Social Tech Brewing Co. offers cure for what ails non-profit sector

At first glance, you might think it’s a clever name for a trendy microbrewery run by geeks.

But when you visit The Social Tech Brewing Co.‘s Web site, you’ll discover a group of volunteers that is devoted to bringing together information technology and the not-for-profit sector.

The Social Tech Brewing Co., or STB, was founded three years ago by founder Andre Charland, who heads up the organization’s Vancouver chapter. The group, which was modeled after a similar one in the U.S. called the 501 Tech Club, consists of volunteers from tech, business and not-for-profit industries that meet on a bi-monthly basis.

“Our main focus is not how non profits should use technology but simply creating a space for a conversation to happen on a local level,” said Phillip A D Smith, who heads up the Toronto chapter. “It’s a very active conversation in the U.S. and we don’t have that here in Canada.” Smith is also an IT consultant with Community Bandwidth.

The Toronto chapter held a meeting earlier this month where participants discussed the municipal election in Toronto next November and how candidates could use technology to help them with their campaigns. For example, they looked at how Google Maps mash-up applications could help candidates review constituent data, a localized e-mail distribution list that can e-mail people on a block-by-block basis and an out-of-the-box campaign Web site kit. At previous meetings, STB has looked at applications targeted at non-profits such as donor development, ownership management databases and e-mail list management.

STB has an office and holds its meetings in Toronto at the Centre for Social Innovation, a 6,000 sq. ft. co-location facility for 14 non-profits. The organization held its first meeting in November 2003. Meetings range in size from 30 to 60 individuals.

“We’re looking at how do we support the innovative work that’s happening within non-profits so they can get better at what they do and thereby do better in serving the community,” said CSI’s executive director Tonya Surman. “When we started to hear about STB it became obvious it would be a perfect fit for us to support.”

In addition to providing STB with office space, CSI is providing support to Community Wireless Toronto, a not-for-profit initiative to provide free wireless access to community groups across the city.

“We try to provide the ability to do what you do without getting stuck with having to run an organization,” said Surman, adding CSI is also looking into providing governance support to help organizations like STB to secure funding for their projects.

STB member Reboot Canada, which donates refurbished computers to non-profits, has given Community Wireless Toronto refurbished computers to help it provide wireless Internet access to people that wouldn’t otherwise have it.

“Providing people with access to the Internet so they can compete in this leveled playing field is what will help assist in social change,” said Devon MacDonald, a consultant with IBM Canada‘s business consulting services and acting lead for the not-for-profit industry. “It will give people a chance to realize what resources are out there and to find information about programs to educate themselves about things going on in the community and in the world.”

MacDonald, who initially heard about STB from Smith through Smith’s consulting business, Community Bandwidth, said non-profit groups could also leverage Toronto Hydro’s recently announced Wi-Fi initiative to help increase people’s access to wireless technology.

Smith said STB is an excellent way for IT professionals to use their skills to the benefit of their communities.

“There are a lot of talented programmers at IT organizations and they haven’t thought about getting involved at a computer lab to help inner-city students learn basic computing skills,” said Smith. “This is a first step for them to meet the people who are doing that and to hear some of the ideas about what organizations need.”


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