Digital divide, Part 4

By Todd Cohen

While they continue to face challenges in paying for technology, and figuring out who should operate and maintain it, nonprofits have changed the way they fund and staff their tech needs, experts say.

The San Francisco-based Nonprofit Technology Enterprise Network, for example, has shifted its focus from serving mainly technology assistance groups and consultants, to supporting nonprofit staff who handle technology.

Joe Baker, NTEN’s executive director, says fewer foundations are supporting tech-assistance providers or employing “circuit riders” that previously provided tech support to nonprofits the foundations funded.

So NTEN now is concentrating on providing support and training directly to nonprofit staff.

More than 70 percent of the 800 people who attended NTEN’s national conference in Chicago in March 2005 were nonprofit staff, he says, as will be an estimated 75 percent of 800 people expected to attend the group’s six regional conferences.

NTEN in July also launched a series of 90-minute online seminars on topics like weblogs and web-page design.

Barbara Chang, executive director of NpowerNY, a tech-assistance provider in New York city, says funding for technology had become a big challenge for nonprofits.

Five years ago, she says, funding increasingly was available to help address nonprofits’ basic tech needs because of the expectation by foundations that investing in technology would result in innovative nonprofit programs.

Yet while nonprofits back then had basic technology, it tended to be unstable and required a lot of work “before we could think about innovation and real change,” she says.

Funders “put a lot of money into what they hoped would be a huge transformation in the sector,” she says, “but when they didn’t see change right away, they became discouraged and weary about putting more money into it.”

Today, Chang, says, some funders are beginning to shift their thinking about how they fund technology.

“They’re realizing that it’s critically important to stabilize the back-office and technology infrastructure, and is part of the curve of moving to more strategic uses of technology,” she says.

Other stories in the series:

Part 1 — Nonprofits face tech hurdles. 
Part 2 — Nonprofits making more strategic use of technology . 
Part 3 — Nonprofits plug into technology from afar. 
Part 5 — Nonprofits find it tough to find tech support. 
Part 6 — Nonprofits work to bridge gap in constituents’ tech access.

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