Through an arrangement with TechSoup, PND is pleased to offer a series of articles about the effective use of technology by nonprofits.
AmeriCorps — the domestic version of the Peace Corps — is a network of local, state, and national service programs that annually recruits and provides upwards of seventy thousand Americans to meet the nation's education, public safety, health, and environmental needs through service. Since the program began in 1994, volunteers' work has included such activities as tutoring and mentoring disadvantaged youth, tackling illiteracy, managing or operating afterschool programs, teaching computer skills, building affordable housing, and cleaning parks and streams.
AmeriCorps is a program of the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS), an independent federal agency created, according to its Web site, "to connect Americans of all ages and backgrounds with opportunities to give back to their communities and their nation." AmeriCorps has three programs: AmeriCorps*State and National, AmeriCorps*NCCC (National Civilian Community Corps), and AmeriCorps*VISTA.
The CTC VISTA Project
The CTC VISTA Project began in 2000 with a three-year, million-dollar grant from the CNCS. The project, which is run by Acting Director (and former AmeriCorps*VISTA) Ben Sheldon at the University of Massachusetts' College of Public and Community Service, matches AmeriCorps VISTA members with nationwide nonprofit organizations that use information and communications technologies to meet the needs of at-risk and low-income communities. Since its inception seven years ago, the project has placed more than two hundred and fifty VISTA members in over one hundred nonprofit organizations.
CTC Vista began as a partnership with CTCNet, an association of nonprofit organizations committed to providing technology access and education to low-income communities. Together they worked to develop and advance Community Technology Centers (CTCs). In the early nineties, the nation had fewer than twelve centers, but now there are approximately twenty thousand centers that support schools, employment agencies, and other national service providers.
As CTC Vista grew and expanded, it built relationships with other networks and branched out to provide services to a number of nonprofit organizations. The project now focuses on poverty eradication through media and technology efforts in four areas: community networking, technology assistance to nonprofits, digital media, and access and inclusion.
Who Are the VISTAs?
Acting CTC VISTA Director Sheldon emphasized that recruits are referred to as members, not volunteers, as VISTAs receive an $11,000 living allowance for their commitment. At the end of the year, members can choose either a $4,700 educational award, which can be used to fund most types of higher education, or they can opt for a $1,200 cash payout. Approximately 75 percent of the members choose the education award and 25 percent choose the stipend cash payout.
According to Sheldon, 50 percent of the program's members are in their early to mid-twenties and are either taking a year off from college or are recent college graduates. Another 25 percent are in their thirties or forties and looking to make a career change. The remaining 25 percent are 55 years or older: many worked in IT departments before retirement and wanted to get back into the workforce.
Sheldon likens the placement of members to matchmaking. Prospective members provide where and with whom they would like to work, organizations describe their ideal candidate, and Sheldon works actively to find the perfect fit, refusing to make a match until both partners are satisfied. Given that the program averages a 5 percent non-completion rate, the process seems to be working well.
VISTA Success Stories
The project currently has fifty new CTC VISTA members working across the nation in a variety of areas: community wireless, accessibility and inclusion, fundraising and outreach, youth storytelling and other capacity-building technology and media projects. In two programs in San Francisco and Boston, the partnerships worked out so well that former VISTAs are now staff.
Castle Square Tenants Association
The Castle Square Apartment complex in the South End of Boston is made up of five hundred units of multi-family housing. In 1987, the community founded the Castle Square Tenants Association (CSTO) to ensure affordable housing in the area. When CSTO began a wireless Internet project that would provide all five hundred units with free high-speed Internet access, former CTC VISTA Emilio Flores played a critical part in the implementation. Armed with technological expertise and a strong belief in the power of community, his work included climbing on rooftops to set up the wireless routers and antennae, creating a support network of staff and students, and developing a system in which volunteers refurbished donated computers and distributed them to the community's residents. former VISTA Flores is now staff, working alongside a VISTA who was placed with the program for the 2007-08 year.
The Homeless Prenatal Program (HPP)
In San Francisco's Mission District, the Homeless Prenatal Program (HPP) provides families with counseling, education, housing assistance, child care, and advocacy. The program also helps families help themselves by teaching them the rudiments of technology and how it can be used for practical purposes such as finding a home or a job and researching health questions.
Brittney Fosbrook currently works as staff in HPP's Technology Center, but began working at the program as a VISTA in September 2006. When asked how she found out about the program, she explained that she had looked into the various AmeriCorps programs but "nothing quite settled right with me. I was interested in doing more 'techie' work and didn't want to do conservation corps or volunteer coordination." She explained that when she found the CTC VISTA job posting, it was everything she had wanted in a service-project opportunity.
A month after she began her work as a VISTA at HPP, the project boss left the program and Brittney had to run the Technology Center with the help of one part-time employee. But with the support and guidance of CTC VISTA staff and members and a great deal of determination, she persevered: she developed curriculum for and taught a technology class on community health work to a group of eight formerly homeless mothers and trained several staff members on how to use computers and various software programs.
As a result of her VISTA experience, Brittney is at once savvy to the particular pressures of the nonprofit world and very positive. When asked how she managed to get by in one of the most expensive cities in the nation on the living allowance, she said, "My loans were deferred for the year. I got a free transportation pass from the program. It was hard for me to complain when most of my clients had two kids and were living off $500 a month." Her time as a VISTA member has made her resolve to pursue more work using technology to empower low-income populations.
Support and Information-Sharing
According to its director, CTC VISTA offers an extensive support system: staff set up monthly conference calls among VISTAS, collect and disseminate media and grassroots-related information, and provide support via email and by telephone.
Another critical component of the project's support system is the CTC VISTA Web site, which provides electronic versions of handbooks, hosts blogs, and has a "workspace" that allows members to share experiences, best practices, and challenges. VISTAs' "recent field report updates" run the gamut from successes and coups to challenges and frustrations. One VISTA's field update was titled, simply, "Beat." In her report, the member noted that she had never worked so many days in a row in her life — a sentiment that resonates with most people who have ever worked in the nonprofit sector. But on the "workspace," a VISTA does not have to feel alone: within a week, three other VISTAs had weighed in with comments and suggestions in response to "Beat."
A VISTA'd Interest
The project accepts applications from organizations interested in having a VISTA work on four types of projects: community networking, technology assistance to nonprofits, digital media, or access and inclusion. Organizations that are interested in hosting a CTC VISTA begin by submitting an Intent to Apply, which describes their organization and the VISTA's proposed role and project(s). After the Intent to Apply is approved and the applicant organization has completed the rest of the application, the project posts the job description on the project's recruitment Web site and forwards candidates to organizations who have applied to the national AmeriCorps recruiting system for consideration. Once the applicant organization has chosen a potential individual, project staff and CNCS reviews his or her application for placement approval. All CTC VISTAs and future supervisors attend a three-day pre-service orientation in Boston, and VISTA members begin their year of service in the fall.
Although the host organization pays a portion of the VISTA's stipend, the sum is nowhere near the cost of a staff person. It would therefore be wise to heed former VISTA Brittney Fosbrook's sage advice: "Make sure to welcome the person and provide them with opportunities."
With the CTC VISTA project working as matchmaker, everyone is bound to benefit.