Disconnecting From The Network

May 15, 2011       Tim Mills Groninger      

NPower, the national network of nonprofit technology consulting and training organizations, has restructured. The New York office is rebranding itself as the national organization and the other network members have to decide whether to retain their affiliation and names or become independent.

In a quiet change late last year, NPower New York, which took over the national organization in 2007, became just NPower and dropped any mention of the other affiliates from its website. And while some of the original affiliates continue to refer to the national organization, there is only ad hoc collaboration with no program development initiatives in the works.

The first NPower began in Seattle in 1999 with funding from Microsoft and Puget Sound foundations. Under the leadership of founding Executive Director Joan Fanning, NPower quickly developed a national presence. It received a $25-million grant from Microsoft in 2000 to develop similar programs around the U.S. and in 2004 became the NPower Network. The original became NPower Seattle and new members, with rare exception, using NPower plus region for their names. New affiliates could receive up to $250,000 in funding from the grant and the network grew quickly.

Focusing on providing technology services to nonprofits — the tag line was “Your mission. Our technology” — the first affiliates were startups, establishing themselves as independent nonprofits. Early attempts at creating NPower programs within existing organizations, including the Center for Nonprofit Management in Dallas and MAP for Nonprofits in St. Paul, Minn., were unsuccessful until CompuMentor became an affiliate in 2002.

CompuMentor, which later became TechSoup Global, was also the first to drop its affiliation with NPower after about a year. However, TechSoup maintained relationships with the national network as well as a number of the affiliates. Observing the recent changes at NPower, TechSoup Global Co-CEO Rebecca Masisak remarked, “Networks, I think, are a critical way of working and maintaining a strong ecosystem. NPower has been very effective. But in any network, change is a normal part of evolution.”

Microsoft funding and the ability to share knowledge and tools, such as the online assessment tool TechAtlas, made being part of the network an attractive proposition. However, as with TechSoup Global, existing organizations that wanted to create an NPower program as one part of a larger portfolio of nonprofit services experienced culture clashes with the national. NPower Los Angeles, a program of the Center for Nonprofit Management, was the second to leave the network in 2008. NPower Colorado, part of the Community Resource Center, started its NPower program in 2003 and closed it in 2009.

NPower Michigan, one of the first affiliates, was an independent nonprofit until 2006, when it became a program of the Michigan Nonprofit Association. It terminated its affiliation with NPower in 2010 and changed its name to Highway T.

According to Andy Wolber, NPower Michigan’s first director of consulting and later executive director, “When NPower was created, the focus was on helping small and mid-sized organizations with technology. Over time with the national organization, there was less direction and support being given to affiliates and a focus on tool building that didn’t fulfill that need to serve smaller nonprofits. Our board talked locally and with the National about it and we decided to leave the network because of differences in strategic direction.”

There have been 16 NPower affiliates in the history of the network. Seven have left, either by closing or terminating the network association. NPower Colorado and NPower Arizona, along with Los Angeles and TechSoup, closed their programs altogether. Michigan rebranded their services, while TechBridge, the Atlanta NPower, refers to itself as “a former member of the NPower Network” on its website. NPower Texas, the last affiliate to join in 2007, became a part of Aidmatrix in 2010.

Two affiliates, Seattle and Portland, have merged. “We’re becoming NPower Northwest, consolidating services in Seattle and Portland and we hope to leverage that economy of scale to serve nonprofits in Washington and Oregon,” said Executive Director Alison Carl White. NPower Northwest is the first affiliate to rebrand itself after New York’s decision to become NPower. “We will continue to use the NPower name. It has a lot of equity for us. Our agreement doesn’t limit our ability to use the name. For the other NPowers, it’s a decision that their boards have to make about their mission and brand,” she said.

Depending on how you want to count, there are six or seven remaining NPower Network members. NPower Indiana, Greater D.C., Northwest, and Charlotte Region are independent agencies, while NPower Pennsylvania and Delaware are both run by Pennsylvania and Texas as a program of the Aidmatrix Foundation in Irving, Texas.

But while the formal NPower network is gone, some of the remaining affiliates will continue to work with each other, as well as other providers. According to White, “There’s a lot of tech support that’s happening around the country that may be under the banner of NPower or not. I see a lot of collaboration between people doing last mile technology and capacity building. As we come out of the economic downturn there will be a lot more with affordable and dynamic systems and that’s very exciting.”

Others, such as NPower Indiana Executive Director John Fallon, are more guarded about the future. “We’re reassessing our mission and branding strategy and will make a determination about our affiliation with NPower at some point in the future,” he said.

National nonprofit networks are difficult to sustain. When Jon Cook and Bob Orser created the Support Centers of America (SCA) to provide management support service to the sector, it was a centrally managed organization with satellite offices throughout the country. Over time the members chaffed at being managed by the home office in San Francisco and the surviving members became freestanding nonprofits while the national mission was absorbed into the Washington, D.C.-based Alliance for Nonprofit Management in 1998.

Likewise, the Technology Resource Consortium (TRC), a federation of technology assistance providers whose largest funder was Apple Computer, joined the Alliance after Apple discontinued its funding. The TRC became an affinity group of the Alliance, also in 1998. CompassPoint, a nonprofit management assistance provider in San Francisco, is a former SCA affiliate and the current administrative provider for the Alliance.

Microsoft’s funding of a network of strong and independent regionally focused affiliates created tensions. Many of the members would not have been able to create organizations as quickly – if at all – without the start up funds. For Washington, D.C., the Microsoft funding saved the failing Technology Works for Good by giving the organization cash and the credibility of Microsoft and the NPower network.

By 2006, it was apparent that Microsoft was not going to fund the national network at previous levels and that a new strategy for sustainability was necessary. While NPower Seattle took the lead in developing national tools such as TechAtlas, NPower New York had become the largest affiliate and was developing its own national initiative with ITBasic, an outsourced IT infrastructure service. Without national funding, the value of network membership was lessened and the increased pressure for local fundraising and programming solidified the independence of the affiliates.

According to Barbara Chang, founding executive director of NPower New York, “There’s a point in the life cycle of the organization where each affiliate has to make the right decisions for their community.” NPower New York, with the largest budget and most diverse funding base of the network, began plans to leave NPower.

Christopher A. Wearing, managing director, capital markets, North America, of Accenture is board chair of NPower N.Y. and NPower national board member. He explained what happened next: “So I went to Seattle to talk with Microsoft with the intent of leaving the network, and they suggested that we at New York should take it over. Everyone was doing what was appropriate for their markets, and we agreed to take it on with the idea of making a national organization work, and see if we could do more sharing. What we decided after several years was that centralized governance wasn’t very productive and a less prescriptive national organization was more appropriate.”

As a result of that meeting, the national NPower organization closed and New York took over responsibility for managing the network. According to the 2007 NPower federal Form 990 filing, New York received approximately $2 million as a result of the national’s dissolution. The TechAtlas online technology assessment and planning tool was acquired by OCLC Online Computer Library Center in Australia that same year, leaving the network with no shared programs or assets. While noting that individual affiliates still collaborate individually, NPower Northwest’s White acknowledged, “We’re no longer a national network. The whole sector has gone through a lot of changes since the downturn. There’s an interesting dynamic for a national organization that has independent organizations as members. It’s a really hard model to maintain.”

One reason for NPower New York’s evolution into just NPower is the recent launch of the Community Corps, a national technology volunteer matching service. According to NPower CEO Stephanie Cuskley, “Our volunteers come from our corporate sponsors, and we’re very carefully scoping the projects and modeling them on the pro bono legal approach — a lot of quality control, a lot of focus on customer care.”

As CompuMentor, TechSoup Global was the first organization in the U.S. to match technology volunteers with nonprofits, but stopped the service roughly five years ago. For Cuskley, TechSoup’s exit from volunteer matching wasn’t a concern. “I met with [CompuMentor founder and co-CEO] Daniel Ben Horin and talked about it. The technology we have today is so different than 10 years ago. Today, everyone understands portals and matching, and is more willing to participate.”

For TechSoup’s Masisak, NPower’s initiative shows promise. “I think it’s good to have services focused on technology volunteers. They’re well positioned and there’s a strong base on which to build. I think that the question is, where is that the best model in the nonprofit market.” Since its rollout in 2010, The Community Corps has completed approximately 60 projects and another 120 are underway. Projects are scoped to meet the needs of the requesting organizations and the availability of the volunteers. In addition to matching, NPower also provides project oversight. “We have a concierge service so that if the volunteer has a problem, they have administrative support that they can call, and if the nonprofit has a problem, they can call us and we can intervene as necessary. It’s a startup, but with a good deal of runway,” said Cuskley. Organizations interested in learning about the Community Corps and other NPower services can find more information at http://npower.org

NPower will also continue to offer its regionally-focused Technology Service Corps, which provides IT focused workforce development service, as well as consulting and managed services to area nonprofits. Application development services and the Foundation Grant Manager database are available to local and national nonprofits.

NPower board chair Wearing is optimistic about the organization’s future. “If you can turn the energy and skills of IT pros in large corporations, you should be able to move the needle quite a bit for a wide range of nonprofits. We want to have impact on a scale that you can notice.” NPT

Contributing editor Tim Mills-Groninger is a consultant living near Chicago. Preiously program director at the IT Resource Center (now Lumity), he participated in some of the program development for NPower Seattle, NTEN, and the Alliance for Nonprofit Management and other nonprofit management and technology initiatives.