Students help alumnus seek best software to operate global nonprofit

Thomas Witherspoon holds one of the radios Ears to Our World distributes in developing communities as he meets with Western Carolina University students assisting him with a software selection project.

Thomas Witherspoon holds one of the radios Ears to Our World distributes in developing communities as he meets with Western Carolina University students assisting him with a software selection project.

With Western Carolina University business students analyzing the best software for global nonprofit Ears to Our World, executive director Thomas Witherspoon has more time for tasks directly related to distributing durable, self-powered radios to rural communities in developing countries. In addition, Witherspoon likens the benefits of working on software selection with an information systems class taught by Barbara Jo White, associate professor, to working with a consultant.

“The class is able to undertake a more exhaustive search of options than we have time for, and for that I’m grateful,” said Witherspoon, a 1996 WCU alumnus. “Having a class conduct the system analysis saves easily a month of time that I can devote to our mission work. On any one day I take on multiple jobs, from the most basic of administration and finance to complex logistics entangled with political red tape, all while networking with in-country partners, organizational partners and donors. Moreover, I have to be ready to change direction at any moment to solve problems that inevitably arise.”

Grace Allen, founding member of ETOW’s board and an associate professor of finance who taught Witherspoon, said the project developed after Witherspoon raised concerns about purchasing expensive software that might not fulfill all of ETOW’s current and future needs. The vast majority of ETOW’s donations go to purchasing and distributing radios, which leaves little for administrative expenses, said Allen. Convinced WCU’s College of Business could help, she contacted White.

“Dr. White immediately seized the opportunity to incorporate this into one of her classes, so that ETOW will receive expertise in selecting software, and the students will be learning through engagement,” said Allen, who serves on ETOW’s board with WCU’s Lois Petrovich-Mwaniki, director of International Programs and Services, and Nyaga Mwaniki, associate professor of anthropology. “This collaboration is definitely what we should be doing in higher education – enhancing learning while helping others.”

During the meeting, Witherspoon recently met with White and her students who are, in essence, writing a request for proposal for software to serve ETOW. In addition, the students have divided into small groups and are acting as “vendor teams” that will research, test and then represent different software for ETOW to consider. Each group will respond to the RFP in writing and in a demo at the end of the semester.

Witherspoon answered in-depth questions about ETOW’s processes, such as how he records donations given in person or online and the letters he sends to donors thanking and acknowledging them for their gifts. He discussed the range of documentation needed to be able to deliver radios to teachers and partnership organizations in countries from Belize to the Sudan, including teacher-partnership agreements and radio care instructions.

He also talked about his experience with the software he currently uses. He noted instances in which he must enter data multiple times and abilities he wish the software had, such as being able to have board members in remote locations simultaneously access the software and data.

Alex Samson, a senior from Charlotte majoring in information systems, noted part of ETOW’s challenge was finding software that would easily handle records of non-monetary donations, and Witherspoon concurred. “Our in-kind donations far outweigh our cash donations, and that’s something that probably separates us from a lot of nonprofits,” said Witherspoon.

Chad Hansen, a junior from Charlotte majoring in information systems, asked Witherspoon if he would be open to cloud-based computing. Witherspoon answered that he would if the security issues were handled, and went on to commend the students for asking him about his preferences, indicating understanding customer needs was key to success in business.

The students also are working with Bob Carton, head of the entrepreneurship, sales and marketing, and hospitality and tourism department, and Wendy Cagle, regional center director from the Small Business and Technology Development Center at WCU, to complete the project.

White said she is excited about the experience the project is affording her students. One advantage of working with a nonprofit organization is the ability for students to get experience with expensive software that software companies make available at significant discounts or at no charge to qualifying nonprofit organizations. A license for one that WCU helped ETOW acquire, for instance, was valued at more than $20,000.

White also pointed out that the project is on-target with needs in today’s business world. The advantages of buying solutions and hosted solutions and services, all of which White’s students are evaluating in the project, were discussed at a fall meeting of WCU’s administrative technology advisory committee. White serves on the committee, which has a role in WCU’s information technology governance process.

“The Division of Information Technology cannot afford the time and people required to do customizations, so software as a service is what we need,” said Anna T. McFadden, director of academic engagement and IT Governance Office of the CIO.

McFadden also said that having students develop software requirements and requests for proposals is excellent preparation for the work they will do in the future. To that end, White’s students are using an actual 29-page RFP that WCU issued as a guide on their project.

In addition, White said the project is in line with the forthcoming standards embraced by the accrediting body for colleges of business. Darrell Parker, dean of the College of Business, said that new business accreditation standards focus on innovation, engagement and impact, which plays to WCU’s strengths.

“Our College of Business has a number of engagement projects,” said Parker. “They are a key part of our focus on having graduates who are business-ready.”

White said such projects, including the software selection project, put WCU on the cutting edge. “I’m really proud of what our students can do for real businesses,” she said.