Working for the love of the job

There's more to the job than just money for some IT bosses. A few dedicated souls are happy to turn up each day simply because they're working for something they believe in.

There's more to the job than just money for some IT bosses.

A few dedicated souls are happy to turn up each day simply because they're working for something they believe in.

No, not techies at Air New Zealand. We're talking about the IT co-ordinators of the voluntary sector -- the charities and the not-for-profit organisations, which, like any other enterprise, need technology to operate and technicians to implement and fix systems.

IT has become vital in administering voluntary organisations, particularly for building databases of contributors and donors and using these to ensure regular donations. The internet has greatly eased the arduousness and cost of keeping contact with members and fundraising. Most of the larger groups have a website listing their activities, and some, such as Greenpeace, use the web for "cyberactivism" -- emailing people to alert them of fresh campaigns and protests. Some organisations can even accept donations online.

In the US, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and related bodies, such as Save the Children and the environmentalist Sierra Club, are reportedly benefitting from having IT heads who, having made it big in private industry, are now keen to "give something back".

They feel motivated not by cash or profit sharing, but by the goals of their employer organisations. Added bonuses include the interesting challenge of managing projects with limited budgets and maintaining the unusual ethos of working together in co-operation with other groups, rather than in competition with them.

While US groups tend to have their own IT managers or CIOs, either working as a volunteer or on paid salary at less than corporate rates, in New Zealand organisations are smaller, meaning IT managers will often also take on finance or other roles, or work part-time.

Some, like the Society for the Protection of Cruelty to Animals, can't even justify this, and outsource all of its IT functions.

Regardless of the group concerned, common themes emerge.

Peter Jordan, IT manager for the Cancer Society in Auckland, says he does most of the work himself, as the more work done in-house the more money the organisation saves.

Jordan says his organisation is "very restrictive" in what it can spend, but says there is a lot of help available. Many IT vendors will give "good causes" support if you ask them, he says. Microsoft, for example, has a special software programme for charities, a discounted plan they appear to be happy to take advantage of. Jordan says the Cancer Society hasn't purchased anything major in IT for a few years, but support like Microsoft's "has made things easier".

Jordan, who has been at the society nine years, started in data entry but has since been trained in higher IT tasks. Even so, the charity relies on outsiders to handle major projects or problems.

He accepts he could make more in private industry but says he gets extra satisfaction from working for the society, as people tend to be more patient and there is also more contact with people. "Every so often I look at the real world and see whether people are enjoying it. There are the challenges in the purchasing, but because the staff are [pleasant] people it is a very relaxing environment here. I am not that ambitious. This suits me fine," Jordan says.

At Greenpeace Edward Duff is one of a handful of paid workers; he also acts as finance manager, so watches spending on IT. Duff describes the IT budget as "minimal" and says contractors are brought in to handle repairs and maintenance. The group receives "much support" from its parent body in Holland, but "we have to run this business like any other business".

The charity benefits from a "charity price" on Microsoft software -- an upgrade to a Microsoft small business package has just taken place -- but no discounts on hardware.

While it may benefit from cheap software, might open source be more cost-effective and even politically correct? "There is a lot of talk about moving to Linux," Duff says.

Oxfam New Zealand employs Josie Chan for 30 hours a week as IT co-ordinator, meaning she takes care of databases and maintains the network. Chan performed a similar role at the Heart Foundation, joining Oxfam three years ago after taking a break to have children.

Despite the challenges of having to justify every cent in IT spend, Chan says her colleagues are very friendly and she enjoys helping others.

"I am not into climbing the corporate ladder. To me, this work is more meaningful. I feel that is how I can contribute," she says. "I think Oxfam has a really good mission. I am a Buddhist and am working towards peace and understanding," she says.

Another well-known NGO recently recruited a South African to handle its IT. The former owner of a Durban-based hardware/software company, who prefers not to be identified, says he worked in the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa and was a volunteer for many organisations. Thus he had a particular "political interest" in NGOs and working for one was "an obvious choice" when he arrived in New Zealand earlier this year.

The activist says vendors will often give NGOs software "if they approve of what you are doing", but hardware must be paid for. However, despite the challenges of limited budgets, his organisation limits the support gets from businesses to "maintain integrity". Consequently, it relies heavily on fundraising and volunteers.

"There are many offers from volunteers. We use Lotus Notes and Notes developers are generous with their time. We also have good networking people. But the problem with volunteers is, you have to keep asking them, and the work is at weekends. With profit-making organisations, you can choose when to have your workers, but a charity cannot do this.

"It is impressive so many are so generous with their time. But you have to accept they have other jobs that pay their wages and you have to come second to that. It is a question of not making too many demands, not abusing people who are generous enough to give up their time."

Greenwood is Computerworld's human resources reporter. Send letters for publication to Computerworld Letters.

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