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Charity Begins at Work

Charity Begins at Work

It was an unusual start of a board meeting for the Tuckahoe YMCA in Richmond, Virginia. A roomful of Vietnamese, Indian, Cambodian and African-American children were putting on a skit for their teachers, YMCA officials and some local business executives at an elementary school in a low-income neighborhood.

The adults, winding down from a typical day of tedious business dealings in some of Richmond's largest companies, grinned broadly at the colorful scene and shining faces.

One executive in particular paid close attention. Tom Gmitter was riveted by the animated face of a 12-year-old girl gleefully singing and twirling to the music. Without the after-school program, who knows what she might be up to on the streets right now, he thought. It was an epiphany for Gmitter. He knew that his work as a volunteer was helping the Y enrich the lives of less-fortunate kids, and here was tangible proof: This is what keeps me going day in and day out, he realised.

By day, the soft-spoken 52-year-old is the CIO of Cone Mills , a US$730 million global textile manufacturer in Greensboro, North Carolina. Before and after work, in between family commitments, he's a volunteer. Beyond the satisfaction of helping others, volunteering helps Gmitter weave a little balance into the hectic life of an IT executive. He knew that if you get wrapped up in your job too much, you start to get diminishing returns.

While CIO at Universal Leaf Tobacco in Richmond, a position he held until last May, Gmitter and a group of local CIOs doled out IT strategy and advice to the YMCA-which helps the organisation focus on more pressing matters, like teaching kids how to swim and mentoring teens. He's already signed up to help the Greensboro YMCA as he settles into his new job at Cone Mills. He's not the only busy executive finding a few hours a month to help the local community. Other CIOs of major corporations are sharing their IT and business expertise to help schools, nonprofit organisations and local governments with everything from vendor negotiation, training and recruiting staff to setting IT policy and improving business processes. These are skills that nonprofits sorely need but can ill afford to pay a consultant, contractor or full-time staff to accomplish.

Experienced volunteers can help fill this gap and provide a business focus that nonprofits sometimes lack-but it's not a one-way street. CIOs and their IT staff are discovering a few hidden benefits from volunteering: They're developing ties with other business folks in their communities, honing skills in creative problem-solving and bringing back new perspectives and energy to their full-time jobs.

Why Volunteer?

Like any small business, when nonprofits grow they need networks to link branch offices and systems to keep track of members and donations-but they often haven't a clue where to begin. That's where IT experts can really make a difference. Even well-established national organisations like the American Association of Retired Persons that can afford a dedicated IT staff struggle to meet their needs, says Daniel Corey, director of exempts consulting for Grant Thornton LLP in Vienna, Virginia. Nonprofits have an especially tough time recruiting and retaining good help, since pay for skilled IT professionals is generally less in nonprofits than in the for-profit world, he says.

But there have to be personal reasons for becoming a volunteer: for many CIOs, it satisfies a need for new relationships or cultural exposure they can't get from their day jobs. Gmitter's passion for volunteering began in 1978, when he helped start a chapter of Crime Solvers in Virginia Beach. Years later in Nashville, he got a kick out of teaching a business course one hour a week to a bunch of unruly eighth-graders through Junior Achievement. His employer, Rogers Group, a highway construction company, flew Gmitter to the school in the company helicopter once a semester so that he could use the helicopter as a prop for a class on career planning. "The kids loved it," he laughs. Such experiences are a welcome relief from the structured, conservative world of IT where he has spent the balance of his career.

For Mark Mooney, senior vice president and CTO of Boston-based publishing giant Houghton Mifflin, volunteering is a way to help others avoid the problems he encountered early in his career. When Mooney graduated from the Naval Academy in 1974, he was disturbed that Vietnam vets had little help finding jobs and assimilating back into society. "No one was helping with the transition," Mooney recalls. Later, the young colonel felt the sting of alienation himself when he began interviewing for private-sector jobs after eight years in the Marine Corps.

He grimaces when recounting the time he traveled to Rochester, New York, in the dead of winter for an interview with Eastman Kodak, overdressed in a new suit and lacking a proper coat. Unwittingly, Mooney's attire sent a message loud and clear: This guy is unprepared and unseasoned to enter corporate America.

He didn't get the job-but the humbling experience stayed with him. He's been helping other military personnel prepare for private-sector job interviews ever since. Mooney is part of an informal group of military reserve officers who assist candidates with basic issues like resume preparation, networking, interviewing and salary negotiation. "Military types don't know the rules of engagement," Mooney explains. "They'll wear their black military shoes with a suit." Mooney estimates he's helped 50 military personnel find high-tech jobs in the last 15 years.

Supporting Communities

Bill Friel hates being in the spotlight, and he avoids discussing his own personal experiences as a volunteer. Yet the CIO of The Prudential Insurance Co. of America is the kind of person who jumps through hoops to help the local community. On the urging of Prudential CEO Arthur Ryan, in 1996 Friel helped start the New Jersey chapter of Tech Corps, a national nonprofit organisation founded in 1995 by former Computerworld Publisher Gary Beach (now publisher of CIO) to help primary and secondary schools integrate technology into their curriculum. Since then, he's gone above and beyond the call of duty.

With Friel as chairman, Tech Corps New Jersey is now working with 300 of the state's 600 K-12 schools, providing free training on topics like Lotus Notes and Visual Basic to the schools' technology coordinators at Prudential's internal IT learning lab.

Steven Kehayes, director of technology for the West Orange Public Schools in Essex County, can't say enough about how much the learning lab has helped his four-person staff: "We really felt this was an excellent example of business partnerships in New Jersey." Kehayes' job is to help teachers use technology in the classroom, and provide the networking infrastructure to support it.

"Our biggest problem, like every other school district in the U.S., is a lack of funds," he laments. Kehayes and his staff drop by the lab a few hours a week for self-paced training in topics like Windows NT-education that would have been too costly and time-consuming for the five to pursue otherwise.

Friel also has a knack for getting educators, business leaders, Prudential employees and government folks on the same page to get quick results. In a period of six months, a Cisco Networking Academy program was established in New Jersey to educate high school and college students on networking topics. In the last two years, he's worked with the New Jersey Education Department to establish 21 Educational Technology Training Centers that deliver technology workshops for teachers throughout the state.

Friel spends several hours a month on Tech Corps activities-on top of a demanding job managing eight divisional CIOs, 4,500 employees worldwide and a $1.2 billion annual budget. The "power of people" is what excites the 11-year Prudential veteran. His goal? Ensure that kids from the inner city to the outer suburbs are computer and Internet literate. "What they need is equal access," he pronounces in a serious, no-nonsense tone.

Back in Richmond, the YMCA CIO committee is busy advising the Y on its upcoming national rollout of an in-house-developed ERP. Since 1996, Gmitter and one of his CIO recruits, John Rudin of Reynolds Metals Co., have helped set up networks, upgrade hardware, implement a standard Microsoft desktop and devise new reporting processes for fundraising-which helped the Y increase its contributions by 34 percent at one branch. "Every dollar I can help the Y save that it can spend on outreach is really rewarding," Gmitter says.

Rudin, the easygoing, personable CIO of the world's third-largest aluminum producer and manufacturer of consumer goods like Reynolds Wrap, sees the gold in the mundane problems he tackled at the Y. "People would actually talk about taking a coffee break while waiting for a response [from the Y's sluggish AS/400]," he recalls. With help from a couple of his staff and a few IBM folks, Rudin researched current and future processing demand, resulting in an AS/400 upgrade and an improvement from 20-second to one-second response times. Today batch jobs that used to run in hours take minutes, and employees have witnessed significant productivity increases in terms of transaction processing time.

Journey Johnson, CEO of the Greater Richmond YMCA, likes to talk about the Y's many community programs in Richmond and its history of bringing people of all walks of life together. "Swimsuits are the great equalizer of life," he says, with a jovial Southern twang. But he knows that technology is critical to the Y's long-term plans, and without leaders like Rudin and Gmitter, he figures, the organisation wouldn't have any sort of IT plan. "Overall we have an expanded awareness of what we need to be doing-we're completing our Y2K project, networking all our branches and we have more accurate data reports than ever before." Becoming Better CIOsNeedless to say, volunteering can be hard work for unguaranteed results. Mooney squeezes in meetings with candidates over lunch or by phone late at night after getting the kids to bed, and putting in a 12- to 14-hour day at the office.

Many assignments require a one- to three-year commitment, and depending on your station in life, a mere five hours a month could tip the scales. Gmitter spends an easy 20 hours a month volunteering-which equates to an annual donation of roughly $17,000 based on the average CIO salary of $146,000. When asked how he finds the time to volunteer, Gmitter shrugs: "In my case it was simple, I just made everything fit." Then there are cultural issues. Gmitter had to get accustomed to the Y's prayer session at the beginning of every meeting-which he says he now enjoys. He also knows he must resist the temptation to take charge as the resident IT expert.

"You need to get things done through persuasion as opposed to ordering," he says. "It's kind of like raising kids-there are times when you want to do it for them but that's not right." CIOs may also need to soften their bottom-line approach to management lest they risk offending the organisation. "I'm accustomed to the corporate goal of increasing profit or shareholder value, while the YMCA's goal is helping others and enriching people's lives," Rudin says.

For Rudin, the challenges of volunteering are helping him grow professionally too. He was surprised to find that problems at the YMCA and the Richmond Commission for Re-Engineering City Government, another group he advises, often parallel those at Reynolds Metals. Helping the YMCA resolve its PC support issues by moving to desktop standards gave Rudin new insight into Reynolds' out-of-control IT environment. Every business unit, and sometimes the individual plants, have different systems for common processes like order entry and inventory management: The company is now moving to a single ERP system. "We learned the importance of having a good plan for hardware and software and setting strategic direction and standards," he says.

At the commission, where he advised the city on management restructuring, a streamlined procurement process and a network upgrade, Rudin got the chance to learn about the IT needs of a large service organisation. And since both organisations operate by broad consensus-based decision making, he's polished his skills in consensus-building and communicating proposals to a diverse group of people.

Volunteering also gives CIOs the chance to network with colleagues and other businesses in the community and to convey a good image of their company at the same time. Learning how other organisations operate is useful for any executive searching for best practices, and working within tight budgets in the nonprofit world may help CIOs better manage their own IT spending. But when it comes down to it, all those perks are really the icing on the cake. If you've got the energy and inclination, giving a bit of time-no matter how small-is simply the right thing to do.

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