Michael Gilbert’s passion is helping nonprofits do a better job. To do that, he studies nonprofits as organisms and then looks for ways to use technology to build on their natural strengths and way of doing business.
That’s not surprising. The Swedish-born Gilbert, who grew up in Austria, Berlin and Los Angeles, was trained as a biologist, has tinkered with computers since high school in the mid-1970s and spent the past 20 years as a nonprofit consultant.
And while he calls himself a "reluctant technologist," he has emerged as a national leader in efforts to help nonprofits make more productive use of computers and the Web.
Based in Seattle, Gilbert operates a cluster of virtual organizations that function as an incubator of products and services for nonprofits. His group includes the Gilbert Center, Internet Nonprofit Center and Nonprofit Online News — all nonprofits — as well as Social Ecology, a company that designs software and Web-based communications systems.
And, Gilbert recently was elected the first head of the board of directors of the Nonprofit Technology Enterprise Network, a newly formed nonprofit that aims to support individuals and organizations providing tech assistance to nonprofits.
Gilbert approaches nonprofits as organisms that are part of larger ecosystems — and he uses technology to help nonprofits cultivate and manage relationships and knowledge, both internally and externally. That "systems-design" strategy has led Social Ecology to join a growing industry of application service providers, or ASPs, that lease Web-based products and services to nonprofits.
Building on its own Web-based systems that distribute email and manage internal data, Social Ecology’s newest product is designed to help nonprofits manage online relationships with donors. Called DonorLink IT, the software integrates donor databases and email, letting nonprofit fundraisers send and receive email, and track and search their online correspondence with donors. Nonprofits also can integrate their online correspondence with their own databases containing information about donors.
The nonprofits are billed quarterly, ranging from a low of $99 per month for as few as 5,000 contacts and as much as $249 per month for 50,000 contacts. Consulting fees are $150 per hour, should they be needed.
Social Ecology has teamed up with a handful of firms – including Charitableway.com in San Carlos, Calif., and San Francisco-based Entango – that process online donations for nonprofits. Under the collaborative arrangements, data concerning donations processed through the Web-based systems of its partners automatically are fed into DonorLink so that Social Ecology’s nonprofit clients can track donor activity.
"Email is the most powerful relationship-building tool," Gilbert said. "It’s personal. It arrives in your email box. It invites a response. It’s right there." Yet databases that manage donor data stem from the era of desktops, before the explosion of the Internet, Gilbert said.
"They were designed as tracking tools and not necessarily as relationship-building tools," he said.
A big challenge for the nonprofit world is to help fundraisers and other nonprofit professionals "apply the skills they already know to the world of the Internet," he said. "The opportunity the Internet gives us," he said, "is the opportunity to carry one-to-one relationship-building to a whole new scale."
Despite his focus on technology, Gilbert said the future of philanthropy depends on the passion of people involved in nonprofit work. "That passion," he said, "will bring insight and commitment that a capital- or tech-driven company will never achieve."
Tech help for statewide groups
Associations of nonprofits in eight states will get technical assistance, through a $105,000 grant to the National Council of Nonprofit Associations in Washington, D.C., from the Charles Steward Mott Foundation in Flint, Mich.
The national organization has hired Chris Sullivan, MIS director for the Minnesota Council of Nonprofits, who will spend 40 percent of his time for a year working with the eight statewide groups.
Sullivan will focus on the groups’ needs in three areas: email and the Web; databases and networking; and telecommunications, including phones and fax technology.
"We hope to use this as a model to continue to provide support to other statewide associations," said Audrey Alvarado, the national association’s executive director.
The Technology Project has launched several new Web sites, backed by coalitions of nonprofits and funders, to promote action on public policy issues.
The Philadelphia-based group, an arm of the Rockefeller Family Fund in New York, works to speed social progress through technology.
In June, it launched dontblowit.org, which generated 4,440 email messages its first month urging President Clinton to support strong arms reduction and to oppose a national missile defense system.
Also launched in June was fillthesquare.org, which generated 1,500 email messages its first month to Kofi Annan, secretary general of the United Nations, supporting human rights in China. Last October, the Technology Project launched ourforests.org, which has generated 330,000 messages calling on the Clinton administration to protect national forests. And in December, the group launched greencar.org, which has generated 91,000 messages urging the top three U.S. automakers to market vehicles that are fuel-efficient.
In July, after The NonProfit Times went to press, the Technology Project was scheduled to launch a fifth site, gefoodalert, to generate messages to Kellogg Co., Campbell Soup Co. and the Food and Drug Administration calling for testing and labeling of genetically engineered food products.
The Technology Project at www.techproject.org also hopes to expand its efforts to assist other groups waging email campaigns, and to encourage email vendors serving nonprofits to make their products compatible with one another.
Idealist gets award
Ami Dar, founder of Action Without Borders, a New York nonprofit that publishes the Web portal site Idealist.org, has been named the Public Interest Pioneer for 2000 by the Stern Family Fund in Arlington, Va.
The fund also gave $100,000 to help expand the Nonprofit Resource Center at the Idealist.org Web site.
Dar, an Israeli native raised in Peru and Mexico, founded Action Without Borders in 1995 to support citizen action throughout the world. A year later, the nonprofit launched Idealist.org, a Web portal containing information on 20,000 organizations in 150 countries. He is also president of the U.S. subsidiary of Aladdin Knowledge Systems, which provides security systems for digital content.