January 20, 2004

NPOtechs connects techies with non-profits

Author: Michael McCune

NPOtechs is a small group of Chicago open source advocates who help support non-profit organizations. Most non-profits have little or no IT budget and appreciate the free help. In exchange, the technologists get practice in real-world situations and get to promote open source.

NPOtechs is the brainchild of John Stanton, who runs the technology training programs at Korean American Community Services in Chicago. John has an easygoing, friendly nature that belies the hard work he has put in getting to this point.

Like many others, Stanton came to the technology field by accident. After college he began designing Web sites in Atlanta. In 2001 a friend sent him a copy of SuSE 7.0 and suggested that Stanton learn Linux. "I tried to set it up as a dual boot and ended up overwriting the Windows partition," laughs Stanton as he describes his first experience with Linux.

At about that time Stanton took a job at Teaming for Technology, a non-profit that helps other non-profits with technology problems. It is staffed by VISTA, which is the domestic service of Americorps, an organization that takes volunteers for a one-year commitment in exchange for a living allowance and a lump sum payment at the end.

"I spent the next year going to lots of non-profits all over town," Stanton said.
"One problem I saw was that someone came in and set up some technology, then left. No one at the non-profit knew how to use them. They wanted us (Teaming for Technology) to provide long-term support. Teaming for Technology had the same problem. After a year's worth of service, the volunteers left."

On June 6, 2002, Stanton organized the first meeting of about a half dozen hard-core Linux users that he hoped would become an organization to provide non-profits with long-term support. Originally called NPLUG (Non-Profit Linux Users Group), the name was later changed to NPOtechs to address the broader need of general technical support for non-profits.

Two of the first organizations NPOtechs helped were Deborah's Place and Franciscan Outreach. Like many non-profits, they had Windows systems that were set up by someone who was no longer there. NPOtechs found ways to use Linux to meet the organization's needs.

The distributions that the NPOtechs' members used is almost as varied as the members themselves. Stanton currently uses Gentoo. Other members use Red Hat, SuSE, Mandrake, Debian, and Slackware. The members use specialized distributions for the non-profits that they serve, which are easier for inexperienced users to setup and maintain. "We've been using SME Server (for a file server) and IPCop (for firewalls)," Stanton said.

"Non-profits generally don't care about technology as long as it works," explained Stanton. "The fact that Linux is free is even better."

Teaching technology to the organizations' staff is just as important as installing and supporting it. "We want to emphasis continuity," Stanton said. "We need to teach the volunteers about the technology we are using."

Jonathan Kupferer volunteered to teach classes to a mix of volunteers and non-profit staff. He started a regular Wednesday night class last summer on administering Linux at Korean American Community Services. Kupferer, who recently completed his Red Hat Certified Engineer certificate, wrote all the teaching material himself.

The students have learned a lot in the first six months of classes. "The classes have been going really well," Kupferer said. "The people are going from not being comfortable with the command line to being able to use advanced commands like fstab."

Today, NPOtechs is growing to the point were it needs a formal structure, having grown from supporting two agencies to supporting 10 today. The NPOtechs Web site just moved from under a desk to a Web hosting service. This and providing more services requires money and organization.

"We are heading towards becoming an NPO (non-profit organization)," Stanton said. "We need to buy a pager and voice mail. We would also like to do development work. We need money to do these." While there are no concrete plans to raise money, becoming a non-profit organization would allow NPOtechs to take tax-deductible donations and apply for grants. There are many ideas being thrown around by the NPOtechs members, many of whom work with other non-profits and are familiar with fundraising.

Some members of the NPOtechs staff worry about how a formal structure might change the group. Kupferer, for instance, says, "I just hope that becoming a NPO won't stop the organic growth of the organization."

Stanton, however, is upbeat about the change. "We are only limited by what people are willing to do," he concluded.

Mike McCune is a Chicago-based computer consultant who specializes in supporting small businesses. A Linux user since 1995, he supports Linux, Unix, NetWare, and Windows. Before striking out on his own, he worked for more than 10 years in the IT departments of IBM, HP, Ashland Oil, United Airlines, and Target.

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