Susan Tenby has been working at CompuMentor for more than six years. Currently the Online Community Manager for TechSoup, she was part of the original launch team for the Techsoup, a one-stop resource for nonprofit technology needs including free information, resources, and support.
For three months, Susan Tenby and two other colleagues responsible for preparing content for the TechSoup launch, lived on candy. "It was a very daunting prospect, but we managed to do it."
Before CompuMentor, she worked for a medical library at the San Francisco General Hospital where her job responsibilities included conducting Medline searches for patients and doctors. An accomplished web researcher, Tenby notes, "not everyone could search the Web in 1999. These were the early or maybe even pre-Google days on the Web. I was also in a graduate program in Literature and so they trusted that I could research and write from my experience with my Master’s Program."
Today as the Online Community Manager, Tenby oversees the community forums and works with editorial team. She is also exploring how nonprofits can use Second Life, a multiplayer community on the Web. TechSoup has set up a virtual office in Second Life and earlier this month hosted a mixed-reality event showcasing a new nonprofit directory.
She was introduced to Second Life 18 months ago as a focus group participant for Linden Labs, the developers of Second Life. "I went to their slick offices (very dot com, with video games and free snacks) and I sat in front of a screen and was told to just start moving around. I had a difficult time understanding what the point was. This was mainly because I wasn’t able to conceive of Second Life as anything more than a game. Even though I didn’t really understand it, I walked away totally transfixed and I found myself talking about Second Life to my friends."
She didn't become aware any "serious" uses until six months later when she mentioned Second Life to good friend in LA, Tom Maroney (“Frank Foley” in SL), and they decided to revisit the virtual world. "After spending several initial hours shopping, gambling and going to movies, I wondered if there were any nonprofits. I searched around the site and found some."
This discovery made her curious about what role, if any, TechSoup might play in Second Life. "I knew that we could be a provider of a network of organizations to meet and collaborate in SL. I knew that we had the experience procuring and organizing volunteers. I also knew that someone needed to create the comprehensive directory or resource listing of nonprofits in SL and that we were probably the only ones who were going to do this, at least at this point. "
She started to talk about Second Life with her colleagues at CompuMentor and soon discovered that there was a session scheduled at the netsquared conference featuring the American Cancer Society's work in Second Life (which recently raised $40,000 USD for the Realy for Second Life) called "
Real Philanthropy in a Virtual World at the Net Squared conference. "I had a couple conversations with Robin Linden, and she had been thinking that there needed to be a more organized nonprofit presence in SL. A serendipitous match."
After the session, Marnie Webb, the Vice President of knowledge Services at CompuMentor, asked Susan to lead a "Make-it-Happen" break out session on SL. "I co-led this session with James “Hamlet” Au, and apparently, it was a hit. People were very interested in what they could do with SL, and I was happy to get them started and help them join the Tech Soup Group."
Prior to the conference, she attended a nonprofit fair in Second Life. The Library Alliance on Information Island offered Susan a parcel of land for TechSoup to get started. Soon after she and Tom walked around in world evangelizing nonprofits and meeting SL members who were interested in philanthropy in-world and the enthusiasm spread like wildfire. Notes Susan, "At first I felt like a nonprofit technology door-to-door salesperson, but soon we had created a buzz and we were ready to call a meeting. "
Notes Susan, "We set some initial goals to achieve before the NetSquared conference (building the space, creating a notecard with information on it about what we are doing and who we are, creating a google group to discuss our plans with the group, etc. We were actually achieving our goals (thanks to the many volunteers that were hard at work) and we had a space ready to demo during the conference."
Susan's colleagues at TechSoup have been very supportive of her enthusiasm about this project. "I started the entire project with an email to a large group of my colleagues with the title 'A wild-assed idea that I actually believe in' and now I think it’s not an unconventional idea at all." More CompuMentor staff members joined the group and with the help of volunteers, they are at the beginning stages of realizing what can be done with this platform.
The reaction in the nonprofit space has been mixed. "On the one hand, some people are very turned off by the SL project and feels it is a silly game and a waste of their time. On the other hand, other people very excited to join the TechSoup group and help us discover the options. You can see the varying opinions in the TechSoup discussion about SL and on a similar thread at the Omidyar Network. "
The virtual TechSoup office is designed as an outdoor or transparent space. Susan described the design philosophy as both practical and metaphoric. "We wanted the space to convey transparency and an attitude that was barrier-free. We didn’t want to prevent people from walking by and seeing what was going on and make impromptu introductions."
The open space design is also user-friendly, particularly for newbies because they tend to have the unsettling experince of bumping into walls and slamming into doors. "We didn’t want barriers." Susan goes on to say, "Let’s face it, in a world where you can resemble or be whomever you want, where you don’t need to eat or sleep and where you can fly, why would you want to go to a meeting in a veritable simulacra of a real-world office?"
Susan sees many possibilities for nonprofits, including building awareness, fundraising, and networking. "I see the most significant benefit to Second Life as being a collaboration space. We are getting 1000+ visitors a day in the TechSoup virtual office space and we consistently have 20-30 members show up for our weekly meetings."
Any advice for nonprofits who are interested in exploring the TechSoup virtual office space? "We welcome newbies and we have many of them coming by our weekly Friday Morning (8:30am PST) meetings. Don’t let your inhibitions prevent you from joining. Get yourself signed up and don’t worry about not being able to move well or what you look like. Those are small, technical kinks that you will learn to work out as you go." She recommends taking some of the newbie classes and exploring different spaces and groups.
"Come and find me too, or drop your notecard in the red postbox in the TechSoup space."