In 1989, before the Internet as we know it came into existence, a group of geeks in Chapel Hill foresaw a need to share public information in a meaningful way. They set out to create a digital bulletin board service for the local community. By 1996, RTPNet was providing e-mail, listervs and Web site hosting. Today they serve more than 100 nonprofits and other community organizations in North Carolina.
Judy Hallman was a founding member of RTPNet and has been its executive director for almost 13 years. She started her career providing support for nonprofits after retiring from UNC-Chapel Hill, where she helped introduce the university to the Internet as a documentation and training specialist for campus information systems. Her first job in computing came long before the Web. "I worked on a vacuum tube machine in 1960," she says. In 1967, her first year at the university, she says, "a chemistry professor came in and said, 'What kind of computer do you have, and how do you use it?' Well, there wasn't anything written down. So I was the one assigned to actually start writing some of this stuff down and put it in a form so faculty could use computers." Thirty years later, she was the campus webmaster.
RTPNet's members are educational groups and nonprofits of all stripes—Boy Scout troops, the Triangle Rails to Trails Conservancy, Friends of Dorothea Dix Park, Orange County Literacy Council and the Raleigh Mennonite Church. They pay a modest annual fee (between $60 and $100) that covers the backend; all of RTPNet's work is done by volunteers. Many neighborhood associations take advantage of the services, too, especially e-mail discussion lists (and unlike many free services such as Yahoo! Groups, RTPNet's discussion lists don't contain ads).
Other nonprofits have emerged in recent years to provide technology service to nonprofit groups. To connect those groups, Hallman organized RTPNet conferences (six in all) that drew techies, volunteers and nonprofit leaders from all over the state.
Now that Web hosting services have become cheaper, Hallman isn't sure what the next step is for RTPNet. She's retiring from her leadership position this year, though she plans to continue as an active volunteer. But she does know that the digital divide for nonprofits is still a huge problem. "There are the big nonprofits who have everything and do everything right," she says. "Then there are the ones who don't have the staff and work from volunteers." The latter group is lucky to have even a spreadsheet to manage those volunteers. "A community technology center we worked with a year or two ago was doing all of the volunteers on paper and telephone. They didn't have an e-mail list or anything."
Today, Hallman is focused on returning to her roots to work on emerging, open-source content management software that can help nonprofits do more than just put up a Web site. Some of that software has evolved from Howard Dean's 2004 presidential campaign, which made leaps in organizing volunteers and events online. Drupal is a content management system, and CiviCRM is a constituent relationship management system specifically designed for advocacy groups and nonprofits that need to manage donors and volunteers through their Web sites. Hallman says it will allow conference registration and event management, too.
"Drupal is awesome!" Hallman says. "But the thing that's really exciting is CiviCRM. It's very new. It's the first thing I've been involved in where the software and documentation are being developed by the customers. It is so cool." She says her focus this year is to take one nonprofit and use their needs to learn these systems, recruit volunteers to work on it with her, and create a demo to show what the technology can do.
"I want to learn new things," Hallman says.
For more information, visit rtpnet.org.