Fall-Winter 2002-2003

Sweet, Sweet $ustainability
by Ken Thompson

My work brings me into contact with hundreds of Washington State-based community technology programs ("CTPs"), and they are all working on serious sustainability issues. I work on the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation's Community Access to Technology (CAT) Program, and as such, I represent an impermanent step on the path to sustainability.  With each proposal, however, would-be grantees and I both wrestle with issues of long-term sustainability.  What will make an organization's technology project sustainable in the long term? The jury is still out. Actually, I'm not even sure they've seen all the evidence yet.

Centers or Programs?

As this field matures, sustainability is certainly one of the questions of the day. In many ways, it begs another question—what is the long-term purpose of community technology programs? Like dentists encouraging everyone to brush and floss, should they be trying to put themselves out of business by eliminating the problem they are there to address? Or will CTPs always be with us, dealing with the changing ranks of the digitally divided, and the changing nature of technology?

My feeling is that nonprofit-run technology programs will be with us for some time, if not effectively forever. I'm less sure about the fates of "stand alone" CTCs. In Washington State, where CAT does all its grantmaking, very few community technology programs are run out of organizations that have a mission built around technology access, and I don't suspect the national scene is much different. Of the 50 or so grantees of CAT, only two or three are CTCNet members. In other words, a CTCNet membership does not seem pertinent to the vast majority of CTPs out there. In my experience, the vast majority of CTPs work with an organization's specific client set, rather than being open to the public at large. This, plus not seeing their organization's mission as being "about technology," and certainly not thinking of themselves as a "technology center," all distance them from CTCNet.  This is a shame, since there would be much for them to gain from membership.  If CTCNet could morph into something useful to these organizations, CTCNet could be a meaningful player in making CTPs sustainable. At present, it is not.

Plan A

Working on the assumption that most technology programs are part of larger (non-technology oriented) organizations, the basic philosophy should be that technology costs need to be thought of as just one line item in the general operations budget of an organization, not a "special project" cost.  As such, making CTPs sustainable is really no different than any exercise in nonprofit sustainability. You need an effective fundraising plan and diversified sources of income. If humanly possible, you need to make your organization or program entirely non-dependent on fickle grantmakers. I estimate that there are only a few years left where most private grantmakers will be seduced by the allure of "technology projects" —expect fundraising to get a lot harder if you are basing your argument for funding primarily on technology access in the years ahead.

Blah, Blah, Blah

All the standard methods of promoting sustainability are covered in some depth in the City of Seattle's "Sustainability Strategies for Community Technology Centers in Seattle," authored by the Environmental Health and Social Policy Center. Not to knock this report unduly (it is a workman-like recitation of all the elements that would help to make any nonprofit sustainable), but for the most part it fails to meet its own goals of "finding strategies that will help place...CTCs on a path to sustainable operations" and in finding whether "strategies that work at one CTC (can) be successfully applied by others." Unless you have been operating a technology center under a rock for the past ten years, nothing much in this report will surprise you (however, if you are just thinking of starting a CTP, this report is a great primer on common issues and well-known broad strategies for survival).

Likewise, Industry Canada's report on "A Picture of the Community Access Program of Industry Canada " tries to address the issue of sustainability head on. Many of the conclusions they reach echo the Seattle report on best practices towards generic sustainability: community buy-in and participation, serving local needs, leadership, partnerships, and effective marketing, to name a few. 

The (Un)Holy Grail—Cash

What I keep hoping that I will find in these reports are studies showing specific effective non-grants-based strategies for keeping your CTP going. Alas, this is not there. At the last CTCNet Conference there was some talk of trying to develop a research agenda for the field. If this is realized, I sincerely hope that useful sustainability research will be on the agenda.  Given the lack of actual research to rely on, what follows are my thoughts and musings on the subject.

Substantial earned income needs to be the goal of every CTP—this is a trend in the nonprofit sector generally. If you think that commerce is evil, get over it. Nothing says independence like your own income stream. The trick is making it work with your mission. As such, there do seem to be some opportunities for CTCs and CTPs to make a buck and do good at the same time.

The Industry Canada report lists a few interesting examples: one CTC built a digital recording studio into its center; another acts as a publishing center for its host organization, putting out retail items like calendars, cookbooks, and local history books; others design web pages for government and nonprofit clients for a fee. Part of the key here is that they feel okay charging a fee for enhanced services —they don't feel obliged to give everything away for free. The Seattle report also lists some fee-for-service concepts that have been implemented: substantial class fees for high-end training curriculum; a fee-based computer repair service, and sales of donated, refurbished computers.  I love these on-the-ground examples (no, your CTC/CTP doesn't have to become a competitive ISP to survive), and more needs to be written about them.  Contact info for these projects is in the reports. Give 'em a call.

Actually adding something to this area of inquiry is a recent Summit Collaborative report called "Community Technology Centers as Technology Assistance Providers to Nonprofit & Community Based Organizations." It profiles several technology organizations that are looking to make money by providing technology consulting and other services to other local nonprofits.  While larger cities may already have someone covering this area (NPower would be one example of this sort of provider), most mid-size cities and smaller towns do not have someone providing this service, opening up an on-mission earned income opportunity for community technology organizations.

We also need to be unafraid to learn from other nonprofit sectors. I just picked up a new book by Andy Robinson called Selling Social Change (Without Selling Out).  I'm only on page 7, but he's already given one great case study about a nonprofit that promotes bicycling as a transportation alternative. They earn 100% of their annual $200,000 budget through earned income sources such as full service (full-priced) repairs, lower-cost assisted self-repairs, selling refurbished bikes from donated parts, and an innovative international linkages program with Guatemala.  Sound familiar?  Is this the sort of program that most CTCs/CTPs could run, but with computers instead of bikes? You bet. [My apologies if there is already this exact program operational out there. I have not heard of you yet.  If you are making $200,000/year, you should get the word out!]  If you have not read it, you might also check out Bill Shore's The Cathedral Within for some inspirational stories on how some larger nonprofits have succeeded in a big way at the earned income game. Shore lays out the institutional backing and will that needs to be behind larger income-earning projects.

Take a Chance

I don't mean to downplay entirely the other tactics that can be used to edge toward sustainability. One I am seeing more and more are links with high school or community college students for credit/volunteer opportunities, especially around technical support issues and lab staffing.  Innovative partnerships, especially at the moment of program inception, can be particularly powerful.  A CAT grantee, the Pacific Northwest Trail Association, formulated their CTP in such a way that they had financial commitments secured from every layer of government imaginable before launching their project (federal—provides transportation; state—laid fiber for connectivity; school district—donated space) in exchange for access and services from PNTA. Now they are developing an earned income enterprise based on growing and selling native plants for environmental rehabilitation projects, facilitated in part by their computer center.  And no, they don't have a large staff or a million dollar budget, they are, in fact, located in tiny Sedro-Wolley, Washington.  Unlike nearly every other funder on the planet, I do not think that partnerships and "leveraging" are a long-term sustainability plan, even though the PNW Trail Association story is a great one.

For many years, I worked for a small nonprofit. I know that time and dollars are short and tight in that environment, and it's not often easy to take a chance. But some thought to on-the-ground earned income experimentation needs to happen in the CTC/CTP space, and soon. And the word needs to get out, both about successes and failures. If you are running a CTP, read the reports and books I mentioned, and lobby CTCNet, or ACC, or someone, to produce useful studies on replicable earned income projects. Mostly, do not wait for funders to come to your rescue.  Foundations are great at many things, but not at covering the ongoing costs of running an organization, and they are not renowned for their patience or decades-long commitments.  As "venture philanthropy" and other trends from the business world take hold more firmly, expect funders to be looking for evidence and data on how you will survive without them.

Ken Thompson is the Program Officer for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation's Community Access to Technology program, which makes grants in Washington State only.  He was formerly a librarian, worked at an Internet start-up, was an arts administrator, and worked as an editor, in approximately that order.

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