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A nonprofit organization provides its own solution to the IT-worker shortage
Barely a year ago, when former investment banker Stephanie Cuskley took the CEO spot at NPower, a nonprofit organization created in 1999 to connect other nonprofits with competent, affordable information technology and assistance, it already had a solid business model.
NPower derives half its funding from outside donations and the other half from two IT services it has developed over the years: Solutions and Consulting, a software management system for nonprofits, and Managed Services, a service by which NPower manages computer help desks for other nonprofit organizations.
The revenue from these services helps finance NPower's Technology Service Corps, which provides free IT training to low-income or otherwise disadvantaged people ages 18 to 25, and then helps to place them in jobs with nonprofit groups as well as with corporations. "At Accenture's (ACN) New York office, I think four out of the seven help-desk employees came from NPower," points out Cuskley.
NPower recruits trainees by reaching out to churches, schools, social service agencies, and other community groups that might be able to recommend young people who show an interest in, or talent for, some aspect of IT—despite the obstacles life has put in their way.
To date, the program has trained and placed 319 young adults in IT positions with salaries ranging from approximately $25,000 to $35,000 annually. Over the 18-week training period, enrollees receive classroom instruction from professional IT teachers hired by NPower, with Fridays reserved for Professional Development Days—exposure to established corporate and nonprofit professionals who volunteer their time to discuss their career paths with the trainees. The volunteers range from help-desk staffers all the way to chief technology officers and CEOs.
The last five weeks of the program consist of a paid internship at a nonprofit or corporation. "Many of the internships turn into full-time jobs," says Cuskley. "Most of the jobs pay twice as much as the worker was making before the NPower training."
But for the young adults NPower helps, tackling the training program is not without obstacles. "It's a population that has had trouble succeeding in the conventional system," says Cuskley of NPower's students. "They have learning issues or family problems. Some of them are homeless or don't have money for food or have limited clothing. Sometimes we have to give them bus or subway fare to get to training sessions."
As her first act in her new job, Cuskley hired social workers to help ease trainees through the educational process and give them guidance on handling personal and family problems in such a way that allows the trainees to concentrate on their education with NPower rather than letting their problems consume them.
She also is bolstering the program by more aggressively courting chief information officers and chief technology officers to participate in the Friday sessions, which consist either of visits from corporate technology professionals or of outings in which the trainees go on-site to see for themselves how these professionals do their jobs.
To find more of these corporate volunteers, Cuskley reaches out to connections she originally made during her days as an investment banker and also asks NPower's board of directors—who come from such corporate giants as Microsoft (MSFT), Accenture, and JPMorgan Chase (JPM)—to introduce her to any CTOs or CIOs they know.
She soon found that recruiting CTOs and CIOs was as easy as simply asking them—after she made a pitch about the training program's benefits to both the trainees and the outside groups that help them with the Friday sessions. "We go after CTOs and other tech leaders because they themselves understand the power of IT in driving an organization. They themselves have succeeded in life because of their knowledge of IT," says Cuskley. "So it resonates with the trainees. They have an immediate reaction, because they feel they can help these types of organizations themselves—and that they are the only ones who can help." Although the CIOs and CTOs don't necessarily volunteer their own time to NPower, they compel the employees who report to them to volunteer.
What the corporations get out of volunteering their workers is increased employee engagement. As the volunteers grow to understand how they can help low-income young adults by imparting their experiences, they sense the importance of their own work. In addition to sharing knowledge and experience gained on their jobs, volunteers coach the NPower trainees in such areas as résumé writing and interviewing techniques.
Cuskley also sees the personal connections between her organization and the corporate volunteers as a way ultimately to attract additional donations—those made in cold hard cash—to hire more NPower staff in order to scale up the Technology Services Corps. The group has already started a branch in Philadelphia, and Cuskley would like to expand by establishing the NPower training program in other parts of the U.S.
The success stories are heartening to everyone involved in NPower's Technology Service Corps. "There was a woman of 22 or 23 who had a child with cerebral palsy and a husband who was disabled in Iraq, and she graduated at the top of her class here and found an IT job," Cuskley recalls. "Now she wants to do IT for organizations that help people with disabilities."
Cuskley's next big challenge is to realize an idea she has for making it easier for nonprofits and corporations, individual IT workers, and prospective IT workers from around the world to connect with one another: building a Web portal.
But what are the group's prospects of pulling in more donations—amid an economic downturn that has forced many corporations into massive layoffs—to fund the portal and further development of the training program? Is its expansion plan realistic, and what are the other challenges ahead?
NPower's success helping disadvantaged young adults find gainful employment as IT professionals merits expansion of its program. What challenges lie ahead?
As of 2009, NPower had trained 350 low-income young adults for IT jobs that for the most part pay them double what they would have earned without the training. Despite its impressive track record, its chief goals for the future—increasing the size of its training program and building an Internet portal to connect nonprofits to more IT resources all over the world—carry significant challenges.
"It's a bad time to be a philanthropic organization," says Joanna Krotz, a New York City consultant who speaks and writes about philanthropy and is the author of The Guide to Intelligent Giving. "Giving declined in 2009, and everyone I talk to thinks 2010 is going to be worse."
Yet NPower's efforts are particularly relevant to these times. "The unemployment rate for people ages 16 to 24 is 50%, so it's a fabulous mission, to help young people in this in economy," says Krotz.
From April to July 2009, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the number of jobless Americans in that age group increased by 1.6 million, to a total of 19.3 million.
No one needs statistics to make a case that young adults plus lack of money and direction equals bad news to the communities in which they live. While a recession always poses some threat to an organization that depends on corporate funding, groups such as NPower benefit from their type of work: doing a service to the greater community as well as to the individuals to whom it provides training. The 2008 Corporate Giving Standard (CGS) Survey conducted by the Committee Encouraging Corporate Philanthropy, a New York-based CEO membership organization that promotes corporate philanthropy, notes a trend toward more-strategic giving, with 51% of corporations' donations classified as "proactive community investment."
In promoting NPower's cause to prospective donors, Cuskley emphasizes that the graduates could become mentors to others—thus giving the group a legacy on which to expand. Krotz believes those types of goals make sense to prospective corporate donors. "It's much better to give people tools rather than just hand them a check," Krotz says.
The CGS survey also notes a 29% increase in noncash giving by corporations, another positive indicator for NPower, which asks corporate chief technology officers to volunteer their own time or that of their assistants to speak to trainees about their own jobs and coach them on writing résumés and interviewing for jobs.
Having a former finance professional—who's accustomed to measuring success via spreadsheets—at the helm also bodes well for NPower's prospects for attracting more monetary donations. "As a prospective donor, I would sit down with the executive director and ask: What is the ROI? What do you use to define success?" says Krotz. "I'd want to see a strong business plan. You can't just say, 'I do good.' It's about accountability."
She recommends that other such groups hoping to win funding use a two-part pitch. "The best thing is to have a real story to tell, to show a successful 18- or 20-year-old whom you can put in front of the crowd and say, 'This is what can happen.' Then you do the PowerPoint (MSFT) presentation with the numbers."