In 1998, Mankato-based social worker Andrew Elofson crossed paths with a troubled teen who had just hacked into his school’s computer system to give himself straight As.
Instead of eliminating the teenager’s access to technology, Elofson convinced Blue Earth County to donate a computer to him and with help from Elofson’s connections, the teen hacker began programming websites for local nonprofit organizations just as the Internet was in its infancy. As a result of Eloson’s success, Blue Earth County eventually donated 30 more computers in all and PCs for People was born.
“The PCs for People operation is simple,” says Executive Director Casey Sorensen. “We procure computer donations, refurbish them and distribute them to low-income families.” Recipients must be at or below the 150 percent federal poverty line (FPL) or currently enrolled in a government assistance program (i.e. Head Start, Medicaid, or other qualifying state and federal programs). “80 percent of the program’s beneficiaries never owned a computer,” says Sorenson. “And a high percentage of the PC donations come from companies with 50-300 employees.”
After just a little under 12 years, PCs for People has distributed over 5,000 computers, provided over 1,440 hours of phone-based technical assistance, reused over 175 tons of e-waste and expanded its program to St. Paul, Minn. and Houston, Texas. And all of this was made possible via word of mouth and a little ingenuity. “Our biggest problem is finding computers,” says MN Intelligent Rural Communities (MIRC) Program Director Sam Drong. At one point the waiting list reached 1,000 people.
In April of 2010, the Blandin Foundation, Minnesota’s largest rural-based and rural-focused foundation, took interest and awarded PCs for People a MIRC grant to spread their program to rural communities. So far, the program has brought computers to 11 rural Minnesotan communities with five pushing to make it a lasting and sustainable partnership. Drong hopes to expand their success even farther across the state, and eventually, across the nation.
The repair team that refurbishes the computers is an additional positive influence. It’s made up completely of volunteers, including high school students, college interns and transitional workers gaining job skills training.
This type of effective self-sustaining social enterprise is becoming more prevalent in the current decade than ever before. Leading social entrepreneurship educator and Ashoka founder Bill Drayton coins this emerging group “the citizen sector” in his latest Harvard Business School article. Drayton then calls for companies to create hybrid value chains by joining with citizen sector organizations, organizations like PCs for People.
If you or your company would like to donate one or more computers, visit www.pcsforpeople.com/donate.