Winter-Spring 2002

CTC Collaborations - Building the Timothy Smith Network in Boston, Part One
by Marc Osten

The greatest challenges and opportunities facing community technology centers (CTCs) lie within their social, political and economic environment.  Those that choose to collaborate will be in a stronger position to leverage scarce resources and capitalize on opportunities that exist. Those that don’t will struggle to effectively serve people and may find themselves unable to survive at all.

The CTC movement is now connected to other community economic and capacity building efforts and often finds itself in the middle of issues such as media literacy advocacy and telecommunications policy. In Boston, population and economic changes, new educational methods, changing telecommunications policies and technological advancements impact how CTC staff plan and implement programs that will meet the needs of their constituency. As a response to these challenges and opportunities, one group of close to forty CTCs decided to come together to work more closely. This is the story of that effort to build the Timothy Smith Network!

Forces for Change

Not long ago two forces came together in Boston. A small group of community technology leaders in the old Roxbury neighborhood formed a steering committee to plan how to collaborate more closely. This group included the Boston Neighborhood Network, Hattie B. Cooper Community Center, Casa Esperanza/Latinas y Ni¤os, Whittier Street Health Center, the Roxbury YMCA, and Roxbury Multi-Service Center. At roughly the same time, the Boston Foundation launched its New Economy Initiative, an effort in collaboration with other funders and non-profit organizations to increase digital equity and ensure that low-income and minority populations have the skills and the support needed to participate in the “New Economy.” One of New Economy Initiative’s first grantees was the steering committee which asked us at Summit Collaborative to help them work with the larger group of close to forty centers in Old Roxbury to collectively develop an organizational framework and strategic plan for sustaining and enhancing the sites.

We guided the centers through a series of community meetings, part of the six-month strategic planning process, with task forces made up of community members working on various efforts.  What we learned in the process validated some basic network building lessons and highlights for other CTCs as we look at what challenges lie ahead as they work to collaborate more closely.

The Ying-Yang of Network Building

The strategic plan developed by the community details programmatic and organizational development initiatives. Two tracks emerged to take action on: building the network institution itself while delivering services that strengthen the CTCs that are its members.  The greatest lesson learned was that success on these two tracks is dependent on continued acknowledgement and attention to the two-way exchange of knowledge, human and financial assets between the centers themselves and the network.  Over time this essential two-way exchange would require careful attention to leverage existing resources and knowledge that will be the lifeblood of the network's success. In addition care would need to be taken to prevent financial, human resource, and programmatic conflicts from spinning out of control and irreparably damaging the network’s survival. Responding to these needs four initiatives were identified as most important and attainable to take on in the network’s early stages of development:

  1. Information and knowledge management activities to help all the centers learn from each other
  2. Coordination of all the center training and education programs to improve service delivery and efficiency
  3. Center staff professional development efforts to improve the technology skills of Timothy Smith computer center staff and volunteers who deliver and support programs for clients
  4. Building each center’s capacity by providing fundraising and strategic planning services

Taken collectively, this mix of programs will help the Roxbury community technology centers to:

  • improve their delivery of programs to clients;
  • get assistance with deeper organizational development needs; and
  • build a sustainable network that can serve as a hub of collaboration and leveraging between the centers over time.

Marc Osten is the catalyst behind Summit Collaborative, an organization focused on building collaborations between nonprofits to leverage knowledge and resources; co-founder of Dot Org Media, a publishing venture focused on nonprofit use of the Internet; a board member of the Nonprofit Technology Enterprise Network (NTEN); and a frequent contributor in the nonprofit press. 

Next issue will feature more on the Timothy Smith Centers, lessons from the collaboration, and an interview with James Essex, Technology Director of the Cooper Community Center, and Susan O’Connor, Technology Coordinator of the Veteran’s Benefits Clearinghouse.


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