News from the Field

From Modem to Mobile – Celebrating the Past and Future of Nonprofit Tech

Media Impact Funders convened a funder discussion at the Washington offices of Microsoft Corporation on the eve of the annual Nonprofit Technology Conference organized by the Nonprofit Technology Network (NTEN) earlier this month. Our Executive Director Vince Stehle moderated a vibrant discussion with Jane Meseck, Director of Global Citizenship for Microsoft, Kathy Calvin, President and CEO of the UN Foundation and Amy Sample Ward, Executive Director of NTEN.

Also present for the discussion, many nonprofit technology luminaries and early movers, including Rebecca Masisak, CEO of TechSoup Global, Bill Strathmann, CEO of Network for Good, Social Media expert Beth Kanter and early NTEN advisor Richard Zorza.

The occasion marked 15 years from the initial grants that were made to help establish NTEN and it brought together three of the original funders who collaborated to create the organization. At the time, Stehle ran the Nonprofit Sector Support Program of the Surdna Foundation, Calvin was head of the AOL Foundation and Meseck was at Microsoft.

In many ways, NTEN has grown farther and faster than any of its founders ever dreamed. Over the years, NTEN has grown to serve a community far beyond the numbers initially envisioned by founders, with more than 10,000 members and serving a broader group of roughly 50,000 who rely on NTEN for information and services. And this year, the annual conference saw attendance top the 2000 mark.

What was especially remarkable about NTEN’s initial funding, Stehle pointed out, was that Microsoft and AOL were at the time in vigorous competition in the marketplace, but deeply committed to cooperation in creating a network that would enhance the capacity of nonprofits to use technology effectively. Calvin recalled the unusual dynamic, noting that there were two areas where the companies saw a great need for “coopetition” and that included the importance of protecting consumer privacy in the burgeoning world of online communications and commerce, as well as the social good both companies sought to promote through expanding the technology capacity of nonprofits.

At the time, nonprofit technology lagged far behind the commercial sector and charities tended to cobble their communications technology needs together by begging and borrowing their gear in a patchwork fashion. The nonprofit technology community was largely made up of a small number of committed “circuit riders” a growing cadre of consultants and a general catch-all of “accidental techies,” who found themselves in charge of information technology on top of whatever else they might be responsible for.

In addition to providing key contributions to launch the NTEN network, Microsoft and AOL also led the development of other key players in the nonprofit technology space. And several of them have seen growth and achievements similar to NTEN itself. Microsoft, a longtime supporter of CompuMentor – predecessor to TechSoup Global – greatly expanded software donations that helped to propel the organization from a staff of dozens to its current size of roughly 200 people. Over the years, TechSoup has distributed over 11 million pieces of hardware and software, resulting in savings of nearly $4 billion dollars. Likewise, AOL – and ultimately the AOL Time Warner Foundation – created an online giving platform at Network for Good that has just recently topped more than $1 billion in donations to charity.

But for all the achievements of the organizations they helped to create over the past 15 years, both Calvin and Meseck were most excited about the work they are currently doing, helping to create the next generation of tools and resources and helping to develop new ways to deliver compelling communications.

The Community Affairs team at Microsoft has developed a new map showing The Technology For Good Ecosystem, which helps to chart who’s doing what. Likewise, the UN Foundation, where Calvin is now in charge, has spearheaded several new social media campaigns, taking advantage of the latest tools and platforms to promote giving and advocacy for social change, including their leadership in the annual Social Good Summit that takes place each year in conjunction with the United Nations General Assembly.

If there is an area where NTEN has failed to achieve its original objectives, it might be the degree to which philanthropic funders have participated in the network. It was originally hoped that NTEN might serve as both a rainmaker, to stimulate support for important technology assistance programs, and also as a trusted guide for funders seeking to make effective grants in the field. But it is not for lack of funding activity in this arena. As the recent data mapping collaboration between the Foundation Center and Media Impact Funders makes clear, there are many funders engaged in support of media and technology projects in the public interest.

Working together, NTEN and MIF hope to bring more of those funders together to learn from one another and from practitioners in the field of nonprofit technology, to strengthen media and technology philanthropy in the future.

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