Is technology helpful in the work of non-governmental organizations? While many familiar with NGOs know it is, in Poland the answer wasn't always so obvious. That's why in July of 2001 we started the first eRiding project, the Social Information and Communication (SIC).
The main goal of the project was to provide free technical consultations to NGOs that provide social services. A second goal of the project was to work toward consolidating the Polish NGO sector.
The organizations participating in the project were divided into six groups: organizations that serve the homeless and poor, families and child protection, the disabled, people who are addicted to drugs and alcohol, children and youth, and organizations that provide opportunities for recreation. The project's seven eRiders worked with a total of 135 organizations over one and a half years.
We wanted to improve communication between organizations by using Internet tools such as e-mail, instant messengers, and discussion groups. We were surprised to find that in many cases, NGOs were working on the same issue, on the same street without any knowledge of each other. This underscored the need to implement Internet tools in order to enhance communication between these agencies.
To date, we have set up more than 80 e-mail accounts, started 3 discussion lists (still in operation), trained 97 people from different organizations in computer basics (using Microsoft Windows, Internet Explorer, and Outlook Express), and spent 988 hours on consultation.
Top Consulting Topics
Since one of our goals was to help consolidate the NGO sector, we provided consultation in many areas outside of technology. To our surprise, the top seven topics were not just technology questions:
1. Project writing
2. Cooperation with the local community
3. Cooperation with the local government
4. Teamwork inside organizations
5. Solving common social problems
6. Grants for NGOs
7. Usage of new technologies
How NGOs Benefited
As a result of this project, three of the groups we formed are still working together: those serving the homeless and poor, the disabled, and people addicted to drugs and alcohol. The latter group started an online forum and continue to meet with each other and work on a common strategy. This project taught them not to be afraid of computers and other technologies.
The SIC project measured the success of its work by counting the number of e-mail accounts that were set up and the number of people that were trained. However, the most important outcome was less quantifiable: the growing cooperation between organizations after the end of the project. With a little help from their new technology resources, all participating organizations are building an online database of common issues they face, best practices, and resources (both human and material) that they can share with each other.
eRiders: More Than Traveling Techies
An effective eRider in Poland must be more than just a good techie. While technical knowledge is important, it is only one aspect of an eRider's work. An eRider also needs an understanding of organizations' fundraising, program development, and relationship management. Someone who is only a techie would have a hard time helping an organization with its financial systems, for example. Without any experience with project management, to give another example, it would be difficult for an eRider to help an organization with its project management needs.
A techie may just come to fix a problem and leave. But an eRider provides advice on how to improve things at the organization -- often giving advice on issues that go beyond computers. That's why when we set out to expand the eRider project to other parts of Poland through the Local Expert Groups (LEG) project, we looked for eRiders that had a wide range of knowledge about NGOs as well as technology.
Local Expert Groups (LEG)
A LEG project was created to form six expert groups that could support local NGOs in different regions of Poland. Each group is comprised of three people who collaborate with local groups that specialize in consulting. The LEGs help these local NGOs expand their offerings with technology topics.
We are using the LEG project as a model, which we can hopefully duplicate in other parts of the country. One day, we hope to have eRiders in every region.
The biggest hurdle in the SIC project was the lack of hardware and legal software among the organizations we served. Many were without computers or had very old equipment (such as computers with 486SX processors). We continue to look for second-hand computers to provide to the participating agencies. But we still face the problem with software legality.
We want to convince Polish NGOs to use Linux and other Open Source applications instead of commercial operating systems. This would allow the organizaitons to have legal software at no cost to their agency. We have chosen the user-friendly Aurox distribution of Linux based on Red Hat 8.0 with a Polish interface.
The eRiders movement in Poland is growing day after day. So this is only the beginning of an amazing and wonderful project.
Tom Rusiecki is one of the first eRiders in Poland. He is a 3rd-year student of Technical University Wroclaw and president of DaVinci Association, which provides training and technical support for NGO's. He worked for six years for a local radio station run by an NGO. He specializes in designing, building, and setting up computer networks. As an eRider, he supports several local organizations in his home city of Jelenia Gora.