Free Computers For The Community
July 8, 2005 12:27 PM   Subscribe

Givin' Back To The Community Filter: I'm working on starting a non-profit, donation based, free computers for low income families and community organizations in the immediate vicinity of Missoula, MT. How do I get started?

I have a few specific questions, coupled with some very broad ones:

Non-Profit Status: Is it worth it? I know that as a non-profit, all donations will be tax-deductible, which in turn will dramatically increase the quantity and quality of donations. But I've also heard that getting non-profit status is ridiculously difficult and expensive. Is it going to be worth my time?

Prioritizing: I can imagine that there would be more people wanting a computer than the number of complete systems coming in; How do I prioritize who gets what available without being too invasive?

Software: After doing alot of looking around, I've settled on Ubuntu Linux as the primary OS, partly because I really like their philosophy, partly because it's a slick-ass OS, but mostly because it's free. Any other suggestions out there? As a side note, can people in the community "donate" licenses for Windows in the event someone NEEDS a Win OS?

Donations: Inevitably, I'm going to need a least a bit of cash to keep things running, help pay rent for a workspace (further down the road), bandwidth costs, etc.. Of course we'll take straight donations, but I was also considering doing repairs and tech support on a sliding-scale donation basis; In return for our help, you donate whatever you can afford, be it nothing or $100. Is this a reasonable way to fund raise? If I start taking donations, am I going to have to worry about taxes, getting an accountant, and all that kind of mess? I'd like to keep this as simple as possible, so if these things can be avoided, all the better.

I'm a college student with very limited resources, but I'd REALLY like to make this happen. As simply and reasonably as possible. Does anyone out there have an experience with anything similar? Is it even a feasible idea? I'm still very much in the planning stages, so any advice that would be at all applicable it would be greatly appreciated.

And for all you creative folks - What would be an appropriate, unique, and inspired name for this org?
posted by rabble to Computers & Internet (12 answers total)
If you choose to "do" windows, note that unless you are willing to fork out $$$ per computer, Microsoft does prosecute charitable organizations and those they donate to for giving away copies of their OSes that are incredibly out of date.

Basically, yes, looking at linux is right, because then you won't have Bill Gates trying to steal the last bite of bread from the childrens' mouths.
posted by shepd at 12:45 PM on July 8, 2005

Freegeek used to have a page on how to setup a system like this, but I cannot find it any longer. Give them a call or shoot them an email, and they'll provide you with a wealth of information.
posted by pwb503 at 12:46 PM on July 8, 2005

You might try to talk to someone at Free Geek (in Portland). I'm sure that they have a lot of experience with these questions and they might be willing to share their insights. Good luck - it sounds like a great project.
posted by Staggering Jack at 12:50 PM on July 8, 2005

There's a list of groups doing similar work here that might be useful.
posted by Otis at 12:53 PM on July 8, 2005

Another vote for talking to freegeek. When I replace computer stuff for clients, I usually take the old stuff there.
posted by SpecialK at 1:08 PM on July 8, 2005

More on Free Geek: there have been other Free Geeks that have popped up based on the Portland model -- Pennsylvania comes to mind -- and Portland has been known to offer them good advice. So yes, check with them. Specifically, I would try talking with Ron Braithwaite. He doesn't work at Free Geek anymore, but helped run things there for a few years, and is chock full of great ideas and is an eager-to-please, affable fellow. It would be worth tracking him down . . . he's out on the web somewhere.

Free Geek uses a Debian distro on their donated computers, and they have it down to a science. One of their biggest programs is teaching people how to build their own computers from donated parts (386 and 486 pIIs and pIIIs mostly), which they then get to keep at the end. This is a great model, as people become more self-sufficient, they invest in the computers through time (and thus are more likely to use them), it lightens Free Geek's load, and establishes an order for who receives what, when. Free Geek also relies heavily on volunteers, many of whom have been donating time for years. It will pay for you to find geeks in your area to help out.

In terms of actually registering as a 501(c)(3), it's neither horribly difficult nor expensive. State-to-state things differ a bit, but on the federal level, you pretty much fill out a form for tax-exempt status, and cross your fingers. There are plenty of internet resources out there to help.

One thing to know: an individual can't become a non-profit. Form a board and incorporate before you file for tax-exempt status.

Money-wise, even if you aren't paying taxes (many 501(c)(3)s don't pay anything), you'll still have to report to the IRS every year on your income and expenditures--the information becomes public record. So at the least, learn quickbooks (or its open-source equivalent).

Good luck.
posted by kables at 2:09 PM on July 8, 2005

There is nothing wrong with charging for services as long as it is for the benefit of the corporation--you could even reimburse yourself for real expenses and pay your self a salary but it does require accurate book keeping and well drawn articles of incorporation--BTW--I am not in anyway recommending you take a salary as that can be a slippery slope and fraught with legal and ethical problems--what ever you do you should incorporate and establish a tax exempt status--it is also very prudent to have an independent "Board of Trustee" to assure the charitable mission and insulate you from potential conflicts--remember--no good deed goes unpunished but long term karma will prevail--do your homework, do it right and enjoy the true gift of giving
posted by rmhsinc at 2:42 PM on July 8, 2005

There is a non-profit org in St. Louis that does this - they take pretty much any electronic equipment, they use what they can and recycle what they can't. They supply computers to low-income families (or anyone who wants one) in exchange for community service work. They have recently been through a break-in at their facility and a fire, and are still going strong. I volunteered at their event for Earth Day this year, and we filled I think five full-size tractor-trailers with donated electronics. The director should be an excellent resource for tips and help - if she can find some free time. The web address is
posted by attercoppe at 6:00 PM on July 8, 2005

TechSoup, and The Nonprofit Good Practice Guide are very good resources.
posted by mlis at 7:51 PM on July 8, 2005

How do I prioritize who gets what available without being too invasive?

Outsource this. Seriously. For computers for individuals, find a non-profit (community) group that helps teenagers or families or whatever your ideal user is (Boys and Girls Club, emergency loan organization, whatever), and (ideally) does some income screening already. Let them provide you with a (list (a short one at first - don't overpromise). You get credibility (you can obviously use their name), they get computers for their clients. As you build capacity, you can add a second, third, etc., group, if necessary.

For computers for organizations, you might see if the United Way (Chamber of Commerce? Rotary Club?) would make recommendations.

On a different subject: while you may see an optional (sliding scale) payment for repair services as a "donation", the IRS most definitely will not. This is a fee for service, and you're running a small business if any of the money goes for your personal expenses, or into your personal bank account. The people who pay you aren't entitled to a tax deduction for their payment, and you're not entitled to compensate yourself in any way without reporting that as income to the IRS. [Which means, among other things, that you want to keep a separate bank account.]
posted by WestCoaster at 9:11 PM on July 8, 2005

The Digital Divide Network is key -- please send this message to them as well and you'll find lots of good ideas.
posted by k8t at 7:10 AM on July 9, 2005

If you accept donations in cash, you risk running afoul of the IRS; that's why you need a lawyer to help you understand the varieties of non- and not-for- profit status. If possible, find a non-profit organization to take you under its wing, like the United Way, or a Neighborhood organization. They can help with the administrative work, so you can do the geek work. The United Way where I live does startup grants and provides technical assistance.

Consider charging to accept pcs (on preview, I see that Free Geek does this). Where I work, we have to pay to discard pcs - right now anything less than a PIII. The schools won't accept them.

Microsoft says that its licenses are not transferable, so even if a machine is tagged with a Windows license label, you can't reload it. Microsoft really, really sucks.

This is an excellent idea on many levels, so don't give up.
posted by theora55 at 1:45 PM on July 9, 2005 [1 favorite]

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