Since the era of the floppy disk, business owners have turned to experts to decide when to upgrade, merge or omit technologies in favor of the next best thing. But considering the average information technology consultant earns around $45 per hour, according to Payscale.com, it's easy to see how nonprofits with tight budgets could put off seeking advice on the latest advancements.
Hands on Tech, a program developed through a partnership among the volunteer organization Hands on Network, AmeriCorps VISTA and Google, is meant to bring technology experts to those organizations that need them most.
Pittsburgh Cares, a local affiliate of the Hands on Network and Points of Light Institute, launched Hands on Tech Pittsburgh in October.
Benjamin Weaver, an AmeriCorps VISTA member volunteering with Hands on Tech Pittsburgh, said it's a good way to connect the area's pool of talented technology experts with smaller organizations that may have no clue where to seek help regarding their technological infrastructure.
"We think there's a lot of need for tech support and assistance in the nonprofit community, and a lot of talented people who have volunteered their skills. I think this program has a lot of potential in Pittsburgh," he said.
The program deployed 24 AmeriCorps VISTA members to Pittsburgh and six additional cities to teach nonprofit employees to use technologies more effectively and to implement measures that can cut costs and increase workplace efficiency.
Participating nonprofits receive comprehensive technology assessments to determine their individual needs as well as instruction on how to use new technologies to better promote agency missions. In addition to training nonprofits, volunteers also host community computer classes that go over everything from the basics of using a mouse to creating a household budget using Microsoft Excel.
The program officially launched Oct. 24 with a volunteer training session at Google's office in Bakery Square. Since then, volunteers have done community training at Pittsburgh Connects Lab sites at the Homewood YMCA, Bloomfield/Garfield Corp. and the Wood Street Commons building Downtown.
Early assessments found many local nonprofits taking advantage of marketing opportunities provided through social networking, but several needed assistance to figure out how to use the options.
Many also could benefit from implementing a cloud-computing system that would allow employees to work more freely and eliminate the cost of maintaining an internal server. Mr. Weaver said volunteers who attended training at Google were taught to use Google Apps, a Web-based messaging and email service, in an effort to show that many functions they are paying to use can be implemented into their systems for free.
"There are online tools out there today that are incredibly helpful in allowing small nonprofit organizations to be able to work more efficiently and have the computing power of bigger nonprofits," Matthew Dunne, Google's manager of community affairs, said.
Lauren Byrne, executive director of Lawrenceville United, said the cost savings measures that she learned from the training will have a direct impact on her staff's abilities to serve the community.
"As a smaller organization, we rely heavily on the technical capacity we have, which is very limited. If we can utilize all these things out there that are basically free and reliable, it would free up more money and more time to do more tangible things in the neighborhood, which is what we're charged with doing," she said.
The program runs through August, but is structured in a way that will allow local volunteers to pick up where AmeriCorps VISTA volunteers leave off when they complete their duties.
A recruitment drive conducted earlier in the year attracted scores of volunteers from Carnegie Mellon University, Google and from several of the city's other technology businesses.
Mr. Weaver would like to have seen more small nonprofits ask for assistance, but Ms. Byrne said as people begin to understand the program's benefits, they'll jump at a chance to participate.
"We're used to getting volunteers that do community cleanups, and they're wonderful. But for employees from Google to come out to help us on a continuous basis, that helps us make sure we're engaging people in the right way," she said.
"To expand our volunteer base into this realm is something I never thought of before. I never thought I could get volunteers to help us with that aspect of our work."
Correction/Clarification: (Published December 1, 2011) Benjamin Weaver is an AmeriCorps VISTA member who is volunteering with the Hands on Tech Pittsburgh program, which is sponsored by Pittsburgh Cares. A story Tuesday misidentified him.
Deborah M. Todd: email@example.com or 412-263-1652.