Using Technology in Family and Youth Work

Photograph of a young woman typing on a laptop computer.

In this issue of The Exchange, we take a look at how family- and youth-serving organizations use technology in working with young people and in managing their staff and operations.

Technology Teaches Life Skills and Empowers Street Youth

Every technology course at Street Youth Ministries, in Seattle, begins with a question young people living on the street don’t typically hear: “What’s your dream job?”

The New Tech for Youth Sessions (a name young people helped come up with) program provides hands-on training in technology literacy and life skills to homeless and street youth. Young people come with various levels of comfort and familiarity with technology, the program’s leaders say, but all youth who complete the program develop the tech skills necessary to find employment. Many also leave with a newfound sense of confidence.

A partnership between Street Youth Ministries, which serves homeless and at-risk youth ages 13 to 22, and the University of Washington Information School, New Tech differs from programs that focus on helping youth earn income right away. While enabling youth to start paying rent and get off the street as quickly as possible is important, says Tyler Bauer, program manager at Street Youth Ministries, New Tech has a larger goal.

Photograph of a young woman using a laptop computer.“The sessions aren’t really about youth learning particular computer applications or a narrow set of skills but rather being able to envision themselves in a new place in life,” says David Hendry. To that end, in the first class, students use computers to create a poster explaining where they want to be and what they want to be doing five years down the road. Students then present their posters to the rest of the class.

Hendry, an associate professor at the university, along with Jill Woelfer, a Ph.D. student, helped develop the New Tech for Youth Sessions curriculum, which teaches basic technology skills while also tackling issues that might prevent youth from setting and achieving their goals.

Youth who complete the series of six sessions over three weeks receive their own iPods and iTunes gift cards—rewards that also serve to further enhance their technology skills. More than 50 young people—nearly all the youth who started the program since its launch early this year—have successfully completed the sessions, which cover topics from word processing and sending e-mail to figuring out which employment sites are most useful.

In the sessions, youth learn how to engage with the digital world. One class, Hendry says, focuses on the challenges of online identity, where private life can be made public and permanent. Of the youth who completed the sessions, 49 already had MySpace accounts and used them regularly to connect with others and write about their life experiences. While some young people understood the need to protect their identity online, others felt censoring certain parts of their lives denied who they really were.

In one of the program’s final assignments, everyone applies for a job online. Youth can also use computers in Street Youth Ministries’ drop-in center to print resumes and hunt for jobs.

Hendry notes that some young people are nervous when they first come to the sessions. When putting together a resume, many young people say they don’t have any skills. As they move through each class, he says, they open up, become more engaged, communicate more and begin to help each other, he says. They’re not only learning to interact with technology, they’re learning to interact in the real world, too. Technology skills and life skills—two essential ingredients for landing that dream job.


Young People Focus Through Native Lens

Here’s how Sara London, then in high school, knew the staff of Native Lens trusted her: They handed her a $5,000 video camera.

Though London had used computers and a “little digital camera” before participating in Native Lens, a filmmaking program for Native American youth in Washington state, “I had never used such a high-tech camera,” she says. “It made us feel important to have the cameras and all the sound equipment.”

Entrusting students with the same professional gear and editing software Spike Jonze or Martin Scorsese might use is key to Native Lens’ two-pronged mission. First, prepare young Native Americans—particularly those who’ve gotten in trouble, done poorly in school or had problems with drugs and alcohol—for the digital age and, possibly, for careers in filmmaking and digital design. Second, and perhaps more important, give them the tools to tell their stories to a wide audience.

Photograph of a native youth with a camera.
Photograph courtesy of Longhouse Media.

“We just set the bar really high, and I think this helps us to keep ahead of how technology’s changing,” says Tracy Rector, executive director of Longhouse Media, the Seattle media-arts organization that houses Native Lens.

Youth who participate in the program learn a range of skills including filmmaking, Web design and podcasting. The idea of teens making digital art may not sound unusual, but many Native youth are on the wrong side of the so-called digital divide that separates those with access to technology from those without.

“There are Native communities in 2009 that are just now gaining access to the Internet and having their communities wired,” says Dana Arviso, a Native Lens volunteer and a graduate student in the University of Washington’s College of Education. “It’s really important for all youth of color, and particularly Native youth, to have exposure to technology. Our world is radically changing, and so much is being built around technology.”

Though Native youth may not have computers at home, many of them have hidden expertise that can be applied to filmmaking and storytelling, Rector says.

“Many of our youth are latchkey students. They watch 10 hours of television a day. We turn that into not a ‘shame on you’ for watching TV but show them they can use that,” she says. She tells youth to think about the messages they are receiving, shot choices, composition and music.

Many youth also come to the program with storytelling skills because of their cultures’ emphasis on oral history, she says.

“We say, ‘OK, you’ve heard these stories all your life. What’s a story that’s meaningful for you? How would you tell that story?’” she says.

Learning to tell their stories not only boosts young people’s self-image, Rector says, it also helps counter Hollywood stereotypes of Native Americans.

“We can show we aren’t just natives who live in teepees or are drunks,” says London, who is now an undergraduate student at the University of Washington. “We can show that we have stories to tell outside the stereotypes.”

Youth can receive high school or college credit for the hours they spend in Native Lens. Several have gone on to film school or jobs in television, film or cultural preservation.

Youth also are given opportunities within the program. Rector says, “We’ve seen a lot of youth programs that oftentimes youth age out at age 19, so we try to scaffold our work so there’s a peer mentoring component and an opportunity where they can be teachers as well.”

Arviso believes learning to make films has a profound effect on some young people—beyond enhancing their communication, research and technology skills and their employability. In 2007, she studied three youth working on “March Point,” a 2008 Native Lens documentary about the impact of oil refineries in the Swinomish community in Washington.

Making the film, she says, led the youth to some truly reflective moments: “They’re growing up, and they’re looking at themselves a year ago when they were making poor decisions, and they’re realizing that with adulthood comes the opportunity to define their lives through a series of choices.”

Native Lens’ first feature film, “March Point,” aired on PBS’ “Independent Lens” program in November 2008 and March 2009. See the trailer.

Staying Safe Online

According to one recent study, 90 percent of U.S. youth—that’s approximately 37 million young people—connect to the Internet regularly. And young people can be especially vulnerable to the dangers of the virtual world. Identity thieves appropriate names and other personal information in order to steal money or credit card numbers. Cyberbullies use electronic means to torment, threaten, harass or humiliate. Online predators exploit vulnerable children or adolescents, usually for sexual purposes.

By setting an example and teaching young people to use simple precautions, youth workers can help youth stay safe online.

Laurie Lipper, founder and co-president of The Children’s Partnership, a child advocacy organization in Santa Monica, CA, and Washington, DC, is also advisor to Web sites such as GetNetWise, Net Family News, and Common Sense Media.  She offers this advice to adults who work with young people:

Photograph of an adult working with two young computer users.Teach youth about online dangers and good online safety practices before you let them plunge in.  “It’s like learning to cross the street,” she says. Youth need to be aware of the dangers around them. Youth workers can learn more about good online safety practices at the following sites:

Explain the importance of online privacy. Tell youth not to post identifiable information about themselves, such as their full name or identifying photographs, in public forums; to protect their privacy on social networking sites like MySpace and Facebook; to never give their passwords to anyone; and to adjust their Web browser’s privacy settings, especially when using a computer in a public place, like a school, library or youth center. The National Network to End Domestic Violence offers a two-page handout that discusses ways youth can protect themselves online.

Offer youth the option of using Google’s SafeSearch or other filters to block sexually explicit or offensive material. Most online search engines offer these filters.  Become familiar with them, and show young people how to use them to their best advantage.

Warn youth never to respond to incoming messages or correspondence from anyone they don’t know. Be sure young people know never to open an unexpected e-mail attachment or to click on a link that requests personal information. It could be a predator, spam or a computer virus.

Help youth to get help if they see or experience something that feels wrong. For example, youth who have been persistently bullied online or asked for personal information, photos or a face-to-face meeting can turn to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children’s Cyber Tipline. The National Teen Dating Abuse Helpline also offers assistance. Youth can call local law enforcement if something troubling happens to them online.

Remind youth that they control the machine—and the on-off button. “You’re the master of the computer, not the other way around,” Lipper says.  It’s easy to become engrossed in the online world, and keeping a healthy perspective is important. Time limits allow young people to take care of other priorities. Plus, sometimes a young person can end an uncomfortable situation online simply by logging off.

Youth who have experienced domestic violence should exercise particular caution. The National Network to End Domestic Violence suggests specific safety tips for survivors of intimate partner violence.

Building Communities Through Online Social Networking

Think of social media as word of mouth on steroids. Social media, or social networking tools, like Facebook, Twitter, and blogs, enable people and organizations to create online profiles, discover others who share their interests, and create an online network of hundreds, even thousands, of contacts and supporters, or in social media speak, “friends” and “followers.” For nonprofits, that could translate into new volunteers, advocates, supporters, and, yes, even donors.

NCFY spoke with two social media experts to learn the whys and hows of using social media: Najlah Hicks, founder of Do 1 Thing, a nationwide effort now raising awareness of homeless youth and encouraging people to do one thing to help the cause; and Heather Rist, marketing and development coordinator at Avenues for Homeless Youth, which provides emergency shelter, short-term housing and support services for homeless youth in Minneapolis, MN.

We asked, what’s all the buzz about social media?

Low-cost marketing

The biggest advantage of online social networking, both say, is the relative cost-effectiveness. Hicks says, “By forming communities through online social networking, one person or one organization can reach millions of people, in an inexpensive way, within a matter of weeks, something that was impossible 10 years ago.”

Also, it’s an effective way to tell the story of your program and clients. “By telling the stories of the people you’re helping, you can explain why your organization does what it does every day,” Hicks says. It’s a valuable way to connect with your community, including prospective volunteers and donors.

It’s not just a fad

According to the Pew Internet & American Life Project, 79 percent of adults in the U.S. used the Internet last year, and 46 percent of those adults frequented social networking sites like Facebook and MySpace. And the number of teens using social networking is much higher and growing every day. Even if it doesn’t pay off now, social networking is an investment in the future, Rist says.

Ready to get social?

Here are our experts’ tips for establishing an online presence:

  1. Experiment. If you’re not sure how it all works, go online and try out a few different social media platforms. Visit the sites of organizations similar to yours and see what they are doing and what the reaction has been. Experiment and determine whether or not online social networking is even a fit for your organization. If you feel totally stumped, ask your volunteers or even your clients if any of them could show you how social networking platforms work and how various nonprofit organizations are using them.
  2. Find out which of your supporters already use social media. Ask folks in your existing network—board members, employees, volunteers—whether they have a Facebook or Twitter account, or whether they belong to other online networks. That may help you decide which platforms to use. Once you get set up online, invite them to join your digital network. And ask them to invite their friends.
  3. Make a plan. Just setting up shop and collecting "friends" won’t necessarily result in donors and supporters. Once you’ve determined what type of presence your organization needs, draft a plan for your effort and set some goals.
  4. Devote staff time to making your social networking effort a success. Just because you create a presence doesn’t mean people know it’s out there. Enlist someone to manage your social networking who is enthusiastic about using new technology and wants to do it every day. You can do social media in as little as 15 minutes a day, but to build support for your cause or your program, it will probably take more time. But, Hicks says, probably not more than you’re already spending on traditional marketing.
  5. Communicate with your social networks on a regular basis. Hicks suggests updating Facebook pages at least once a week. Rist sometimes updates Facebook content daily, like during a recent fundraising campaign. Both send tweets a couple times a day. The point is to send out interesting or useful content, but not overload people with information. If your organization’s president is speaking at a big event, let your network know. You may even want to post the remarks afterward. If you get a nice donation, thank the donor on your Facebook page. If your organization needs winter coats, tweet it!
  6. Make sure communication is not one-sided. Ideally, social networking is a dialogue. Don’t just pump out information to your network. Engage your audience. Thank people who sign up to receive your tweets. Follow people or organizations that follow you. Retweet their messages. If someone comments, “Thanks for the great work!” simply responding “You’re welcome,” goes a long way toward showing your network you're listening and engaged.
  7. Activate your social network supporters. Eventually you’ll want to start turning your “friends” and “followers” into volunteers and donors. Make sure your outreach efforts feature lots of ways to get involved. Include donation opportunities on your social networking pages. (Facebook has special “Cause” pages where people can donate directly to your organization.) Be specific when you ask your friends to do something for your organization. And always let people know what happened at an event or with a campaign, even if they didn’t participate. They might get involved the next time.
  8. Learn from your experiences. Be prepared to adapt your approach to the results you’re getting (or not). Don’t give up if you don’t have as many friends or followers as you anticipated. Expect to be learning and making adjustments all the time.
  9. Remember the social part of social media. It’s supposed to be fun, interactive and engaging, not just one more thing on your “to do” list.
  10. Blog it. Although Hicks insists that social media really isn’t scary, if you’re still intimidated by the prospect, consider blogging. Blogging is just like writing an e-mail, she says. Write a couple of paragraphs, hit send; it shows up on your website and allows readers to comment publicly.

Social Media Lingo

Blog: A type of website, usually maintained by an individual with regular entries of commentary, descriptions of events, or other material such as graphics or video.

Facebook: A social networking website where users can create profiles, add friends, send them messages, and update their status or notes to keep friends informed. Facebook allows nonprofits to create fan pages for its organization, issue related to its mission or specific campaign. Facebook currently has over 400 million active users.

LinkedIn: A business-oriented social networking site with more than 60 million users worldwide. It allows registered users to maintain a list of contact details of people they know and trust in business.

Twitter: A free social networking service that allows its 75 million users to send and read messages known as tweets. Tweets are text-based messages of up to 140 characters displayed on the author's profile page and delivered to the author's followers.

YouTube: A video-sharing website on which users can upload and share videos. YouTube has become the second largest search engine on the Internet.

Affordable Technology for Nonprofits: Debunking the Myths

As the manager of computer training labs for the homeless, Jim Lynch used to make every effort to score free technology. Whenever he needed new hardware or software, he – like many other nonprofit managers – would tell himself, “I need to get this donated.”After spending many hours “hustling up” donations from hi-tech retailers, he’s since changed his mind. “If your time is worth anything, it makes more sense to raise the money and buy it,” says Lynch, now a director for TechSoup, a San Francisco nonprofit that supplies low-cost software to charities.If in-kind donations aren’t all they are cracked up to be, what should struggling nonprofits do when they need to replace their old computers, invest in new software, set up a wireless network, or create a database to track clients? We asked Lynch and Laura Quinn, executive director of Idealware, a website that offers articles and online seminars to help charities choose and use software, to debunk seven other nonprofit technology myths.HardwareMyth 1: “I need a computer with the latest bells and whistles.”“It’s been ten years since there’s been a major change in how computers function,” Lynch says. “You just don’t need the latest, greatest duo-core-whatever computer.” Three- to five-year-old used equipment will work just fine for several years at less cost.Myth 2: “I can find a good used computer on an online classified, like Craigslist.”Terrible idea, Lynch says. “You’ll get junk.”He recommends that nonprofits buy refurbished computers from authorized dealers–and make sure the machine has a warranty. While refurbishers may not offer all, or the latest, models, they offer discounts of half or more off the cost of a new computer.Myth 3: “A cheapo home computer will do just fine.”A commercial-, or business-, grade computer is sturdier and easier to upgrade, lasts longer, and can be used as a server—the central hub of a computing network—Lynch says.“Nonprofits operate their computers many hours a day,” he says. “You really need something that’s going to stand up to that.”SoftwareMyth 4: “I’ve got to upgrade to the newest version of software.”Not true if your computers have been around longer than most of your staff. “Older computers might not be able to run the latest software,” Lynch says. Find out what software will work on your machines before you make a purchase. Often, software is available online to convert newer versions of documents into older ones that your older computer will be able to read.Myth 5: “The cheaper the software, the better.”Not always, says Quinn, of Idealware. She recommends spending a little extra to get software that is easy to run, maintain and train staff to use.“If you’re looking for low-cost software, it doesn’t make sense to spend three months choosing it,” she says, or to lose hours trying to run software that doesn’t work well for your purposes.Free software like Google Analytics, a well-regarded online tool for analyzing the popularity of Web sites, can also be handy. But Quinn suggests thinking carefully before using “open source” software designed by a community of people, rather than by a for-profit organization.“Often open source software is by techies for techies,” Quinn says. “Unless you have somebody really intrepid on staff, it’s going to be complicated to get started, and there’s no vendor to support you.”Myth 6: “It’s better to use software that’s installed on my computer.”In fact, Quinn says, Web-based applications can be a good bargain for charities. Examples include E-Tapestry (a donor management tool) and Wild Apricots (a tool for managing Web sites, broadcasting e-mail, and accepting online payments). With Web-based software, one typically pays a monthly fee; some tools are free for smaller organizations.“As opposed to putting a big chunk of change down at the beginning, it’s a very predictable stream over time, and they also tend to save a lot of hassle in terms of time to set up and hardware costs,” Quinn says.IT SupportMyth 7: “A volunteer can fix my computer.”Volunteers are an engine of the nonprofit world. But, Lynch says, they might not always be available when you need them.“If your computer goes down, your mission goes down,” he says. “On mission critical stuff, you want someone who’ll show up.”He recommends using a referral system such as TechFinder to locate an IT professional who will do scheduled support on your computers. For instance, the tech person might charge a monthly fee to check for viruses every other week. 

Go-To List for Nonprofit Technology

Idealware has hundreds of articles about how to choose software, including “Selecting Software on a Shoestring,” “The True Costs of Free and Low-Cost Software,” and "A Few Good Tools:  Low Cost Constituent Databases.”

The site also features online seminars on topics ranging from online conferencing to e-mail fund raising to outreach via text message.

The Nonprofit Technology Network, or NTEN, is the membership organization for nonprofit IT professionals. The network’s Web site includes research about nonprofit technology issues, such as nonprofit IT salaries, fundraising software, and social media.

NPower is a network of local nonprofit groups that offer affordable technology assistance to charities.

TechSoup offers free technology information and support to nonprofit groups. Through its TechSoup Stock program, the organization works directly with software companies to offer discounted products to nonprofits.

TechFinder, a service of NTEN and TechSoup, is an online directory of consultants and companies that provide technology support and products to nonprofits.

E-Learning Courses Offer Budget-Friendly Training Options

Local affiliates of Big Brothers Big Sisters, or BBBS, may have the benefit of a national organization to provide them with resources, help them lobby and grant them some exposure, but each individual agency is responsible for its own budget. Jenna Harkins, vice president of programs for the San Antonio chapter, says that her office has the same financial pressures as any other community-based organization, and the pinch is especially strong when it comes to staff training. “We don’t have a training director, so you just rely on your supervisor and peers for on-the-job training,” she says. Any opportunities beyond that have to come from a program’s budget.

BBBS’ national administration has responded with an increased emphasis on distance learning programs for local affiliates, which they offer through a web-based learning center. Harkins, whose office mainly facilitates mentoring children of prisoners, says the San Antonio staff has used e-learning courses for general BBBS job training, and for more specific courses like one on strengthening relationships with youth. They’ve saved money by cutting back on travel costs, and by relieving experienced staff of the responsibility to fully train every new hire. The BBBS course offerings also help with continued staff development.

Whether your organization is struggling with a decreased training budget, looking to expand your services through staff education, or trying to learn more about a growing issue among your clients, online e-learning courses could help you find the help you need. Improved technology and faster Internet connections have made distance learning options like live webinars and tutorials more useful and approachable than ever. Here are a few tips for making your staff’s e-learning experience as successful as possible:

Shop around

Clip art of a person using online training.As director of training for the Southeastern Network, a Florida-based organization that supports youth- and family-focused nonprofits in the region, John Robertson has provided e-learning courses to hundreds of community-based organizations. He says that the ever-increasing number of course options can make it hard to determine which courses are worth the time and money.

Since the e-learning industry is growing so quickly and new courses are created so often, there is no real comprehensive database of available opportunities. So Robertson’s staff stays apprised of new courses through old-fashioned research and networking. They find the truly worthwhile ones extend beyond the classes themselves.

Supplement your learning

More so than traditional classes, e-learning courses lend themselves to a wide-ranging, multimedia approach that can deepen participants’ understanding. “It isn't enough [for a provider] to offer the courses,” Robertson says. “You have to support that learning with many outlets that provoke the learner to provide feedback, demonstrate knowledge, and receive reinforcement for learning the material, otherwise it’s just one more click of the mouse during the day.”

To that end, Robertson says SENetwork uses “blogs, e-zines, and occasional face-to-face contact to support the material we offer electronically. One webinar does not automatically qualify someone to care for youth in crisis, but it does establish a standard of care which we can build on in other ways.”

Use it for everyone, not just new staff

The new technology can help both new and existing employees meet their training needs. “Many of our member organizations now use e-learning courses as a part of their new hire orientation and continuing education program,” says Robertson, who recommends finding a range of courses for the novice to the veteran youth worker, so even those with lots of experience can continue to learn and stay current with the expectations of funders and the field in general. (See the resources NCFY recommends below.)

Take it as seriously as 'real' courses

As with any educational opportunity, the effectiveness of e-learning courses depends on your staff’s approach to them. “If participants and staff view e-learning as merely an alternative to on-site training, they value it less,” Robertson concludes. “There is less sacrifice made to participate, less trouble and expense to facilitate, so you are always fighting that notion that e-learning is less important than on-site training.”

However, Robertson has noticed the best results come from organizations that make room, figuratively and literally, for the courses in their budget and office space. “Our best practice agencies have dedicated spaces where multiple staff can participate together around a speaker phone with a monitor mounted on the wall to view the training. You can hear them laughing, brainstorming, and engaging the material. This is a direct result of executive leadership making e-learning a priority and communicating its value by committing resources to an e-learning plan.”