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Not-for-profits lack solid IT foundation, study says: NPower Indiana says most groups fail to meet basics

January 14, 2008

A new study suggests a large percentage of the region's not-for-profits still struggle with inadequate technology that undermines productivity, invites security breaches and hinders their community outreach potential.

NPower Indiana, a not-for-profit that provides low-cost technology consulting and services in central Indiana, studied 34 local not-for-profits under a grant from Verizon Foundation and Anthem Foundation.

It found that 85 percent are "constrained by outdated PCs or operating systems, which can seriously affect their system's stability, efficiency and ability to run current software."

More than half of organizations surveyed are vulnerable to e-mail viruses and so-called phishing attacks-an email scam to obtain financial or other sensitive information, the survey found.

Mike Harmon, NPower Indiana's CEO, acknowledges that 34 organizations is a small sliver of a not-for-profit population in the state estimated at 60,000 organizations.

But the findings were consistent with what NPower has encountered over its five years operating here. The outdated PC or operating system "hit a broad band of organizations."

Harmon noted that cash-strapped notfor-profits find it hard to replace those systems every four years or so. That's typically the time between significant leaps in technology and operating systems.

"That can be fairly cost-prohibitive. We really encourage [organizations] to budget it as an operating expense vs. a capital expense."

Maggie Charnoski, executive director of the Trinity Free Clinic in Hamilton County, one of the 34 organizations evaluated by NPower, said Trinity learned that it needs to budget for its future IT needs.

Often, though, given the choice of how to allocate money, many organizations will default toward spending it on their core missions rather than on technology.

The NPower study was conducted last fall. Respondents ranged from not-forprofits employing two people in one office to those with hundreds of employees at multiple sites.

Unlike their for-profit cousins, which often have at least one information technology specialist on staff, many not-forprofits make due with the "accidental techie," or a person in the office with some computer skills who by default becomes the expert for the office.

Until a few years ago, Vincent Failla played that role as president of outpatient drug, alcohol and gambling treatment organization Community Addiction Services of Indiana.

"When I started back in 2000, only three people had access to e-mail here," said Failla of his 17-person staff.

Four years ago, NPower performed an assessment of Community Addiction's technology infrastructure, helping it successfully land a United Way grant to pay for 14 computer workstations and a server.

NPower subsequently provides reviews of its technology plans and support services. That's helped Community Addiction better document its performance for its funding partners.

Other not-for-profits are getting support from AT&T, which has doled out more than $262,000 to about 20 Indianapolisarea organizations to provide technology resources and support. That included $15,000 to Indiana Black Expo to upgrade its infrastructure and to add e-commerce and e-fund-raising functions to its Web site.

AT&T gave NPower $9,550 to create communications resources for not-forprofits.

NPower has been trying to boost its membership, in part by doing a better job of tracking the value of its assistance and conveying that to members and prospective members, Harmon said.

Currently, the technology organization has about 150 members, who pay annual dues that range from $40 to $450 a year, based on ability to pay. Money from foundations and corporations accounted for the bulk of NPower's operating revenue of $855,000.

NPower estimates that the value of services it provided in the three years ending in 2005 was $3 million.

Among NPower goals for 2008 is to expand its slate of brown bag sessions for not-for-profits--perhaps on topics such as novel uses of digital photography or blogs to enable an organization to better tell its story.
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