Since the mid-’90s, Don Holt has been bringing things together:
- unused computers with people who need to learn how to use them;
- broken computers with people who want to learn to fix them;
- volunteers with work that makes them feel good;
- unused space with computers, students, and instructors;
- people who need computers with computers refurbished by techies-in-training;
- unmotivated teenagers with a realization that they, too, can own a business or land on the moon (sort of);
- skilled workers and high-paying jobs.
He started out in a community center with 10 computers, a little money, and a few friends who wanted to give back by teaching Word and Excel to students in under-served (read “low-income, African American) neighborhoods. But what started as a weekend venture to bring a few people into the information age became an IT training school, a green technology training center, and an IT/solar panel installation company. Not to mention haz-mat removal.
After talking with Don, you realize the success of his retirement project, Computer Village, is based on three things at which he excels:
Focus: The mission of Computer Village is and has always been: more jobs and higher paying jobs in low-income communities. What those jobs are has changed as has the way in which they’re obtained. It used to be a program about basic computer skills; it became computer installation and repair; now it’s green construction and robotics. But the bottom line was, is, and will be: well-paying jobs.
To meet that goal, he has come up with new ways to generate revenue, new classes and, most importantly, new projects, all serving that single focus: well-paying jobs.
Networking: Holt is a master at networking, meeting people, and making matches.
His board is not so much get/give as get-to-know/open doors. Board members are people who go to meetings in the community and network, who know what’s needed and who can open doors for Computer Village. That door may be a church willing to install some computers so its members can upgrade their skills. It may be the door to a construction firm that needs skilled workers who can install IT systems.
Holt and his board are out there talking up Computer Village so when a company upgrades its computers, it calls Holt to come pick up the old ones, to use in his classrooms or to train repair techs or to refurbish for low-income students to take home.
Motivated, trained IT workers need actual paying jobs so Computer Village pays them a better than living wage to install and maintain IT systems. To get those jobs, it’s back to networking, talking to small businesses, nonprofits, and government agencies about providing computer maintenance and, now, solar panel installations and haz-mat removal.
Holt talked to people in the construction industry, to let them know that their employees could be trained in green construction at Computer Village. Lo and behold, some of those construction companies needed their computer systems maintained. Another partnership, more jobs.
More jobs. The eye is always on that prize.
Collaboration: Holt has a collaborative turn of mind. He does not apply for grants on his own. He works with other nonprofits for their mutual benefit. For example, Father Support is an organization that works with non-custodial parents who might be termed “dead-beat dads.” Computer Village has a contract to teach basic computer skills to every single one of the people who go through Father Support. Those who are particularly adept or interested can go on to higher-level training.
The grant and the grant-writing process was done by Father Support, not Computer Village. If the allocation for training is not enough to cover the needs or interests of FS clients, the clients can go to another Computer Village location to finish their studies.
Computer Village works with Head Start to help parents learn skills to get better job and, as an aside, helps the Head Start staff understand Excel.
“Those collaborations are our life-blood,” Holt says.
In his latest collaboration, he’s reaching for the stars … literally. Computer Village students, working with scientists, physicists, and mathematicians are competing for the Google X prize, $3 million. It involves robotics and a lunar landing.
Shoot for the moon: That’s kind of what Holt and Computer Village have always done.
Do you have examples of how networking and collaboration have worked for nonprofits?