Students to Provide IT Help to Nonprofits

By Marcia Goodrich | Published

A group of Michigan Tech students will be developing custom software for nonprofit organizations, thanks to a gift from the Herbert H. and Grace A. Dow Foundation.

The foundation is underwriting the five-year, $2.0-million Non-Profit Application Development Initiative, which includes includes $1.2 million for Michigan Tech's School of Business and Economics. The funding will be used by the IT Oxygen Enterprise to develop computer applications for nonprofit groups such as United Way.

Students in MTU's Enterprise program work in teams and take on real-world projects, often on behalf of industry.

The remaining $800,000 of the Dow Foundation grant will be given to the Michigan Molecular Institute, in Midland, which will serve as the liaison between the nonprofit community and Michigan Tech's IT Oxygen Enterprise.

"The students will be developing applications that nonprofits need to run their businesses," said Bob Maatta, a lecturer in the School of Business and Economics and the IT Oxygen advisor. "Nonprofits often don't have the resources to pay for applications, so volunteers fill in. Unfortunately, when volunteers leave and something breaks, there's no one who can fix it."

Students in the project will be paid for their work, and as they graduate, new students will join the Enterprise, providing continuity for the clients.

"They'll be solving real problems for people,"Maatta said. "Eventually, we hope that they will spin off businesses or use it to launch their careers.

"This will be something really different from the traditional classroom," he added. "It will be a real-world experience; when the students are done, they should be able to handle just about any job in the information systems sector."

The Non-Profit Application Development Initiative will tie in with the Michigan Tech SmartZone high-tech economic development effort.

"We hope this will help create more high-tech business in the Copper Country," said Jim Frendewey, associate dean of business and economics. "Our long-term goal is to instill an entrepreneurial spirit in the students, so that some of them will be motivated to start a business of their own."

"The students benefit through the educational and business experience," Frendewey said. " The nonprofits will get affordable, useful technology solutions. And the community benefits through the potential for economic growth."

Students in all majors will be welcome to participate in the project through the IT Oxygen Enterprise. "The project will be managed as a business, so we'll be looking for good managers and communicators, as well as students with technical backgrounds," he said.

While IT Oxygen has provided software development services in the past, the Non-Profit Application Development Initiative takes the Enterprise to another level, Maatta says. "Companies have given us work to do, but it hasn't been at the crux of their operations," he said. "Now we'll be major players within these organizations, and it will be up to us to get it right; there's no safety net.

"Yes, there are some big expectations, but I'm confident we'll be able to do it."

Ed Haycock, manager of information systems at the Michigan Molecular Institute (MMI), is equally confident. "We've been working with Tech students for four years, and they've done a phenomenal job," he said.

Through the Midland Information Technology Consortium, MMI provides information technology services to 33 nonprofit organizations. "They don't have the money to realize their goals, so we share our resources to provide corporate-level services," Haycock said. "One organization had a problem we couldn't solve, but when we referred it to the Michigan Tech students, they solved it."

One potential IT Oxygen project that could benefit nonprofits throughout the state would be to integrate the 211 system, said Haycock, who graduated from Michigan Tech in 1994 with a business administration degree. In some parts of Michigan, callers who dial 211 reach a local operator who can provide information on social services available locally. Unfortunately, local databases do not include service providers from other areas. If the service were broadened, these operators could link those in need with appropriate organizations statewide. "No software can handle that right now," he said. "Ideally, we would have one big database, so an operator could refer someone in Bay City to a nonprofit in Detroit, if that's what they need.

"We think the students at Michigan Tech are capable of that."

The software would be available free to everyone. "Everything that we are developing is open source," Haycock said.

For more information, contact Maatta at 906-487-2529,, or Frendewey, 906-487-2139,

Michigan Technological University is a public research university, home to more than 7,000 students from 60 countries. Founded in 1885, the University offers more than 120 undergraduate and graduate degree programs in science and technology, engineering, forestry, business and economics, health professions, humanities, mathematics, and social sciences. Our campus in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula overlooks the Keweenaw Waterway and is just a few miles from Lake Superior.