Good Deeds and Better Technology
Oscar S. Cisneros
Wired: 3:00 a.m. 12.Jul.99.PDT
The National Strategy for Nonprofit Technology has a vision: that organizations will use computers, databases, and the Web to realize their philanthropic goals as effectively as they use the telephone, fax, and mail system today.
The group's goal, however, is far from reality. While some nonprofits have already embraced technology in the workplace, most -- especially those in poorer and minority communities -- have not.
"A year of research has shown that nonprofits are hesitant to use technology and are ill-informed about the impact that it could have on their work," the group wrote in a draft of its report, A Blue Print for Infusing Technology into the Nonprofit Sector.
See also: News for Nonprofits
"Overall, the fundamental problems causing this situation are lack of knowledge, fragmentation, turf protection, inadequate investment, and lack of skills," it concludes.
One in 10 workers in the United States is employed by a nonprofit organization or foundation. Collectively, the sector constitutes 8 percent of the gross domestic product, with assets totaling US$1.3 trillion. Despite its might, the nonprofit sector lags far behind the business world in adopting technology.
"It is like any other mature sector," said Jeff Hallett, whose company, Appnet, helps nonprofits with technology planning, Web design, and intranets. "It's got its own set of large and sophisticated entities that are really using technology well."
But some mid- to smaller-sized nonprofits (and even the occasional giant) just don't get new technology. For them, telephones and faxes are familiar, Hallett said, but computerized databases, email, and Web pages are not.
"They've figured out how to use old technology, but they haven't fully embraced the power of this new medium," he said. "But they're starting."
Enter the National Strategy for Nonprofit Technology, a loose coalition of experts in the nonprofit and technology sectors. The group is primarily funded by Microsoft, which last year put down $25,000 to study how the nonprofit sector is acquiring and using new technology.
"About the fall of '97 we became really interested in technology assistance for nonprofits," said Microsoft program manager Jane Meseck Yeager. "We were donating software and giving away cash, and we were not really sure how effective we were being."
The company initially consulted with nonprofit industry insiders to help it donate more effectively in the Seattle area, but the coalition soon broadened the scope to the national level, Yeager said.
Among the report's expected recommendations: a portal specializing in technology resources for nonprofits; a benchmark tool to show nonprofits just how tech-savvy they are; and some type of technology exchange where donors and nonprofits can meet, Cohen said.
The proposed technology exchange, he said, would reside online and act as a "clearinghouse or a place that would bring together hardware and software makers and nonprofit groups and groups that assist nonprofits ... with technology."
The report's initiatives stemmed from the frustrations of Microsoft, Hewlett-Packard, and the Packard Foundation -- companies anxious to ensure their respective software, hardware, and training donations would be used as effectively as possible, said Cohen.
"The donations would be linked to training so that you would know how to use what you get."
Another proposal is a benchmark tool currently in beta that will allow nonprofits to gauge how well their organizations are using technology, said Joan Fanning, executive director for NPower, a Seattle-based technology assistance provider.
The Web-based tool will issue nonprofits a "technology report card" based on their answers to questions about how they use technology, she said. It will also provide model answers to the questions and will link to additional resources on the Web.
NPower was also born of Microsoft's philanthropic arm, Fanning said. The organization is modeled on other nonprofit technology assistance providers throughout the country, such as the Information Technology Resource Center, the Fund for the City of New York, and CompuMentor. NPower makes its business model available to nonprofits looking to help other nonprofits with technology.
Cohen said that NSNT will probably be dissolved after presenting its findings, since it will have completed its mission. Based on the discussions at the conference, a new group will be formed to make sure the principles and initiatives outlined in the report are enacted.
The help could not come soon enough, Cohen said. At a time when corporate consolidation and the government's "less is more" policy toward charities has put the squeeze on nonprofits, they could use a hand getting plugged into technology.
"Technology is one of the most powerful tools to help the sector strengthen itself and become more effective, at a time when the sector is challenged to do more with less."