating more earned revenue through monthly service fees, and from fees for training workshops and consulting.

Grounspring.org faces some uncertainty about its funding, Pike said, because the Omidyar Foundation, which in the last year-and-a-half contributed roughly $1 million and was the single biggest funder of Groundspring.org, recently decided to shift its focus from investing in nonprofit infrastructure to venture-capital investing.

“They’ve been a very important backer of ours,” he said. “We’re quite unclear about their future.”

Other organizations in the Tides family include the Tides Foundation, which has $150 million in assets, mainly long-term donor-advised funds; the Tides Center, which provides back-office support to 250 nonprofits throughout the United States; the Thoreau Center for Sustainability, which operates a multi-tenant nonprofit centers for 50 San Francisco nonprofits and expects to open a similar center in New York City; and the Community Clinics Initiative, a collaborative effort with the California Endowment that makes grants to support community health clinics in the state.

The boards and senior staffs of all five groups meet each summer to consider political and social trends and look for ways to address them.

After 9/11, for example, Tides created funds to address the needs of families of undocumented workers killed in the terrorist attacks, and this year has made grants totaling more than $6.6 million to boost civic participation in the United States.

In both cases, Groundspring.org created web sites for the work the Tides’ organizations had decided to support.

“All the organizations in the Tides structure contribute to collaborative efforts and to our joint infrastructure,” Pike said.

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