Paul-Brian McInerney, PhD
February and March are busy months for me. I should be answering my email or at least attempting to get my inbox down to zero. Instead, I dip into the NpTech Tag Stream and notice this post from NTEN about a new book about nonprofits and technology. A few days ago, I got a ping from Deborah Finn via a social bookmarking service with a pointer to the same book - "Nonprofits and Technology: Emerging Research for Usable Knowledge"
One of the chapters is called "Geeks for Good: Technology Evangelism and the Role of Circuit Riders in
IT Adoption among Nonprofits" by Paul-Brian McInerney (who is an editor for the forthcoming NTEN and Gilbert Center "Journal for ICT in Social Change Organizations). I met him in 2002 in Orlando at the NTC Conference when he was just beginning to do that research and had a great conversation with him a bar in downtown Orlando.
You can find the chapter he wrote online here which has made me more determined to obtain a copy of that book! (Authors will be at NTC) It strikes me that the circuit rider is somewhat similar to what Nancy White talks about in terms of technology stewards. Here's the definition given the chapter:
Circuit riders travel throughout regions of the United States and parts of Europe providing technology assistance to nonprofit organizations. As one organization providing such services defines the group: “Circuit Riders are a community of people with technology skills who help nonprofit organizations be more effective through the use of technology. We share a spirit of generosity towards each other and a commitment to social justice, a healthy environment and human dignity. We hold a fundamental belief that technology and all of its benefits must be made available to everyone” (MediaJumpStart, 2002).
The paper traces the history of nonprofit technology circuit riding and includes lots of the history from Gavin Clabaugh. (In fact, I recently unearthed the documentary that was made in 2000 and you can see and hear Gavin talk about it)
Circuit riders occupy space among several institutions: the nonprofit sector, the philanthropy, and the technology industry. As such, they protect nonprofit organizations from the cutthroat practices of for-profit consulting firms and the unnerving pace of technology change. In doing so however, they have also faced constraints and demands on their way of doing technology assistance. As the field has grown, it has had to tone down its some of its progressive ideology and adopt the language of capacity building, which is less threatening to foundations and potential corporate funders. They have also had to adopt more professional practices, such as developing a trade association, a move that signals the legitimacy of their field and attracts external funding (Abbott, 1988; Greenwood et al., 2002).
The circuit rider model was created to solve the three problems outlined above: nonprofits’ uneasiness about IT; a lack of foundation support; and a lack of resources and expertise. It grew and survived through the institutional entrepreneurship of people like Gavin Clabaugh, who 19 connected the model to foundation programs, and Rob Stuart, who organized the circuit ridersinto a bounded field.
Following changes in the nonprofit sector, the future of circuit riding is unclear. For now, circuit riders continue to service the technology needs of nonprofits in lowresource environments. Their ability to continue doing so is threatened by competition for resources and legitimacy from other models of technology assistance to the nonprofit sector, like commercial NTAPs and for-profit consulting firms. Recently, smaller movements within the circuit rider community have been advocating for free/open source software as a strategy of fending off the influx of corporate firms and proprietary technology solutions into the sector. Though the move appears to have great promise, it is too early to tell if this strategy will be successful and circuit riding will thrive once again.