Keys to a Successful Community Technology Center

Keys to a Successful Community Technology Center

How to get your CTC off to a great start

June 20, 2001

Key #1: Develop an Exciting and Engaging Vision

This key is the most essential and critical component of any Community Technology Center (CTC). A vision for your CTC above and beyond computer training and access is critical to the success of your program. Having an easily articulated, succinct vision for your center will help with fundraising, client outreach, and nurturing partnerships and sponsorships with businesses, schools, local government agencies, and other nonprofits.

Determine what you want your clients to get out of their participation in your center, and how their lives will be changed. Always view the technology as a means to an end, rather than an end in itself. Examples of good visions are:

  • Delinquency abatement: This focus is to entice youth at risk of gang involvement to come in to the center, get off the streets and get involved with projects such as Web design or writing and creating a magazine. The success of the program is measured based on the overall gang activities in the neighborhood, or on the reduction of the number of kids from the immediate area getting in trouble with the law. By presenting the program in terms of Delinquency Abatement, it will be much more appealing to funders and partner organizations.
  • Welfare to work for single mothers: This CTC focus involves working with single mothers on welfare to get jobs. The skills you will need to provide will go well beyond computer access and training, but in many cases partner organizations with the appropriate expertise can be brought in (for parenting classes, job search and interviewing skills, and so on). Having a vague goal of "employment training" or "improving computer skills to get jobs" is never as effective as a vision that is specific to a particular population or client type, and one that is holistic in its approach.

Some other visions:

  • Language and literacy skills for Spanish speaking immigrant children
  • A communication and publishing program for young women
  • A Web-building program for kids, providing exposure to the workplace
  • A project to bring job skills to Native American youth while producing an online tribal heritage Web site
  • Video and recording techniques for youth
  • A community communications hub for a housing project

Key #2: Create a Written Strategic Plan

Having a written plan for your CTC is critical. Going through a planning process will help ensure that you cover all the bases. Your strategic plan should include your vision; what services your CTC will offer; goals and objectives; who your target audience is; your technology plan; your evaluation plan; staffing levels and duties; and budget and fundraising plans. Once you have a strategic plan, you will have the outline of a funding proposal.

For detailed guidance on developing a plan for a new CTC, see CTCNet's Center Startup Manual.

Key #3: Community Involvement

The biggest mistake you can make is to assume to know the needs and wants of your community. It is critical that the diverse stakeholders in your community are involved with your CTC from day one, driving the programs, clients, schedule, direction, and fundraising.

Before planning any programs, be sure to canvass the community to find out what their needs are and how a CTC can help address these needs. While your CTC may focus on a particular audience, it is important to know the concerns and needs of the entire community. What are the neighborhood store owners' concerns? What services, classes, or programs can you offer to complement local social service agencies and not compete with them? What activities really interest the people in your community? What are the specific concerns of the community you serve? The answers to these questions may surprise you! Creating a good survey and getting off site to do face-to-face interviews with community members are some ways to get this information.

Getting buy-in from the community is only the first step. Make sure to create real structures for continued community involvement. Develop an advisory board that is active and includes respected people from the community (the president of the neighborhood association, the principal of the school, the owner of a high profile local business) as well as ordinary participants (including youth!). Hiring and recruiting volunteers from within the community will also ensure that your center is of, by, and for your community.

Some organizations in the community that you can tap include:

  • Schools: Identify any classes offered in the elementary, middle, and high schools that use computers or provide computer training. Through existing classes or newly created evening courses, schools can provide education and training for participants that complement and enhance your program. The computer, communication, and photocopying equipment in schools can be used in support of your project. Students with ideas, energy, and idealism can become important participants, employees, and volunteers of the CTC. It is important to note that allies in schools could be teachers, counselors, volunteers, and others. The principal is not the only person at a school who can be of assistance.
  • Colleges: Institutions of higher leaning usually have faculty and administrative staff that are technically savvy and whose skills and knowledge can be tapped. For example, some faculty members may be "experts" in computer utilization and systems organization, and some administrators may be extremely helpful in fundraising or grant writing. Many colleges have spaces that can be utilized by community organizations. Most community colleges tend to have activities in the late afternoon and evening. This means the space may be available in the morning or early afternoon.
  • Religious institutions: Churches and other religious institutions are a great source of volunteers, as they include staff and parishioners who have many diverse skills and interests that can be of value.
  • Businesses: Technology companies, real estate developers, realtors, lawyers, banks, copying centers, plumbers, electricians, furniture companies, telephone companies, and the utilities are excellent resources for in-kind services, contributions, and volunteer help.

Key #4: Staffing

The most valuable asset of any CTC is its people. Job descriptions should be developed for full-time and part-time positions. Having a staff with the right energy, enthusiasm, and understanding of the community will make all the difference to the success of your program. Conversely, the wrong staffing mix or the wrong personalities can be fatal.

Most CTCs we know of have one person, a lab manager or CTC director, who drives the success of the program. This person is most often someone with an unusual combination of skills which might include: teaching experience, an interest in computer technology, some marketing and development sensibility, an ability to do outreach and community organizing, some social work and case management experience, administrative skills, and a strong appeal to the community they'll be working with. The ability to learn technology is usually more important than having a great deal of computer experience. A CTC that hands the program over to a "computer whiz" who does not have people skills or knowledge of the community is doomed to failure.

Key #5: Partnerships

Partnerships are essential for building capacity and better links to the community. Partnerships assist centers in obtaining self-sufficiency and help reduce cost. It is essential to have mutual respect and trust between the partners. Partnerships also increase the credibility of the CTC, which increases potential funding.

Here are a few examples of potential partnerships:

  • Partnerships with other technology programs: One of the most important partnerships you can form is with other technology programs in your area. It is often hard to locate these centers, but worth the effort. They are often a neighborhood's "best kept secret." You should try to meet with other centers to design your programming in a way that is complementary rather than competitive. You also have the opportunity to share insights and expertise on programmatic issues and to share computer expertise and lessons learned.

    To locate centers in your area, you can talk to other community-based organizations and your clients to see what programs they know about; use the CTCNet Members Listlist. There are also several CTCNet Cluster Areas that are coordinated by a regional coordinator. You can email for the contact in your area. Once you have identified partners to work with, keep track of your contacts with our CTC Client Resource Worksheet.

  • Partnerships with local businesses: It is often very useful to reach out to local businesses for sponsorship of your CTC - not only for you, but for them as well. Many businesses need and want to demonstrate a charitable commitment to their neighborhood and your CTC can provide them with a perfect low cost opportunity. It may take some hustling, but it has great results.

    Examples of such partnerships include:

    • A shoe store donates a pair of sneakers each month to the top performing student.
    • A record store that donates a CD each week to the top performing student.
    • Any local retailer having students in to experience the workplace via internships.
  • Partnerships with other community based organizations: Nonprofits in the community can be a source of referrals, income, contacts, and much more. Be sure to know the key organizations in your community, and the develop and nurture personal relationships with their staff.
  • Many organizations need the services of a computer lab. For example, during school hours when the lab is not in use by youth you can provide training to the staff of CBOs. Many social service agencies may need a place to refer clients for computer training, after-school activities for youth in danger of getting into trouble, or other services.

Key #6: Fundraising

All centers should have a fundraising plan, including a detailed budget narrative based on the needs of the center. It is important to realize what types of programs you need to be funded and how much funding you will need to start or operate your program.

Good funding resources include the government, private corporations, lending institutions, and individuals. Consider the following expenses when making budgets and raising money. Make a note of what can be donated in-kind and what you must pay cash for.

  • Start-up expenses: Staff salaries, computers, desks, chairs, software, peripherals (scanners, printers), supplies, rent, security, utilities, wiring, online services, references books, outreach, and promotion.
  • Sustainable connectivity: Software/hardware upgrades, maintenance, technical assistance, staff, and consulting services for ongoing fundraising needs.

A successful CTC costs a lot of money. For the most basic program, expenses can easily run over $100,000 per year. Organizations who try to implement a CTC with donated equipment and volunteer labor often fail.

Key #7: Effective Volunteer Management

Volunteers are an important source of energy and talent. They can provide valuable connections to funders in the community, and they bring expertise and new ideas to your CTC. The recruitment, utilization, and retention of volunteers is as important as the paid staffing of the CTC. The action plan must clearly reflect the role of volunteers in the operations. For detailed information about managing volunteers, see the Volunteers section of TechSoup, or visit Computers In Our Future's Computers In Our Future Section. This excellent resource was developed by a CTC in rural California, and it includes many useful documents, worksheets, and tips for managing a volunteer-run CTC.

These keys are based on our observations of dozens of CTCs. While you should always experiment and try new approaches, the time for CTCs to develop via trial and error is over. Today we are at a point where there are proven methodologies for running successful community technology programs. As your CTC develops, we urge you to proceed with high standards, learning from CTCs that were developed before yours and avoiding their mistakes. The time has come for CTCs to go from being the neighborhood's "best kept secret" to being acknowledged pillars of the community. That is the real key to success.

About the Authors:

George and Teddie are TechSoup's CTC Guides.

This article is based on CompuMentor's years of experience and observations working with Community Technology Centers (CTCs) around California. It is specifically intended to help guide an organization with starting a new CTC, although the ideas here should be useful to existing CTCs as well.

Faith (for Content):