“Don’t Tell Anyone What We’re Doing”

Back in the 20th century, when I first started working in Massachusetts in the field ofnonprofit technology, it seemed to me that the unofficial motto of every nonprofit was “Don’t tell anyone what we’re doing, because if you do, they’ll know what we’re doing.”

I wish I could tell you the story of my first experience with this tacit rule, but the people involved are still living, and they would never want me to mention their names or give anyone any information about the programs that they ran.  So please use your imagination.  All I can say is that all of the relevant facts about this organization’s programs are freely available to today on this organization’s web site, for anyone who cares to look it up. As far as I know, providing the names and phone numbers of the people directing the sites at which the programs are offered has not led to any catastrophes.

We’ve come a long way in the Massachusetts nonprofit sector, thanks to leadership from folks at organizations such as the Boston Foundationthe Massachusetts Nonprofit Network, and the Caring Force at the Massachusetts Council of Human Service Providers.  They have done some hard work in fostering collaboration, and with collaboration comes more freely shared information about what each nonprofit is doing.  (In my opinion, sometimes information sharing is the cause, and sometimes it’s the effect.)

I’m much obliged to people who have taught me a lot about the importance of nonprofit collaboration, such as Tom McLaughlin (who does a great deal of hands-on work to make it happen), Heather MacIndoe (who is doing academic research on the interplay of nonprofit collaboration and competition in the Boston area), and Susan Labandibar (who is pioneering some important new ideas about how nonprofit technology assistance providerscan support organizations in collaborating for greater mission success.)

However, the new spirit of openness is much more than a regional phenomenon; it is aninformation age phenomenon.  As Beth Kanter and Allison Fine have explained in their groundbreaking book, The Networked Nonprofit, we are living an age where everystakeholder is a free agent online.  People who have strong ties or no ties at all to a nonprofit can use any number of social media channels to make facts and opinions about the organization available to everyone. While the privacy and security of client data is still an extremely high priority, nonprofits have already lost most of the battles in the war against transparency.  So they might as well embrace the practice of sharing information with other organizations and start looking for ways to make their programs, operations, and missions complementary.

Transparency, accountability, and collaboration in the nonprofit sector are mostly positive developments – especially when compared to obsession with control, covering up wrongdoings, and stonewalling. As Louis Brandeis said, “sunlight is the best disinfectant.” Even if it were not, it’s clear that greater openness is now a fact of life in our culture.  Our focus should not be on fighting the information age, but in balancing between its imperatives and the need to respect the privacy of the innocent and vulnerable.


Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

5 Technology Solutions for Health and Human Service Providers

Most nonprofits, especially human service providers, are under pressure to reconsider how they do business in the face of decreased resources, increased accountability measures, new funding structures, and increased expectations to produce evidence of effectiveness. Technology offers tools that can help human services organizations provide effective, efficient and low-cost services in an individualized manner, and meet the complex reporting requirements of regulators and funders. These tools can also assist organizations in finding innovative ways to provide services to their communities and expand the reach and the impact of those services.

Traditionally, most human services nonprofits spend most of their budgets on resources for direct services, with little left over for planning or implementing technology to support their work. Organizations that have been able to combine their dedication to mission with resources to build both their business and technological capacity are best positioned to meet current challenges. Moving into the future, organizations are likely to adopt new technologies to sustain, manage, and improve their businesses. Preserving what is important and valuable about human services while taking advantage of what technology has to offer is a possibility with promise.

Here are 5 common problems and solutions which use technology as a service tool to help you innovate:

1. Problem: You continually collect the same data over and over because it is not easily accessible or is not stored each time a client visits.

Solution: Track all data so staff can spend more time working with customers and clients. Create a custom-built database for mission-critical data.

2. Problem: Your nonprofit has the tools to provide great service, but people aren’t sure of what you do.

Solution: Create a website, create a monthly or quarterly newsletter. Visit techsoup.org for articles on getting your website noticed. WordPress has free templates. Squarespace and Wix are also low-cost solutions for the novice.

3. Problem: Your agency collects mission-critical data, but your organization can’t access it remotely.

Solution: Move your files to the cloud (perhaps using Microsoft Office 365), so all users are able to access and add to your database at any given time.

4. Problem: You need to report financial information to donors and funders in many different ways and you are doing repetitive equations to get the reports you need.

Solution: Track your finances using nonprofit fund accounting software that generates the reports you need. QuickBooks, NonProfitBooks, or Raiser’s Edge are some common programs.

5. Problem: You want to talk about your accomplishments, but aren’t sure how to capture what customer or clients think.

Solution: Conduct a survey using tools such as surveymonkey.com that ask clients the services received from your agency. Use this information to show stakeholders how you are making a difference in the community.

Find out how other nonprofits are using information technology by attending one of our Roundtable discussions.

Bridgespan Report Shows Nonprofits Are Eager to Share Support Functions

How can nonprofits collaborate to reduce costs and make more efficient use of technology?  A recent study conducted by Bridgespan shows that nonprofit CEOs have had good luck when they share services with other nonprofits in their sector and they are looking to do more.  What are the two biggest barriers they face in trying to structure these collaborations?

1)      Finding partners

2)      Getting funding

Collaborative Technology Management is all about sharing skilled resources.  TNB is looking for opportunities to help nonprofits work together to build solutions using shared resources.  One of our ideas is to create an IT consortium dedicated to the idea that schools can collaborate to reduce costs and make better use of technology, both in the back office and in the classroom.

Stay tuned!


Susan Labandibar speaks at CommonBound Conference June 8th

Susan spoke at the CommonBound conference on June 8th about technology’s role in the new economy. This topic encompasses our strategic priority of contributing to the missions of organizations that improve our community. Susan highlighted that as the economy changes, you must also evolve the way you use technology, such as TNB using technology to create successful collaborations.

One example of the new economy creating opportunities for technology is the creation of B Corporations. Tech Networks of Boston was recently granted B Corp certification, which legally allows a company to prioritize mission over money. The government is realizing that encouraging businesses to put community before profit increases innovation for the greater good. Information Technology is becoming more and more useful for building community and the CommonBound Conference was a perfect showcase for the like.

CommonBound 2014 is the New Economy Coalition’s largest and most significant convening yet. This conference showcased a wide variety of new economy strategies, and participation from organizations such as the US Federation of Worker Cooperatives, Demos, Climate Justice Alliance, Shareable, PolicyLink, and more.

To learn more about the New Economy Coaltion (NEC) visit neweconomy.net.

Here is her full speech:
“ What is the new economy? It’s human scale, resourceful, restorative and compassionate. Just like in colonial times, it’s profoundly DIY and it’s profoundly democratic. But unlike colonial times, it is built on highly sophisticated technology that is so simple to use and so affordable, that almost everyone can use it.
Why is this so important to the development of the new economy? Well, let’s step back for a second and let me tell you that we already know how to live within our planetary means, even with a population of more than 7 billion people. All we need to do is reduce the standard of living worldwide to that of the average citizen of Bangladesh. Now that doesn’t sound so appealing. The new economy is more than just the democratization of technology, but let me tell you, there is no way we’re going to build durable economies without it.
The democratization of technology has had profound implications on the business I work in, Tech Network of Boston. Tech Networks is an IT services company that started twenty years ago delivering used computers to inner city college students. When computers became cheap and ubiquitous, we shifted our focus to maintaining computer networks for local area non-profits. Then, guess what happened? The same thing. Email, shared files and applications began to move to the cloud. Software in particular became so easy and cheap to use that almost anyone could download and install them on their phone. So then we started helping people use technology to collaborate.
For three years now, our mantra has been: “We’re Better Together.” And over time, we’re learning how to build even more powerful collaborations and break down silos. Some people think that we earn our living by maintaining servers and building network infrastructure, but that’s becoming less relevant. We are helping non-profits use information technology to serve their employees and their constituents, to scale in size and impact, and to innovate.
But Tech Networks, like so many other social enterprises today, is itself an innovative organization that defies traditional labels. We’re a Certified B Corporation on the road to becoming a Massachusetts Benefit Corporation. That means that we are legally allowed to prioritize mission over money. Thank God. If I had investors they would have fired me a long time ago!
Our mission, like the new economy itself, is complex. In the new economic ecosystem there are no clear boundaries. Yes, we enable positive change in the world by helping non-profit organizations take advantage of IT. But we have many other relationships within the community, including our IT community of practice, our workforce development partnerships, and our initiatives outside the IT field, like Southie Trees which focuses on maintaining and expanding tree coverage in South Boston, and the Climate Action Liaison Coalition, which enables businesses to take action against climate change.
Tech Networks is extremely grateful that the Commonwealth of Massachusetts has created a legal status for businesses like ours. But there is so much more that government could do to encourage the growth and development of the new economy. For the last thirty years, the City of Burlington Vermont has explicitly followed an economic development plan that features government, small businesses and non-profit organizations working together to build a durable economy that meets the needs of all residents. It’s my hope that cities and towns across the nation will take notice of the success that Burlington has achieved by following this model.
I’m going to wrap up with a story with a personal story about government, the new economy, and an opossum in a trash can. One of the crowning achievements of the Department of New Urban Mechanics at the City of Boston was the “Citizens Connect” iPhone app. Whereas, prior to the app, City of Boston employees used to drive around the City, looking for potholes and other problems, the Citizens Connect application allows any smartphone user to snap a picture of a broken street light, pothole, or other annoyance and automatically report the location to the City. There is also a Twitter feed, so people can follow along as the problems are reported and fixed. I had just downloaded the app after learning about it at a neighborhood association meeting. I was bored, it was 11:00 on a Friday night in the middle of winter. I clicked on a few pictures of potholes, and then I saw a picture of a red trash can with something in it.
The accompanying text was: “Possum’ in my trash can. Can’t tell if it’s dead. How do I get this removed.” I got on my coat, walked ten minutes to the trash can location, and, sure enough, there was an opossum trapped in a trash can. 15 minutes later, I filed the return tweet: “Possum? Check. Living? Yep. Turned the trash can on its side. Walked home. Good night, sweet possum.”
Talk about “We’re Better Together” When citizens, businesses, and governments work together, you never know what can happen. Sometimes, you might even save an opossum.”


TNB Press Release on MBTA Fare Hikes and Service Cuts



Company Could Pay $10,000 More Each Year; Changes Would Hit Employees, Clients

No matter how you look at it, the proposed MBTA fare hikes are bad for business.  Tech Networks of Boston, an IT services firm located in Andrew Square,  relies on public transportation to get employees to work and to client sites, and to enable customers to access its offices.  “We subsidize train and commuter rail passes for our employees,” says Susan Labandibar, President of Tech Networks.  “These fare increases could cost us nearly $10,000 per year.”

Employee Diane Tirschel has calculated her costs of commuting from Attleboro by commuter rail, with the 50% subsidy provided by Tech Networks.  It’s about even: $197.50 per month for the train, versus $191 per month driving, with a gallon of gas costing $3.50.  “I’m on the fence right now as it is,” says Tirschel.  With the T’s dramatic fare hikes, even the company’s 50% subsidy might not be enough for commuters like Tirschel to continue choosing the train.  “I would like to contribute to making the environment better, but [the fare hikes] are making that hard for me,” says Tirschel.  “Adding thousands of cars to the roadways will not only be environmentally irresponsible, but detrimental for economic growth in the Commonwealth,” says Labandibar.

“The subsidy has allowed several employees, including me, to avoid car ownership altogether,” says Labandibar.  But the fare hikes could change that.  Employee Cordaryll Monroe, who commutes from Ayer, “was considering getting a car when I heard about the MBTA raising their fares.”  Monroe is an ideal transit user: “I walk to the train station.  That’s why I chose to live in Ayer.”  But with drastic fare hikes, it might not make sense anymore.  The fare hikes “can affect everyday living expenses,” says Monroe, so “I have no alternatives right now.  I might get a car.”

“Big businesses are laying people off, but we’re hiring,” says Labandibar.  “Seventeen years ago, when I founded Tech Networks of Boston, I made sure that my office was close to public transportation.  Over the years, thousands of customers and hundreds of employees have saved time and gas by taking the T to our office.  These fare hikes and service cuts are undercutting a key element of our business strategy.”

Susan Labandibar is President of the Sustainable Business Network of Greater Boston and is active in the community.  She has won multiple awards from the City of Boston and national organizations for her environmentally sustainable technology business.  She will speak at Suffolk University on Feb. 28 on “Women Making a Difference in Entrepreneurship.”

# # #

CONTACT:  Susan Labandibar, (617) 269-0299 x301, susan@techboston.com

Secrets to a Successful Business

Tech Networks is lucky enough to have a “garage story.”  Not that we actually started in a garage, but we did start out of my apartment with $5,000 invested in one new computer for me and five used computers to sell.  And while there were a lot of people selling used computers in those days, there were few that really cared about their customers the way we did.

That’s why when we started the retail store, we continued on with the simple rule I had developed in the PC delivery business:  Test everything in front of the customer.  I don’t care if it’s brand-new in the box.  That’s no proof that it works.  Especially for the customer, who is not looking forward to setting up a new and unfamiliar piece of computer equipment in their bedroom , living room, or basement.  Every monitor was turned on, every printer printed a test page, and every computer was booted in front of the customer before they left the store.

Show the customer that it works was the number one rule at the store in the early days.  And it certainly paid off.  Once there was a customer who didn’t have time for our introduction to the PC when he was buying a used computer.  It wasn’t his fault, really, he had  a cab waiting outside.  Anyway, when he got home he called me to express his deep concern with his CD-ROM drive.  It had a major structural defect.  CDs, when placed in the drive tray, prevented the tray from closing or just fell right off.  The problem was quickly remedied when, with my encouragement, he turned the PC right-side up.   (See those round disks on top of the computer, those are the FEET.)

And it turns out that customers really appreciate it when you care.  If a  customer’s Internet is down, our help desk just naturally calls the Internet service provider instead of leaving it to the customer to wrangle with it.  If a server has been acting up during a visit, our onsite engineers just naturally login at night just to keep an eye on things.  If a  backup isn’t working properly, our senior engineers will quietly launch a Microsoft backup just to make sure everything is ok
It’s easy to see that caring is contagious.  Caring about the customer is important, but so is caring about the people who work in the business.   And the circle of compassion does not need to end there.  Like many businesses, we realize that our impact extends both to our local community, and to the wider world.

Beyond caring, it helps to have a product or service that people need and want.  And this is why being in the technology field is such an opportunity for creative innovation.

The Second Declaration

A book written by a 24-year old futurist, called “The Second Generation,” has sold more than 4 million copies in China. The book reveals author Wang Xiaoping’s great dream: Immortality and infinite joy for mankind. How will this dream be achieved? Ms. Xiaoping believes that science and technology are becoming so advanced, that we are reaching the point when computers and machines can begin to design and build ever-more powerful versions of themselves.

With these super-machines, we will confer upon ourselves supernatural powers, such as genius intelligence, high morality, perfect beauty, day-long ecstasy and even immortality.  That is, of course, if we can just get through this current rough patch where we have invented machines powerful enough to kill us but not yet powerful enough to save us by making us wise.

Chicago’s Climate Action Plan

As a member of the City of Boston’s newly-formed Community Advisory Committee on Climate Action (which could, unfortunately, come to be known as CACCA), my first assignment was to read the City of Chicago’s Climate Action Plan.  After reading the 60-page plan, I’m not sure whether Chicago is actually going to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions, but I do know one thing:  They sure have the jump on Boston!

Take trees, for example.  Chicagoans have been planting trees since 1989.  At last count, they’ve planted over 500,000 of them.  In Boston, we launched our 100,000 tree planting program in 2007.  To date, we are not even close to being on track to plant 100,000 trees by 2020.  Furthermore, our tree inventory is in rapid decline, as I have noted elsewhere in this blog.

Admittedly, Chicago is a bigger city than Boston.   But Chicago has over 4 million square feet of green roof space, 15 million square feet of energy-retrofitted city buildings, and a 17-acre eco-industrial park.   The Chicago Conservation Corps recruits and trains hundreds of volunteers to lead environmental service projects.  And, as a charter member of the Chicago Climate Exchange, the Windy City has made a legally binding commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 6% by 2010.

Yet, despite all these efforts, the Chicago Climate Action Plan acknowledges that greenhouse gas emissions in Chicago are still rising!

What you don’t know might hurt you

How much do you really know about global warming?  Funny enough, very few people are actually keeping up with the science.  This is a problem, because the news from climate scientists is getting progressively worse.

Many people have a habit of avoiding critical news.  Take the passengers of the Titanic, for example.  From the moment of first impact with the iceberg to the time the ship sank there was an interval of several hours.  Plenty of time for passengers to get organized, make a plan as to how the lifeboats would be loaded, distribute life vests, and make contingency plans for those who would have to swim.  This didn’t happen, however.  Passengers were initially informed that the ship had hit an iceberg but that there was no cause for concern.  Most went back to bed.  When the lifeboats were launched, many passengers were afraid to get into them.  Some of the lifeboats launched half-empty.  Poor decision-making by passengers was the main reason that so few lives were saved.  Of the 2,223 passengers aboard, only 706 survived.  This number could have been much higher.  The ship carried lifeboats with room for 1,178 people.  Also, steps could have been taken to increase the survival chances of those who were swimming in the water, not all of whom died.

Last September, we received preliminary signs that we have hit the iceberg.   For the first time, in an area of the Arctic that has already warmed more than 7.2 degrees Farenheit, methane chimneys conveying bubbles of sub-sea methane directly to the surface were found by researchers off the Siberian continental shelf.

There is a lot of methane locked under the Arctic.  More than the total amount of carbon locked up in global coal reserves.  And methane is about 20 times more powerful as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.  The more permafrost and ice melts, the faster the methane will be released.  And the faster the methane is released, the more permafrost and ice will melt.  If we can’t reverse this, the planet will quickly become uninhabitable.

So, now is the time to get going, fellow Titanic passengers.  Let’s try to build more lifeboats before the ship sinks. One quick thing you can do right now is join the Minutemen and Minutewomen at securegreenfuture.org

Follow the link and do it now.  It’s free, for gosh sake.

What’s your tipping point?

Do you remember the books you read in Junior High?  All Quiet on the Western Front, The Great Gatsby, The Diary of Anne Frank, A Separate Peace — They leave an indelible impression on you when you’re thirteen.  For example, I stopped reading All Quiet on the Western Front when the horses were killed in the second chapter, but my history teacher insisted in a written note to my parents that I had to finish it in order to appreciate the tragedy of war.

The Diary of Anne Frank is about a young Jewish girl striving to live a normal life under very abnormal circumstances. As I read the book, I  wondered:  What are those times in history when average person can no longer pursue his individual needs, but must sacrifice himself in order to protect the greater good?  How do people decide to take a stand?  What is the tipping point?

For example, let’s say you were living in Germany in the 30’s. In 1933, the first concentration camp was opened in Dachau.  In 1934, the Aryan laws were passed to thwart Jews in the professions.  In 1935, the infamous Nuremberg laws were passed, which stripped Jews of their German citizenship, and of their right to marry non-Jews.  Would you have taken a stand then?  Would you have left Germany?  Or would you have continued to pursue a normal life?

This is how the Holocaust arrived, we learned in school.  By bits and pieces.  So that by the time Kristallnacht arrived on November 9, 1938, it was somehow tolerable that 100 Jews were murdered, 20,000 German and Austrian Jews arrested and sent to camps, hundreds of synagogues burned, and the windows of Jewish shops all over Germany and Austria  were smashed.

What is your tipping point?  When would you decide that you must put aside the idea of personal happiness, devoting life instead to stopping a terrible juggernaut?