The Issue: NPower's Philanthropy Challenge

Barely a year ago, when former investment banker Stephanie Cuskley took the CEO spot at NPower, a nonprofit organization created in 1999 to connect other nonprofits with competent, affordable information technology and assistance, it already had a solid business model.

NPower derives half its funding from outside donations and the other half from two IT services it has developed over the years: Solutions and Consulting, a software management system for nonprofits, and Managed Services, a service by which NPower manages computer help desks for other nonprofit organizations.

The revenue from these services helps finance NPower's Technology Service Corps, which provides free IT training to low-income or otherwise disadvantaged people ages 18 to 25, and then helps to place them in jobs with nonprofit groups as well as with corporations. "At Accenture's (ACN) New York office, I think four out of the seven help-desk employees came from NPower," points out Cuskley.

NPower recruits trainees by reaching out to churches, schools, social service agencies, and other community groups that might be able to recommend young people who show an interest in, or talent for, some aspect of IT—despite the obstacles life has put in their way.

Paid Internships

To date, the program has trained and placed 319 young adults in IT positions with salaries ranging from approximately $25,000 to $35,000 annually. Over the 18-week training period, enrollees receive classroom instruction from professional IT teachers hired by NPower, with Fridays reserved for Professional Development Days—exposure to established corporate and nonprofit professionals who volunteer their time to discuss their career paths with the trainees. The volunteers range from help-desk staffers all the way to chief technology officers and CEOs.

The last five weeks of the program consist of a paid internship at a nonprofit or corporation. "Many of the internships turn into full-time jobs," says Cuskley. "Most of the jobs pay twice as much as the worker was making before the NPower training."

But for the young adults NPower helps, tackling the training program is not without obstacles. "It's a population that has had trouble succeeding in the conventional system," says Cuskley of NPower's students. "They have learning issues or family problems. Some of them are homeless or don't have money for food or have limited clothing. Sometimes we have to give them bus or subway fare to get to training sessions."

As her first act in her new job, Cuskley hired social workers to help ease trainees through the educational process and give them guidance on handling personal and family problems in such a way that allows the trainees to concentrate on their education with NPower rather than letting their problems consume them.

She also is bolstering the program by more aggressively courting chief information officers and chief technology officers to participate in the Friday sessions, which consist either of visits from corporate technology professionals or of outings in which the trainees go on-site to see for themselves how these professionals do their jobs.

To find more of these corporate volunteers, Cuskley reaches out to connections she originally made during her days as an investment banker and also asks NPower's board of directors—who come from such corporate giants as Microsoft (MSFT), Accenture, and JPMorgan Chase (JPM)—to introduce her to any CTOs or CIOs they know.

She soon found that recruiting CTOs and CIOs was as easy as simply asking them—after she made a pitch about the training program's benefits to both the trainees and the outside groups that help them with the Friday sessions. "We go after CTOs and other tech leaders because they themselves understand the power of IT in driving an organization. They themselves have succeeded in life because of their knowledge of IT," says Cuskley. "So it resonates with the trainees. They have an immediate reaction, because they feel they can help these types of organizations themselves—and that they are the only ones who can help." Although the CIOs and CTOs don't necessarily volunteer their own time to NPower, they compel the employees who report to them to volunteer.

Cash Donations

What the corporations get out of volunteering their workers is increased employee engagement. As the volunteers grow to understand how they can help low-income young adults by imparting their experiences, they sense the importance of their own work. In addition to sharing knowledge and experience gained on their jobs, volunteers coach the NPower trainees in such areas as résumé writing and interviewing techniques.

Cuskley also sees the personal connections between her organization and the corporate volunteers as a way ultimately to attract additional donations—those made in cold hard cash—to hire more NPower staff in order to scale up the Technology Services Corps. The group has already started a branch in Philadelphia, and Cuskley would like to expand by establishing the NPower training program in other parts of the U.S.

The success stories are heartening to everyone involved in NPower's Technology Service Corps. "There was a woman of 22 or 23 who had a child with cerebral palsy and a husband who was disabled in Iraq, and she graduated at the top of her class here and found an IT job," Cuskley recalls. "Now she wants to do IT for organizations that help people with disabilities."

Cuskley's next big challenge is to realize an idea she has for making it easier for nonprofits and corporations, individual IT workers, and prospective IT workers from around the world to connect with one another: building a Web portal.

But what are the group's prospects of pulling in more donations—amid an economic downturn that has forced many corporations into massive layoffs—to fund the portal and further development of the training program? Is its expansion plan realistic, and what are the other challenges ahead?