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					      Need to Update Your Information Technology?
      Try Service Learning
      High-tech needn’t mean high-cost. Consider a service-learning project.
      BY ROBIN A. ALEXANDER




      W
                      hile the need for infor-   and implemented in a semester.            • You acquire a system that performs
                      mation in the nonprofit    Creating a database to track clients        a needed function.
                     sector is great, short-     or computerizing an accounting sys-       • You gain a better understanding of
                    ages of time, staff,         tem for a small nonprofit have              your systems, needs, and opportu-
                   money, and expertise          proved doable.                              nities.
      make it hard to use information tech-          The students are mostly junior        • You gain increased technical
      nology effectively. The result is often    level accounting majors who have            knowledge and awareness among
      a vicious cycle in which staff time is     taken an introductory management            your staff.
      spent compiling information manual-        information systems course. They          • You receive moral support, enthu-
      ly when a simple database could dra-       divide into groups of three or four         siasm, and impetus from working
      matically speed the process. But           and are given the list of projects.         with an interested group of stu-
      there’s no time to create it.              Assignments are based on students’          dents.
           If that situation sounds familiar,    preferences and the instructor’s          • You have a source of potential
      help is at hand in a rapidly growing       assessment of their skills as required      staff: The students may want to
      trend: service learning, in which stu-     by the project. After meeting with the      intern with your organization and
      dents, under faculty supervision,                                                      may be inspired to choose non-
                                                 nonprofit client, the students write
      undertake information-technology                                                       profit work as a career.
                                                 proposals outlining the situation and
      projects for nonprofits.                                                             • You acquire insight: Even if you
                                                 their solution. The instructor revises
                                                                                             don’t use the new system, you ben-
         How Do Service-Learning                 these proposals if they aren’t specific
                                                                                             efit from thinking about your infor-
            Programs Work?                       enough, as is often the case at first.
                                                                                             mation system and seeing it
                                                     Following an accepted proposal,         through fresh eyes.
          Each university and department         the students begin work. To keep the
      operates its service-learning projects                                               • The projects foster interaction
                                                 projects on course, the instructor          between your organization and the
      somewhat differently. In our               meets regularly to review students’
      A.S.S.I.S.T. service-learning program                                                  university and may lead to other
                                                 work and provide technical assis-           partnerships.
      in the Accounting Information              tance. When the projects are com-
      Systems (AIS) course at the                pleted, the instructor reviews all sub-       How Can You Facilitate
      University of Wisconsin-La Crosse,         mitted files and documentation, and
      the instructor solicits projects from                                                         Success?
                                                 specifies changes if needed. After
      local nonprofit organizations, based                                                       It’s important to be aware of
                                                 making modifications, the students
      on these criteria:                                                                   potential problems as well as bene-
                                                 deliver the projects to the nonprofit
      • appropriateness for the class                                                      fits. You can minimize headaches by
                                                 clients and train them as needed.
                                                                                                                                     September • October 2001


      • challenging yet doable in the                                                      following these guidelines:
        semester timeframe                       After the semester ends, the instruc-
                                                                                                 Specify the system. The most
      • high probability of success              tor is available for questions or to
                                                                                           important success factor is the clarity
      • significant value for the nonprofit      make minor modifications.                 of your initial specification. Be as
        organization.                                                                      clear as possible about what you
          While it can take one or two
                                                     What Are the Benefits?
                                                                                           want. If you need a client tracking
      years to overhaul a complex organi-            Participating in such a service-      system, what data has to be accumu-
      zation’s information system, many          learning program offers many              lated? What reports are essential, and
      useful applications can be designed        advantages:                               what should appear on them? What

                                                                                                                                     27
Find more articles from Nonprofit World at http://www.snpo.org
                                                                            books on spreadsheet software that         would want if they could have it rap-
                                                                            they already owned. Using inappro-         idly from the computer rather than
                                     Insist on seeing a                     priate software would have cost them       compiling it laboriously by hand.
                                                                            much more in time, frustration, and        Whether or not they developed and
                                     written proposal.                      incorrect information than the rela-       used a new database, they had a
                                                                            tively small cash outlay for the           clearer idea of their data options.
                                                                            accounting software.                       Many other organizations now have
                                  statistics must be computed? What
                                                                                  Another example of false econo-      improved systems that satisfy real
                                  additional information might be man-      my is trying to get by with an inade-      needs, as the sample of completed
                                  dated in the future or be useful for      quate computer to run the new sys-         projects in Figure 1 shows.
                                  decision-making? The more specific        tem. Using an old computer may                  As reflected in Figure 1, nonprof-
                                  you are, the more useful the resulting    force the use of less capable software     its’ greatest need has been database
                                  system will be.                           and waste staff time due to slow per-      work. Fortunately, products such as
                                       You needn’t know all your            formance. If you can’t afford a new        Microsoft Access help create sophis-
                                  requirements ahead of time. It’s natu-    computer, perhaps you can buy a            ticated yet easy-to-use databases.
                                  ral for the specification process to be   used but adequate one.                          Nonprofits’ second greatest need
                                  interactive, with input from the                Safeguard your data. Be sure         has been to set up in-house comput-
                                  instructor and students. But don’t        you have a good backup system.             erized accounting systems. Again,
                                  heap a list of vague requirements on      Students aren’t very experienced in        modern software facilitates this
                                  students, hoping they’ll forge a coher-   safeguarding data while working on         process.
                                  ent system that will magically do         it, so backups are essential to prevent         One recent example is a youth
                                  what you need.                            accidental data loss. To maintain con-     organization that wanted to comput-
                                       Hold realistic expectations.         fidentiality and security, it’s best not   erize its accounting system using
                                  Keep the project focused and not too      to let your data out of your office.       Peachtree for Windows. Three stu-
                                  ambitious. The students are relatively
                                                                            Students can work on systems with-         dents were assigned to work with the
                                  inexperienced and only have a few
                                                                            out “live” data present. When the new      business manager. They worked hard
                                  weeks to develop and deliver the
                                                                            database is ready, your staff can do       to learn the organization’s account
                                  project. Even among professionals,
                                                                            the data entry, or students can do it      setup, previous statements, and
                                  systems work is notorious for time
                                                                            in your office under supervision.          Peachtree. As work progressed, cer-
                                  overruns, so it’s critical to keep the
                                                                                  Stay in touch. You may need          tain problems came to light:
                                  project doable.
                                                                            post-project support to correct errors     • The organization didn’t have the
                                       Encourage communication. If
                                                                            and make changes. While students              software, and purchasing it
                                  communication seems inadequate,
                                                                            may be unavailable to provide such            became a drawn-out affair. They
                                  feel free to take the initiative and
                                                                            support, instructors will usually be          finally acquired it just after the
                                  contact the students or instructor.
                                                                            willing to fix minor problems and             semester ended.
                                  Students may have trouble reaching
                                                                            advise you on major ones. Most             • The board hadn’t approved the
                                  you or be shy about “bothering” you.
                                                                            important, be sure the project                project, so its fate was uncertain
                                  Yet it’s important that they communi-
                                                                            includes good documentation.                  throughout the semester.
                                  cate with you regularly, show you
                                                                            Documentation will help you learn          • The nonprofit’s business manager
                                  what they’re doing, and clear up any
                                                                            the new system and update it later if         was unclear about the desired
                                  questions they have. Encouraging
                                                                            necessary.                                    chart of accounts and changed his
                                  communication early in the project
                                                                                                                          mind twice, to the frustration of
                                  will save lots of time later.                How Are Nonprofits Using                   the student group.
Nonprofit World, Vol. 19, No. 5




                                       Insist on seeing a written propos-
                                  al to be sure the students understand
                                                                                  Service Learning?                    • The books were in bad shape, and
                                                                                                                          students weren’t able to obtain
                                  your requirements. Relying on oral             Nonprofits that have tried serv-
                                                                                                                          data to use in setting up the sys-
                                  communication for this function is        ice-learning projects say they’ve ben-
                                                                                                                          tem. Pro forma data had to be used
                                  likely to lead to misunderstanding.       efitted just from talking over their
                                                                                                                          to test the system.
                                       Don’t over-economize. While          needs with an outside party. Several
                                                                                                                            This project, shaky as it was in
                                  most nonprofits have cash limita-         organizations thought through the
                                                                                                                       process, was a success in that the
                                  tions, “false economy” can kill a proj-   choice of an accounting system and
                                  ect. One organization was reluctant       whether or not to do their accounting      Nonprofit World • Volume 19, Number 5 September/October 2001
                                  to spend $130 for a piece of account-     in-house. Others considered for the        Published by the Society for Nonprofit Organizations
                                                                                                                       6314 Odana Road, Suite 1, Madison, WI 53719 • (608) 274-9777
                                  ing software. They wanted to do the       first time what information they           www.danenet.org/snpo



28
 Figure 1
               A Sample of Completed Information-Technology
                  Service-Learning Projects for Nonprofits
  Type of organization                                    Nature of project
  Specific disease oriented organization                  Consolidate multiple standalone Works databases into
                                                          a relational Access database.
  Local chapter of national service organization          Create a volunteer database in Access for use in
                                                          coordinating volunteer and tracking their assignments.
  Local chapter of national youth organization            Computerize accounting system using QuickBooks.
  Religious service organization                          Create a database to track their clients.
  Local high school                                       Set up a computerized accounting system for their student-run store.
  Organization catering to youth with special needs       Create a database to track computer hardware and software.
  Children’s care and educational organization            Create an Access database to track clients and activity,
                                                          including staff time.
  A local business incubator                              Set up a computerized accounting system using QuickBooks.
  An adult tutoring organization                          Create a database to track clients and tutors.
  A local youth organization                              Create a database to track counselors and clients.
  The University VITA program                             Specify and flowchart the system for assisting taxpayers,
  (volunteer income tax assistance)                       including people and paper flows.
  An organization dealing with domestic violence          Set up their accounting system on Peachtree.
  A local retreat center                                  Create a database to track clients and their participation
                                                          in the center.
  The University Involvement Center                       Create a spreadsheet-based flexible-budgeting system.


organization is still using the new        nership of education and nonprofit                *Starred resources are available from the
system and is happy with it.               organizations can help nonprofits               Society’s Resource Center, 608-274-9777, Ext.
                                                                                           221, www.danenet.org/snpo.
                                           make use of technology while help-
     What’s the Next Step?                 ing students to become effective
                                           practitioners. s
      Although service learning proj-
ects are becoming more common,                              References
they may not be widely publicized. If        *Bowman, Karen, “Volunteering 101:
                                           Service Learning Finds a Home,” Nonprofit
you’re interested, contact local insti-    World, Vol. 16, No. 6.
tutions to see if they offer such pro-       *Clary, Diana H. Mark Mitchell, & Duncan
grams.                                     Bailery, “Looking for a Win-Win Partnership?
                                           Look to the University!”, Nonprofit World,
      As computer and Internet use         Vol. 18, No. 4.
escalate, so will your opportunities.        Lenk, Margarita M., “Reaching Our Goals
One organization commissioned a            Together in Service-Learning: A Multi-
                                           Semester Accounting Information Systems
database that made it easier for low-      Course Implementation,” in D. Rama (ed.),
income households to locate energy         Learning by Doing: Concepts and Models for
                                                                                                                                            September • October 2001



assistance programs. The next step         Service-Learning        in    Accounting,
                                           Washington, D.C.: AAHE, pp. 147-156.
may be to make it available over the         Michenzi, Alfred R., “Service-Learning
Internet.                                  Project in the Accounting Information           Robin Alexander (alexande.robi@uwlax.edu)
      It’s an exciting time for using      Systems Course: Implementation Without the      is associate professor, Department of
                                           Benefit of Hindsight,” in D. Rama (ed),         Accountancy, 412-B North Hall, University
technology to support the important        Learning by Doing: Concepts and Models for      of Wisconsin-La Crosse, La Crosse,
work of nonprofit organizations, but       Service-Learning        in    Accounting,
                                           Washington, D.C.: AAHE, pp. 133-146.            Wisconsin 54601. He has worked extensively
it’s also an intimidating time because                                                     with nonprofits in the La Crosse area and
                                             Zlotkowski, Edward, series editor, Service-
the technology continues to diversify      Learning in the Disciplines, Washington,        has operated the A.S.S.I.S.T. service learning
and become more complex. The part-         D.C.: AAHE.                                     program since 1997.

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