TechSoup Global and GuideStar International to merge operations – a marriage of true databases?


Caroline Hartnell


TechSoup Global and GuideStar International (the UK-registered charity and not the US non-profit GuideStar) announce today that they are combining their operations in order to strengthen their respective capacity-building programmes for civil society organizations. The two organizations already share a commitment to a ‘transparent, empowered and connected civil society’. They intend to develop a shared mission to benefit global civil society through the provision of technology, information and resources.

‘This is an important collaboration that will increase investment in and access to critical resources for civil society,’ says Luc Tayart de Borms, Managing Director of the King Baudouin Foundation and Chair of GuideStar International. ‘By combining the strengths of these programs, TechSoup Global and GuideStar International will be able to create synergies and to offer a common proposition to the civil society in many countries.’

How did this come about and what will it mean in practice? I talked to Rebecca Masisak, co-CEO of TechSoup Global, and Buzz Schmidt, GuideStar International founder and president.

How did this come about?
Founded 22 years ago, TechSoup Global (TSG) is the older and larger organization. As Rebecca Masisak puts it, ‘its mission is to ensure that every CSO on the planet has the technology and resources they need to operate at their full potential.’ One of the main ways it achieves this is by providing CSOs with donated technology products and knowledge. TSG currently operates in 32 countries and works with over 40 product donors. In its 22 years, it has donated 4 million hardware and software products to around 110,000 CSOs.

GuideStar International (GSI), established in 2004, today promotes and supports a network of GuideStars in six countries: US, UK, Israel, Korea, Belgium and India, with several more in active development.

Since 2004, then, both TSG and GSI have independently been building networks of in-country CSO partners which deliver localized versions of their CSO capacity-building programmes. Both organizations are involved in data collection, TSG in order to establish which organizations are eligible for product donations, GSI in order to populate their national GuideStars.

The synergies between the two organizations increased in October 2008 when TSG was selected by the Council of Foundations to host the NGO Equivalency Determination (ED) Repository, now known as NGOsource (formal IRS approval of the scheme is still awaited). This will help US-based foundations provide grants to organizations around the world by streamlining the process of qualifying non-US grantees as the equivalents of US public charities. TSG has the capacity to operate NGOsource because of its existing network of partners.

This means that TSG is now generating and presenting information about the work of CSOs for two specific sets of donors, donors of computer hardware and software and American grantmakers, ‘As it’s moved increasingly into this area, it’s begun to realize it’s doing things very similar to GSI,’ says Buzz Schmidt.

Often they will be working with the same national partner. In Belgium, for example, both TSG and GSI are working with SocialWare – and this makes perfect sense. SocialWare is already looking at multiple sources of data. Having checked CSOs’ eligibility for technology donations, it can encourage them to provide data for GuideStar – and soon for NGOsource.

Also, Schmidt points out, both organizations are interested in making life easier for CSOs. ‘So the ability to make it possible for CSOs to input information into one place rather than having to provide it separately for TSG and GSI is a big advantage.’

How will it work in practice?
‘Together we will continue to operate principally through our growing worldwide network of national NGO partners now covering 32 countries,’ says the press release. ‘There will be no disruption to the operation of the existing programs or commitments of either organization.’

As well as continuing a leadership role at GSI, Schmidt will join the TSG board, and work on the strategic plan for the combined operation, while two TSG representatives will join the GSI board. ‘Buzz will be able to conceptually oversee and keep alive the GSI portion of the mission and also think with us about data,’ says Masisak.

Over the next two years, TSG and GSI will increasingly integrate their global and in-country activities and partnerships. Partner relations are likely to be combined quickly, the technology less so. Joint functions like financial control and fundraising will also be combined. A TSG manager is now based in the GSI office in London to help with the integration.

What will GSI bring to TSG?
Masisak and Schmidt both see GSI’s experience and understanding of data and databases as the key benefit for TSG. ‘GSI have been very focused on CSO data; they know what kind of data exists, what the sources are and what the challenges are,’ says Masisak. ‘The challenge for TSG in each country is understanding CSO data, and this is where the GSI expertise will help.’ ‘We can help TSG streamline the process of information provision generally,’ says Schmidt. ‘That’s the fundamental value that GSI brings to the joint proposition.’

A second benefit, says Masisak, is that GSI has been located in Europe for the last few years, which has enabled them to develop more extensive relationships in Europe than TSG has been able to do. ‘GSI can help us strengthen our European presence.’

And what will TSG bring to GSI?
‘TSG brings a very well developed, well managed, resourceful delivery infrastructure and network of relationships with national partners around the world,’ says Schmidt. ‘GSI has its own version of this but at a significantly smaller scale. Developing relationships like this is extremely expensive, so we’re very fortunate to be able to take advantage of TSG’s resources and deliver the GuideStar proposition through this network.’

‘Capacity and sustainability,’ says Masisak. ‘TSG is a much larger organization.’ Also, she points out, GSI has a rather tougher proposition. We have fantastic connections to tech corporations, and they make grants as well as donating products, so TSG can start work in a new country without a lot of fundraising. For GSI it has been a bit harder – there may not be good data sources, and CSOs don’t have the incentive to share information about themselves provided by say a technology product donation. ‘So we can provide an incentive and help to populate GuideStars in different countries.’

What will this look like a year from now?
‘It’s early to be concrete about it,’ says Masisak. Having had a lot of experience with mergers, she emphasizes the importance of ‘seeing the end of the deal as only the beginning of the integration of the work. We need to focus on ensuring a smooth transition, making sure no one takes their eye off the ball in terms of existing commitments to CSOs or funders.’ Also, she says, ‘we need to think strategically about what makes sense before embarking on combining technology platforms or designing new programmes.’

Both Masisak and Schmidt see Europe as an early focus. ‘We’ll start with a focus in Europe and then build out to other regions,’ says Masisak. ‘We’ll hope to engage the hearts and minds of European foundations and other interested philanthropists.’ She sees a key role for SocialWare, the TSG/GSI partner in Belgium, in demonstrating the value of this combination. ‘ We’re very interested in learning from that experience.’ she says.

Schmidt stresses the importance of the various actors understanding what the ‘joint proposition’ offers. ‘I’d like to see the principal decisionmakers in civil society understand the combined proposition and become partners.’

‘We have a network of capacity-building partners – US and European philanthropists, interested individuals, tech activists and corporations plus CSOs. What can we do with this?’ asks Masisak.’ ‘TSG has been a player in the non-profit/charitable infrastructure, GSI more on the philanthropic side. Marrying the two presents great possibilities.’

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