SEATTLE, Wash., May 19, 1999 — If you’ve ever wondered how the
that provides emergency support and services to needy families and individuals in this country really works, you couldn’t do better than a visit to the West Seattle Food Bank. Operating with a paid staff of two, the organization delivers food to 1,700 families each month in West Seattle, an area of working-class neighborhoods and upscale waterfront condominiums across Elliott Bay from downtown Seattle.
“We serve families who are new to the area and working folks who need help to make ends meet,”
says West Seattle Food Bank executive director Katie Heinrich.
“Forty percent are kids under the age of 18; another 20 percent are seniors. Without our help many of these people would have a hard time getting through the month.”
According to Heinrich, it wasn’t long ago that the West Seattle Food Bank relied on a card catalog to keep the organization up and running: handwritten index cards that tracked everything from food inventories to names and addresses of people who rely on the food bank for help. More recently, the agency has computerized its operations. The switchover has helped the West Seattle Food Bank streamline its efforts, reducing the number of hours spent on administrative chores and giving Heinrich more time to concentrate on delivering services.
But the dependence on digital technology raises the specter of a new problem: what happens on January 1, 2000? For all of its drawbacks, the old card catalog did have at least one advantage–the system wasn’t susceptible to failure when the calendar turns over to the new millenium. Now, Y2K compliance is a real concern.
“It’s definitely more efficient,”
says Heinrich of the organization’s computer systems.
“The question is, will it work?”
Fortunately, the answer will almost certainly be yes. On May 22, some 200 volunteers will fan out to more than 125 nonprofit agencies in the Seattle area to help them assess their Y2K preparedness and come up with a plan for dealing with any issues they discover. The event, called the
“Y2K Day of Service”
is sponsored by NP ower , a nonprofit organization devoted to providing other nonprofits with access to resources and expertise that can help them make the best use of technology.
The West Seattle Food Bank is one of the organizations that have signed up for the Y2K Day of Service.
“On that Saturday, a volunteer will take a look at our systems and let us know where we may have problems,”
“Then they’ll help us figure out what we need to do next. It will be a big relief to know exactly where we’re vulnerable and what we need to do about it.”
High Stakes for Nonprofits
Few issues have received as much press coverage in recent years as the potential for disruptions that may result if older computer systems can’t tell the difference between the years 1900 and 2000. Everyone knows that the Y2K bug poses a threat to air traffic, big business and the military. We’ve all had ample warning that the government might not be able to issue checks, gas stations may not be able to pump fuel, and grocery stores may not be able to ring up purchases.
Amid all the hype, very little attention has been paid to the affect of Y2K on nonprofit organizations. If anything, the vulnerabilities are more acute. The nature of nonprofits–tight budgets, small staffs, a dependence on donated equipment, and a focus on getting by with limited resources–means that they often rely on older computers and software, which makes them especially susceptible to Y2K issues. To compound the problem, few nonprofit organizations have either in-house technical staff or the funds to hire consultants from the private sector to help them achieve Y2K preparedness.
And while the impact of Y2K on nonprofit agencies may not be as spectacular as the possibility of mid-air plane collisions or accidental nuclear war, the stakes are still high. A Y2K glitch could prevent someone calling a crisis line from getting the help they urgently need. Or it could mean that a nonprofit that provides emergency relief wouldn’t be able to mobilize as quickly during a crisis.
“If an agency uses computers mostly for word processing, Y2K will be a minor annoyance,”
says Michael Beneke, NP ower’s director of communications and development.
“But for agencies that rely on date-dependent software, spreadsheets, and databases to provide socially critical services, it’s no less important to be completely ready than it is for any government agency.”
A recent survey conducted jointly by The NonProfit Times and Gifts in Kind International found that there is widespread awareness of Y2K within the nonprofit sector, along with a fairly alarming lack of overall preparedness. Fifteen of 569 respondents said they knew about the Millenium bug, but only two had completed all of the work needed to be fully Y2K compliant. Sitting in between the two extremes, 225 organizations reported that they planned to address the problem, but had yet to begin the process.
Reasons for the lack of readiness included a shortage of technical expertise, inadequate funding and limited staffing.
“Nonprofits just aren’t very well-equipped for dealing with Y2K,”
says Marc Lindenberg, dean of the Daniel J. Evans School of Public Affairs at the University of Washington and a member of the NP ower board of directors.
“Unless they can get innovative kinds of technical help, they may not be able to keep up.”
Lindenberg sees NP ower as a model for the kind of creative assistance that will be crucial.
My own sense is that NP ower is unique,”
It’s the first time I’ve seen an organization put together to help nonprofits with their technical needs. The Y2K Day of Service is an example of the great ways that NP ower is finding to deliver technical assistance.”
A Continuum of Technology Assistance
NP ower, which opened its doors on March 1, was launched with the support of a number of corporations and foundations in the Seattle area, including Microsoft, Medina Foundation, The Seattle Foundation, The Boeing Company, U.S. Bank, and SAFECO Corporation. It was founded thanks largely to the research and efforts of Microsoft program manager for community affairs Jane Meseck Yeager, who is heavily involved in Microsoft’s donor programs for nonprofit organizations.
“We were donating software and cash to organizations, but we didn’t really know if the donations were being used effectively,”
“What we did know was that we were getting a lot of requests from nonprofits for technical assistance.”
In the fall of 1997, Meseck Yeager launched a research project to learn what kind of technology support nonprofits really need, and how Microsoft might be better able to provide them with useful assistance. In meetings with Seattle area nonprofit organizations and discussions with technology assistance providers from across the country, she found that most nonprofits struggle to obtain basic technical planning, training and support.
Building on Meseck Yeager’s work, Joan Fanning, who already had extensive experience helping nonprofits solve technology problems, developed a business plan in early 1998 that called for the creation of a new organization that would provide
“the nonprofit community with a continuum of technology assistance services that are . . . affordable and of the highest quality.”
Less than a year later, NP ower is up and running, with Fanning serving as executive director. The organization offers a comprehensive range of service, including help with technology assessment and planning, and hands-on assistance for technical projects such as wiring local area networks and building Web sites. NP ower also hosts computer skills classes and provides access to a technology library and a volunteer placement service.
By mid-May, just 10 weeks after its official launch, more than 70 nonprofit organizations had become dues-paying members of NP ower .
“The need was so obvious,”
“This is one project that everyone has really rallied behind because it is already proving to be an extremely powerful way to help nonprofits be more effective.”
A Little Help In Return
Neighborhood House is one of the Seattle-area nonprofit agencies that expects to see huge benefits from the presence of NP ower . Founded in 1906, the agency administers a wide range of programs to Seattle’s four largest low-income housing projects, providing Head Start programs for children, transportation and outreach services for senior citizens and the disabled, and food and clothing assistance. With a staff of more than 100, Neighborhood House serves more than 10,000 Seattle-area families.
Tracey Mori manages the agency’s computer systems, a job she took over despite the fact that she didn’t start out as a technology expert.
“I sort of learned on the job,”
That’s pretty typical. Most nonprofits just can’t afford the going rate to hire a network administrator. A lot of organizations have someone like the CFO or the executive director doing double duty. NP ower is really going to help.”
Mori says she is really looking forward to NP ower’s upcoming Y2K Day of Service.
“The state of our technology was very eclectic when I took over a year ago,”
“Our computer systems were very old. Now I’ve got all of the computers at our main site networked and upgraded. But our servers are still old and we’ve still got 20 or so standalone 486’s running Windows 3.1 that aren’t completely compliant.”
The services Neighborhood House offers are vulnerable to Y2K issues in a number of areas. The organization relies on extensive databases to keep track of everything from appointments for its transportation services to phone and medical records for children in Head Start programs. In addition, the agency’s accounting systems are at risk to the Millennium bug, which could affect Neighborhood House’s ability to pay its own staff and hire translators and other contractors.
On the Y2K Day of Service, two NP ower volunteers will head out to Neighborhood House to help Mori analyze the Y2K readiness of the organization’s computer systems. Of the 200 volunteers, more than 100 are Microsoft employees. All volunteers are taking part in a special two-hour Y2K training program. Using software donated by WRQ of Seattle, ClickNet of San Jose, and Double E Electronics of Omaha, they will run diagnostic tests to assess Y2K compliance. Then they’ll offer recommendations to remedy any problems they find.
“A lot of people at nonprofits are confused about what they need to do,”
“I’m excited about the Y2K Day of Service because it will be wonderful to have someone come out and say, for example, ‘this is good, but this needs work.'”
The volunteers are excited, too. Microsoft information security technologist Diana Schiller spent a recent Saturday mastering the three diagnostic programs, and she is looking forward to getting out into the field for the Y2K Day of Service.
“I just think this is a great event,”
“These organizations do so much to help the people in our communities. This just seemed like a good chance to give them a little help in return.”