Spring 2003

Project Fix-Net: Affordable, Dependable Technical Assistance
by Rick Juliusson and Ana Sisnett

Austin Free-Net, a non-profit organization supporting over 40 community technology centers in Austin, Texas, has launched a fee-based technology assistance service called "Fix-Net." The following outlines some of the steps, rationale, and lessons from the development of this project, in the hopes of inspiring and encouraging other CTCs as they develop projects designed to generate revenue while providing a key service to other non-profit and public agencies.

In 2000, the Board of Directors of Austin Free-Net drafted an ambitious Strategic Plan calling for expansion of sites and services coupled with a diversification of the funding base to sustain the programs.  Central to this plan was the development of a "revenue-generating activity for long-term sustainability."

As we pondered what this fee-based service might be, PolicyLink published an article by Josh Kirschenbaum and Radika Kumamneni (Fall 2001) called "Beyond Access: A Foundation Guide to Ending the Organizational Divide." The authors indicate that "more than 70 percent of organizations surveyed had an important or critically important need for additional information technology resources." They conclude that a current priority is "helping nonprofits fully integrate IT tools into their ongoing operations."

We began to explore the idea further, and found the need for affordable, dependable technical assistance to be strong in central Texas. Without any extensive advertising or formal program in place, from January to May 2002, 37 potential Fix-Net customers contacted us seeking:

  • Support in making better use of information technology in their offices and programs;
  • Consultation on the issues inherent to meeting the public's needs for technology and training; and
  • A spectrum of services including setting up technology centers and programs, ongoing technical support, volunteer recruitment, training for staff and volunteers, web hosting and maintenance, and presentations about our services or issues of equitable access.

Thanks to becoming sponsors of an Americorps*VISTA project, new grants partnerships and contracts supporting our work, we hired much-needed staff after developing our current Strategic Plan. Successful implementation hinged on quickly coalescing as a team and, most importantly, embracing the "inherited" plan. In a pivotal, facilitated staff meeting, we assessed our individual and organizational skills and experience built on our seven-year history including visionary founders, the City of Austin's commitment to public access, a highly-skilled staff experienced installing, networking, and maintaining over 40 public computer sites, designing and running training programs, recruiting and training volunteers, a great web site, and helping other organizations with tech planning and grant writing.

As an experienced community technology provider, we were acutely aware of the challenges of organizations working to better integrate technology even as they provide state-of-art community tech programs and other vital services. We agreed that were uniquely positioned to provide an affordable, dependable, and essential service to assist other agencies to better serve the public in their own vital ways. Our plan would not only generate a steady revenue stream to sustain our own public access programs, but we would be providing a crucial service to the non-profit and public sectors.

We had conversations potential customers to access their needs, and we researched other technology assistance providers. We prepared a preliminary Austin market analysis using Guidestar's database. Other early strategies included extensive online research, workshops on relevant issues, discussions with CompuMentor, a visit to NPower, participation in CTCNet, AFCN, and similar mailing lists which have been priceless. National discussions and local response to our idea confirm daily that we are part of a national trend among community technology providers leveraging their technical expertise to provide technical assistance to non-profits while ensuring the sustainability of their own programs. And, within our own archives, we found documents showing that our founders had indeed anticipated that, while public access and training would remain central to our mission, our work could eventually include providing technical assistance to other nonprofits. We drafted preliminary goals, objectives, and a timeline for implementation. 

As we designed the pilot, we assessed our organizational capacity to determine the initial scope of Fix-Net. Staff immediately sought pro bono professional advice on legal issues, business models, pricing, billing, and publicity. Our billing and tracking systems have been tested and are ready for full-scale operation. A lawyer on our board has helped staff to create legal contracts. Examples of professional support include Texas C-Bar, a local non-profit that dispenses free legal advice to non-profits and NION Interactive, a multimedia production company working with AFN staff and a University of Texas student to develop publicity materials.

A key issue we pay close attention to is how the IRS would view our new revenue source.  With legal advice we have carefully designed Fix-Net so that it will not jeopardize our nonprofit status. This means:

  • We offer the service only to non-profit and public agencies;
  • A sliding scale exists so that no organization will be turned away due to inability to pay;
  • We will not abuse our nonprofit status to undercut for-profit providers; and
  • The service is related to our mission.

In just half a year, Fix-Net brought in $15,000 from 15 clients, including contracts with United Way to provide tech training and equipment installation to nonprofit child-care providers, with the Housing Authority of the City of Austin to implement labs and volunteer training in two public housing projects, with Parks and Recreation to conduct seniors' computer training classes, and a fee for services to the Green Builders' Conference.

Emboldened by the success of the pilot program, we are now taking steps to formalize and expand the project. A University intern and a local PR firm are volunteering to assist in designing logo and PR materials and a marketing plan. A team of business students will help conduct focus groups (also based on NPower's online documents) and market research, and assist us in completing the design of a viable business plan based on our experiences to date and focus group feedback.

An unforeseen windfall of Fix-Net has been the impetus to gain new technical skills to better serve our clients. For example, two groups hired us to install wireless networks into their facilities—a new arena for our technical staff.  We have also increased our knowledge of Linux systems, enabling us to offer open source services as requested as well as in our own centers.

What does the future hold?  With the upcoming full launch of Fix-Net, we expect that demand will eventually (soon?) outpace our staff capacity. We continue to identify pro bono resources but the Fix-Net budget includes anticipated paid professional services. We expect to use Fix-Net revenues and other funding to hire a Business Manager and contract qualified technicians and trainers.  Grants are being written to cover the subsidized offerings to low-budget organizations.  New services will be rolled out as the increased revenue allows for additional staff and expansion of Fix-Net's services. And periodic program evaluation is planned to fine-tune the program.

But just like Fix-Net's initial development, its expansion will be carefully planned and monitored.  Is the project enabling us to better accomplish our core mission, rather than distracting us from it?  Is the work of the project itself meaningful and related to our mission?  As long as we can continue to answer "yes" to both questions, Austin Free-Net will continue to be a strong, growing organization through this fee-based service.

Rick Juliusson is the director of strategic partnerships for Austin Free-Net. Ana Sisnett is the executive director of Austin Free-Net.

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