Five local non-profit agencies will be getting $2,000 each to start improving their efficiency by implementing long-range information technology management plans thanks to a $10,000 Excelerator Competitive Technology Grant from the SBC Corporation.
Grants will be awarded to Regional Enterprises for Adults and Children (REACH), the Eau Claire YMCA, the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill (NAMI), the L.E. Phillips Senior Center and the Epilepsy Foundation of Western Wisconsin.
All the agencies, as well as the United Way of Greater Eau Claire, received free help with developing their plans and applying for the SBC grant from professor of management information systems Dr. Tom Hilton and his MIS 460 class at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire and Dr. Don Mowry, director of UW-Eau Claire's Center for Service-Learning.
According to Hilton, management information system students from UW-Eau Claire have been out in the community helping local agencies and businesses by assisting them with MIS and information technology projects for at least five years. In the past, students made their own contacts and planned their own projects. But this project was designed differently for a number of reasons.
"We do a very good job of preparing our MIS students for that first job," said Hilton, noting that his graduating students often have good jobs lined up even before they graduate. "But I don't think we've always done quite as good a job at preparing them for their second and third jobs."
Hilton explained that his students are typically so good at solving IT problems, which usually involve working on individual, limited-term projects, that they are almost inevitably promoted — and that usually means jobs with more management or administrative focus. Hilton hoped to get his students to see beyond their technical expertise and think ahead to that management focus by becoming involved in long-range, IT strategic planning, which requires understanding the priorities of an organization, planning for change and prioritizing solutions for incremental implementation.
That's where Mowry and the UW-Eau Claire Center for Service-Learning came in. Mowry works with many non-profit agencies to develop service-learning opportunities for students, but a 2001 evaluation of local nonprofit agencies receiving United Way support revealed that many fell short in effectively using IT to increase their effectiveness and service delivery capacity. Most had long-term strategic plans for their agencies, but none included an IT component.
For some time Mowry has been investigating a variety of grant opportunities for addressing this problem through the existing, mutually beneficial relationships between local nonprofit agencies and the university.
"This project was conceived as an opportunity for students to get the value of applied experience as they help area non-profits develop a big-picture approach to collecting, analyzing, storing, using, and sharing information," said Mowry. "The agencies in turn benefit from free advice designed to help them meet their broader goals of making the world a better place for individuals, families and communities."
Mowry was recently notified that UW-Eau Claire also will receive, through the Wisconsin Campus Compact and the Upper Midwest Campus Compact Consortium, support to continue this project in the form of a $6,000 Engaged Department Grant from the federal Learn and Serve America Program. Learn and Serve provides grants to schools and colleges to increase service-learning opportunities.
The project got under way at the beginning of the fall 2004 semester. For their senior capstone projects, twenty-four MIS 460 students were divided into six teams of four students and each visited one nonprofit to document that agency's long-term IT needs. Five teams dealt with the service agencies, and one team assisted the United Way, which provides funds for all the others.
"We started by meeting with the agency staff and just talking with them about what they needed to do on a daily basis and what their concerns were," said Chad Beier, Wonewoc, who worked with the Epilepsy Foundation.
Beier said he was surprised by how easy it was for the student teams to provide meaningful help to solve agency IT challenges. Recommendation included things like devising regular rotations schedules for computer hardware purchases, setting up spreadsheets and databases, devising information back-up systems and plans, and improving internet connectivity for employees. For REACH, a significant portion of the plan dealt with getting a computer workstation that would be accessible for those with limited mobility.
Karen Rosolowski, Ladysmith, who worked on the United Way team, said her team helped the agency save time by suggesting software specifically designed for project management.
Near the end of the semester the students presented their plans to the executives or board of directors for each agency. They then worked with the agency staff and Hilton to refine the final plans. Mowry attended the meeting where the United Way team presented its IT plan.
"It was amazing," said Mowry. "The plan was comprehensive, detailed and prioritized. I was really impressed."
The SBC Excelerator Technology Grant, unlike some other grants, can be used for the actual purchase of computer hardware and software and will allow each agency to get started on the implementation of their long-term IT goals.
The grants, made available through the SBC Foundation, the philanthropic arm of SBC Communications, Inc., made $9 million available in 2004 to national and local nonprofit organizations for projects that use technology to build stronger communities. Of that, $5 million was designated for competitive grants to enable nonprofits to integrate technology into their ongoing operations and community outreach. Since 2002, SBC Excelerator has allocated $28 million and supported more than 3,000 nonprofit organizations across the nation.
A new group of MIS seniors will pick up the project during the spring 2005 semester, focusing on design of the first projects in each agency's plan. Fall 2005 will be the start of implementation and testing, and spring 2006 will see evaluation and planning for subsequent years, with the goal of building a sustainable program that can be expanded over time to serve more agencies in the Chippewa Valley, perhaps providing a model that other communities can use.
- UW-Eau Claire News Bureau