Magazine article Management Review

A Match Made in Computer Heaven

Magazine article Management Review

A Match Made in Computer Heaven

Article excerpt


When Daniel Ben-Horin founded The Compumentor Project in San Francisco in September 1986, he had two motives: "to try and help nonprofit organizations use available technical tools to produce better work and to activate a truly skilled sector of the population--technically adept people--by getting them into the community to do what they do best--talk about technology and teaching." Today Ben-Horin, the company's executive director, tries to match up more than 200 computer whizzes in Compumentor's database with approximately 125 nonprofits that need their technical guidance.

The mentors, who range from independent consultants to businesspeople, all have one common trait--they are good with computers. "They range from the cutting edge of technological sophistication, the `wizards,' to skilled users," Ben-Horin explains. "Very few fit the stereotype of the `nerd.'"

Interested nonprofit organizations fill out a short questionnaire, explaining their problems and what their organizations do. The mentors are matched according to similar interests and fields of expertise, and help takes the form of phone consultations and on-site visits. "The ideal situation is for the two to adopt each other, so the group will never be out in the computer cold again." says Ben-Horin.

What does the mentor get out of the partnership? "You can't overestimate how basic the notion of sharing information is within the computer culture. The mentors are enthusiastic from Day One," explains Ben-Horin. "Their payoff is in being teachers--they in what they know best." He adds, "The nature of computer work is the person and the screen--total isolation. This adds the human element that's lacking."

Ben-Horin admits funding was the biggest obstacle to his organization. He knows that technical assistance is not a high priority in the fundraising arena but thinks it should be: "We need to educate foundations (the main contributors) as to why empowering nonprofits is empowering everyone; why, say, a group to help the homeless that uses technology is good for all."


San Francisco Suicide Prevention called Compumentor seeking help with database programming--mentor David Wright's specialty. Like many nonprofits, Suicide Prevention was underfunded and overworked, handling more than 70,000 calls a year, or more than 200 a day. "We spend all our energies making sure the volunteers on the suicide crisis line have the information they need--information such as where the caller can spend the night," explains executive director Eve R. Meyer. All the information was stored on big Rolodexes that had to be updated constantly. Wright designed a program allowing them to store, change, and print out the information electronically. "People used to call and we would give them a wrong number," according to Meyer. "He found a way for us to keep information current without having to type constantly."

Wright was interested in switching to a career in social services; this was the perfect opportunity. Only later did Ben-Horin discover how perfect the match really was: He found out that Wright's younger brother had committed suicide less than two years earlier.

Now Wright works at a center for battered children and is enrolled in a master's degree program in clinical psychology at San Francisco's New College of California. "My career shift reflects a general shift in my nature," explains Wright. "I wanted to move from a job interacting with a machine to one interacting with people. And the project was a good way to start." He knew that Suicide Prevention had a less than satisfactory experience with people trying to help it automate: "The beauty of Compumentor is that nonprofits tell us what they need. I don't have a financial stake or an ego stake in what they're doing, so I am better able to help them."

Meyer is grateful that Wright stuck by them in a period of tremendous turmoil, at a time when they had a new director and were receiving less money from the city of San Francisco. …

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