Guest Post by TechSoup Global founder and co-CEO, Daniel Ben-Horin
Back in 1989, TechSoup Global (then called “CompuMentor”) was two years old and pioneering our notion of matching high level tech-savvy volunteers with nonprofits. I’d neglected to invent the World Wide Web at the same time as starting CompuMentor, so organizing this new form of volunteerism turned out to be rather challenging, but that’s another story.
In this story, we are in year two of getting to know the nonprofit sector and its technology needs and are realizing two things. First, no one in the nonprofit world, at least back then, is having any fun with technology. It is universally perceived as grim stuff. You know, the computer might explode.
Second, no one has any money for anything but the hardware, and even that is out of reach for most (remember, desktop machines were prohibitively expensive then). So commonly, nonprofits are using antiquated software or just the wrong stuff entirely.
My own background had been in journalism, and a bunch of my pals had migrated to the computer press. In those days, software came in big boxes, and software publishers would send a big box of their latest software to journalists, hoping for a review. Maybe one copy would get reviewed, and the others would get trashed.
Trashed! I found that offensive. This software was valuable. It deserved better. Nonprofits deserved better. So the idea was hatched to send an underemployed, world-famous avant-garde jazz saxophonist named Bruce Ackley in his pickup truck to various computer magazines to offload whatever software was deemed expendable.
We’d end up with an inventory of a couple of hundred titles, usually one of each, or sometimes two. Then we’d send a newsletter to our nonprofit friends, listing the software we had available at $5 a pop, first-come, first-served. Nonprofits wrote back to ask if they were first. If they were, we sent them some software. But mostly they weren’t, so we spent a lot of time saying "try again."
Not all the software was serious productivity software. Some was along the lines of "Play Chess with Your Dog." But part of our message was, "have a little fun with this stuff." That’s still a big part of our message.
Looking back, it was all very primitive, but it served our mission. The same mission that the donation program serves today: to make technology available to the organizations that are working so hard to support our communities.
We amped up a little with support from Lotus, but it was still mostly one or two titles of software at a time. Then, in 1994, Microsoft gave us a shot, and the whole dynamic changed. Microsoft gave us enough copies of its software to go around. We could stop saying "try again" and start concentrating on how nonprofits could use the software for social benefit. With Microsoft as our anchor tenant, our online donations “mall” became much more credible to other technology companies. Adobe, Cisco, Intuit, and Symantec are just a few of the companies that have since joined the donation program.
Overnight, we had a good-sized fulfillment program on our hands. Microsoft even gave us a grant to build new shelves to hold our inventory, but – all the while – encouraged us to think bigger. Remember, back then Microsoft Office Suite came in a box with licenses, and each package contained a bunch of installation diskettes and weighed about 5 pounds. Microsoft used to send giant shipments to our offices in a little Victorian house in San Francisco. We’d organize bucket brigades of our small staff to get the boxes into our basement storeroom.
The obvious question we asked ourselves (and others asked us) was: Why is Microsoft partnering with us rather than doing this itself? I think the answer has several parts. We’re not just a technology nonprofit, but an organization that has always seen itself as a social change organization. Our mission is to support the use of technology by nonprofits, NGOs, and other civil society organizations to accomplish their missions, not just because it’s “cool”. Microsoft shared that mission (still does!), and wanted to help us build a “one stop shop” where nonprofit organizations could request donations from all different technology vendors, rather than having to chase down donations from Cisco, Symantec, Adobe, Microsoft and others separately. Also, Microsoft didn’t want to give away expensive doorstops (remember, 5 pounds of Office Suite!). It wanted the products to be effectively used to better our communities, and we were committed to providing nonprofits with the knowledge necessary to actually use these technologies. Technology needs to be supported, and people need training, so we engage in a range of other activities like webinars, blogs, and forums to help nonprofits effectively use these donations. Microsoft saw that it could reach more nonprofits with more software and the support to adopt it by partnering with us, and at the same time could build the capacity of the nonprofit sector.
Lastly, Microsoft didn’t get to be Microsoft by being unfocused. It didn’t want to take on a new business if it could identify a partner that could effectively reach the nonprofit sector. We contended we could be that partner, and now we’re 18 years into doing so, and in 35 countries to boot.
Microsoft’s initial agreement with us was to distribute $100,000 worth of software in Northern California. By 1998, we were serving the entire U.S. In 2006, with Microsoft’s support, we began operating internationally in five countries. And last fiscal year, we distributed more than US$545 million worth of Microsoft software donations to nearly 44,000 nonprofits in 35 countries.
Looking to the future, we know we are functioning in a very rapidly evolving space and that our program won’t look the same in 2015 as it does today. So much more software will live in the cloud, for example. So much more productivity will be based on mobile devices. But we feel very good about what’s ahead, and about our continued relationship with partners like Microsoft. For 18 years, it has been a close partner in the truest sense of the word.
Microsoft has a very creative citizenship team, and we work together to figure out ways to support the sector. For example, we have a project right now to get Microsoft development teams even more involved with the nonprofits we’re jointly serving, and we’re going to use that as a basis of engagements with technologists at other companies. I can’t wait to see where that goes since – in many ways – it represents a return to our CompuMentor roots, which was all about harnessing the human capital of socially conscious technologists. There are other ideas in the hopper too. We are excited to build on our rich past, but also to embrace current trends and future possibilities.
And that avant-garde jazz saxophonist? Still with us, now as a standards and process analyst, and still blowing his horn.
Daniel Ben-Horin is the Founder and Co-CEO of TechSoup Global. He created TechSoup Global as "CompuMentor" in 1987 by tapping volunteer resources on the WELL, one of the first online communities. Over the past two decades, he has guided TechSoup Global from a small, local nonprofit to a globally respected organization. In his book, Blessed Unrest, Paul Hawken writes that the "…hybridization of business, philanthropy technology and nonprofit activity is exemplified in the work of Daniel Ben-Horin…" In 2009, Ben-Horin received the "Lifetime Achievement Award" from the Nonprofit Technology Enterprise Network (NTEN) and Ashoka named Ben-Horin as one of its Senior Fellows. He has been named by the Nonprofit Times to its annual list of the 50 most influential leaders in the U.S. nonprofit sector four times.
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