It was supposed to be short-lived, an agency created solely to help Indiana schools tap emerging videoconferencing technology for distance learning.
But a funny thing happened on the way to the virtual field trip.
"We found it really wasn't about the technology. It was about what you do with the technology," said Ruth Blankenbaker, executive director of the Indianapolis-based Center for Interactive Learning and Collaboration. "If you don't have a reason to use it, what's the point?"
Teachers had to figure out how to operate the equipment and someone had to be on the other end when they tuned in. So CILC broadened its vision, offering technology-and training-to schools and cultural institutions alike.
Now, five years after the not-for-profit was supposed to have depleted its assets and faded to black, its leaders are trying to find a way to keep the lights on for good.
Founded in 1994 as part of the former Ameritech's deregulation deal with the state, CILC received $45 million from SBC Indiana over nine years. That flow of money dried up last year.
Losing its sole funding source was a blow, but it was cushioned somewhat by a multimillion-dollar reserve the agency has been able to sock away. Still, CILC won't last long if it isn't able to develop a broad range of support.
"That's a tough situation for any organization," said James E. Gillespie, an adjunct instructor at Indiana University's fund-raising school and CEO at Indianapolis-based CommonWealth: Consultants in Philanthropy.
Gillespie is not familiar with CILC's specific situation, but spoke generally about how not-for-profits can make a shift from single-donor to multi-source support.
"The primary, most fundamental issue for [leaders of] any charitable organization is their case statement, their reason for being," he said. "They have to figure out-does anybody care what we're doing here?"
CILC thinks it has made its case in the past 11 years. It had a hand in hooking up videoconferencing equipment in nearly 400 schools throughout the state, and also has connected dozens of Indiana cultural groups who can provide content.
Indiana Repertory Theatre, for example, had a handful of video access points installed throughout its Washington Street facility, giving schoolchildren near and far a glimpse at the professional theater company in action.
One recent Monday, "teaching artist" Beverly Roche led a New Jersey middle school drama club through a series of exercises, never straying from an empty upper-stage lobby in Indianapolis.
"This allows us to serve the entire state, the entire country," said Milicent Wright, the IRT's manager of artistic outreach.
Schools in the United States and abroad can search for available programs and schedule specific sessions using CILC's Web site. They're also required to post reviews so other educators can assess their usefulness.
"They're kind of a multi-purpose service provider," said Dale Hilton, associate director for distance learning at the Cleveland Museum of Art, "a bridge between the content providers and the education community."
CILC expanded its reach beyond Indiana in 2001 and since then has signed on a number of international partners. All the better to provide maximum choices to Indiana schools, Blankenbaker said.
"Videoconferencing, by its very nature, does not know geographic boundaries," she said. "Other states were just dropshipping equipment on schools. There is definitely a need for what we do."
The thing is, neither the schools nor the content providers-often not-for-profits themselves-pay to use that bridge, despite its relative value. CILC is compensated for teacher training and corporate workshops, but that doesn't generate enough revenue to maintain its $3 million annual budget.
So CILC is telling its story, in the hope that increased awareness will help it win grants and other support. Agency President Marv Bailey said he's also exploring other options, including merging with existing organizations.
"We're looking for a way we can sustain our revenue so we can accomplish our mission," he said. "It's that simple."
CILC's Julia Heighway monitors the connection during a video conference with two Missouri elementary schools as storyteller Andrew Brown acts out his part.