So you want to be a nonprofit tech consultant. So do I. Here's the story of Worlds Touch, the tech consulting nonprofit I founded, and some basic business advice. I'd appreciate hearing what you think about it.
I'm also just getting started in nonprofit technology consulting. Worlds Touch was created when I got back from my first trip abroad after completing all the coursework for a major in Computer Information Systems at High Point University.
I'd gone out to interview for one of those big bucks jobs I thought would finance an early retirement and it hit me what working for Corporate America in IT would be like. So I wrote to a woman I knew in Nepal and asked if she might need some tech consulting. She replied that I should come to Nepal and we'd see.
When I came back from that month-long trip, I had done a systems analysis and identified a need for a database in the grass-roots organization serving the squatter and lowest caste communities of Kathmandu and Patan, Nepal. Working with one of my former professors at university, I created an Access database for the organization, founded Worlds Touch, applied for a 501c3 designation, put together a board of directors, wrote by-laws, held our first board meeting and raised the funds to take me back to Nepal with their database in my hot new laptop.
Worlds Touch's return to Nepal was underwhelming. The nonprofit I'd thought was my illustrious client had engaged a local student who, using the prototype database I'd sent them for perusal, had taken my work and re-created it in her name. The director (who hadn't delegated anyone else to work with me) was "too busy" to look at my work for two out of the five weeks I had to spend there. By that time, there wasn't enough time for a thorough testing and revision, so I wasn't surprised when I got home to learn that nobody was using my reporting system because it "didn't work."
Still, during the long days while I waited to unveil what was essentially my gift to the Nepali organization, I discovered eRiding, N-TEN, LASA, Tech Soup and the whole community of nonprofit ICT. I also did a small database project for another nonprofit, this one in a neighboring town.
All I had asked for, from either of these two clients, was "room and board," that is, basic living expenses while I was in town working for them. Robert Weiner confirmed this approach to getting started the other day on the nptechconsult list when he suggested that pro bono or discounted work is a good way to build credibility and get a name for yourself.
The next year, following an elaborate application process I'd started in the first flurry of activity after my initial trip to Nepal, the Rotary Club announced my approval as a Cultural Ambassadorial Scholar, first to Nepal and then, because of the unrest there, to Darjeeling, India, where the majority of the population is ethnically Nepalese. My husband was already slotted to do an around-the-world voyage as part of a sabbatical from his university teaching job, so I joined forces with him.
The idea was to spend as much as a month in various international locations, look up the local nonprofits (called nongovernmental organizations or NGOs out in the world), and see if I could apply my "will work for food" approach.
I put the word out on the various lists I belong to that I was looking for NGO work in specific international destinations. I got quite a few responses, though not many from the locations I'd specified. Goa is a far piece from Darjeeling, for example. And Pakistan is even farther.
I got two jobs before arriving in India. Both were research jobs, one with the League of Human Rights in Noumea, New Caledonia, and the other with Open Forum, an agency promoting democracy in Cambodia by disseminating news and information. Beth Kanter, bless her heart, read my appeal and put me in touch with a Spanish guy, Javier Sola, who is doing great open source and localization work under Open Forum's umbrella. He wanted to migrate their custom-developed CMS to open source, preferably Drupal, and asked me to look into the issues and make recommendations. I worked for Open Forum for a month.
In Darjeeling, under the auspices of the Rotary Club, I found the going much smoother than I ever have. Because the Cultural Ambassadorship is fully funded, I did all my work strictly as a volunteer. My job was to volunteer as much as possible and identify worthy projects that my local Rotary Clubs might want to invest in.
Everybody in town said I ought to go to Hayden Hall. It was the granddaddy of social service organizations and had helped thousands in its 35 years of existence. I showed up and offered my services. I ended up, after scores of hours of talk back and forth, serving as a catalyst for a whole new technological awareness at the organization. I did one concrete project, an addition to their essentially brochure web site (http://haydenhall.org, click the shop button) but much of my work was analyzing their social enterprise, a handicrafts cooperative teaching weaving and sewing to poor women, and making recommendations about how to reach an international audience. We worked on several other ideas as well, very much in the spirit of the eRider as Ian Runekles and the folks at LASA in England conceive an eRider--above everything, a capacity builder.
I came home determined to put Worlds Touch on a more sound financial footing so that we can assure our international clients of an eRider at their disposal. We're capacity builders, which makes us more generalist than specialist, but I've found that is what all my international clients have needed. One of the ways to build Worlds Touch is to extend its services to our homegrown nonprofits working with the poor.
As I look around, I see that some of the tactics to get clients internationally will work here. We could call it networking. We could call it meeting-and-greeting. We could call it cold calling. The idea is to talk to decision-makers in the nonprofit community, to find out where they are, technologically speaking, what problems they are encountering, and what their frustrations are with the help they're getting. There are many Rotary Clubs to speak to. There are several local associations of nonprofit professionals. They're all on my calling list.
One typically American tactic that is increasingly popular is offering an infomercial-- a seminar, webinar, workshop, presentation about a service you offer. You teach your audience much of what they want to know about the subject, but YOU are the expert who can help them out with the trickier parts, the knottier problems, the sticky-wicket stuff that gets too technical. I've learned a lot from these folks, both information about tech issues I want to know and also techniques for subtly suggesting your students might want to consider hiring you.
Having a very clear idea about what you ARE offering is important, everyone will tell you, but I've found that my clear idea has changed substantially since I took off for my first trip to Nepal. Then, I thought I knew about database design and construction (and have since learned that this is NOT a cost-effective solution for most nonprofits, especially those in the developing world) and web site design and construction. My web knowledge has served me in good stead, since it's a door-opener. But my ability to analyze systems and my deft skill in internet research has come more and more to fore as I work with my nonprofit clients. So Worlds Touch's mission statement, while still taking aim at the digital divide, is a work in progress.
I'm still not making any money. If I had to make a living immediately, I'd probably try to get a job with anybody who'd have me in the nonprofit sector-- a nonprofit, a consulting company, a nonprofit solutions vendor. I'd be ready to move anywhere in the states. Personally, a couple of trips with Geekcorps would appeal to me.
For Worlds Touch, I have given myself this next 18 months to grow the local business, find fee structures that work both here and abroad, and put a fund raising plan into place that gives people who support the filtering-down of the vast advantages of technology to the poorest among us the opportunity to participate themselves in this kind of outreach.
But if you want to be an independent, nothing will ever take the place of plain and simple selling. Locate the prospective client. Meet the decision maker. Interview for information. Pitch the product. Close the sale. Put that in the context of a business plan that reflects solid homework, and you'll succeed.