IT Pros Lend a Hand to Close Digital Divide

SAN MATEO (05/23/2000) - Jerry Marks works full-time as a customer service manager at software developer Echo Management Group, in Oakland, California, and for years he also has volunteered his IT skills to nonprofit organizations.

He remembers, years ago, helping a shelter for battered women move its caller-referral service from 3-by-5 index cards to a computer database.

"They didn't have a sense for how it would change their operations," Marks recalls, "but it made a huge and instantaneous difference."

Using a database instead of paper meant that crisis counselors were able to match people with the information and services they needed more quickly and efficiently. As a result, the small staff could spend more time on hands-on services and less on paperwork.

IT pros across the United States are making a difference by donating their time and their skills to nonprofit groups in their communities. In recent years, volunteerism in general has been on the rise. In a 1999 study, Washington-based advocacy group Independent Sector found that more than half of adults volunteered, donating more than 19 billion hours of time, a 13.7 percent increase from 1996. The value of that work, in man-hours, equals about $255 billion.

Technology companies are increasingly participating in the volunteerism boom.

As technology becomes more critical to organizations for communication and increased organizational efficiency, its complexity keeps simple improvements out of reach for most nonprofits that don't employ IT staffs. But through partnerships with matchmaking organizations, sponsorship benefits, and improved awareness of how IT professionals can make a difference, many are starting to make their mark by volunteering their highly specialized skills.

Making the connection

Matchmaking organizations are using the Web to put corporate sponsors, with their wealth of IT resources, in touch with nonprofits and public agencies that need skilled IT help. Groups such as CompuMentor, CharityFocus, ImpactOnline, and Voluntech pair individual volunteers with charities that need their specific expertise. Often, it is the only contact those organizations have with a trained IT professional.

Marks has worked with CompuMentor, based in San Francisco, for more than ten years. When he first started volunteering, he was known as the "case cracker," because he would go around to scores of small nonprofits and open up their Macintosh computers.

"Usually I would just add memory; nothing too terribly difficult," Marks recalls. But his contribution's impact was immediate and lasting.

"You see very direct, positive results from your work, unlike in the corporate world, where it's relatively abstract: You might be adding more profit to the company's bottom line down the road," Marks says.

Founded in 1989, CompuMentor assists nonprofits with a wide variety of computer-related projects: installing or upgrading software, hardware, or an entire network. Volunteers frequently design or improve Web sites that promote community outreach or provide information about humanitarian services to the community. Or skilled IT managers might become an informal mentor for an agency, offering advice on purchases, Internet connections, or troubleshooting and maintenance.

Growing pains

Technology, as any corporate IT manager can tell you, has grown more complex over the years; planning and building a computing infrastructure is difficult, even with a generous budget. Imagine struggling with the same needs for efficiency, organization, and communication that a corporate IT department has -- without a corporate IT department.

"Ten years ago, nonprofits were happy to get any kind of software. But now needs have increased, because computerization is a necessity," says Jim Lynch, development director at CompuMentor. "There's much more of a need to get organizations to the point where they can be self-sufficient."

Many nonprofits operate with no IT support and a mishmash of software and equipment, Lynch notes. "They usually don't have anyone in charge; whoever has been to college the most recently is stuck with system support."

And yet those small charities could derive the same benefits companies do from new technology, giving them better reach into their communities and more efficient use of their human resources.

"Most of us have no concept of the need that's out there," says Eric Hancock, a systems analyst at HBO, in New York, who volunteers through Voluntech. "Most nonprofits are operating on a shoestring. Yet in many ways they're under the same kind of pressure as for-profit companies to be efficient. Plus, they have to demonstrate effectiveness in order to get more funds to continue their efforts."

Sponsor perks

Besides the obvious benefits to the nonprofits, a person's volunteer efforts can reward his or her company, says Barbara Fried, director of service to businesses at Business Volunteers Unlimited, a Cleveland-based organization that arranges for private companies to mentor nonprofits, providing management assistance and organizing volunteer efforts. Besides helping businesses build enduring relationships with the local community, the projects also build teamwork among the volunteers, she says.

For companies, the biggest payoff to running a volunteer program is happier, more productive, and more loyal employees, which leads to improved teamwork, retention, and recruitment efforts.

"People who volunteer together find it easier to work together," Fried notes.

"It also helps people develop leadership skills."

Many companies choose to publish details about their community involvement activities in their annual reports, sharing them with employees, clients, and the community.

"Eaton Corp. even has a retiree volunteerism program that we helped them create. All of these activities build goodwill in the community and provide companies with an opportunity to give back, beyond the jobs they create," Fried says.

Lita Benton, director of community relations at Charles Schwab's San Francisco office says that her company stands to gain from the personal development that volunteering brings its employees: greater job satisfaction, improved morale, stronger team orientation, and broader skill sets.

Some companies give more than others, allowing employees to volunteer during company time or doing the legwork for them. Schwab is continually researching nonprofit agencies and presenting diverse volunteer activities to its employees. Last year, 28 percent of all Schwab employees volunteered; Schwab supplies a good deal of IT talent to CompuMentor, for example.

HBO's Hancock was skeptical that parent company Time Warner was committed to community involvement. But he was pleasantly surprised by just how much the company was willing to do to help.

"They've been very flexible and given us voice mail boxes to use," Hancock says. "They've given us grants. We can also use their offices for meetings."

From Hancock's perspective, Time Warner is creating goodwill and helping retain quality employees -- him, for one.

"I'm a software developer. I can, quite literally, leave HBO and double my salary elsewhere; salaries on Wall Street are absurd, Hancock says. "One of the reasons I don't leave is the atmosphere in my company. Yes, we're a for-profit corporation, but we are people, too. We have lives, and we're given the opportunity and time to take leadership in the community. That matters to me."

The big picture

No one needs to convince the volunteers that their charitable work is worthwhile; they see the results themselves in real time. What a difference, for example, a Web site can make.

Since its founding last April, CharityFocus has helped more than 225 nonprofit organizations build or improve their Web sites. Among its 400 volunteers is Russ Morris, a Web designer at Lockheed Martin, in Sunnyvale, Calif. Morris helped create a Web site for Airline Ambassadors, a global nonprofit that provides humanitarian relief to people in need in 20 countries.

"[Airline Ambassadors] had no money, but they knew what they wanted," Morris recalls. "It took only six weeks to launch their site. Here at Lockheed, projects sometimes take eight months, so it was gratifying that it got done so fast."

The organization runs programs to transport poor and orphaned children to new homes or hospitals in other countries. The new site allows Airline Ambassadors to communicate quickly with interested chaperones, and coordinate delivery of supplies to flood victims.

Making time

One difficulty IT workers face when trying to volunteer is the long hours they already put in on the job. "Some people do have insane hours," HBO's Hancock notes. But if you have the right technical expertise, you can make a big difference in a small amount of time.

"Some things are very easy for us to fix. Things that would seem insurmountable to some people would only take 10 minutes for us," Hancock says. Many projects aren't complicated, and an hour or two each week can go a long way to updating a small agency's infrastructure. Plus, you can't beat the work environment.

"Nonprofits don't demand a lot," Lockheed's Morris says, "and are open to learning things."

CompuMentor's Lynch says his organization has developed a system to make sure its 3,000 volunteers don't burn out.

"Earlier, volunteers found they were spending more hours than was good for them, and began to feel indentured," Lynch says. "Now we're more careful about how we send people out. For volunteers to succeed, the projects have to be successful and enjoyable."

Mentoring also allows computer specialists to expand their horizons.

"You get sick of hanging around geeks," HBO's Hancock says with a laugh. "This gives you a chance to meet different kinds of people and talk about their needs and how you can make them more effective. When you talk to people who do in-home health care and run their organization on a shoestring, you have to be in awe of that."

David Raths (draths@hawaii.rr.com) is a Kailua, Hawaii-based free-lance writer.

One-stop IT for nonprofits

With seed funding from the Surdna Foundation, in New York, and Novell, CompuMentor is developing a nonprofit technology Web portal, TechSoup. org.

Launching this month, it will be a one-stop resource for nonprofits to find technology assistance, including software, hardware, and technology planning.

For more information, see www.compumentor.org/techsoup.

TechSoup.org will offer the following.

* Comparative pricing and online sales of computer equipment and software* Links to organizations nationwide that offer technical planning, training, and charity support* User groups and e-mail newsletters that target the nonprofit community* Resources about technology and best practices.

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