Program to offer cyber help for charities: IUPUI initiative creates database of consultants

The IUPUI Solution Center soon will expand into cyberspace, launching a free Web site not-for-profits can use to network and find consultants.

Its new Nonprofit Solutions Initiative will run the site and provide a database of consultants grouped by 25 areas of expertise. The site also will offer advice on how to work with them.

The Solution Center, launched in 2003 with the help of a Lilly Endowment Inc. grant, helps bolster small businesses and not-for-profits. The new initiative, which is starting with a $150,000 budget and one full-time employee, plans to launch its Web site in early February.

Eventually, it plans to delve deeper into networking and wants to connect charities with resources from the Indiana University Center on Philanthropy and other schools, said Teresa Bennett, director of the Solution Center and the new initiative.

Its database fills a void for charities that need outside help but sometimes struggle to find it, not-for-profit leaders say.

“It’s just a wonderful repository of information that a not-for-profit can go to … and do a comparison shop, so to speak,” said Ruth Purcell-Jones, president of Trustee Leadership Development Inc., an Indianapolis-based not-for-profit. Her company was not involved in Bennett’s project.

The Web site will group consultants under topics like accounting, grant writing or executive coaching. The consultants will pay nothing to be listed, but must provide two references the center will check before it posts information, Bennett said.

Think of the database as Angie’s List minus a grading system. The Initiative will avoid making recommendations, though it can remove names for bad feedback.

Bennett said the Initiative’s organizers decided consultant ratings would be too subjective.

“We didn’t really want to put on stars and take them away from people,” she said. “It didn’t seem appropriate.”

Even so, because the initiative asks for references and accepts feedback, it forces consultants to be accountable, noted Bryan Orander, an Indianapolis-based consultant who helped develop it.

“It reduces the likelihood that someone who’s not very good at what they do can perpetuate that,” he said.

The initiative’s organizers see plenty of need for their services. Research shows that roughly half the not-for-profits in Indiana employ fewer than five people, Bennett said. Operations that small need consultants to provide services they can’t afford to keep full time.

For instance, Crooked Creek Northwest Community Development Corp. uses consultants to help ease its grant-writing load when deadlines approach, Executive Director Alicia Chadwick said.

Orander found through an informal survey that 91 local not-for-profits spent more than $8 million on contracted services and consultants in 2004. He noted those figures represent a sliver of central Indiana’s charitable community, which includes more than 500 not-for-profits with budgets greater than $750,000.

Orander started thinking about creating the database more than three years ago, when the Baltimore-based Anne E. Casey Foundation was working on a project in Indianapolis and had to fly in consultants from around the country.

Aside from a database, the Web site offers advice on hiring and managing consultants, and provides links to other resources. Bennett said the venture eventually wants to form partnerships with agencies that help not-for-profits with referrals and training. It won’t create its own services.

In a couple of years, it would like to set up apprentice programs and work with internships, too, Bennett said.

The Nonprofit Solutions Initiative could act as an important conduit connecting businesses and the IU philanthropy center’s expertise, said Eugene Tempel, its executive director.

“There may be a whole layer of organizations in the community that don’t feel comfortable calling us directly,” he said.

Regardless of the initiative’s final form, the combination of a database and networking will present a unique resource for local not-for-profits, Bennett said.

“We don’t really see an exact model anywhere else,” she said.

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