From spreadsheets to changing lives: Apparo helps the mundane so nonprofits can do the extraordinary
OMITT Innovative Solutions trains people who have stumbled — some with criminal records or lapses in work history — to become electricians, welders and carpenters. In a plain office beside a classroom equipped with drills, table saws and clamps, volunteer Ross Feldman and OMITT’s Rose Jones-Edwards are doing some less inspiring work: creating a database.
“We're going through, with all the errors that are in the records, so that we can seed the database with the correct information,” Feldman said.
Jones-Edwards calls it a “humongous” task.
“But I'm up for the challenge. I'm excited that I have the help. Because I have been operating on paper forever,” she said.
Jones-Edwards thumbs through a stack of 20 years’ worth of student rosters and ID lists, as an Apparo project manager takes notes. She remembers the names and faces, but collecting all that data when it comes to applying for grants is a challenge.
“We would spend hours capturing, 'How many students did we process in the year 2011?' And to come to the table with a spreadsheet was sort of antiquated,” said Jones-Edwards.
She could tell funders didn’t like that. “Even if they smile, it's like, ‘Paper, really?’”
This new database is part of a technology plan for OMITT. Apparo, and the skilled volunteers it pairs groups with, have drawn the plan up over a year.
Charlotte has hundreds of nonprofits working to help people in tough circumstances improve their lives. That work can be transformative, but it’s powered by the same mundane business practices and systems that keep any organization running. That’s where Apparo comes in. Its aim is to help groups use technology to bolster their mission and widen their reach.
Jones-Edwards says the plan will allow OMITT to save hundreds of hours, enable it to take more students, and, hopefully, expand to other cities.
As a digital adviser with a local technology contractor, Feldman is used to crafting technology plans for businesses. His employer allows him to use a few work hours each month to volunteer.
“Giving back is something I absolutely enjoy. And with technology, an hour of my time here is 10 times as helpful in the community,” Feldman said. “So it's actually like I'm donating 10 times of my time, just being able to make groups like OMITT more efficient.”
Apparo celebrates 20 years as it begins to expand to other cities
Apparo has been working with nonprofits in the Charlotte area for 20 years. The idea for it came from a leadership course whose participants included a Microsoft executive, and heads of the Foundation for the Carolinas and the Lee Institute.
Apparo’s director Kim Lanphear says Apparo and its volunteers first ask a lot of questions such as:
“How are you doing your business? What's well-defined? What's really messy? And, you're just doing things by the seat of your pants? You need to look at that first and fix that.”
There’s a range of help Apparo provides, including hourlong one-on-one sessions, webinars and yearlong workshops.
There are national groups that match volunteers with certain skill sets like technology to organizations needing help. But Lanphear says Apparo functions differently than many — it’s the translator between volunteers used to working with big budgets and a nonprofit where technology is an afterthought and big budgets are often a distant dream.
Lanphear says Apparo employees are “willing to be the dummy in the room” and ask the questions that nonprofits don’t know to ask.
“So that we can really bring it down to language that the nonprofit understands exactly what's being proposed and understands the implications for their organization long term,” she said.
Apparo has begun expanding to other cities — including Raleigh, Greensboro and Atlanta. The pandemic showed the group it can offer its services remotely, too.
There’s a big need for that help now with rising costs, higher demand for services, and a shortage of workers, says Rick Cohen with the National Council of Nonprofits.
“Any help that nonprofits can get in streamlining, in efficiency and cutting costs, that just means more dollars and more time that are able to be dedicated to the people who are coming to that nonprofit for help,” said Cohen.
High-level networking goes to fund help for nonprofits
Apparo’s work, Lanphear says, doesn’t exactly pull on the heartstrings. But it has attracted many companies with connections to the Charlotte area like Lowe’s, Rodgers Builders, Accenture and CapTech Consulting.
A major portion of Apparo’s funding comes from hosting technology forums with chief information officers that businesses can pay to sponsor or send participants to. And all that high-level networking goes to help a group with a very different skill set.
“You were skilled to do the programming, finances, or whatever, but you weren't trained to do IT,” said Leah Rapley, the development director for Profound Gentleman, which mentors male teachers of color.
She and five other nonprofit leaders spoke at a recent gathering concluding a year’s worth of work with Apparo. That work included nearly 50 volunteers contributing 2,500 hours.
Rapley offered advice to the nonprofits about to embark on the same journey:
“Just saying like, ‘Hey, I don't know. Help us out.’ And be OK with having your house looking dirty, because they're here to help you clean it up.”
Her fellow classmates, who work with veterans, recently incarcerated women, students learning science, and small business owners, nodded in agreement.