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Nonprofit consortium, NetHope, formed to share technology

United States, May 19, 2009

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Kristi Heim

The Seattle Times
May, 2009

NetHope has grown to 26 members, including locally based nonprofits Mercy Corps, PATH and World Vision, and major supporters such as Microsoft.

Seattle has become a hub for technology and philanthropy, so it's not surprising that a nonprofit consortium combining both would find fertile ground here.

The group, NetHope, has grown to 26 members, including locally based nonprofits Mercy Corps, PATH and World Vision, and major supporters such as Microsoft.

The members of NetHope work in some of the most challenging environments on the planet, trying to get humanitarian aid to people after disasters, wars and other crises.

Information technology plays a major role in these organizations' ability to communicate and dispatch resources, but nonprofits can't afford hefty IT departments.

So members of the consortium, formed in 2001 and based near Washington, D.C., work together to solve common problems and share technology. They've attracted millions of dollars in donations, discounts and training from technology companies to support their efforts.

This week, NetHope is holding its Worldwide Member Summit on the Microsoft campus.

The group "provides a sort of honing ability for us to get the best information about new things that are going on, and put that in front of other members," said Chip Carter, chief information/technology officer at Mercy Corps. By listening to other members' experiences, he said, "we have great best-practice resources at our fingertips."

Their latest challenge is economic. In the current recession, collaboration and efficiency are more crucial than ever as resources dwindle, said NetHope CEO Bill Brindley.

"Right now, cost pressures are either freezing or [limiting] travel," he said. NetHope has focused on using virtual meeting and communications technology to connect with projects overseas and is now working on a shared IT help desk all members can use.

Thursday, the World Affairs Council is to host NetHope co-founder Ed Granger-Happ of Save the Children and CIOs of three member organizations: Oxfam, CARE and the Nature Conservancy. They will discuss how information and communications technology affect the work of humanitarian agencies in the developing world.

The consortium has already come a long way in taking the technology that made the business world run better and applying it to the world of nonprofit humanitarian efforts.

"What we've seen over the last five years is the efficiency of NetHope helping member organizations increase their ability to respond to global crisis," said Akhtar Badshah, senior director of global community affairs at Microsoft.

When a tsunami struck Indonesia, members were able to communicate effectively with their organizations and with each other. The secret was a 40-pound piece of equipment called a network-relief kit, which NetHope had developed. It combined a portable computer, satellite phone and solar-power panel.

"By the time we had the earthquake in Pakistan, that suitcase had become a briefcase, with a laptop and satellite phone you can set up yourself very quickly in an emergency," Badshah said. "By investing in a collective fashion, we were able to help NetHope move from a heavier set of technology to a lighter set of technology, from a price of $40,000 to $4,000. That's a huge change."

The latest generation of the kit weighs 4 pounds and fits in a backpack.

NetHope members are also working together to increase Internet connectivity through installing small mobile satellites called V-SATs in developing countries, including Iraq and Iran, said Mercy Corps' Carter.

For Microsoft, contributing to NetHope is part of an overall strategy to provide technology to nonprofits around the world, said Badshah.

"It is just the right thing for us to do," he said.

Effective technology can make a difference in how fast organizations are able to respond. "It can be a matter of life and death for somebody," Badshah said.

Participation also helps build morale, he added. With a global work force, "when a disaster strikes, somebody or other from the company is in a location where this has happened," he said. "They obviously want the company to step up and do the right thing."

Nonprofits have also become a large and growing market for technology vendors. Technology holds promise for development work, such as mobile phones used in microfinance to send and receive payments.

"We are clearly helping employees see the value of this company and having our technology used in ways they could never have imagined," Badshah said.