Cosandra Lloyd: Pay it forward, technology donations are a gift worth giving year round

With hundreds of active grants at any time — mostly in Minnesota, but also throughout the U.S. and around the world — McKnight’s staff are often on the go, away from their desks. To keep everyone connected with our computer network, important data resources, and office communications, our IT team deployed and supported a fleet of devices to accompany McKnight’s mobile workers. Likewise, with emerging appreciation for tablet computers’ potential to revolutionize how we access and use information, we experimented in 2011 with distributing tablets to our staff. We hoped for modest savings from more expensive laptop purchases, and also some general savings in paper use and in-house printing costs. But beyond hopes for limited cost-cutting, we also theorized that investing in greater mobile capacity could have a transformative impact on how we work.

loaded car

McKnight IT director Jay Colond’s car, carefully loaded with computers ready for a new home.

Like many organizations, McKnight used to pay by the pound to responsibly recycle old computers and equipment. So whenever we adopt new technological tools, we look for ways to control disposal costs of former devices. Technology donations help us minimize disposal expenses, while adding a “double bottom line” by putting our retired devices into the hands of organizations that will put them to continued good use. With a commitment to making the most of all our resources to serve others, McKnight now has a fairly long (and growing longer!) history of donating laptops and PCs, and now tablets, to nonprofits in need.
In one example a few years back, several board and staff were in Owatonna on a site visit to the Southern Minnesota Initiative Foundation, one of six geographically focused initiative foundations established by McKnight and others in the mid-1980s. The group spent time with lots of nonprofits receiving funding through the Southern MIF, including the Somali American Cultural Society of Owatonna which provides training, services, and educational support to empower Somali Americans to play active community and business roles in the region. Although inspired by the group’s commitment and vision, McKnight’s visitors noted the Cultural Society’s very limited computer system and felt sure the immigrant community they serve could benefit greatly from better access to technology. So when we next upgraded McKnight’s PCs, my colleague Jay Colond and I drove a carload of computers to Owatonna! Rather than paying to recycle McKnight’s used desktops and laptops, we repurposed them and helped an important organization in Greater Minnesota take a leap forward in the services they are able to provide.

In a follow-up letter, the Cultural Society’s president Ibrahim Hussein reported:

The computers you donated are now used by 35 K-12 students for their homework four days a week and 15 adult students for computer training three days a week. [The remaining] computers get used consistently and they are an integral part of the services we provide. I can’t express in words how those computers change the lives of so many students who do not have internet access (or even computers) within their homes. Most of the students we do help are from low-income families. Students, parents, and teachers are reporting a higher rate of homework completion and a feeling of confidence growing in their ability to be successful and active members within the educational, social, and employment realms of Owatonna.

More recently, our multiyear experiment with tablet computers saw positive results. When we moved on to newer models, McKnight donated several of our first round of tablets to three organizations with goals to put them to continued good use:

  • MN Online High School is a State-approved and tuition-free high school for Minnesota residents age 20 or younger. Since 2005, MNHS has provided online learning for students in grades 9 through 12. MNHS teachers will use McKnight’s donated tablets to develop and implement curriculums around science, technology, engineering, and math.
  • For the past 15 years, PCs for People has worked to close the digital divide by providing affordable computer services to people with limited technological experience due to social, physical, or economic circumstances. For a small donation, the organization provides refurbished personal computers, repairs, training, and internet service.
  • People Serving People is the largest family-focused shelter in Minnesota. Homeless families receive a broad range of onsite programs and services, and 61% of guests are children age 18 or younger. McKnight’s donated tablets will be used in the program’s afterschool tutoring program, using educational apps (rather than printed materials) to engage 15 to 30 students every evening.
Helping set up the new computers at the Somali American Cultural Society of Owatonna.

Helping set up the new computers at the Somali American Cultural Society of Owatonna.

It’s worth noting that there are important information security issues to consider when donating computers, as well as various donation-related tax issues for the recipient organization. Every situation is unique, and groups like PCs for People can be especially useful resources for sorting out the challenges and the paperwork, so everyone is better freed up to concentrate on the happy business of “paying it forward.”

McKnight donates used technology, office equipment, furniture, and more because we recognize that we are stewards of a whole range of resources to be used for the benefit of others. And as an added personal bonus, our donations of computers and electronics have allowed my little two-person IT team to participate in very tangible ways in McKnight’s ongoing efforts to use our resources to attend, unite, and empower those we serve, in all kinds of important ways.

At this time of year, we celebrate the power of giving. Themes of giving selflessly and helping others are all around us. But such powerful themes are worth keeping in mind all year round. Every day, beyond writing a check or providing a direct service, there are so many ways to make lives better.

Definitely worth thinking twice before throwing away any tool that might change a life in someone else’s hands.


CDL_mck0048_cCosandra Lloyd
Information Technology Associate