Welcome to the first in a series of profiles of NetHope members and partners entitled ‘I am NetHope.’ These individuals represent a broad spectrum of our member organizations, tech partners, and funders. They demonstrate the collaborative spirit that was the founding principal of NetHope 18 years ago, and continues today. They reinforce the concept that we are better together and that when it comes to NetHope you get what you give.
Our first installment is an interview with Rui Lopes, CIO of HIAS, who was a part of NetHope’s genesis. He shares his perspective on how an organization can individually benefit, as well as push the needle forward for all NGOs, through active involvement and participation in NetHope.
The old chestnut that necessity is the mother of invention is perhaps no more appropriately applied than to nonprofit organizations. And perhaps no one recognizes this more than the CIOs and CTOs serving global nonprofits. These individuals play critical roles in making the world a better place. While contending with tight tech budgets, they must work with both passion and creativity to advance their organizational missions.
HIAS is a global nonprofit that works with refugee protection, resettlement, and support functions. As its CIO, Rui Lopes knows the challenges firsthand of keeping current with the technology that enables HIAS to help hundreds of thousands of refugees across more than 12 countries. Lopes discovered early on in his career that the collective action of nonprofits with the private sector is key to making this happen. And this is exemplified, for him, in the collaboration of nonprofits through the vehicle of NetHope.
“When NetHope first started,” says Lopes, “(its) brilliance was that NetHope was a consortium of nonprofit members and those members, to a large degree, had a common problem set. NetHope gathered these nonprofits, realizing the power of getting them to work with each other and pitching in and collaborating, like ‘Hey, you use my project manager and I’ll get you my engineer.’ It was these types of exchanges and collaborative work with members that was significant from the outset.”
Lopes should know, as he was present nearly from NetHope’s inception, working with his former boss at Save the Children, Edward Happ, as the initial seed of NetHope germinated.
“Collaboration was the basic DNA for NetHope,” said NetHope Co-founder Edward Happ during a 2018 interview. When he and Co-founder Dipak Basu gathered around Basu’s kitchen table in Saratoga, California, 18 years ago, it was evident from the start that a collective of nonprofits coordinating and collaborating with one another, in conjunction with private sector tech, was the key to accomplishing their missions, cutting costs, infusing knowledge among the organizations, and working on similar needs and projects. “The concept being that we’re better together. Part of the reason that works is because we all were facing significant scarcity and because technology was very underfunded in nonprofit organizations,” Happ recounted.
That underfunding prompts both Happ and Lopes to jokingly refer to nonprofits as “beggars”; but this isn’t the disparaging term one might expect. “It’s part of my job as a CIO to beg,” acknowledges Lopes. “People laugh, but…it is my job to beg Microsoft, to beg Cisco, to beg Adobe, to beg whomever I need to (accomplish our work). But that doesn’t mean we don’t put skin in the game.”
“My job is to find ways to reduce the tab, reduce the cost so that I can help the organization be effective and efficient, and use technology in the optimal way. And, when you look at it from that perspective, NetHope is a vehicle that helps.” With several dozen organizations going to a particular corporation with similar needs for tech products or services, a shared approach is where NetHope has value, Lopes states.
“(It was) what eventually became the nascent NetHope membership that really started to realize, ‘Wow, as a collective, we can do lots of stuff and lots of us have a lot of different interests.’ But time and resources were both in short supply and it was that realization that a single organizing body was necessary to lead the charge.”
Lopes concedes that as new organizations joined and NetHope grew, the basic tenet of a collective body for involved collaboration was sometimes muddied or lost. That passion and collaborative power is hard to put a value on.
Lopes explains, “To paraphrase the John F. Kennedy quote, ‘Ask not what NetHope can do for you, ask what you can do for NetHope,’ is my first thought, but perhaps some members weren’t as attuned to this as they should be.” Yet this concept of collaboration is the basic unifying principle of NetHope.
“I maintain,” Lopes said steadfastly, “that you can’t come into the NetHope organization and have all these expectations of ‘give to me.’ This is a collaborative. You must find ways of also helping, helping the cause because then everybody benefits. If we collaborate, we now have a wider spectrum of offerings and things to participate in. You can’t go into it thinking, ‘Well, what am I getting from NetHope? What deal am I getting?’ It should be, what can I give to NetHope that helps the overall collective knowing that, ultimately, that helps me.”
As NetHope matures, its focus is also expanding as it delves into helping nonprofits realize the benefits of working toward digital transformation.
“HIAS was blessed to be in the pilot of the initial five NetHope members going through the Dream process,” noted Lopes. HIAS and other members realized the opportunity that this planning process could bring to organizations, bringing in their key leadership to actively “dream” of how they could transform their organizations into fully formed digital and data-driven organizations. To Lopes, it seemed a natural progression to have NetHope play a role in figuring out how to support and grow this drive toward continuous improvement that would reap more impact back to the membership organizations.
When someone asks Lopes what is NetHope, he generally responds, “I am NetHope, because I participate and help others.”
“I am helping by participating,” he emphasizes. “I participate in membership. I participate in a Working Group. I participate in North America Chapter meetings. If a member says ‘Hey, you guys are using this tool. Can you help me to understand that tool? Because we’re thinking of doing the same,’ then I am here to help them.” He stresses that even as NetHope is a self-standing organization, NetHope is more of a concept than just an organization. “It’s not an ‘us and them’ proposition. That’s a message that I think people sometimes lose sight of because we have such great NetHope staff,” he says.
“We are here to help, support, and work with one another because ultimately, we are working toward the same common end. But it all begins with ‘I am NetHope.’