Nonprofits sometimes on cutting edge of technology

Organizations meeting at Microsoft's campus this week share ideas for using technology to further their missions

Cash-strapped nonprofits may not be the first place many would think to look for novel uses of technology, but it turns out some of them are on the cutting edge.

Take the Nature Conservancy. It recently equipped a couple of scientists for a trip across Africa's Namib desert on foot. "We draped solar panels on the back of a camel, gave [the scientists] a light notebook with low power requirements and digital cameras," said Jean-Louis Écochard, CIO for the Nature Conservancy.

"Throughout the journey they could upload images of biodiversity, rhino habitat, they could keep in touch and write a blog."

Incidentally, at one point a camel took off carrying a new Macbook, causing a several hour detour for the chase.

Twice yearly, 26 large nongovernment organizations (NGOs) get together as part of a nonprofit collaborative effort called NetHope to share tips on how they're using technology. This week, they've been meeting at Microsoft's campus in Redmond, Washington.

The way NGOs like the Nature Conservancy use technology is a bit like the off label use of medicine -- when doctors prescribe medicine for ailments other than what the drugs were designed to address. "This is off label technology," Écochard said. "We're bending it in a way that makes it work in a place to suit our purposes."

Scientists at the Nature Conservancy use high-end cameras attached to helicopters to snap detailed photos of foliage in Hawaii in order to identify where invasive weeds are growing.

Windows CE based handheld devices, most often designed for manufacturing lines or other urban business deployments, aid scientists measuring changes in remote grasslands.

This week, Microsoft announced that it will give the Nature Conservancy SharePoint software, a donation valued at U$2.4 million. Once the software is in place next year, it will connect remote scientists and other workers in 700 offices and 30 countries around the world.

"We work beyond the last mile -- way beyond the last mile," Écochard noted. That can make collaboration difficult.

"We need to create a virtual world whereby scientists who are working in the grasslands in the U.S. Midwest can collaborate with scientists in Argentina working on grasslands there collaborating with those in the Mongolian grasslands who are collaborating with the Tanzanians," he said.

Today, those scientists often use e-mail, which isn't ideal for collaboration, he said. With budget cuts, they are less likely to meet in person and video conferences don't work great on a daily basis, he said.

The Nature Conservancy also hopes to eventually let volunteers, trustees and other staff use SharePoint so that they can find out real time about the work scientists are doing in order to build programs and develop projects, he said.

The deployment is indicative of the unique needs many NGOs have. "For example, World Vision has tens of thousands of employees, many of them are in the field in reasonably remote locations," said Akhtar Badshah, senior director of global community affairs at Microsoft. "You don't necessarily get that with most companies... When you think of the Nature Conservancy in remote locations, they need to be connected."

Off-the-shelf software like SharePoint doesn't always work for these nonprofits though, and so some groups are developing their own systems, sometimes based on open-source software, that can meet their needs affordably.

One example is the way that microfinance agencies build databases and other back-end systems to manage their work. Some microfinance institutions are running on manual systems or spreadsheets, said Peter Bladin, founding director of the Grameen Foundation's technology center.

"Given how transaction intensive this is, it's amazing they don't have more sophisticated technology," he said.

Microfinance organizations sometimes try to buy a system that has been developed for a similar business but find it doesn't quite fit.

Or they may try employing software developed for banks but also find they don't work quite right. Customization of such software is too expensive and unrealistic for most microfinance institutions, Bladin said.

So Grameen helped drive the effort to create Mifos, an open-source management information system designed for microfinance.

"The beauty is anybody with technical skills can have access to the source code and enhance it," he said. "We have people writing code around the world and feeding it back."

NetHope is also developing programs to support members. For instance, it is setting up an IT help desk that Accenture is helping with that will offer 24-hour technical support to employees of member companies.

Most big NGOs have half the IT budget as their counterparts in the commercial world, said Bill Brindley, CEO and executive director of NetHope.

"If they can get help from their brothers and sisters in NetHope, they can build capacity with limited budgets that they otherwise wouldn't be able to do," he said.

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