Special Report: Promise Stations

As the seventh largest city in the nation, San Diego is known for its bustling waterfront, historic Gaslamp Quarter and famous zoo. These big city attractions belie the fact that it is a small business town – a town whose potential has been targeted by the local affiliate of America’s Promise (AP).

According to San Diego’s Promise numbers, 92 percent of businesses have 50 or fewer employees. Of those, 64 percent have five or fewer workers. Those numbers are ripe for an assault by a new America’s Promise Internet-based tool called Promise Stations.

Promise Stations are community and Web-based platforms that will operate off of a single server. But, each community will have control over a number of the design elements including selecting among five homepage designs, explained Gregg Petersmeyer, senior vice president and founding board member of America’s Promise in Alexandria, Va.

“The goal is to better enable different members of each community to become engaged in fulfilling the five promises of America’s Promise,” he said. “The Promise Station itself will contain a variety of tools that will allow individuals, parents, people from the education sector, business sector, local government and others to find his or her own way for how they would like to be involved in helping to fulfill these promises.”

To help realize promises, AP first had to erect the foundation of a successful system. That task was accomplished at national headquarters where the technology know-how was most prevalent.

“We built an Application Service Provider (ASP) model enabling Communities of Promise associated with America’s Promise to maintain their own Promise Station sites through a centralized technical architecture,” explained Tobeka Green, vice president of new media at AP. “No technical responsibilities were required of the communities.”

Green also said that the necessary technology to support their ASP model was developed in-house and that a sequel server database was utilized. The sequel server software allows the user to customize a database to best fit specific needs.

“As the number of communities grow there will be a need to increase server capacity,” Green added. “But, the heart and soul of the Promise Station engine has been the development of that ASP model.”

The stations are currently in their five-city test phase, with the San Diego’s Promise site currently live on the Web. Kansas City, Minneapolis-St. Paul, Cleveland and Knoxville, Tenn., are expected to follow with launches in the fall. It is hoped there will be 65 Promise Stations operating by the end of the year.

Being the original test case for the concept left San Diego’s Promise with virtually no blueprint to work from. PriceWaterhouseCoopers supplied the coding for the Web site, but to forge ahead with their station they decided to go back to school.

“We tapped into one of our local colleges, Cal State San Marcos, and their technology department,” explained Sandy McBrayer, chief executive officer for San Diego’s Promise. “We actually did work with the vice president and asked if the students could earn credit while they’re learning how to do this with us. It’s bridging that gap of learning together while kind of recruiting our army.”

The college may soon enlist as a permanent regiment of that army. Cal State San Marcos is working with the nonprofit to become its Webmaster. The union saves the organization on costs ranging from consultant to hardware fees.

“You have to be really creative in your partnerships to see who has the expertise you need. There were all these college professors who teach this for a living and we found a way to tap into that without having to pay an enormous amount of money,” said McBrayer.

The savings begin with communities being able to run their Promise Stations from a basic setup. San Diego operates its station via one Pentium III computer complete with Web editing software, including Dreamweaver 4.0. It’s that simple.

The technological task was developing a template that would make it as easy as possible on the communities’ wallets while providing a bounty of functions.

The platform used to build the Promise Stations was an Internet information server and the Cold Fusion application server. It’s a rapid application development requirement for the Web that allowed AP to roll out functionality and efficiency.

“Cold Fusion was really the language, the platform for building the Promise Stations,” explained Brian Murrow, principal consultant at PricewaterhouseCoopers. “The Promise Stations, in and of themselves, are a custom application which we created with America’s Promise. So local communities need no additional Web hosting software to be able to utilize the Promise Stations – that’s all housed centrally through America’s Promise and PriceWaterhouseCoopers hosted nationally.”

Since it is an ASP model where all information is centralized, each community can realize high technology, low cost benefits.

Money is the bottom line that drives all businesses, but the challenges in meeting organizational goals are particularly unique in a small business town, such as San Diego. One roadblock in reaching out to businesses in the area is that due to compact staffs, rarely is anyone specifically assigned to handle philanthropic activities.

“If we were to call these businesses and say ‘What do you do for kids,’ they would say, ‘We’re with a client. I have to go,'” McBrayer admitted. “So the Web site has really allowed them to learn what other businesses are doing locally and how they can model those efforts.”

It has also provided businesses with a shopping list of needs. San Diego’s Promise inaugurated what is known as a “wish list.” The wish list was assembled after businesses expressed a desire to know more about specific needs. The list has matured to a point where many needs are precise. McBrayer explained that listings could range from in-kind gifts such as pencils and desks to tutors or even someone who has a knack for building model airplanes. The wish list has been so well received that America’s Promise will be including it on all future Promise Stations.

Searching for these wishful local organizations is a click away as donors and recipients are matched through a simple zip code search on the site. The five-digit number will yield every youth-serving organization within that ZIP code, what they are seeking in terms of volunteer needs and the corresponding wish lists.

Flexibility exists not only with the options given to businesses and local nonprofits but also with the affiliates that run the stations. Affiliates decide on where and how their data is handled.

“Much of the content is run through a central server and database but each community has control over its own data,” Petersmeyer said. “So while all data may be housed in a central place, communities have their own access to it. Their community organizations can provide data. The objective is to have each community decide what content and what features would be most effective in accomplishing its strategy.”

So while America’s Promise and PriceWaterhouseCoopers safeguard most of the data, not everything has to be run through that central server. America’s Promise allows their affiliates to find the system that works best for their target needs.

“You can have on your Web site that if someone wants to donate dollars you can do it through GuideStar or you could do it like we did in San Diego and do it through a link on the United Way,” McBrayer said. “We could say that we want our own database with a volunteer center so that every time someone punches in a zip code it goes to that database or we can say we want to do ServNet which gives you national information. We decided to go local because we didn’t want people to have to sift through all those numbers.”

It may sound like a pricey proposition but San Diego’s Promise did not have to invest in new computers or equipment. The end product served two purposes. In www.sandiegospromise.org it established a distinct URL that reinforces a local brand. In working to build that brand, a template was created for future affiliates.

One of those prospective Promise Stations will set up in Kansas City where the template is being used to design a station with a much different target than its West Coast sister site. Kansas City’s Promise will seek to grow communities through the five basic promises of promoting ongoing relationships with caring adults, safe places with structured activities during non-school hours, healthy starts and futures, marketable skills through effective education and opportunities to give back through community service.

“We’re really focused on trying to develop Promise Sites in particular,” explained Denny Barnett, executive director of Kansas City’s Promise. “We define Promise Sites as places where all five of the resources can be delivered through one location. In the first phase of our work here we had a number of nonprofit organizations that were delivering two or three of the promises. Our goal here in the next three years is to lift the level of those organizations up to providing all five promises.”

The provision of all five promises begins at local volunteer centers, of which there are four in Greater Kansas City that cover both sides of the state line and they all share a common database. The Promise Station links right into that common database so that people can search opportunities on how they can get involved directly off of the Web site. Any questions that they may have are forwarded to a centralized number that will link them to all of the volunteer centers.

Building Kansas City’s Promise has involved some segregation in the overall database as opportunities to volunteer for children and youth needs have been relocated to the Promise Station, Barnett said.

The site is scheduled to go live this month but thus far Barnett is impressed with its cost efficiency and simplicity of use.

“We didn’t have to go out and hire any kind of Web site consultant,” he clarified. “I know that PriceWaterhouseCoopers was brought on to design this and the way it’s put together is just fantastic in that those of us that are not computer savvy can use it. The system is very user-friendly. We don’t have any experience with how to manage a Web site but this is easy. If you know how to type you’re pretty set in terms of managing it. Really all we need to do is to know how to do word processing and with that we can put almost anything up on the site.”

Petersmeyer is confident that other areas will benefit from the work accomplished by San Diego and Kansas City. America’s Promise is planning on making the template available to 65 additional communities between now and the end of the year.

“Those communities will be able to choose among are a variety of menu items that represent the best thinking of five quite different communities that preceded them,” he added.

As one of the Promise Stations’ pioneers, McBrayer believes that the template is of great benefit but affiliates will still have to answer a number of questions that will ultimately drive the site.

“If you were a new city I’d say you would have to recognize who the technology players are in your area and be creative enough to see that it’s not always a company but it might be someone’s expertise at a business. Who can you borrow from? Who can you learn from? Who can help you with things that are already there?”

It’s a major commitment to information technology but one that America’s Promise hopes will become a nationwide backbone connecting local nonprofits with those who have the resources to help their neighborhoods. ” These Promise Stations are a very substantial investment in an information system that we believe will eventually be utilized by thousands and thousands of communities.”


NPT staff writer Jeff Berger also contributed to this story