Located just outside of center city on 15th and Brandywine, you’ll find the huge arched windows of Philadelphia’s Nonprofit Technology Resources (NTR). A perfect artistic representation of what goes on inside the warehouse, the windows at NTR are covered in tangled circuits and old computer parts, taking what was once destined for the trash and making something beautiful out of it.
Steven Feldman is seemingly boundless in his energy as he walks Geekadelphia through the large computer refurbishing factory. The warehouse space is filled with stacks of desktop and laptop equipment–Macs and PCs–some to be given to other local civic organizations and others to families and individuals who need them.
At face value, NTR is a nonprofit organization that provides refurbished computers and computer training to low-income communities but the organization also provides unparalleled workplace experience for a smattering of work clients, as well as computer training for other organizations in Philadelphia.
Feldman is the new Executive Director at NTR. His vision to refocus and reinvigorate the organization is inspiring to any technology enthusiast. And while he exudes a refreshing sense of excitement and approachability, Feldman takes serving his community very seriously.
We sat down with Feldman to talk about his plans for NTR and how geeks everywhere can get involved in their very relevant service.
Can you give us the abbreviated history at NTR?
NTR has been around since 1974. They started out as Public Interest Media Project–with maybe one of the most unfortunately acronyms. After about 10 years, the Executive Director, Stan Pokras, decided that computers were the way to get people into media, especially in the 80’s when prices were just starting to come down.
Shortly after, the name was changed to Nonprofit Technology Resources and NTR became engaged in computer training. About 10 or 15 years later, computer prices continued to fall and the used market became large enough that we moved into computer refurbishing.
About five years ago, we moved into this space [15th and Brandywine]. I think we’re up to about 2,000 [pieces of equipment]. For the past 15-20 years, we’ve been taking in donated equipment, fixing it and making it available directly to people in need–sometimes providing internet access and, many times, providing supplemental computer training [to computer recipients] on top of the computers themselves.
How did you become the Executive Director?
As of the end of May, Stan Pokras, the longstanding Executive Director, retired and the board asked me to step in. I started out here as a volunteer role in 2004 and was brought on part-time to fix laptops. I fixed as many laptops that were worth fixing and pretty much fixed my way out of a job as a result.
I came back in 2008 to help run the larger of our two state-funded training programs. I moved on to run the entirety of a state-funded program in 2011. Unfortunately, both programs ended in 2011. So I left NTR at the end of 2011 and they very quickly recruited me onto the board.
I had gone on to work on the Freedom Rings partnership with Drexel University. Freedom Rings was the result of two stimulus grants from the stimulus package in 2009. Many state agencies, city agencies and nonprofits collaborated to make a bunch of public computing center. Parks and Rec and City OIT, I believe, are the principal city agencies. I was with Drexel University and we were providing logistical support at that point. That was a community that was very parallel to NTR’s community.
While NTR was not a part of the grant, directly, NTR has maintained working relationships with a lot of the partner organizations [in Freedom Rings]. That grant has been sunsetting as of this year, portions of it already being finished as we speak. For me, it was very timely that the ED was retiring this year and that I was offered this job.
Why did you decide to enter the nonprofit world?
My career before the entering the nonprofit world has been in tech support, IT administration, computer repair and drafting. It’s been a very fun ‘180. We are still a technology organization but this role is very different than, ‘Hi, let’s write a formula in Excel’ or digitizing a map in AutoCAD.
Was it difficult to make the switch from a commercial IT environment to this role?
The switch was actually fairly comfortable for me. There that fairly typical story of the soul-sucking grind of corporate work and that is sort of true. In the corporate world, it can sometimes be challenging to identify the value that your work has in the larger picture.
Obviously, there is always a profit value but I’ve been uncomfortable with someone else getting the profit value of my hard work–when you’re getting a basic salary and other people are getting very wealthy. And I recognize that part of the point of a career ladder is to work my way up so that I can get very wealthy. And that’s fine.
But I appreciated having a little more to look forward as a result of my labor than simply the financial success of an organization. I have a child. I have a home in South Philly. We have a car. I have some nice things–not many, [laughs].
What services does NTR currently offer the community?
Currently, and despite the lack of state funding, we still take on workforce training clients. We give them workforce experience here and we take on a lot of interns from the trades schools. For the trade school students, working here is very relevant experience. They’re often going directly into an IT hardware or software field, anyway.
Many of those work clients and interns are getting some sort of stipend from a variety of programs to cover their expenses, which means that we do not have to pay them but they are paid to be here. That’s a model that we have to maintain. We cannot afford to pay 20-30 workers on top of our staff. But we need those workers to provide the volume of computers that we produce. Many of them may not even work directly with the computers but they help in the warehouse and in the store, and in computer distribution.
We want to keep those folks coming to the building but we want to provide these people with additional value besides a place for them to gain a little bit of work experience. So Andrew and I, as well as several other members of the Board, are going to actively fundraise and replace programming that we lost from the loss of state funding. Except, this time, we want to replace it with a broader base of funding so that, as funding sources come and go, we’re not severely crippled by the loss of money.
The state funding had essentially tripled our budget for some time. But as it dwindled, it was very challenging to replace that money. While it may have seemed like the writing had been on the wall, the cutbacks were fairly sudden. In the nonprofit world, it takes a good six months to a year to secure sources of funding, aside from individual donations. So, when we’re told that in three or four weeks that our funding is going to be cut, it’s simply devastating.
Of course, we weren’t the only ones to suffer. A lot of workforce training programs in this state, and the city of Philadelphia, suffered as well.
But that’s the past. We have a little bit of money in the bank–as a reserve. And we’re going to be using that money to aggressively begin to rebuild capacity. I didn’t come on board to help close the organization down and I also didn’t come on board to just sell computers through our thrift store. Doing that and nothing else, I might as well have just gone to work at a Best Buy. I came on board to help rebuild the organization and to realize its potential to make the work experience available to the people who need it and to continue to make computers available to the people who need it.
I’ll still sell computers. I like money for the organization. The money helps us do other things and it covers our costs when times are lean but I want the selling of computers to move back to being a smaller project in comparison to the workforce project.
What is included in the workforce training? Hardware and software? Digital literacy?
We frame it in several ways–depending on which organization is placing the client. For the trade school students, it’s fairly clear. You’ll get to learn computer repair, how to support other users or how to conduct research in trouble shooting unusual computer problems.
I’ve actually had the benefit, coming in as new leadership, of identifying a number of changes that I would like to make to the building internally like our networking cable, our Windows images and infrastructure and other tech projects. In that sense, I can actually offer the trade school interns a wide variety of real world technical experience.
For the Welfare to Work candidates, we provide a bit more general experience. They will learn warehousing and inventory management. They will learn structured production in computer refurbishing and in the thrift store; they’ll learn merchandising and customer service skills–and in some cases, cashiering and database entry.
For our youth and academic program students, [NTR] tends to be a little bit of everything. This might be their first job, in a sense. Since it’s their first workplace experience, we focus on things like working as part of a team, showing up to work on time, dressing appropriately, being mindful of production, conducting oneself professionally in the workplace as well as some of the other skills I’ve already mentioned.
With the youth programs, and for organizations with large populations, we try to get some of their staff to come over as well. Maybe not daily, but perhaps on a regular basis, to help them connect the dots about what they are learning at their home institution.
Is most of the workforce training done in-house?
Yes. As much as possible, we try to bring the computer recipients here. It’s a lot easier for us to build and configure the computers in the same place and then set them up in the classroom, temporarily, so that one of our staff or a very experienced intern or volunteer can give the lesson. Plus, we have the parking lot and we have a pretty centralized location in Philadelphia.
We have, at times, done some external projects. Most notably, NTR had done two years of the Martin Luther King Day of Service. In those cases, we’ll truck a couple hundred computers to another facility and set them up there. It’s not very comfortable but we understand that there are service populations or other concerns that make travel challenging.
Again, the giving of the computers is only one outlet. It’s only one program. A lot of the computers actually go to our training recipients. Currently, we have a couple contracts with youth training organizations and they’ve been in the habit of making work experience a part of their larger curriculum. [Those students] get a computer in the end but they’re learning how to teach other people about computer use. We’ve worked with organizations to make sure that their time spent here is informative and relevant to the curriculum.
Where else do the computers go?
We can’t work with the schools directly for a very wide number of reasons. Though, I’m looking to chip into that due to the current fiscal crisis. As a result, we tend to work with organizations that are closely aligned with the schools. Philadelphia Academies is probably the closest aligned organization to a school directly that we work with. They are very closely engaged with 440 [the School District of Philadelphia].
We tend to stick with neighborhood associations and civic associations or local service organizations and church groups–really, anyone who is providing range of services to a specific client base. It’s a very comfortable relationship for us to be in. They have a captivated community and we have services.
How many people do you have on staff?
We have 11 staff and a Board of Directors. About five years ago, when I was brought on to run some of the larger programs, we had 26 staff. I want to grow back to over twenty staff again. This place hums with that many staff.
We have our essentials covered but we’d like to have additional staff. I’d like to have my own career coach here.
What are your higher-level goals for NTR over the next few years?
My goal for the next two years is to maintain the level of expenses that we’re doing this year and stem our losses. We don’t want to have to continue to eat off of our reserve or sell off inventory just to cover expenses. At the end of the two years, I want to become revenue neutral at this level of expenses. That means we can maintain some of our reserve cash.
We have approximately a year’s budget in our reserve, which is a very nice figure but we risk spending it rapidly. Over the next two years, I’m going to be spending a portion of it rapidly–specifically, in the effort of fundraising to find more money.
More importantly, in the next couple of years, I would like to build an increase on the relationships that we have with the trade schools and the youth academic institutions. Those relationships bring in clients that are either very highly productive and engaged and/or there is some revenue included with the relationship. With more of those relationships, we can afford to bring on more staff to provide really comprehensive support for those clients, above and beyond the work experience.
I think we have a very compelling work experience. There aren’t any other nonprofits in town doing computer refurbishing to the scale that we are. Even Temple University’s refurbishing program doesn’t do quite the volume that we do and they’re limited as a student organization.
But, I’d like to make it a complete experience. So, if we build those relationships then our production is a little more efficient and our revenue becomes a little more stable. The more that I can spread my costs out over a variety of programming, the more comfortable it is for me to respond to people that are looking for a free computers for their clients.
Of course, the additional staff helps us operate better. We can weather sickness or changes to programming a little easier.
We really rely on the institutional donors but the institutional donors have also become a great resource to us. Sometimes, we’re working with facilities and IT departments to source the [computer] donations and they often have an “in” to entry-level warehouse or IT jobs. In the past–and I’d like to again–we’ve had a counselor that helps make that connection.
We’ve also had GED programming on-site and I’d like to bring that back. Computer literacy and reading literacy really go hand in hand. Someone who has less than a 9th grade reading level is going to have a hard time managing the keyboard; they’re going to have a hard time managing websites. It’s uncomfortable trying to grow computer skills with someone that is still learning to read and can barely fill out forms.
Of course, the more staff I have downstairs, the more work clients I can manage and the more computers I can build. That makes giving [the computers] easier for us.
How can folks get involved with NTR?
Well, of course, we do thrive off of computer donations. So, if you have equipment that you or your company is getting rid of, please send us an email. You can usually drop it right off. If it’s a large amount of equipment that is still useful, we’re happy to come get it.
Certainly cash, but every nonprofit needs cash. I don’t want to use this to make a cash appeal but we have ways to take in cash donations and we’re always happy to receive them.
Most importantly, I realized that the way to get our previous levels of programming and funding back is through partnerships. We’ve been very successful in partnering with other organizations. So, we’re looking for rich partnerships that have a mix of clients that can benefit from a technology component. Not every organization we work with is an IT organization. A lot of the youth and advocacy organizations are serving ordinary folks.
Most of them are not going to turn into app developers or Geek Squad technicians and that’s fine. But, the need for computer skills among the general population is huge.
Folks who are employed, can look to their employers to send equipment our way–especially at the end of the equipment life. And those who are at all engaged with service organizations can look to us to add a very compelling work component to their clients’ mix.
The amount of work experience here can scale. You can spend time in the warehouse or working on our marketing efforts, in our thrift store and even up to higher level IT training programs. We can engage other local nonprofits. They send us trainers for things like job search and resume building workshops.
So, if you work for a service organization or just a company that is getting rid of equipment, we can probably be a useful partner.
For companies getting rid of equipment, not only can they be comfortable knowing that the computers will get reused within communities with need, as a 501C3, they can certainly use this donation as a tax write off. And they can be confident that we work with R2 (that’s a certification for industrial recyclers). Anything that we can’t use is being very responsibly destroyed, not simply sent to a landfill or put on a boat and shipped to Africa.
We get a lot of equipment that we can’t use but many arts organizations could use it or vintage computer groups can use it–we’ve worked with Linux user groups who have turned 15 year old laptops into very productive, interesting machines.
I want to get back to functioning as part of our name. I want to be a technology resource to other organizations. In the past, we’ve tried to do a little bit of everything. I’m going to be attempting to return our focus to what we do well, which is work experience, refurbishing and getting computers out into the community.
Everything on top of that, I’d rather partner with other organizations who do it better. We can be the equipment component or the space component.
What are you most excited about at NTR?
In this role, and in my role in a nonprofit in general, it’s always exciting to see the light bulb go on in someone’s head when they start to understand something technically. Since a lot of the population that we’re dealing with here is low to zero computer skills population, something as simple as figuring out why to use email or what the purpose of a search engine is… It is a real joy watching that light bulb go on.
It’s normal for people to be a little mystified and apprehensive about their computer, even if they are a comfortable software user. As soon as error messages start popping up on screen or god forbid something start smoking or beeping funny from the main unit–or, maybe you drop your phone and the screen breaks and you don’t know what to do. It’s very easy to get a little anxious or apprehensive.
Nudging people into facing those fears, they come to realize that computers are simply tools and they are more powerful. They can beat the computer at trying to cause trouble in their lives. In successfully fixing something, it provides a personally rewarding feeling to a lot of the clients that we have.
I got into nonprofit certainly not to make money but because I really enjoy my work, knowing that these outcomes are a result of my work. You know, when I’m doing things like preparing a budget or submitting payroll or mediating a dispute between two employees, it doesn’t always feel, at that moment, that I’m serving the population but our organization exists to serve and I get to see the direct outcomes of our work often enough that I like getting up in the morning and coming in.
You can get involved with NTR by emailing email@example.com!