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Ingenuity works: making software meld to your needs. (Tech Solutions).

One of the problems Mitchell Micich of the Independent Feature Project faces each time he holds a film market is how to track what movies big-name producers watch and how to quickly share that list with filmmakers.

After a year of conceptualizing with consultants and database experts, Micich found the solution -- a high-tech combination of Microsoft Access, The Raiser's Edge and a handheld scanning system.

"It was a lot of thinking," said Micich, director of finance and operations at the membership organization for independent filmmakers. "I had to think through where I wanted data. I'm responsible for my data. You need to have someone in your organization tell them (software programmers) where to put the data."

It's just one. of several examples in the nonprofit sector of an organization tweaking products to fit original needs and save valuable time.

In years past, it took Independent Feature Project (IFP) workers at least a day to compile handwritten lists by typing them into a database. But when IFP holds its New York film market in September, the process will take just minutes.

Film market attendees will receive a badge equipped with a bar code. Deftly placed IFP assistants carrying scanners similar to handheld devices will "zap" the bar codes as people file through theater doors, Micich said.

After the crowd is scanned and seated, the information syncs to a database. Within minutes a filmmaker will know if, for example, Harvey Weinstein of Miramax Films, watched the movie.

Downloaded information will go to a database combination of Microsoft Access and The Raiser's Edge--the same hybrid IFP uses to track films. The long list of names in film credits give a clue about the depth of that information.

IFP uses Access for short-term information about films during a market and The Raiser's Edge for long-term information at its New York office, one of five across the nation, Micich said.

The system will save IFP workers heavy data entry and allow them to work as customer representatives at film markets, Micich said.

Other organizations, such as the National Wildlife Federation (NWF), have re-applied technology as well.

NWF is creating a constituent file that links together all of an activist's actions into one spot. An activist is a NWF supporter, who, for example, writes a letter to a congressman, donates $50 or supports a protection program.

The organization historically accomplished and logged activist outreach on a local level, but field offices didn't make it available in a comprehensive form to all offices.

NWF officials hatched the strategy last July to create an intensive information network about its activists to be shared between 11 field offices and Virginia headquarters.

The nonprofit used its fundraising management software, The Raiser's Edge 7, to accomplish this, instead of looking for software specifically designed to track activists.

"We realized we needed a tool that would capture data on our activists," said Jaime Berman Matyas, vice president of Internet and cause marketing for NWF. "We're able to take a tool applied to our fundraising departments and apply it to our activist network."

When complete, each field office will be able to tap into the entire NWF activist list in almost real time and improve communications, said David Strauss, senior director of membership operations at NWF.

The target date for finishing the conversion is this summer, and NWF has moved information on 120,000 activists into the database. Protocols to protect activists' information are built into the system.

"This is not about mass-mailing," Strauss said. "It's about understanding people, so we can communicate properly."

Innovation Works, a Pittsburgh-based nonprofit that invests state money in start-up companies to stimulate the economy, improved documentation of investment returns by using its fund accounting program, the NonProfit Series.

The organization needed to monitor how individual accounts performed and what amount was paid to each start-up company by fiscal year.

Before the new system it was difficult to trace payments to each startup in an easy way, and impossible to narrow it to fiscal years, said Susan Kijowski, controller at Innovation Works.

"We may fund companies four or five different times," Kijowski said. "This tracks returns on each of the different accounts."

The idea of tracking projects with the software wasn't new, but Innovation Works was the first to go into such detail with the program, said Pat Lavine, president of Lavine BMC Technologies, a Texas-based service provider.

Micro Information Products (MIP), an Austin, Texas-based company that helps more than 5,000 nonprofits manage their fund accounting and compliance issues, created the NonProfit Series software.

In Georgia, Pathways Community Network (PCN) improved access to its subscription case management network, Pathways Compass, using available technology in a specialized way. The system, known as Wireless Outreach Worker, provides information such as client intake, service history, available resources and electronic referrals to caseworkers using a handheld device.

Ericsson and Wireless OnRamp helped develop the system with PCN, a collaborative of nonprofits and government agencies that uses technology to help the poor and homeless.

"There are a lot of people in the field who aren't in front of a computer," said Bill Matson, executive director of PCN. "They're working with un-housed people, people under bridges, and we don't need to try to get them in the office to set up an appointment. We need to work with them on the spot while they're ready to receive services."

More than 100 healthcare workers in the Atlanta area will gain network access through handheld models made by BlackBerry and Palm, Matson said.

Six caseworkers at St. Joseph's Mercy Care Services of Atlanta, a nonprofit healthcare organization, will be the first to use the handheld devices for the wireless network.

Caseworkers will be able to make instant referrals to a homeless person with a stylus stroke and then find out if that person went to the proper agency through a later email from an agency or by looking at the person's network file.

That ability to follow a person's progress in such detail wasn't available before.

"This is a way to make the intervention more effective for the client," said Paul Bolster, president of St. Joseph's Mercy Care Services. "This brings the power of Internet communication right to the homeless person."

Matson said past technology tailored to nonprofits was low end, based on the theory that nonprofits couldn't pay for such services. PCN wants to offer technology used by Fortune 500 companies. But high-tech comes with a high price--costs for a ground-up network at a nonprofit are about $1.5 million.

Besides monetary costs, groundbreaking innovations may cost a nonprofit time working through unforeseen kinks. Nonprofits must decide if it's a good use of resources.

"Sometimes re-purposing is quick and dirty," said Tim Mills-Groninger, who works on technology planning and database topics as associate executive director at IT Resource Center of Chicago. "Innovative uses that work are great, but there is a problem of being pennywise and pound-foolish."

Nonprofits re-applying technology usually are backed by good training and an understanding of the system they're using, said Dawn Westerberg, vice president of marketing for MIP.

"People who made these changes knew what they were doing," Westerberg said. "They were probably technically savvy and had been properly trained. That training allowed them to think more big picture."

But nonprofits should expect problems.

"Whenever you disrupt any system, Murphy is going to rear his head," Micich said. "It's like a house. When you remodel a house, you're disrupting it, and things are going to break, the plumbing isn't right or the electricity isn't right."

Strauss, of NWF, said expanding The Raiser's Edge came with flaws such as traveling field workers that can't get database information from a handheld or individual computer. Some customization of the program at headquarters doesn't transfer to the Web, which is how field offices use the database.

Brad May, director of data and technical services at Blackbaud, a South Carolina-based technology solutions provider that created The Raiser's Edge, said future software releases will take those inhibitions into account.

Although these high-tech re-applications are flashy, they aren't a new phenomenon to the sector.

"There's been a long-standing history of re-purposing stuff in the sector," Mills-Groninger said. "Some came out of innovation. Some came out of a desire to save money by getting the most out of applications."

For example, 10 years ago in the absence of solid and affordable database technology nonprofits used WordPerfect secondary files to track mail lists, Groninger said.

Michael Gilbert, founder of The Gilbert Center and CEO of Social Ecology, a Seattle-based nonprofit software company, sees such innovation blossoming on an individual basis.

"Despite the millions poured into new technologies for nonprofits by companies, most of the greatest innovation is happening closer to the nonprofits, often by individual consultants or the nonprofits themselves," said Gilbert via email. "On the other hand, most of the unintended uses have a tendency to get organizations into messes."

When the gamble pays, a nonprofit looks like a forward-thinking genius-type organization.

"You will always have dynamic, maverick, guerrilla marketing sorts within an organization that encourage that kind of thinking outside of the box," Westerberg said. "The reason you don't see it more often is because it's risky. But in hindsight, 20-20 it always looks reasonable."
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Article Details
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Author:Jones, Jeff
Publication:The Non-profit Times
Article Type:Brief Article
Date:Jul 1, 2002
Words:1539
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