July 6, 2012

NTA Profile: Carolinas Literacy Network

  • Founded: 2006
  • 2 Full-time staff
  • $335,000 annual budget (FY 2012)
  • Supports a network of 12 literacy-related nonprofits in the Lancaster, South Carolina, area

When the two-person staff of Carolinas Literacy Network (CLN) attended its first NTEN Nonprofit Technology Conference in early 2011, the pair was energized if not overwhelmed. I had no clue about the magic of technology until that conference, said Kathryn Wilds, CLN executive director. All of a sudden I wanted to do it all, and I wanted to do it now.

At the conference, Wilds and Danelle Faulkenberry, CLNs technology/client services coordinator, also learned about the Nonprofit Tech Academy (NTA). But the first order of business–one of the main reasons theyd come–was to learn more about database platforms.

Together Wilds and Faulkenberry support a dozen literacy organizations in the rural Lancaster area of South Carolina. Founded in 2006, CLN works to promote cooperation among these member nonprofits by providing a forum for advocacy, sharing resources and expertise, and for ensuring the sustainability of literacy programs. Toward its mission, CLN needed to help member organizations manage their donor bases and track constituent and program data in order to demonstrate impact to grantmakers.

The Network’s criteria were straightforward and yet not so easily met: the database system would have to be user-friendly; relatively quick to get up and running; require little customization; and not break the bank. Faulkenberrys goal was to have it implemented by October 1–only six months away–so that members could use it for their year-end reporting come January.

At the conference Wilds and Faulkenberry split up and went to presentations and meetings with representatives of several companies. The information they gathered there was helpful, but it came primarily from the vendors themselves. The two wanted to ask more questions and hear firsthand experiences from other nonprofit users, so they decided to enroll in the NTA.

One day each week, we broke into small groups for open conversations, so we could ask each other how to approach certain projects, Faulkenberry said. It gave us the opportunity to get some really honest feedback about databases from the people using them everyday, without any sales pitch.

One of CLNs biggest questions for fellow Academy participants related to cost. One company offered 10 free licenses, but Faulkenberry heard from colleagues that back-end costs to get up and running ran between $15,000 and $30,000. Thats not something we could afford here, she said. Other colleagues using different platforms said their systems required a lot of time-consuming customization up front. Neither did we have the luxury of time, she added.

After asking all of their questions, weighing the input received, and using many of the resources they learned about through the NTA, such as NTENs ebooks and other nonprofit software buying guides, they selected a company: Z2 Systems.

One of the first applications Faulkenberry set up was an online registration form for an upcoming community storytelling event. It was exciting, she said, to get fundraising events onto our website. That was something we learned from the Academy, toohow to get your community actively involved in the work you do and to have a very current website.

The impact was immediate. In the past, individuals would have to call the office to register; Faulkenberry and Wilds took every call. With two people and 100 phone calls, you can imagine. Faulkenberry said. With the new system being web-based, so much now can be accessed directly by others.

Network member agencies also are getting excited about being able to enter their own data and generate reports. The CLN plans to begin training them around the first of the new year. Faulkenberry expects the impact to be even greater then: Our agency doesnt provide direct services, but our members do, and we have to track their progress, she said.

Now I can collect the data from them and see it real-time–how many students attended programs and whether they earned their GEDs. I wont have to call [the member organizations] at the end of each quarter to find out. Theyre all entering the same information, as it happens. That way I can see–if there are too many students, well need more tutors or, if there arent enough students, I can help with referrals.

The Academy was invaluable to the CLN in several ways, not the least of which was the feedback from colleagues that was critical to selecting the database platform. That really opened our eyes. Do your research, learn how to compare, but then get that personal input, too. Everything might sound wonderful, but talk to someone whos been through the process and you might learn even more, said Faulkenberry.

Invaluable to Wilds also were the insights gained from an Academy session on social media. In our neck of the woods, the more social uses of technology are just now beginning to catch on, she said. The illiteracy rate in the Lancaster area is high, and unemployment has been as high as 22%. Internet access in remote areas can be slow and inconvenient, and its one of the first household amenities to go when people lose their job.

Wilds herself said she wasnt a Facebook kind of person, and she had a hard time seeing how it could be useful to nonprofits. Through the Academy, I learned how its helping them in ways I couldnt have imagined. Shes now active on Facebook, using it to recruit volunteers and spread the word about upcoming events and to network with colleagues at other nonprofits. Although time consuming, I think it will be very beneficial in the long run, she said.

The NTA also helped quell Wilds impatience a bit. Weve been able to prioritize, said Faulkenberry. Rather than simply designing a website, the CLN has been working with a public relations firm to define stakeholders and target audiences, and then developing a new logo and branding strategies to better reach them. The Academy gave us this step-ladder, and its helped tremendously, Faulkenberry said.

The resources and contacts the CLN gained from going through the Academy also have made a difference that will continue as time goes on. We have those lines of communication open now, said Faulkenberry, and both she and Wilds still keep in touch by email with a few other Academy participants. We can contact people [to ask questions], plus we have access to NTENs resourceswe can really do our research. Before, we started out in the dark, grabbing at things and wondering if they would work. Now were more confident we can find answers.

Kim Roth
Interest Categories: Strategy, Training
Tags: case study, NTA, technology planning