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And Bruce Ackley was the man moving all those boxes. He remembers: "When I came to TechSoup in early 1990, my job was to answer phones, help with bulk mailing our newsletter, and … organize our software 'inventory.' Our software donation program then consisted of a few dozen boxes of software stored in a closet."
Bruce is a professional jazz musician, and TechSoup was just a part-time gig back then. He says, "I had co-founded the Rova Saxophone Quartet in 1977, and in the fall of 1989, we'd just returned from a major international tour … and were soon to embark on another tour of Europe. Throughout the 1990s, I ran our software donation program, working the 16 hours a week I was able to dedicate to CompuMentor."
At the time, TechSoup was still called CompuMentor, and our mission was to match tech volunteers to charities who needed tech support.
Since then, TechSoup has connected nonprofits with more than $5.5 billion in technology donations and grants from over 90 corporate and foundation partners. But in the 1990s, TechSoup's donation program was Bruce and his truck.
He recalls, "During the 1990s, I ran the program virtually alone. I did everything: inventory, warehouse maintenance, created and mailed our voluminous catalog, took orders by mail, maintained our database, shipped orders, and ironed out eligibility with nonprofits over the phone. Everything. And I would drive around the entire Bay Area in my pickup truck to get boxes of miscellaneous software and technical books to offer our nonprofits."
TechSoup's founder, Daniel Ben-Horin, started TechSoup as CompuMentor in 1987. Daniel had been a journalist, and he knew that publications often received multiple review copies of software. Once the review was assigned, the extra software would usually just be discarded.
Daniel had a better use for that software.
Bruce elaborates: "Many computer magazines, and other publications like The New York Times, Newsweek, and Time had surplus review software, which they were often sending to the landfill. Daniel contacted old journalistic colleagues to see if they would donate the software to nonprofits through CompuMentor instead. It was a chance for local nonprofits to have low-cost exposure to new software, so we built our inventory, and distributed software for modest handling fees to help to support the program. At that point, the software program was a very small part of our service offerings to nonprofits."
"Daniel Ben-Horin described the software program as 'a mile wide and an inch deep,'" says Bruce. "We had hundreds of titles, but mostly just one or two copies of each. While many participating nonprofits were happy campers, the lack of deep inventory caused frustration for those unable to obtain items they'd requested."
Stephen Brown, who was our mentor matching senior associate at the time (and currently our customized programs associate), concurs:
"In those early years, we all saw the software donation program developing, with all the boxes filling the basement of CompuMentor. ... We carried a lot of strange things. One journalist offered a pile of training manuals for esoteric techie programs — but we decided to accept them. Nobody ever ordered them. The books sat piled in a corner for many months until we recycled them."
Other long-time TechSoup staff members recall that basement clearly. Mary Duffy, who was a CompuMentor senior associate, currently TechSoup Caravan Studios director of field projects, says:
"Bruce and I were roommates in the basement when I came to CompuMentor. We had to be careful those days because if anyone used the toaster oven we would lose power. The space definitely resembled something like a World War II bunker, only it was filled with boxes of software piled to the ceiling instead of K-rations."
Things were about to change. Find out how in part two, Out of the Basement.