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Joel Urbanowicz: "Be willing to be actively engaged"

“There are some really amazing people in our community, many that I’m happy to now call my friends."

May 14, 2019

Welcome to the second 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.

Joel Urbanowicz’s first introduction to NetHope was four years ago through Michael Duggan, who was then with Trócaire and is now Director at Oxfam International. Urbanowicz was about a year into his tenure at Catholic Relief Services (CRS) when Duggan persuaded him into co-presenting a session on information security and privacy at NetHope’s 2015 Global Summit, held that year in Copenhagen.

Urbanowicz, Director of Digital Workplace Services with CRS, fully admits that it was through a bit of self-interest that he first became involved.

“When I started in my position, I didn’t have resources; I was it. Even so, I only had about 20 percent of my time to devote to information security. So really the only way to get anything done was to try to learn from others in the sector, figuring out how to pool my time and resources with others to make something happen.”

As he quickly discovered  at the Summit, NetHope was the catalyst to make those resources of knowledge, expertise, and sometimes funding available under one umbrella. It became apparent very quickly that with severely limited resources, having quick access to these other NGO professionals was key to getting what he needed.

See the first installment in the "I am NetHope" series with HIAS CIO, Rui Lopes.

With previous stints at private sector companies, he knew what information security programs looked like, especially when well resourced. But he soon realized in the NGO sphere, resources were too stretched to provide fully funded privacy plans and the contexts were also quite different.

“It’s one thing to say I’m going to identify and implement a technical security control in Baltimore. It’s completely different to accomplish the same thing in Chad.”

Urbanowicz and Duggan’s information and privacy session at the Copenhagen Summit led to the nascent beginnings of NetHope’s Data Protection and Information Security Working Group. An informal “Tin Foil Hat Club” was formed at a dinner coordinated by Mads Grandt of Norwegian Refugee Council (yes, they jokingly donned foil hats during the event) that spawned the formal group that grew to eventually involve David Goodman, formerly of IRC, who was then CIO-in-residence at NetHope, and engage Mastercard and The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in early iterations of a standardized INGO approach to information security.

“From my perspective, it’s equal parts selfish and altruistic: I am never going to get what I need unless I am actively driving the Working Group’s agenda, or are at least involved in determining what is being worked on. While it’s a good deal of ‘this is what Joel wants’ that leads the way, we also try to ensure it is what many others need as well.”

Urbanowicz is currently stepping back a bit from the leadership role in the group, but he is still actively involved. His motivation for stepping back  is to allow others to create an agenda based on their needs (and becoming a first-time dad!). “If you’re involved, you get to help decide what we work on. But the only way you get to do that is if you’re involved.”

For organizations who are thinking about becoming NetHope members, he offers one explicit piece of advice: If you need something that you think NetHope can provide, join. But be willing to be actively engaged.

“If you’re thinking about launching something or are working on an issue, the chances that at least one of the other 57 members haven’t been there is small. Someone has either failed and can guide you through what not to do or succeeded and can help show you how. In success or failure, you are not alone.”

For Urbanowicz, who celebrated five years with CRS in April, becoming involved with NetHope has been both personally and professionally rewarding. And he stresses that is primarily due to his original “selfish” need. “Truly, I guarantee if you put time into these communities of practices, like Working Groups, you will be able to influence the agenda far more than if you sit on the sidelines. I’m happy because I’m involved, and because I’m involved, we work on things that are relevant and important to my organization.

“There are some really amazing people in our community, many that I’m happy to now call my friends. At the end of the day, people in our community know that a high tide raises all ships and it’s a refreshing and positive community to be around.”

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