How charities make generous use of IT opportunities

TORONTO – With their small budgets and big ambitions, charities and other non-profit organizations can derive huge benefits from IT, audiences at the Making IT Work for Volunteers conference heard Wednesday.

But

maximizing the benefits of IT, experts said, depends on smart implementation and the willingness to partner with like-minded organizations.

“”The Internet is not a magic wand, it doesn’t immediately create these impacts,”” said Mark Surman, president of the Toronto-based Commons Group, which helps non-profits exploit the potential of the Internet. “”Though it is a useful lever when you learn how to use it.””

Speaking as part of a panel on making strategic use of IT, Surman said technology will work best for non-profits if they plan properly and select the right tools for getting their messages across.

“”There’s a difference between building a bridge over San Francisco Bay and building a bridge over my pond,”” Surman said.

As part of the planning process, he also said non-profits must consult extensively with their stakeholders before any implementation.

“”It’s very costly to build something and then find out it’s not what the users need,”” he said.

Surman and Maureen James, programs and projects manager for the Association for Progressive Communications, offered a number of examples of where simple uses of IT have made significant impact. They range from a Human Resources Development Canada initiative to provide online employment services to people with disabilities to a Nigerian program training women to use information and communications technologies through, among other avenues, a mobile telecentre.

“”It’s not Internet based,”” James said of the initiative, emphasizing its basic approach. “”It’s a truck going from community to community.””

Martin Kuplens-Ewart, the 19-year-old Web Development Co-ordinator of TakingITGlobal, said partnerships and the sharing of resources have played a key role in the progress of his organization. Toronto-based TakingITGlobal, whose goal is to connect the world’s youth for social change, runs a resource centre with the YMCA of Greater Toronto and is also partnering with the Global Youth Action Network and the Hague Appeal for Peace Campaign.

“”Organizations can’t create their own systems independently in the sense that you get a lot of duplication of efforts,”” Kuplens-Ewart said. “”The information we have here is valuable enough not be hoarded, but to be shared with other organizations.””

Judy Rebick, publisher of alternative news site rabble.ca, said her site has expanded its reach through an association with the more global OneWorld.net site and rabble.ca’s own “”in cahoots”” section, which provides links to like-minded content.

“”It gives us an income because we charge for it on a sliding scale and it provides traffic to their sites,”” she said of in cahoots. “”And more important, it allows organizations to communicate with each other.””

For charities, the goal is not so much communication with each other as it is reaching potential donors and getting them to give. Christine Gullage, general manager for CanadaHelps.org, an e-donation portal that accepts donations for any of Canada’s 78,000 registered charities, named convenience, speed and anonymity as selling points for online giving. But she said charities can help their online efforts by making it easy, pointing to Toronto’s Daily Bread Food Bank as one charity with an effective online strategy.

“”The fact that they put (a donate link) on their front page, they made giving easy,”” she said, during a Wednesday seminar. “”It was effective because it was simple and it cost them nothing.””

CanadaHelps.org, which doesn’t charge charities for listings, realizes its own cost efficiencies through the support of major Canadian financial institutions and by transferring donations by direct electronic deposits to charities’ bank accounts.

“”The way we’re able to do this and keep it free is we rely on technology,”” she said.

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