Estimated reading time: 6 minutes, 21 seconds

ImageThere is no question that wireless portable communication devices have changed the world, but have they changed the way non-profits operate or have they merely added to the workload of over-stretched staff and overwhelmed volunteers?
In a word, the answer is both.
Wireless communications have changed how people in general operate and think, says Andrew Borg, senior research analyst of Wireless & Mobility at Aberdeen Group. Nonprofits are thus changed whether they meant to be or not.

Some nonprofits are impacted harder and more directly than others. For example, the American Red Cross could hardly operate at all without mobile communications incorporated in their operations. Federal relief agencies such as FEMA require participating nonprofits be either equipped with wireless communications or be trained to use the government's wireless devices. The demand isn't unreasonable.

I've responded to disasters usually through organized work teams and the single most important tech tool we've purchased to date has been a GPS locator, says John Mark "Jay" Tatum, an ordained United Methodist Minister, Board Certified Chaplain and volunteer with Jackson Area Ministries. When all the landmarks and street signs are gone, the GPS lets you know where the water, food, and restrooms are when radios and cell phones don't work.

If a non-profit fails to comply with government communication requirements, it is stricken from several funding sources and is not allowed access to the disaster scene. Clearly, wireless communications are not optional for this group of non-profits.

But other nonprofits are finding wireless communications just as indispensible. The Nevada Neuroscience Foundation has one full-time social worker, a part-time director and a part-time programming manager. I use my mobile device constantly to keep our non-profit running, says Wendee Johns, programming manager at Nevada Neuroscience Foundation. Without it, it would be days before I returned calls since I am only in the office two days a week.

Johns gets emails constantly sent to her Blackberry, amounting to full-time work in a part-time position. In effect, wireless is doubling individual workloads and nonprofit efficiencies while holding costs within the confines of deflating budgets. I do it so I can meet my deadlines and return calls promptly, she says. Without the mobile device, I couldn't effectively do my job because people expect real-time response. Edurelief Founder and CEO, Jonathan Renich, swears by his iPhone. He uses the device to stay connected with his team in the US via a phone and for emails, calendar, mapping, keeping twitter updated, keeping the organization's blog updated, chatting, and keeping up with other important blogs on the go.

I don't think anything really beats an iPhone as an all- in- one- device and I think nonprofits would be surprised at the amount of work can be done on one on the go instead of a laptop, says Renich. GPS has been great to not get lost, but for nonprofits it's crucial these days to show your work and prove your impact, does wonders for us.

Renich says Edurelief uses Garmin GPS units to map out every school and community it works with and then plots it in Google Earth and maps which we then will share with our donors and volunteers on our website, edurelief.org. It's a great way to prove our programs and visually show people the impact we are having.

Our long term plan is to partner with Google via an updated version of Google Map Creator and actually map out Mongolia, says Renich. Most roads are dirt tracks here, but we send GPS units out in vehicles taking these unmapped routes.

Equal pressure to adopt mobile communications -- and thus change the face of nonprofits everywhere -- is coming from younger, more tech-savvy volunteers.

Younger volunteers come with cell phones already in their possession. Mobile communications is such an integral part of their world that they can't imagine functioning without it. On the other hand, that's a lot of free technology now at the disposal of non-profits, says Borg.

DoSomething.org has made good use of this mobile phenomenon. It has created the largest database of teen volunteer opportunities and made it available online, sorted by zip. Then, we decided to mobilize it and created a program called Do Something Now, says Aria Finger, chief marketing officer at dosomething.org. Teens can text DO SOMETHING to 30644 and immediately get a volunteer opportunity texted straight to their cell. Then we send zip-specific opportunities to their mobile phones twice a month. DoSomething.org has over 4,000 teens signed up and is expecting to have 10,000 teens signed up by the end of the year. We're also empowering teens to sign up their friends in their schools and offering cool prizes and incentives, she says.

Other non-profits are so mobile in their work, they have to have mobile communications just to get the work done. Rabbi Jamie Korngold's work takes her to the outdoors - leading trips as the Adventure Rabbi such as a Rosh Hashanah retreat in the mountains, or a Bar Mitzvah on a trail She uses her Blackberry to keep in touch via email, text messaging and urgent lifecycle requests, such as funerals, says Jeff Finkelstein, lead guide at Adventure Rabbi.

Still other nonprofits use mobile to better equip their field force on a daily basis. City Year is a twenty year-old non-profit that unites young people of all backgrounds for a year of full-time service as tutors, mentors, and role models for children spread throughout the U.S. It has 1450 AmeriCorps members at 18 locations. City Year and T-Mobile have a multi-faceted partnership that includes an emphasis on afterschool programs, a commitment to engaging T-Mobile employees in service and a very generous provision of equipment/coverage for City Year's staff and corps. The effect is that workers in the field stay in the field with little need to return to headquarters for information.

With other nonprofits, mobile communications is a way to bind and motivate constituents and donors without incurring any additional costs. As Borg pointed out, most volunteers already possess a mobile device negating the need for nonprofits to buy them. But sometimes, it's the constituents that foot the bill.

The Intercessory Prayer Line, a nonprofit religious group, uses the Vello conferencing call service to call out to 25 people every weekday morning between 6 and 7am PT. People from different denominations and churches, different geographies and different backgrounds  come together to pray with and for one another. The prayer line is designed to be available to participants regardless of where they are.

Many of the participants use their mobile phones despite the costs. In fact, a couple of users were over their cell minutes but kept participating in the call because it was so important to them and ended up with several hundred dollar mobile phone tabs each month, says Mary Erickson, principal at Erickson Communications and a contractor of Vello (www.vellocall.com). Vello didn't reduce mobile users' minute overage fees. The point is mobile users continue to use the prayer line, even incurring overage fees in the process!

For non-profits, wireless mobility is the least expensive and most efficient support system out there today. By now, all non-profits should be using mobile email, SMS (text messaging) and mobile instant messaging (IM), says Borg. Most of that costs the non-profit nothing.

There are even a number of companies out there waiting to help non-profits leverage the mobile freebies.

We are the leader in helping groups such as non-profits communicate with their members via SMS for free, says Derek Johnson, founder and CEO of Tatango. So far our company has sent over 25 million text messages to group members and we keep growing. Last modified on Sunday, 19 May 2013
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