Revised with new information as of December 30, 2010


 
How To Support Your Computer and Internet Systems

 
How does a small nonprofit, non-governmental organization/NGO, civil society organization, or other small, mission-based organization, with very limited resources and, often, a staff doing a LOT more than their job description define, support its computer and Internet systems? Who solves problems? Who evaluates the system and suggests when or when not to upgrade? Who identifies training needs of the staff?

Often, it's the organization's budget that dictates which. Ideally, you want the first option - someone paid and on staff. Hopefully, you have the budget for at least the second option: a service agreement with a vendor. But probably, because so many foundations and corporations won't pay administrative costs, the third option is all you have: finding someone willing to help without payment from you, willing to donate their services and expertise.

Recruiting a volunteer / pro bono consultant to help with computer and Internet issues can get you the expertise you need, but it may not get you the TIME you need. Volunteers are WONDERFUL, and I highly recommend them as great resources of help for your computer and Internet support needs. But do note that volunteers have many other priorities -- their paid work, for one. In an emergency, you may have to wait for the volunteers' other priorities to be taken care of before he or she can get to you.

Regardless of your budget and whether or not you will pay someone to help with computer issues, you need to write a job description that fully details the responsibilities you need assumed by someone. You may want to write more than one job description: one for someone who will be on call to troubleshoot problems as they arise and will maintain your systems (upgrading virus software regularly, for instance), one for someone who will do occasional workshops at your organization to build staff capacity to use software, one for someone who will evaluate your systems and make upgrade and purchasing recommendations, and so forth.

And regardless of whether or not you will pay someone to undertake these tasks, you both need to sign a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) to show that you both understand the commitment and the responsibilities of the task. It should have an official start date and an official end date (and the end date can be extended regularly, per agreement by both parties). The MOU is not a legally-binding document for a volunteer, and it's not meant to be used as threat if work doesn't get done; rather, it's meant to ensure everyone understands the commitment they are making.

To find a volunteer / pro bono consultant to help with computer or Internet issues, in the USA:

For Canada: Also try listing your opportunity in the volunteer section of Craigslist and your local volunteer center (which may be run by your local United Way, in the USA).

The Virtual Volunteering Project has resource on how to recruit volunteers for computer technical assistance roles; it hasn't been updated in many years, but much of the information is still relevant.

Also see these tips on Finding a Computer/Network Consultant.

Even if your organization does have the budget to pay an outside vendor for support, or has a reliable volunteer that shows up regularly or immediately, as needed, to help with the system, choose one paid staff person to become your internal "expert." This person should be given the time and resources to learn and perform very basic computer trouble-shooting, and to assist staff until help arrives. This person will NOT learn everything there is to know about your computer system; he or she will have neither the time nor, probably, the want, as he or she will already have other responsibilities and an area of expertise.

Tim Mills-Groninger, former chair of the now-defunct Technology Resource Consortium (TRC) (type www.igc.apc.org/trc/ into Archive.org), former Associate Executive Director of the also defunct Information Technology Resource Center (ITRC) (type www.npo.net into Archive.org and choose any page before 2005) in Chicago, and one of the wisest posters on the soc.org.nonprofit newsgroup says:

We recommend that agencies develop a cadre of Computer Responsible Person (CRPs, pronounced creep) at the ratio of one to every team or 10 staff. The CRP's first job responsibility is to know what they don't know and where to go for help. Over time they will develop trouble shooting skills, provide opportunistic training ("I see that you've hit the tab key five times, let me show you how to set tabs"), and escalate more serious problems to outside support or internally.

CRPs should be their own team within the agency, and have time to meet, learn, and do their support functions. When things are messy at CRP can work 1/2 time on support functions, when things are under control it more like two hours per week.

Next up the support ladder is the Computer Coordinator, often 1/2 time if there are around 20 computers in the office, full-time if there are more than fifty. This person takes the support problems the CRPs can't answer, does hardware configurations, troubleshoots the network (you_should_ have a network by now), manages vendor relationships, files all the licensing paperwork, and basically does the infrastructure plumbing.

Next is outsourced technical support. No Computer Coordinator will have seen every problem - there just won't be the diversity of trouble in your shop until you pass a hundred or more PCs. Technical support providers see these problems all of the time and can offer solutions much faster than having your own staff futz around looking for the chance fix.

If there are extensive database applications you may want to think about have a DataBase Administrator or DBA. DBAs have the tricky job of coordinating the business uses of the database and all the "behind the scenes configuration and tuning"

Many of the TRC members can help you organize staffing and find qualified vendor in your community.

 
Who should be in this role/these roles? Ask the staff for their input -- often, there is someone on your staff doing this unofficially already. It could be the Development Director, it could be the Receptionist ,it could be a Teacher -- the person should already have an interest in this area and already at least dabbling in technology, either at home or at the organization.

For more information on supporting your computer and Internet systems, visit TechSoup

Also see these tips on Finding a Computer/Network Consultant.


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