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Charities battle world’s woes with technology

SAN FRANCISCO – Technology matters when it comes to doing good.

Nonprofit groups are learning from the corporate playbook, uniting under a NetHope banner to use collective clout to provide technology that helps save lives, protect nature and stretch precious donor cash.

"We believe technology matters," NetHope chief executive William Brindley told AFP in an interview. "Especially in places where there is no technology.

"These groups compete on the donor side, but on the IT end they are working together to solve common problems in a unique interagency collaboration," he said.

NetHope began eight years ago with help from California computer networking firm Cisco and has grown into a nonprofit cooperative that brings together charities, technology companies and philanthropic foundations.

NetHope represents two dozen non-governmental organisations (NGOs) including Oxfam, WaterAid, Nature Conservancy, ActionAid and CARE.

NetHope members account for more than USD 30 billion (EUR 22.8) in annual donations and work in more than 150 countries.

Support for the group comes from Cisco, Dell, Accenture, Google, Microsoft, Intel and other firms and foundations.

"NetHope serves as an honest and credible aggregator of the real needs of its members," Rockefeller Foundation managing director Antony Bugg-Levine said.

"What we really like is that they don’t simply have members; they have members that have track records of following through on the projects they identify."

Technology platforms can apply to online schooling, pinpointing illegal logging and alerting people to approaching tsunamis by sending text messages to mobile telephones, said NetHope global program manager Jack Levy.

Dealing with an alliance of charities suits technology companies because building uniform systems for computer infrastructure or communications typically fits their way of thinking.

"We are in the business of developing technology and these organisations are in the business of consuming technology effectively in some of the most challenging environments," said Microsoft senior director of community affairs Akthar Badshah.

Working with NetHope also lets technology companies test creations in harsh real-world settings while enhancing reputations in developing countries, he added.

Brindley flipped open a shoulder bag to reveal a portable satellite communications kit that is one of many NetHope members have positioned worldwide for use in remote regions or disaster zones.

Feedback from field workers was combined with input from technology firms to make the easy-to-carry kit at less than a tenth the cost of its predecessor – a 50-pound (22.6-kilogram) "portable hot spot" costing USD 50,000.

"We did it on bubblegum and baling wire with no outside funding; now they are pre-deployed," Brindley said. "You can pull it out when the earthquake hits. It has a solar power adapter and high-speed bandwidth."

NetHope was able to set up a satellite dish network and negotiate a communications satellite contract based on the combined needs of its members.

"Instead of us going begging to satellite vendors they are coming to us," sand Nature Conservancy chief information officer Jean-Louis Ecochard. "Before we didn’t have enough clout with vendors and we didn’t have enough know-how. By banding together, we were able to do it."

The Rockefeller Foundation is funding a study to determine the viability of establishing a NetHope call centre in Kenya that members could share.

"I think this is one indication of the ways in which best lessons of the private sector can be applied to increasing efficiency gains of the nonprofit sector," Bugg-Levine said.

"You want the NGO sector to use its wisdom to identify and adopt those practices most appropriate or effective while not being dismissive of the private sector or being overly deferential."

NetHope’s mission has become even more vital as the world’s economic turmoil causes donation dollars to dwindle and forces charities to cut costs.

"Every penny that I can redirect to conservation is a smile on the face of my staff," Ecochard said.

"So we find ways to do things better, cheaper, and faster using technology in novel ways or not being burned by things that would be way too expensive."

AFP / Expatica