Apparo brokers tech solutions for nonprofits

By Todd Cohen

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — The Mint Museum in Charlotte has a five-year strategic plan, including specific “deliverables,” along with tactics and assignments to produce them.

But different departments within the Mint tracked all that information separately, using Word or Excel documents, for example.

“Having a better, fully integrated system will help the departments collaborate around the deliverables,” says Kim Lanphear, executive director of Apparo, a nonprofit formerly known as NPower Charlotte Region.

After meeting with Mint officials, Apparo contacted CTS, a local technology consulting firm that is one of Apparo’s corporate partners, and brokered a three-phase project that has engaged two CTS employees who are working with the Mint as skilled volunteers to solve its problem of fragmented information systems.

And Duke Energy has agreed to fund the project, including the cost of Apparo’s consulting time to set the scope of the project, sit in on all project meetings, work to prevent “scope creep,” make sure deliverables are completed on time, and serve as the “go-to” player for the client and the skilled volunteers, Lanphear says.

Apparo — it takes its name from the Latin word for “provide” — works to “convene business solutions” for nonprofits, Lanphear says.

Its work with the Mint reflects a shift in its focus from providing technology consulting and training for nonprofits.

Formed in 2003, Apparo was one of up to 20 loosely affiliated NPower nonprofits throughout the U.S. that were supported by Microsoft and provided tech assistance to nonprofits in their communities.

Apparo, which operates with an annual budget of nearly $1.4 million and a staff of five people working full-time and five working part-time, also developed a line of business serving as the outsourced information-technology department for 27 local organizations, including United Way of Central Carolinas, Foundation for the Carolinas, Arts & Science Council, and The Duke Endowment, and many smaller agencies and foundations.

But Apparo recognized that its business model of providing help-desk services and managed services depended on generating enough volume to keep its rates low while supporting the level of staff know-how and skills it needed to deliver those services.

So this year, Apparo partnered with CDI Managed Services to work with any of its nonprofit clients that opted to work with CDI.

CDI now is working with 27 nonprofits that had been clients of Apparo, which is handling the billing for 11 of those nonprofits that are smaller, or those with fewer than 10 workstations each.

“We’ve been able to negotiate below-market rates for nonprofits,” Lanphear says. “We try to create sustainable models for these nonprofits.”

The model that Apparo itself is adopting grew out of a three-year grant of nearly $3 million it received in 2008 from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation to develop collaborative solutions to nonprofit tech problems.

The new model focuses on matching the resources of skilled volunteers with the needs of nonprofits, facilitating the relationships, securing funding to cover its costs and those of the volunteers, or about $5,000 to $7,500 for each project, and making sure the nonprofit client also contributes funding.

“If they’re not invested,” Lanphear says, “they’re not as good about giving time and resources.”

Key to its model, she says, is to bring nonprofits together to talk about common needs and help them think about common solutions.

Another key, says Lindsay Jones, communications manager at Apparo, is “to inspire people who are part of the corporate technology community in Charlotte to partner with us to fund some of these engagements,” using the “skills they use every day in their jobs to make a difference in solving everyday business challenges that nonprofits face.”

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