The Nonprofit World in California: Knowledge Management on a Shoestring

By Larson, Patti; Levy, Jane et al. | Information Outlook, November 2005 | Go to article overview
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The Nonprofit World in California: Knowledge Management on a Shoestring


Larson, Patti, Levy, Jane, Schmitz, Marcia, Information Outlook


"I have a simple legal question," explained the executive director. However, to a nonprofit information specialist, a "simple legal question" is frequently a red flag that indicates a different and possibly complex issue underlying a caller's query.

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Responding to such queries is the lifeblood of nonprofit information specialists. In this case, as the nonprofit information specialist taking the call gently probed for details, the real questions became clear. The executive director wanted to involve the well-established nonprofit organization in a contentious local election and thought such political activity required the formation of a separate lobbying organization. After the information specialist conveyed the rules and limits for nonprofit lobbying, the executive director realized the organization could accomplish most of its planned activities within its current structure. The information the nonprofit information specialist provided eliminated a costly effort of starting a separate lobbying arm and also prevented the nonprofit from proceeding with an activity that could have raised inquiries from the IRS about the organization's tax-exempt status.

By helping to eliminate critical errors and allowing nonprofits to stay focused on their primary missions of improving communities throughout California, nonprofit information specialists play a critical role and have a significant impact on work in the nonprofit sector. The nonprofit information specialist is frequently the first resource that board members, staff, and volunteers of nonprofit organizations, as well as the general public, contact to find answers to their questions. Knowledgeable and trained NIS (nonprofit information services) staff must understand nonprofit culture and terminology and know the experts in a field to be able to give questioners appropriate information, community resources, Web sites, or consultant referrals. NIS staff offer individual expertise in management and fundraising and organize and manage a wide range of materials, including paper files, books, Web sites, and electronic databases. By providing access to print and electronic resources, as well as the advice of local experts, NIS staff in C-MAP (the California Management Assistance Partnership), the first collaborative network of its kind in the nation, help ensure equal access to accurate nonprofit information statewide for both urban and rural communities.

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In their local communities, NIS staff play an essential role in providing knowledge. More than 80 percent of NIS staff answer basic questions and handle more complex reference inquiries with additional research. About 75 percent of NIS personnel also provide more extensive help in the form of personal consultations. In addition to guiding users to the best information sources, many C-MAP information specialists also design and present specialized trainings. More than 60 percent teach clients how to use the library, maintain computers, and create new information for posting online. They also provide behind-the-scenes support to C-MAP center trainers and consultants.

Geographically dispersed throughout the large state and typically underfunded and overworked, C-MAP NIS staff have managed to keep their group alive and active for more than eight years despite constant turnover and budget constraints. Constantly sharing throughout the years, their methods and approach to knowledge management have evolved and continue to move forward.

Skilled at framing, structuring, and sharing their knowledge, the C-MAP NIS group has created a collaborative knowledge-sharing culture. Despite the challenge of high staff turnover, the group has developed Get Ready, Get Set, a guide to starting a nonprofit, which provides patrons statewide with readily available expert advice. Other C-MAP NIS projects include NIS 101 (a basic guide to NIS work) and the public Web site Nonprofit Genie.

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