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Philanthropic providers bolster nonprofit tech

A recent trend shows cloud and managed hosting providers doing work for nonprofit organizations pro bono in an effort to engage communities and develop loyalty. Salesforce.com is credited as a major influence in these philanthropic activities

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When nonprofit organization ToolBank USA Inc. loaned tools to volunteers in Conway, Ark., a town recovering from an April 2014 tornado, it also received a helping hand: technology services from a managed hosting and cloud services provider.

Datapipe Inc., based in Jersey City, N.J., donated infrastructure and services to ToolBank, which hosts the organization's inventory management system. The system, which is based on BMC Software's Remedy service desk software, lets ToolBank keep track of the various tools it lends to charities and their volunteers. ToolBank lends out a range of tools, from rakes and shovels to power generators and jack hammers. The nonprofit operates brick-and-mortar lending facilities in Atlanta, Baltimore, Charlotte and Cincinnati, and, earlier this year, launched a mobile unit that responds to natural disasters, such as the Conway tornado.

The ability to track tools across a rapidly growing lending operation is important, noted Mark Brodbeck, CEO of ToolBank. Demand for the organization's tools has grown 72% from 2012 to 2013, when ToolBank lending centers loaned about $2.6 million worth of tools to 123,000 volunteers.

"It's very easy to lend tools," Brodbeck said. "The magic is getting them back."

Datapipe's donated hosting service lets ToolBank keep tabs on its equipment and also provides a platform capable of accommodating the organization's growth. Four additional ToolBank centers are scheduled to open in the next 12 months.

Rich Dolan, Datapipe's director of marketing, said the company' solution allows ToolBank to "take advantage of the cloud platform to help them scale as they grow in their locations across the country."

Datapipe's work at ToolBank represents a broader trend: cloud and managed services companies that provide nonprofit tech services on a pro bono basis. Companies view nonprofit tech service donation as one way to give back to their communities. The philanthropic activities also help service providers recruit employees and build loyalty among customers and business partners.

Help from cloud providers

Appirio, a cloud consulting firm based in San Francisco, has made service donation a part of its Silver Lining community engagement program.

Appirio launched Silver Lining in 2010 to formalize employees' volunteer work as part of the company's culture, said Jennifer Taylor, senior vice president of human resources at the company. Appirio's initial corporate philanthropy project was low-tech: Employees that attended an all-hands meeting in Arizona donated their time to a local wildlife preserve, removing non-native plants. 

How do we carve out the investment in time and resources to contribute to a deserving organization?
Jennifer TaylorSenior vice president of human resources, Appirio

Company-sponsored volunteer activities are still part of Appirio's Silver Lining program. Appirio holds an annual "Future of the Cloud" event as a company-wide day of service. But Silver Lining also provides employees eight hours of paid time off annually for their individual volunteering efforts. And on the technical side, the company provides pro bono professional services to help with cloud technology adoption.

Taylor said the pro bono service initiatives have been the toughest challenge, noting Appirio is largely a time-and-materials business, as opposed to a product company.

"We can't easily donate products," Taylor said. "How do we carve out the investment in [both] time and resources to contribute to a deserving organization?"

Appirio continues to learn how to identify nonprofit tech projects that best fit what the company has to offer and that can be delivered within a reasonable timeframe. In some cases, the company works with Salesforce.com, one of its strategic partners, to cultivate pro bono clients.

In one example, Appirio conducted an "Extreme Cloud Makeover" campaign for nonprofits, leveraging Salesforce.com's Dreamforce conference as the campaign's launch pad. At Dreamforce, Appirio invited the nonprofit organizations in attendance to submit a summary of the technical services they needed, along with an accompanying video. Salesforce helped Appirio narrow the applicants down to a handful of candidates for a pro bono project. 

Appirio's employees voted on the finalists and selected Can Do Canines, an organization that makes matches between assistance dogs and people with disabilities. About 18 months ago, Appirio implemented Salesforce.com for Can Do Canines. The nonprofit had been using FileMaker Pro as its database for housing data on dogs and clients.

The adoption of Salesforce.com "changed the game for them in terms of their ability to quickly match canines" with disabled people, Taylor said.

Donated services also changed ToolBank's outlook. The organization had once relied on an in-house Access database and spreadsheets to track tools. Brodbeck described the former technology as an "unscalable" approach. What ToolBank needed was a turnkey solution in every market, so the nonprofit wouldn't have to invent a new platform every time it broke ground on a tool lending center, Brodbeck noted. With that requirement in mind, Datapipe's cloud hosting platform provided a scalable technical foundation.

"It has become the spine of the ToolBank network," Brodbeck said.

Dolan said Datapipe engages with other charitable organizations in addition to ToolBank, based on their needs and whether Datapipe can address them. The company's website cites a number of examples, including The Alliance for Lupus Research, Big Brothers Big Sisters and Doctors Without Borders.

Company benefits

Cloud companies also benefit internally from their external outreach initiatives. At Appirio, the company's Silver Lining program helps attract new talent. The company features the program during campus visits and on its website. As a result, prospective employees want to learn more about the program and how it works, Taylor said.

"It has definitely been a very powerful recruiting tool," she said.

Philanthropy also helps the company connect with customers. For example, Appirio donates money to support its Silver Lining program every time a client completes and returns a customer satisfaction survey at the end of an engagement. Taylor said that's a small corporate-giving gesture, but one that starts conversations.

"It is amazing the reaction you get ... when they know it is a priority for you as an organization," Taylor explained.

Overall, community engagement helps build loyalty and relationships with customers and partners, she added.

Salesforce influence

Channel executives credit Salesforce.com for developing an influential philanthropic approach. Salesforce.com follows what it terms a 1/1/1 model, in which it commits 1% of the company's time, equity and product to boost communities. The Salesforce.com Foundation leads the company's philanthropic efforts.

Ebony Frelix, vice president of programs at the Salesforce.com Foundation, said the company has given out more than $65 million in grants, logged more than 620,000 hours in employee-volunteered time, and has provided free or discounted Salesforce licenses to more than 22,000 nonprofits.  In addition, Salesforce employees contribute to pro bono services projects, helping nonprofits build out their Salesforce implementations.

Frelix said the Salesforce.com Foundation shares its 1/1/1 model with other companies.  Those companies include Appirio, Box, Google and Workday.

"We go out to other companies and explain to them what this model is … and help them set it up," she said.

Taylor said Salesforce.com has provided a blueprint for community engagement and has had a significant influence on Appirio's Silver Lining program. She said Appirio hasn't completely moved to the 1/1/1 model, but is looking to make more equity investment in the program going forward.

She said the Salesforce.com Foundation has provided advice on such topics as how to engage a large group of virtual employees -- staffers working in remote or home offices -- in volunteering projects. 

"The Salesforce Foundation team is always ready and willing to meet with us and give us guidance on what works and what doesn't work," she said.

Next Steps

Nonprofit software is deemed a "must have" by many charities

Compliance rules complicate nonprofits' move to the cloud

This was first published in August 2014

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