TechSoup wants to stretch broadband dollars

Marnie Webb flew to Washington from San Francisco to spend this past week to try to make connections in the broadband community.

As co-CEO of TechSoup, a non-profit that helps other organizations use technology more effectively, she's interested in helping the Commerce Department make broadband stimulus grants go farther. And she is interested in partnering with other groups, like the Sunlight Foundation, in goals of getting underserved populations into the civil discourse happening online. She also wants to  share broadband adoption techniques she's learned with the the Federal Communications Commission for its national broadband plan. 

But Webb admits she is naive to the ways of Washington. As she meets with non-governmental organizations and agency officials, she has to stress that she is not looking for financial help. TechSoup did not apply for any money in the first round of stimulus grants. She's thought of talking to the staff of her district's representative, who happens to be House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, but she knows she'll have a hard time getting an audience.

"I have to say, 'No really, I'm not asking for money--this is not a sneaky way of asking for more funds,'" she said over coffee this morning.

Webb says she essentially wants to offer TechSoup's services to help stretch the $7 billion in stimulus grant money as far as it will go. The bulk of the group's $22 million annual budget comes from small administration fees that non-profits pay to receive technology donations from big tech companies--like Microsoft, Cisco, Dell, Adobe.

For example, if Microsoft has a philanthropic program that donates $3 million worth of software to needy organizations that fit a particular profile, TechSoup helps those groups and libraries get access to the Microsoft donations. The recipient of the donation pays TechSoup an administration fee for each transaction.

Webb says TechSoup allocates more than $300 million in software to organizations every year.

"We think groups can benefit from using our existing channels," she said. "For someone to get BTOP (broadband stimulus) funding and to go to Best Buy to get a router with that money, they could have gotten 10 routers through us for the same price."

She also has her own ideas for making broadband more relevant to populations that have not yet adopted the technology. She proposes setting up mini computing centers in the offices of community organizations that serve a particular need. For instance,  a community health clinic could have a few computers on hand where visitors can search for information about illness prevention or available medications. A domestic violence center could offer computers to women looking for support groups and other resources.

The idea is that people will appreciate the value of an Internet connection more if they are using it to find information that is highly relevant to their lives. Ideally, staff and volunteers could be available to help new users navigate the Web.

"There's finally interest and money going into this," she said. "It would be a shame to not make those resources go as far as possible."

TechSoup also runs NetSquared, a program that helps non-profits use collaborative social media tools to solve community and social problems. Last year, it ran a competition for USAID that invited developers to submit technological solutions for the developing world.