Going Virtual In New Orleans

May 1, 2007       Mark Hrywna      

The High Voltage Youth Camp usually draws about 50 kids from around the New Orleans area, providing education and recreation programs for economically disadvantaged teens. The camp canceled its 2005 season because of Hurricane Katrina, but is back with almost as many students. Only this time, some of them aren’t even in New Orleans but scattered around the country.

Katherine Johnson, president of the volunteer-run High Voltage Youth Camp, said Katrina affected the nonprofit’s demographics more than its aggregate numbers, in part because of the “virtual students” who now access the camp through the Internet from anywhere in the nation, including some who were displaced from New Orleans.

“Hurricane Katrina caused our camp to go virtual,” Johnson said. Students can receive high school and college credit through community service projects and television and film workshops, such as creating public service announcements. But they no longer have to be in the New Orleans area to participate in the camp, run entirely by volunteers.

The devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina brings to mind the staggering amount of rebuilding that must take place in the Gulf Coast region. In an area so desperate for even the basics of commerce and everyday life, it might not make seem to make sense that technology for nonprofits would be a priority.

But many nonprofits in fact sprouted from the Katrina disaster, and others are rebuilding “virtually,” without a physical space but one on the World Wide Web where clients and patrons can find them, despite some places still without telephone service. WiFi access could be just as vital as a tangible headquarters.

NPower, a national network of nonprofit organizations that provides technology assistance to other nonprofits, partnered with the Louisiana Association of Nonprofit Organizations (LANO) and Nonprofit Central to launch the TechNOLA Project. With the help of a $200,000 grant from Microsoft, the year-long initiative will assist 19 nonprofits in assessing their technology needs and making recommendations.

The goal of the project, which started this past September, was to help a diversity of organizations recover, said Scott Schaffer, executive director of NPower National. There were organizations that lost more or less everything, he said. Many had no software or hardware. Some groups lost physical space, or their workforce was displaced. There are organizations with a patchwork of solutions, Schaffer said, with some working from home, the library or makeshift offices, or piggy-backing with other organizations.

Many organizations are starting from scratch. “We’re talking to lots of organizations that still are just trying to get their phones working, aren’t even back in the space where they originally were, or don’t have regular Internet access,” said Jennifer Werdell, network initiatives manager for NPower. “Services we’ve been creating are based very much on what organizations need.”

Technology needs are “pretty big, especially with a lot of people dealing with having to reconstitute their records,” said John Kimble, New Orleans public policy director for LANO, which has 200 to 300 members in New Orleans and works with about 1,000 members statewide. Even before Katrina, he said, The Big Easy wasn’t a high-tech community. “A technology system that backs up documents somewhere safe and dry is a pretty central issue for nonprofits.”

Smaller nonprofits tend to look for the basics, like servers and access to email and the Internet, Kimble said. “Those can be pretty expensive pieces of infrastructure.” Other organizations need larger items like CRM (constituent relationship management) software, database restructuring or more efficient networking and backup systems, he said. People are looking to technology as a more efficient way of communicating with displaced residents and getting information out, Kimble said.

Individual projects at 12 of the 19 selected organizations are completing the assessment phase, Werdell said, with implementation expected by September. Though the figure varies, NPower is able to cover, on average, about $4,000 to $5,000 at each organization, not including hardware and software. Some organizations might be looking for a Web site redesign, uniform email and calendaring, or installing a donor database and troubleshooting network issues, she said. At one nonprofit, they’re creating an online donation function for an existing Web site, and designing an online store for an arts organization.

Ten organizations will take part in TechNOLA HITS, which was created in response to a need for basic, secure IT infrastructure. NPower’s Atlanta-based affiliate, TechBridge, is hosting a shared server where a number of small New Orleans nonprofits pool technology capabilities, accessing email, the Web and office applications.

It would cost between $10,000 and $15,000 to give one organization the capacity of a shared server. With 11 organizations on one grant-funded server, it’s done for 10 percent of the cost. It gives nonprofits access to all of their files and information from anywhere, Werdell said, whether it’s the executive director working from home or a field office, and volunteers are now able to communicate with each other internally and have access to information. When the grant ends, nonprofits will have the option to stay on the server at a reduced rate or have all data copied if they choose not to stay in the program.

The TechNOLA Project also will offer a series of six training sessions to some 30 area nonprofits, including basic technology, lab-based training for more strategic training, Werdell said. “Technology has proven to be incredibly important in rebuilding,” she said.

A request for applications last fall ranged from nonprofits that lost all their equipment and are starting from scratch, to those with displaced staff who are working remotely with no access to client files. Now, there are the organizations that didn’t even exist until the great flood of 2005 left the Crescent City with more needs for new nonprofits to address.

For the High Voltage Youth Camp, accessing a shared server in Atlanta, Johnson said, “will be a blessing for our program,” as many of High Voltage’s files were lost or destroyed after the hurricane.

Schaffer said the key is finding synergies between workspace and solutions that can be scaled, “making them better than before.” In some cases, NPower has been working with LANO to find shared workspace, or the ability to work remotely with employees in different places. The server at TechBridge in Atlanta has produced “an ability to collaborate remotely,” Schaffer said. Employees could be anywhere and able to share files by using an Internet-based workplace. “It’s not designed for this, but it’s perfectly suited,” he said, in using technology to make it much easier for people to work.

“Sometimes when you have to start from scratch, you have the ability to try new things,” said Schaffer. “In the nonprofit world, sometimes having a highly traumatic situation can force you to rethink the way you’re doing business. I believe the nonprofit sector has a lot of untapped potential in technology. We will be able to try other things in New Orleans that can be replicated in other places.” NPT

NonProfit  Times
The Leading Business Publication For Nonprofit Management