July 12, 2001
Helping environmental groups to get wired
By BRAD BROBERG
Special to the Journal
In a world commanded increasingly by computers, serendipity still pushes a few buttons.
At least that’s what helped lead a former Microsoft executive down a new — and greener — path.
Gideon Rosenblatt — who during his 10 years at Microsoft founded and managed CarPoint, the world’s largest online automotive marketplace — recently became executive director of ONE/Northwest.
Founded in 1995, ONE/Northwest (Online Networking for the Environment) labors behind the scenes of the environmental movement to bring technology — with an emphasis on the Internet — to the region’s green community.
“I see incredible potential for using the Internet as a tool to link these environmental groups with the public,” says Rosenblatt, who joined the nonprofit agency in March. “That’s the reason I came here.”
At Microsoft, Rosenblatt was responsible for as many as 35 employees. Now, he leads a staff of eight. Nevertheless, the relatively small and unknown ONE/Northwest has become an important resource for hundreds of technology-challenged environmental groups.
Over the years, it has provided both free and discounted services to more than 500 groups, doing everything from training employees to creating Web sites to building networks.
“A lot of traditional consultants are beyond the means of these groups,” says Rosenblatt. “They don’t need the latest and greatest and the most expensive solutions out there. We have a lot of expertise knowing what they need.”
Paul Brainerd, founder of Aldus Corp. and developer of PageMaker, planted the seed for ONE/Northwest when he created the Brainerd Foundation to help safeguard the region’s environment and build public support for environmental protection.
Together with the Bullitt Foundation, the Brainerd Foundation commissioned a study which found that the advances in electronic communication sweeping business, government and education were not filtering down to the environmental community. According to the study, most conservation organizations lacked both the equipment and expertise to benefit from new technology.
In response, the two foundations supplied the seed money to launch ONE/Northwest. The organization, which is headquartered in Seattle and has a field office in Anchorage, serves Washington, Oregon, Alaska, Idaho and British Columbia.
Rosenblatt’s road to ONE/Northwest began when he took a sabbatical from Microsoft last year. Besides traveling with his family, he spent time pondering what he wanted to do when he returned to work.
Eventually, he visited a career counselor. Rosenblatt, 37, recalls the counselor telling him, “I’ve seen lots of guys like you.” Her point?
Rosenblatt and others like him are drawn into the corporate world by opportunities to work on the cutting edge, but deep down they want their work to make a difference beyond the bottom line.
Although he never considered himself an “environmentalist,” Rosenblatt always enjoyed the outdoors. Plus his taste in reading ran to books about science, especially biology. As Rosenblatt continued to visit the career counselor, “environmental stuff kept popping up as a strong element,” he recalls.
When his sabbatical ended, Rosenblatt returned to Microsoft intending to work there two more years before launching a new career. As it turned out, he spent only two more months in Redmond.
Shortly after rejoining Microsoft, Rosenblatt connected with ONE/Northwest through his participation in another Brainerd project — Social Venture Partners. Patterned after typical venture capital funds, Social Venture Partners gathers money from members and awards it to nonprofit agencies that support children, education and the environment. What’s more, members offer personal assistance to the nonprofits the same way that VCs assist the companies they invest in.
When ONE/Northwest sought Social Venture Partner funding, Rosenblatt met with the organization’s staff. Their mission and passion “blew me away,” he recalls. Coincidentally, the organization was looking for a new executive director.
“All these lights went off in my head,” says Rosenblatt, who applied for — and got — the job.
“It was partly a serendipitous thing, but it also was a very deliberate decision about where I could help the most,” he says.
Rosenblatt’s arrival came as ONE/Northwest was making a transition. Most of the organization’s clients are small groups with tight budgets. As a result, ONE/Northwest’s first task was to help them acquire and master the nuts and bolts of technology. Now, with their infrastructures up to speed, ONE/Northwest can help them hone strategies to use technology as a tool to advance their agendas.
“The infrastructure part of our work is never going to go away completely,” says Rosenblatt. “Managing that stuff is hard for people, so that will always be there. But now we can work at a more strategic level to help these groups communicate with the public.
“The environment is best protected when local communities are informed and involved. That’s where you get long-term, sustained protection for the environment.”
Case in point: http://www.extinctionsucks.org. Developed by ONE/Northwest for the BC Endangered Species Coalition, the Web-based system generated thousands of faxes supporting legislation protecting endangered species in British Columbia.
Another example: the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council. ONE/Northwest helped the council upgrade its computer system, networking the machines and giving every staff member e-mail and Internet access. This dramatically improved the council’s ability to communicate with constituents in a far-flung region.
Besides assisting individual organizations, ONE/Northwest is a clearinghouse for information important to all of them. The agency’s Web site (http://www.onenw.org) contains extensive advice on how to use online communication tools to protect the environment. It also provides contact information and offers links to numerous environmental organizations.
In addition, ONE/Northwest hosts more than 500 e-mail lists. When any member of a list sends a message to the address of that list, everyone on that list automatically receives the e-mail message. Collectively, e-mail lists hosted by ONE/Northwest connect to more than 30,000 concerned citizens.
One of Rosenblatt’s goals is to diversify ONE/Northwest’s funding sources.
So far, the agency’s $600,000 annual budget has relied heavily on grants from the Brainerd, Bullitt and Wilburforce foundations.
“A big part of my job is to figure out how to get more support from individual donors out in the community,” says Rosenblatt, noting that at some point it may make sense to create a marketing position.
“The public doesn’t know much at all about ONE/Northwest,” says Rosenblatt.
“That used to be fine, but you need to get the word out to raise money and to make sure that all of the organizations that could be served by us are served by us.”
Brad Broberg is a Seattle-area freelance writer for the Daily Journal of Commerce.
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