From DOS and Y2K to the Cloud

At a time when floppy disks were inserted into disk drives, when Windows 95 was replacing DOS, and when the world was apprehensive that everything from bank accounts to water supply would stop working on 1/1/00, the Nonprofit Management Fund began a project that would define its work in technology. 
 
In 1998, the Fund issued the results of a survey of 80 organizations, underwritten by the Faye McBeath Foundation, on technology use in the Milwaukee-area nonprofit community. Three quarters of the respondents had operating budgets of $1 million or less. The survey found a wide range in the age of computers, use of software, types of technology, and available resources. We learned 25% of the organizations did not have internet access; 75% did not have a website; and, 50% of the respondents had zero budgeted for technology.

The Fund partners saw both a challenge and an opportunity in the results. A strong theme emerged for a neutral party to assist organizations; not a salesperson, but a person who could assess and advise. This person would provide services without expectation of direct payment or an order for hardware. The Rockefeller Foundation had just launched a “circuit rider” initiative nationally; someone who would proselytize the advantages of using technology and address a wide range of technology needs. The Fund partners decided to implement this model.

In a relatively short time, we designed a comprehensive technology assessment and completed dozens with nonprofits; published web.dots—a resource guide for nonprofits using technology; organized a technology conference for local nonprofits; placed students at 10 nonprofits for summer projects; designed multiple databases for various community efforts; updated and revamped a Technical Assistance Directory; and, detailed sample technology policies.

For three years, the Technology Initiative was housed in the Fund’s office and worked in partnership using IT students under an experienced supervisor to assess the technology needs of local nonprofits. In 2002, this initiative was spun off to the Center for Urban Initiatives and Research at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee to manage, and hopefully, to expand its impact on both the participating students and the nonprofit community. The Helen Bader Institute for Nonprofit Management agreed to assist with fundraising.

As ENTECH (Empowering Nonprofits in Technology), the program flourished, faltered, picked up steam, pulled a Rip Van Winkle, and finally was revived. As both department and program leadership at the university changed, it took a toll on this initiative. There’s no doubt that ENTECH helped many nonprofits navigate their technology issues, and it also assisted in projects that would have a big impact on the community. For example, ENTECH designed the “Jobs that Serve” website promoting employment opportunities in Milwaukee’s local nonprofits; programmed the database “Greater Milwaukee on Board” to match interested candidates with Board vacancies; and, the Fund’s extranet database for proposal review. ENTECH also became a major provider of hardware to area nonprofits thanks to donations from Northwestern Mutual and other companies.

Although this initiative contributed significantly in advancing nonprofit technology in Milwaukee for 10 years, there were flaws in the model. The reliance on students had limitations with regard to available hours, lack of knowledge about nonprofits, and varying technology experience. Also, once transferred to the university, the project was challenged by changes in leadership. The original department and program that provided the “student power” went through its own transition, limiting the supply of students to staff ENTECH.

The idea of assembling youthful expertise, aided by a seasoned manager and pairing this resource with Fund grants in technology produced many successes. Today, resources for technology are more available and the transition to the Cloud and use of social media are dominant themes in the conversation.

Having recently hosted a technology conference for nonprofits, UW-Milwaukee is currently trying a new direction by launching a project called TechConnect. If successful, TechConnect will be the 3.0 version, initially incubated by the Nonprofit Management Fund. Best wishes to this advancement and we hope it goes viral!

Note: This blog was co-written by Scott Gelzer, who was the lead staff person assigned to this initiative; he is currently the Executive Director of the Faye McBeath Foundation.

4 comments | Add a New Comment
1. Mike Fatica | September 10, 2014 at 04:37 PM EDT

So, what has ENTECH done lately? Reading the above, I don't see much mention of things accomplished after 2005.

Is ENTECH still fulfilling a need? Will this new TechConnect be duplicative, collaborative or a complete replacement for ENTECH? Is there a place we can learn more about TechConnect?

2. Eileen Walter | September 10, 2014 at 05:11 PM EDT

Great article. Thanks for the trip down memory lane and hope for the future with TechConnect! I hope it's a wildly successful program.

3. Linda Wade | September 11, 2014 at 09:55 AM EDT

Very interesting. Thank you for sharing. We here at ATC are always looking to see how we can enhance our media donation/marketing. We are now looking into text donations. Any ideas or suggestions from you would be helpful. Thank you.

4. Scott Gelzer | September 11, 2014 at 10:36 AM EDT

Linda, thanks for the comment. Charity Navigator and Guidestar have both published some insights on social media and text contributions campaigns. I'd also search for articles on the Chronicle of Philanthropy's website.

For blog readers, I also want to acknowledge and salute Mike Fatica for his great work on technology both via the Nonprofit Management Fund and at UW-Milwaukee. Many of the innovations that were \incubated\ as part of this effort were from his agile mind.

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