Developing Enabling Networks and Systems of Support

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“We are pretty good alone but we are brilliant together. That is really what an enabling network is about,” states Rob Stuart, co-principal of the Technology Project, based in Philadelphia. “A technology-enabling network is based on the principles of cooperation, knowledge building, and information sharing. A network often works to support and coordinate the efforts of technology-support providers, foundations, and corporations involved in this arena.”

A network reduces the costs and adds significant value to nonprofits as they seek to integrate technology into their practices. “There’s a reason nonprofits aren’t making the transition as fast as everyone else. It takes time and money. Nonprofit managers have spent a lot of time trying to look at the relative worth of various forms of hardware, software, training, technical support. There’s additional time spent in negotiating terms, making purchases, and the list goes on,” reflects Trabian Shorters of Technology Works for the Good in Washington, D.C.

An enabling network creates a cost-saving, value-adding infrastructure by pulling together the existing knowledge within a community to reduce the time and the confusion that nonprofit leaders face as they strive to make thoughtful and appropriate technology decisions. Technology-support networks offer leaders easy access to reliable and relevant information about consultants, hardware and software products, technology support, and training.

In addition, a local network may add value through its ability to attract financial and in-kind resources from foundations and the private sector, human resources (paid, volunteer, experts, interns, etc.), knowledge and experience of the private sector and nonprofit support providers, and momentum and wisdom from other initiatives.

Every technology-support network is different, reflecting local interests and resources among other things, but in general all include one or more of the activities listed below:

* Stimulate partnerships and organize gatherings to share knowledge among technology-support providers;

* Develop information and standards to help nonprofits make appropriate choices;

* Create common resources such as a central website of technology-assistance information in the area, or assessment tools for planning that technicians, planners and nonprofit leaders can use; and

* Organize training sessions for technology providers and nonprofit leaders to raise the standard of service and knowledge.

One of the more recent and potentially powerful networks evolving in the nonprofit technology-assistance scene is the Nonprofit Technology Enterprise Network (NTEN). NTEN has been in a research and planning phase for the last two years. The group incorporated as a nonprofit organization earlier this year, under the leadership of a temporary founding board. It is expected to take the form of a national association, according to Michael Gilbert, NTEN’s president. “NTEN is organized to meet the needs of individuals and organizations who are acting as resources to nonprofits as they address their technology needs.”

As stated in its business plan, NTEN will become a catalyst and conduit for more collaboration and resource- and information-sharing across the sector. Specifically, it will strive to be a meeting house for nonprofit technology-assistance providers to find peers, share know-how, and form collaborative enterprises; a clearinghouse of knowledge and tools for technology assistance; an incubator of new technology-assistance organizations and programs; a rainmaker mobilizing new resources to advance technology capacity; and a think tank scanning the emerging trends. “Without question, there are substantial resources at NTEN’s disposal and a great deal of interest in achieving this vision and mission on a national scale,” says Gilbert. In terms of watching the continued development, “your readers will definitely see substantive information in six months.” For more information about NTEN, see their website (

Just as NTEN has formed on a national level, smaller regionally based technology-support systems are taking shape or already exist in Chicago, Seattle, Atlanta, Kansas City, Minneapolis, San Francisco, Washington D.C., Dallas, Pittsburgh, North Carolina, Massachusetts and the Mid South region (Arkansas, Louisiana, and Mississippi). This list is certainly not comprehensive, so we recommend you stay tuned to NTEN because it will still be the best place to stay abreast of new technology-support networks emerging in your area.

You decide it’s time to tackle this technology thing everyone keeps talking about. So whom do you call for help? A colleague in another organization? Maybe your brother-in-law has a computer store. You could open the yellow pages…

But wait! What if you could call an organization that specializes in nonprofit technology? A place you can trust that coordinates all the different technology-support groups and consultants you’ve heard about in the area. A place where people don’t reinvent the wheel but accumulate information and evaluate potential products and resources, a pool of useful knowledge. What if you called this place, and they told you that they provide the following services:

* A network of low- or no-cost consultation from nonprofit technologists (circuit riders) and information technology volunteers from local computer corporations;

* An interactive website that instantly and directly connects you to technical-assistance providers, foundations, information, and other nonprofits;

* Purchasing of hardware and other computer supplies at greatly reduced prices due to their bulk-purchasing program;

* Education programs on nonprofit-technology issues designed for executive directors, senior staff, board members, and foundations;

* A resource bank with details on effective nonprofit-technology practices used in the field, with a list of organizations willing to accept your phone calls to talk about their experience;

* Certification programs for technology planning that will validate your approach for area funders; and

* A technology-resource directory with lists of all area consultants and technology-support centers. Each listing would provide you with information about services, ratings of the provider provided by previous clients, resumes, and other related materials available online.

Wow! Wouldn’t that be great?

Marc Osten is an organizational development strategist and advisor to foundations, management support organizations, and nonprofit networks. He specializes in the strategic use of technology and the Internet to help nonprofit organizations improve their effectiveness and meet their mission. He is the principal of Summit Consulting Collaborative, which develops innovative solutions to technology planning and management challenges facing the nonprofit sector. Mary F. (Molly) Weis is the editor of the Nonprofit Quarterly.