Winter-Spring 2002

Delivering Tech Assistance with Circuit Riding: Learning through Two CompassPoint Projects
by John Whitmer

Save the Bay

As nonprofit organizations become increasingly dependent on information technology to complete their day-to-day tasks, quality training and support become essential. Traditionally, nonprofits have met this need with external consultants, volunteers with technology skills, or self-taught staff. In recent years, "circuit rider" programs have become another way to provide onsite help with planning, implementation, training, and support of technology.

A circuit rider is a technolgy specialist who works with a group of organizations. These organizations may share similar organizational missions, may be part of an association, or may all be grantees of a foundation. Unlike a traditional consultant or trainer, the circuit rider has a "macro" view of all the agencies in the group and can thus develop training and support materials that are useful to the entire group. In addition, because s/he is traveling among agencies, the circuit rider can help "cross pollinate" agencies by bringing ideas learned at one agency to others on the circuit.

Save the Bay Staff
Save the Bay staff with Circuit Rider (l to r, top): Michelle Moss, Sue Gilbert, Cynthia Patton; (middle row) John Sheehan, Sarah Beemish, Eugenia Larson, Christie Jeck, Susan Sepanik, Sharon Friedner; (front) Marilyn Latta, Circuit Rider John Whitmer.

How is circuit riding different than traditional technology support? To get a clearer sense of how this works, let's look at two circuit riding projects managed by CompassPoint Nonprofit Services, one with childcare centers, the other with environmental groups. The comparison will bring out the strengths of circuit riding, contrast the approaches used for each target audience, and summarize the lessons learned.

CompassPoint Nonprofit Services is a Management Services Organization (MSO) that offers consulting, training, research, and conferences. Based in the San Francisco Bay Area, CompassPoint primarily serves that region but also undertakes special projects on a wider geographic basis. The organization has the largest nonprofit technology training program in the United States and offers consulting in a number of nonprofit management, finance, and technology areas. This article compares two projects carried out by members of CompassPoint's technology consulting group: the Childcare Center Technology Initiative (CCCTI) and the Conserving California Landscapes Initiative (CCLI). While circuit riding served both sets of organizations, there are substantial differences between them.

The Childcare Center Technology Initiative (CCCTI) served 125 childcare centers in low-income areas in five Western states from 1999-2001. The project was sponsored by Hewlett-Packard, the Packard Foundation, the Albertson Foundation, Intuit, and Microsoft with the goal of helping childcare centers begin to integrate technology. The grant provided a complete (and standardized) computer system with hardware, software, and peripherals along with circuit riding services for one year. In most cases, this was the first computer system in the organization. Alicia Daniels, a technology specialist who previously worked for a childcare consortium, was the lead rider on this project. Other technology specialists provided additional support for this large project, Miriam Engleberg, a CompassPoint technology faculty member, and me.

The Conserving California Landscapes Initiative (CCLI) project served ten land conservation and environmental organizations in three areas of California. As with CCCTI, Hewlett-Packard provided a standardized set of hardware and peripherals and the Packard Foundation funded circuit riding services. Unlike the childcare centers, all the environmental agencies had been using computers in-house for some time, in some cases intensively for land mapping and graphic design. The technology project was more specifically focused – to improve image use in print, web, and public presentations. Organizations relied on their own IT support for their networking needs. I was the sole circuit rider on this small-scale project.

The Childcare Center Technology Initiative (CCCTI)

Childcare Center Technology Initiative
The Childcare Center project was designed with the mission, culture, and organizational structure of childcare organizations in mind. All organizations in this project were nonprofit, and had high turnover of staff and administrators. Workers, while often highly skilled in working with children, are usually inexperienced using computers. Children's care is their first priority, and computers don't directly figure into this work. Most centers do not have staff to work on tasks unrelated to children's direct care. They have small budgets, and did not previously have computers; there was little money available for accessories or computer support needs.

Considering these factors, the circuit rider began with the essentials and took a "whatever it takes" approach. Alicia created a checklist of the requirements to set up systems (power outlets, desks, and chairs), and even provided some of these materials, in some cases installing shelves in offices to fit the equipment into the small space available.

Trainings were customized to meet the mission and organizational structure of the centers, with written outlines of main points to be covered during training. We used concrete examples that directly applied to the centers – actual calendars, employee schedules, and school lunch menus. Not all trainings were simple; at some centers Alicia created electronic parent sign-in systems. Alicia and I usually delivered trainings one-on-one and repeated them to teach multiple staff. This provided for childcare supervision continuity as well as individual attention to staff training needs. It allowed the circuit rider to deal individually with the anxiety felt by staff working on a computer for the first time. Like a standard training session, there was a basic outline, but the staff could ask questions at any time and the rider could pace the training according to the ability of individual staff members.

Working with Miriam Engleberg of CompassPoint's technology training staff, Alicia created step-by-step "stand-alone" training material to leave at sites. These materials used straightforward language, screenshots, and very direct instructions to cover topics such as moving files and creating folder systems, updating virus scanning software, and creating monthly calendars. These resources were also useful for staff that couldn't attend trainings and new staff members.

Alicia and the other circuit riders also helped share ideas across organizations. One example was the use of digital cameras. Agencies took pictures of children and put them on calendars, printed pictures on children's identification cards, and created their own newsletters. The circuit riders shared these ideas among organizations through a newsletter that we distributed throughout the circuit.

Finally, the circuit riders helped organizations with technical glitches and problems – by taking care of some problems onsite and teaching staff to diagnose problems themselves (i.e., is the computer broken or is there a software glitch?) and dealing with simple ones directly. The riders worked with staff to develop a list of local resources to help with their problems when they no longer had circuit riding services at their disposal. This helped the centers become more self-sufficient over the longer term.

The Conserving California Landscapes Initiative (CCLI)

Conserving California Landscapes Initiative
In the environmental and conservation organizations in the CCLI project, staff was more stable and computer-experienced, working in a context where technology was already being used intensively. These organizations work to convince the public of the importance of natural resources, which in many cases the public hasn't seen, so improving graphics clearly fit within their mission.

Many organizations set up their computer hardware prior to my arrival. Thus, rather than spending most of the initial time working on getting the equipment set up, though some technical customization was undertaken, I performed assessments of the staff skills and goals of organizations on my first visit and created in-depth custom trainings based on assessment results.

One finding was that most staff had basic office suite skills but no digital imaging experience. I designed customized group trainings in basic imaging skills, and smaller sessions on more advanced topics such as editing GIS maps and using Dreamweaver or Photoshop.

Six trainings overall were created in response to the site visits and assessments. Each organization chose two from the set and worked with me to customize individual organizational training and use time efficiently. Staff were asked to bring their own work tasks as sample material for these trainings so that organizations could learn skills while completing needed work.

I also shared best practices across organizations, including overcoming the limitations of equipment. The digital camera could not provide photos for use in hardcopy newsletters due to low resolution limitations, and the large-format printer was complicated to use. I helped share the experience of one agency that used the digital camera for online pictures and 35mm scanned camera pictures for their newsletter, and I learned the tips and tricks of the printer and shared these across the circuit.

Overall Lessons

These two sets of organizations and projects are extremely different, yet both demonstrate highly effective uses of circuit riders to deliver technical support. The custom materials and trainings that were developed for both projects would be too expensive to create for a single organization, but are effective when created for a larger group. The circuit rider creates standardized materials and customizes his/her training to meet the needs of each organization that s/he encounters onsite.

By helping more than one organization with similar needs, circuit riding creates an economy of scale that is more cost effective than working with a number of unrelated nonprofits. The circuit rider does not "begin from scratch" at each organization but instead shares the cost of learning among organizations and lessens the amount of time required to learn their specific characteristics and culture.

As the two projects show, the circuit rider can create customized material for multiple organizations on two different levels. First, to meet needs shared by common mission, culture, and organizational structure for the entire group; second, an even more customized approach for each individual client agency. In this mix of structured training and customization comes the benefit of the circuit rider model. Circuit riding is able to create an economy-of-scale, while remaining flexible to the specific needs of organizations. Funders as well as associations of nonprofits should consider circuit riding as an effective means to support nonprofit organizations' technology needs.

John Whitmer is a Circuit Rider/Technology Specialist with CompassPoint Nonprofit Services. For more on Circuit Riders, see "Helping Nonprofits Manage – Promise & Potential" in the last issue.

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