For the public good

Mission is the driving force for many IT professionals working in the non-profit sector. 'People are working here because they are cause-oriented. They are here because they want to save the world.'

          When Ed Granger-Happ sold his IT management and consulting business and joined the non-profit child assistance organisation Save the Children two years ago as CTO, he had no regrets about leaving private enterprise.

          "When I sold the business, I asked myself if I should get back into the corporate world, or do I give something back to the community? I decided to give something back. That's part of the value proposition in the non-profit sector."

          Granger-Happ and other CTOs with non-profit organisations say they left behind success in the business world to pursue work that will make a difference. But as leaders of cash-strapped organisations, they use their wits and the help of vendors to deploy sophisticated networks and websites to serve thousands of worldwide users. It's a challenge they are happy accept.

          While Granger-Happ has relied on Cisco and Microsoft to help build a worldwide network to bring relief to poor children and families, Rick Minicucci works with Sun, Computer Associates (CA), and Compaq (now merged with Hewlett-Packard) to set up databases and websites that help organise the search for missing children with National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC).

          David Simon, as chief technologist of the Sierra Club, uses his own resources to manage his networks because the organisation conducts political lobbying and can't offer tax credits for donations. Regardless of the obstacles they face, these CTOs say they wouldn't go back to their previous careers in the private sector.

          Career changes

          Melding an IT mission with a non-profit's humanitarian goals can become an irresistible attraction, even for CTOs with impressive private sector track records.

          "Where else could you do IT that would have as much of an impact?" says Granger-Happ, who spent 13 years working for Wall Street companies and another 10 on his own consulting business before he came to Westport, Connecticut-based Save the Children and began setting up a global IT strategy.

          "We've built field offices all over the world where kids can benefit. We're in 43 countries. We all have to deal with budget issues, but this is worth it."

          Other IT executives decide that they view working for humanitarian causes as a privilege rather than as a job. Minicucci arrived at Alexandria, Virginia-based NCMEC in 1996 after selling his computer imaging and graphics company.

          "I decided I would work for the centre for a year to feel good about myself and to help these people get going," he says. "Later, I simply decided it was something I wanted to do for the rest of my life."

          Mission is the driving force for many IT professionals working in the non-profit sector, says Simon, who was a consultant for Andersen Consulting for 10 years before joining the Sierra Club in 1992. Simon, who is director of information and communication systems for the organisation, also sees the mission aspect as an important part of IT staff retention. Simon says this also contributes to the San Francisco-based organisation's high IT retention rate.

          "People are working here because they are cause-oriented. They are here because they want to save the world."

          The kindness of technology giants

          The low IT budgets of many non-profit organisations lead CTOs to forge creative partnerships with charitable benefactors, often some of the most visible technology vendors. The result has been the creation of innovative strategies to dispense information and aid to the needy.

          Minicucci sees alliances with vendors as playing such a vital role in supporting his goals for technology that he made them a centerpiece of his strategy when he joined NCMEC six years ago.

          "We've been very successful building strong relationships with technology leaders, and that's been very helpful in what we set out to do: bring kids home," he says.

          Within the following year, he and other NCMEC executives were sitting in the office of Sanjay Kumar, CA president and CEO, asking for help. CA chairman Charles Wang has also spearheaded several NCMEC projects.

          During the last three years, CA has pitched in $US5 million for its Unicenter network management software and has provided security, database products, and support, while Sun has contributed $US1.5 million in enterprise servers and Compaq has contributed approximately $US1.5 million in workstations. Minicucci retains a close relationship with all three companies and anticipates continued support.

          With these resources, NCMEC has become a technology dreadnought, with multiple websites offering informational services about missing and exploited children. The sites include www.missingkids.com, a database of more than 2,000 missing children; www.cybertipline.com, which registers tips and interacts with law enforcement agencies; and www.netsmartz.org, an educational resource for children, parents, and teachers.

          Cisco has pitched in to help Save the Children's worldwide relief efforts. CTO Granger-Happ works with Cisco employees from Cisco's Community Fellowship Programme and deploys Cisco routers and other hardware as he sets up a worldwide network to coordinate humanitarian assistance efforts.

          Save the Children's IT staff have plans to visit Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the Philippines to begin deploying relief infrastructure this summer.

          Granger-Happ says he is linking up 43 field offices by creating VPNs with local ISPs, Cisco hardware, and satellite connectivity where feasible.

          Microsoft has also been an active participant in Granger-Happ's efforts, supplying PDAs, software licensing, and the efforts of employees to enhance Save the Children's work.

          Innovation on the cheap

          Even with high-profile, big-ticket help, CTOs of non-profit organisations don't have the resources available as those at large enterprises. As a result, they are often driven to develop creative solutions to their problems. Sierra Club's Simon cites his budget as $US1.2 million out of an $US80 million annual budget, while Minicucci says is $US3.6 million out of $US38 million budget. Granger-Happ lists his budget as 2% to 7% of revenue.

          Without tax-deductible donations from technology vendors, the Sierra Club's Simon and his team reach the thousands of people in preserving the United States' natural resources. Simon has consistently invested the limited funds at his disposal in web-based technologies to reach the Sierra Club's 500 employees, 10,000 volunteers, and more than 700,000 members.

          "Just because you do things on a shoestring doesn't mean you can't do things well," Simon says. The website was nominated for a Webee Award in 2000 and now includes a travel program, sales and transactions, and an organised messaging system that allows citizens to contact public officials about environmental issues.

          In addition, Simon has been using Sybase middleware since the mid-1990s to develop the Sierra Club's platform, and continues to add functionality with the help of his three or four programmers, depending on who is available. He says he is also looking to web services to enhance informational exchanges with uses of the website. "We see ourselves moving more and more to take advantage of web services," Simon says.

          Minicucci has also customized his organisation's technology structure. In his case, he developed age-progression software that reconstructs images to reflect what a child might look like in later years. The program has been cited as a deciding factor in the recovery of as many as 100 children, say NCMEC officials.

          Such a connection between good works and results is the payoff for a career with a nonprofit organisation, he says. "At this point in my life, I find it extremely fulfilling," Minicucci says. "You feel good about what you do with technology."

          Nonprofit lessons for the for-profit CTO

          Look for the "giving-back" factor: Enlist in both IT and non-IT projects that give back to the community. These projects motivate IT staff and are an asset for corporate marketing, while doing good for those in need.

          Think constituents, not competition: NGOs (non-government organisations) and non-profits focus on how their constituents benefit, not on issues of competition. Partnering and collaborating with other organisations -- even competitors -- can create new technologies and partnerships that otherwise would not exist.

          Find and communicate meaning in the work: NGOs motivate their IT employees without the benefits of stock options, stock savings plans, and bonuses. Remember that all work has meaning, that the work environment counts big time, and self-directed schedules matter to IT professionals.

          Prioritise projects and stakeholders: Even with limited IT budgets, CTOs can accomplish new initiatives. The key is to upsize your primary stakeholder project lists and downsize your secondary stakeholder list. The latter is often the headquarters staff.

          Source: Ed Granger-Happ, CTO, Save the Children

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