Struggling to keep up
Nonprofits seek ways to stay wired in the information age
Last week, I witnessed firsthand the division between the corporate world's haves and have-nots.
I had a telephone conversation with someone from the Muscular Dystrophy Association about finding something on the Internet. It was the same day I received a press packet about the Jerry Lewis MDA Telethon, which will introduce its first Web-enhanced telethon Labor Day weekend, allowing users to view the show -- and make their donations -- online.
But the woman from the area MDA office would be out of luck: The office does not have Internet access, and most employees do not even have computers at their desk, including the director. They also don't have voicemail or individual email accounts.
"The only people who have computers are secretaries and support staff," said Sarah Gorman, program coordinator at the Buffalo MDA chapter.
Dollars vs. technology
While the MDA situation is certainly at the extreme end of have-nots, most nonprofit organizations struggle to keep up with current technology on limited budgets. Some agencies have come up with innovative ways to fund computer hardware and software purchases, while others rely on donations of used equipment.
The West Seneca AmeriCorps has traditionally relied on grant funding, which is tricky because many funders don't like to fund computers and technology upgrades.
"Nobody wants to pay for that," said Mark Lazzara, executive director. "(If it's just for the office) it's hard. The funder will say, `I gave you a computer three years ago.' Unfortunately, that computer is almost obsolete now."
Lazzara recently purchased 10 refurbished computers for a computer bank for Corps members who are taking GED classes or trying to improve their skills. The agency was only able to buy the computers because they came at a price about a third of the regular retail price through a special program for nonprofits at Computers for Children Inc.
"It seems like just when you turn around, you need more technology and just last year you bought something new," he said. "It's an endless battle financially to always keep up."
The YWCA of WNY also recently purchased computers from the program. The 10 computers were installed in pre-school classrooms to help teach children what they need to be ready to enter school. The program allowed the agency to get double the number of units it would have been able to afford at full price, said Tracey Banks, director of children's services.
The YWCA has also made an effort to keep its office systems up to date. All of its offices have computers and the system is networked both internally and linked to the Internet. The investment has definitely helped allow staff to become more efficient, Banks said.
"It helps in so many different ways," she said. "We are in very good shape in comparison with other nonprofits. It's difficult to keep up with improving technology when you work in a nonprofit because all of the funds go to services first, and then administration second."
Donations not always so good
Christine Carr, managing director at Computers for Children, said nonprofits often experience problems with technology, especially when they're dealing with used equipment that has been donated.
"Traditionally, nonprofits will take any donation because they are looking at this as a computer," she said. "Usually, they wind up with a room full of inoperable machinery that they were looking at as valuable equipment."
If the nonprofit has a volunteer who knows his way around technology, there may be a way to use the equipment, but usually, there's a reason someone else is getting rid of it and it may be because the equipment is outdated and incompatible with current software.
"They are sometimes successful, but most of the time nonprofits find it extremely frustrating," Carr said. "Lots of times, they do not come with CD-ROMs and there's not much in software that's available on floppies anymore. Then, of course, if you are transferring files via e-mail and working on one level of Word and sending out in another, people can't open it. There's a lot of software problems when you look at old technology."
Though the agency's mission focuses on helping provide computers for children, it introduced the discounted sales program to help nonprofits. Nonprofit staff can also take advantage of training at the facility and learn how to build computers so they can serve as an in-house resource when they go back to their own office.
"A lot of nonprofits do not have IT people, so they're struggling to meet current needs with limited staff," Carr said.
Collaboration saves dollars
Some nonprofits have collaborated to cut down on costs. One strategy involves hiring one IT person to work for four or five agencies, splitting his or her time among the facilities. The co-op method works best if the agencies band together and pay the tech person a full-time salary, said Alnisa Allgood, executive director of the Nonprofit Tech Association in San Francisco, which provides technology services for nonprofits.
What's most important is that the nonprofit commit to dedicate a portion of the budget for technology.
Lots of nonprofits would love to have dedicated funds for technology, but where to find those dollars is the tough part. Two telecommunications companies have made inroads to helping nonprofits in Western New York find grant funding for technology projects.
Choice One Communications recently introduced a Community Partners Program aimed at returning 1 percent of company revenues on an annual basis to organizations or programs for technology education, health and human services, and the arts. The three core constituents it will try to reach include youth, minorities and women and girls.
"If there's a program that helps girls get involved in technology-oriented career, that's right up our alley," said Ythan Lax, director for corporate communications at the Rochester-based company. "The program is designed to support impact programs as opposed to annual donations for an operational fund."
This year alone, the company hopes to award $500,000 in grants throughout New York, New England and Pennsylvania. One recent grant will allow a music school in Dover, N.H., to buy computers and software to develop a Web site. Of course if the computers can be used for other office functions too, than it's a double bonus.
"We will work with them on submitting a proposal that will hopefully meet their technology needs," he said. "We're looking to fund underserved needs and programs.
Verizon, formerly Bell Atlantic, has funded several programs in Western New York through its foundation. The organization also favors technology projects, said Maureen Rasp-Glose, director for community affairs. Other programs, such as E-Partners and E-Training, allow organizations to receive training while Verizon picks up the tab. The foundation also helps agencies through the needs assessment process.
These projects include grant funding to Computers for Children Inc. to establish Kidco, a program where children and their parents learn how to build a computer, then take it home and help their family and neighbors with their technology needs.
Difficulties at all levels
Gail Johnstone, director of the Community Foundation for Greater Buffalo, said all nonprofits, even foundations, have ongoing technology needs. Even though her agency has invested in the most current accounting software designed specifically for community foundations, it still needs additional upgrades to keep its interactive Web site up to date and allow communication to and from donors.
"The next wave will allow us to accept contributions online," she said. "It's the wave of the future, but it's already here. We put our priorities on fiscal systems first, but that will be budgeted for next year. The goal is to be able to be seamless with people who want to seek grants, make grants and those who are our active donor base. We want to find a way to be as open and transparent to the public as you possibly can be."
Nonprofit organizations will receive additional help from a new Nonprofit Resource Center housed at the Buffalo and Erie County United Way. The center, a collaborative effort between the United Way, the Community Foundation and several other funding sources, will provide computer and technology training at no cost to agency executives.