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Full posts:

Creating a Digital Peace Corps

Post:

20

Date:

Jan 26, 2001

From:

Daniel Ben-Horin



This topic feels very close to the bone to us at CompuMentor. Our original core concept, in 1987, bore obvious parallels to what is discussed here and over the years we have thought a lot about if and how the concept of volunteer mentors can be scaled in the direction of a national, comprehensive effort. We haven't moved toward such an effort for various reasons. Some of these would be obviated by an approach such as the one that is being broached here. Other issues, however, would still apply. We've discussed this at some length in our staff, which includes three alumni of TeamTech (now called Teaming for Technology). We like the distinction between program expertise and technical expertise. Both are needed to create necessary buy-in from communities to volunteer-based intervention. We also appreciate the awareness of the post-volunteer piece--what happens when the volunteer leaves? We are concerned about the quid-pro-quo aspect of corporate sponsorship in return for work commitment. This seems intuitively 'off' to us. We see the right payoff structure as follows:

  • the community gets...technology help
  •  

  • the volunteer gets...a sense of contributing skills to public benefit, a taste of nonprofit life, a meaningful life experience, some level of financial support while gaining all the preceding.
  •  

  • the corporation gets...good corp. citizenship points suitable for publicizing and an intangible but real asset in the employee attraction/retention effort.

If you overstress the payoff for corporate sponsors we think the whole equation gets skewed. Or as one of our TeamTech alumni, Joan Heberger who ably helps lead our mentoring program put it: "The idea of asking corporations to "sponsor" a volunteer sounds good b/c you could pay the volunteer reasonably, except for one glitch... My hunch is that mid-career professionals who sign up to be digital divide volunteers are looking for a path *out* of the rat race, and would therefore be hesitant to commit to X years employment in a new corporation."

We like this point of Mario's particularly: "We suspect there is a changing attitude toward such participation in the younger folks coming into the corporate workforce and we've seen indications that there is growing need within firms like McKinsey, Andersen, and we suspect others like them." We are seeing this changed attitude all the time and it is sharply increases our labor pool (downturn in dot.conomy gets us more applicants too!). Let me note that it is this changing attitude *on the ground* that makes a project like this feasible. We have had our fill of poorly thought out corporate efforts to free up staff on alternate Thursdays assuming no paying projects interfere. I exaggerate but only slightly. But there is indeed a new breed of technically (in the broad sense of the word) astute people who are not motivated to cash in on their skills as much and as soon as possible, who want to feel that being technically astute does not sentence one to a life behind a CRT, and who would welcome such an initiative. This wasn't true five years ago. The wise corporations will recognize that it's not an issue of freeing up some problematic downtime but of positioning themselves as aligned with the increasing public service zeitgeist in a truly meaningful way.

We are also concerned at what seems to be an underestimation of how wide a skill set is necessary in order to deploy both programmatic and technological expertise in meaningful fashion.

Let me offer this case history from our experience. For several years we have been working with ESL populations--primarily Latino and Southeast Asian--in California's Central Valley. This work, funded by The James Irvine Foundation, could be categorized as "circuit riding with volunteer mentor support". For the first years of the project, we staffed it with technical staff--smart, committed people, but not particularly versed in Central Valley issues-- and achieved good results. For the past year, we've been fortunate to be able to staff the project with a project manager who has a strong background in organizing, immigration reform and farm worker labor issues, as well as strong technical skills, and who is himself Latino ..and the results have been outstanding. As our project manager, Erick Recinos-Rojas, puts it, "I believe my previous expertise and experience in organizing, immigration reform and farm worker labor issues has been key to our success in the Central Valley. The rural communities don't see us as 'tech outsiders' and we have been able to build strong longstanding relationships that have allowed us to leverage local resources to support our work."

This point--the need for trust based on some degree of cultural relevancy--has been made often on this list. The Digital Peace Corps model adds the point of programmatic expertise. And, of course, there is the need for technical expertise, and this expertise has to span quite a range. So this leads us to a suggestion of thinking of this project from the outset as demanding a team-based approach. Here is how Tom Dawson, one of our senior program managers, put it: "Not to overgeneralize, but it is rare to find one person with expertise in the program area, a strategic vision for the project, and a strong technical skill set. A team approach would allow Digital Peace Corps to bring all these different areas of expertise to bear on a project. The team leader would need to have a clear idea of project objectives, resources available to the team, and the timeframe for the work. The team leader would be responsible for meeting objectives, managing the team, and communicating with the client. Team members with expertise in the required project discipline (health, education, etc.), and some technical training would work with the clients to do the analysis. Technical members of the team then could then work on developing and implementing technical solutions. The team would work together during implementation, training, and rollout...."

Daniel Ben-Horin, President
CompuMentor

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