by Lauren Capotosto

CIOs and Non Profits: How to Beg, Borrow and Twist Arms for a Good Cause

Oct 01, 200111 mins
IT Leadership

Fourteen-month-old Anna (not her real name) was kidnapped from her San Diego home early one morning in 1990. Sixty police officers searched door-to-door, aided by dogs and helicopters. They turned up no trace of the little girl.

Seven years later, police in Puerto Rico arrested a woman for child abuse. Questioned about the girl she claimed was her daughter, the woman produced a fake birth certificate. That led police to check the online database maintained by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) in Alexandria, Va. There they found a photo of Anna, and even though it was 7 years old, police recognized a birthmark on her face. DNA testing later proved that they had finally found the missing girl.

Credit for cracking this case can be shared by IT?and by Rick Minicucci, CTO of NCMEC. Since coming to the 17-year-old organization in 1996, Minicucci has helped transform the nonprofit from an IT have-not (with a case resolution rate in 1989 of only 60 percent) to a technologically advanced organization (with a 90 percent success rate today).

With an IT staff of just 10 and a budget contingent each year on federal dollars and charity, Minicucci depends on partnerships to make IT happen. And when it comes to making those partnerships work for both parties, Minicucci has the magic touch.

Minicucci doesn’t settle for corporate castoffs. He asks for the best technology and gets it. The proof:

  • A first-class website (, hosting a database of more than 2,200 children, built by Computer Associates (CA) International and run on Sun Microsystems servers.
  • The CyberTipline (, which can accept thousands of reports each month, was engineered by CA and Sun staffers and also runs on Sun servers.
  • A 12-nation online network was developed with assistance from CA.
  • Laser printers and scanners from Canon, Compaq and Hewlett-Packard can create a poster of a missing child in minutes. (NCMEC has reported that one out of six children is found when someone recognizes a picture.)
  • A safety program ( aimed at kids is the result of $1.5 million in donated equipment from Compaq, including 3-D workstations and media servers.

Today, NCMEC is as much an IT powerhouse as it is a clearinghouse for missing children. But it wasn’t always so.

Anybody Here Know How to Open a Word Document?

NCMEC was founded in 1984 by America’s Most Wanted Host John Walsh and his wife, RŽve, whose child Adam was kidnapped and murdered in 1981. Today the center is the nation’s official resource on young runaways and children who have been kidnapped, as well as children who have been sexually exploited through prostitution, pornography or on the Internet. Inside its five-story headquarters on a street heavy with nonprofit associations in downtown Alexandria, some of the rooms and spaces are named after children who were killed by abductors, reminding the 166 staffers of their mission. Noise levels are low; concentration is high. Workers refer to cases by the child’s full name, not by numbers. Everyone has a favorite recovery story. Although NCMEC does not investigate crimes (that’s left to the FBI and local law enforcement), it educates the public about child safety and assists police efforts by prioritizing leads, disseminating information and analyzing data.

Just five years ago, IT played an inconsequential role in NCMEC’s efforts. Half the staff worked on a few donated 486 green-screen computers. Less than half stayed connected through a frequently crashing 1 megabit network. Opening Word documents posed a challenge. Case managers and analysts had to search through five databases for information. With no in-house poster-creation capability, NCMEC outsourced the crucial job to a local printer, a process that took up to two weeks.

Minicucci, now 53, walked into this tech-challenged environment as a volunteer in 1989. At the time, Minicucci, who owned a computer imaging and 3-D graphics company, was developing a mug shot system for the FBI. FBI Special Services Agent Horace Hefner, volunteering for NCMEC, asked Minicucci to modify the work he was doing into age-progression software for the center. Minicucci, a father of two, developed the software pro bono.

In 1994, Minicucci sold his company in search of more fulfilling work. “My feelings in business were not satisfying,” he says. “The process itself was misery. But when I was here [at NCMEC], it was a joy.” The first case he worked on got him hooked. A 4-year-old girl was kidnapped from Fairfax County, Va., not far from his own home. Minicucci took family videos and created posters. The little girl hasn’t been found, but Minicucci discovered the sense of purpose he had been looking for. “After I would come back from NCMEC, I would always be bubbling with stories,” he says. “So when I retired, my wife said, ’Why don’t you just do that for the rest of your life.’”

Ernie Allen, president of NCMEC, wasn’t looking for a technology officer, but when Minicucci asked him for a job in 1996, he seized the opportunity. Allen had known Minicucci since he first volunteered, and he readily attributes the recovery of 100 children to Minicucci’s age-progression software.

Minicucci was hired as CTO (a title he chose) and set about creating a strategic technology plan. With his characteristically optimistic attitude, Minicucci devised part one of the plan: Build a website. “Back then, all the organization did was disseminate information, and I knew what better way to do that than to develop a website,” he says. But for all his lofty plans, Minicucci had an IT budget of only $327,000, which included the value of donated goods. If he wanted a database-driven website, he needed to make friends in high IT places.

Not a Charity Case

When approaching the IT elite, Minicucci’s strategy is to present NCMEC less as a charity case and more as a business partner. While he doesn’t promise monetary returns for corporate investments, he does guarantee ROI: good PR and tax relief. “I think [the partners] actually get [benefits] more than we do,” says Minicucci. “If you think about the cost to get good PR versus the cost of engineering or equipment, it would cost a lot more for them to get their end of the bargain.”

Once he closes a deal, Minicucci knows how to manage his relationships with his partners. He doesn’t target competitors for similar donations. He allows his partners to use the center for customer referrals. For his biggest partners, he’s even thrown in an extra bonus?a demo center on the third floor of NCMEC where partners can take potential clients to showcase products.

This approach has empowered Minicucci to demand more than hand-me-downs. Corey Weinstein, senior consultant of the San Francisco-based nonprofit consultancy AnnSwers, says receiving junked computers has been a universal problem for nonprofits. “While it was great that people were interested in helping, on some level the old computers were more of a burden for the nonprofit,” says Weinstein.

Minicucci did something even more radical than turning down junk: He rejected high-quality technologies that didn’t fit his strategic plan. “That was a smart move,” says Weinstein. “The key is to develop a long-range plan and figure out how a company can help an organization meet its goals.”

One company Minicucci turned away wanted to donate a system that could put digital pictures of missing children on a CD. “That’s truly a bad way to distribute pictures,” says Minicucci. Parents want pictures of their children removed as soon as the children are recovered, and it would be impossible to do that on released CDs. Instead, Minicucci challenged the company to give him something useful. “You’re never going to turn anything down completely,” he says. “You’re going to say that something doesn’t fit. ’But if you really want to help, these are our problems. Do you think you can help us?’” That approach earned NCMEC 30,000 promotional CDs, which Minicucci distributed to other potential partners.

Stories of missing children, Minicucci admits, are an easy sell. So much so that vendors often approach NCMEC to help. It’s then up to Minicucci to identify the partner’s role. Before he joined NCMEC, Sun Microsystems offered to help, but no one on staff knew what to do with the offer. “All [NCMEC] knew was that they wanted a website, but they had no idea what they wanted the website to look like,” says Chaz Chastain, global business development manager for Sun’s criminal justice operations. “They didn’t know what they wanted it to do.”

Minicucci knew exactly what he wanted from Sun: a server to run the website. He got it. But technology alone wasn’t enough to complete his vision; he also needed staffing. So Minicucci leveraged NCMEC’s existing relationship with CA to build the website. At the time, CA had donated only some software and its enterprise management solution, but Minicucci soon had CA staffers on the phone for as much as six hours a day helping him build the site. “We’re always looking for ways to get partners to give us more,” he says, with his usual easy laugh.

Susannah Schaefer, special assistant to CA Chairman and NCMEC Board Member Charles B. Wang, says technical assistance is just as important as donated technologies. “When Computer Associates first started working with NCMEC, the national center’s IT staff was minimal,” she says. “CA’s donation wasn’t just to ship them software but to install and implement it as well as to provide training to their staff.”

Soliciting donated help isn’t always easy. It’s one thing to ask for hardware, quite another to ask for personnel. Sun’s Chastain says, “If you donate equipment or money, marketing understands that. But it’s a hard sell to tell the marketing department that you’re donating people. When you’re for-profit, the reality is that you could get top dollar for your experts.” But Sun has given NCMEC hundreds of free and discounted engineering hours.

Minicucci understands the value of quid pro quo too, so in return for donated time, he gives his time. He regularly attends vendor-run conferences to explain how a company’s products perform mission-critical functions?in NCMEC’s case, saving children. Vendors give the time and money; Minicucci helps sway potential customers.

So far, Minicucci has leveraged tight partnerships with a group he considers the Big Three: CA, Compaq and Sun. The strength of these partnerships is apparent in the center’s IT budget, which has increased nearly nine times from 1996?to $2.8 million (including donated technologies). During the past five years, Minicucci has brought in $10 million worth of products and about 4,000 donated hours.

The Hard and the Soft of It

A walk through NCMEC’s Alexandria headquarters?purchased with a $5 million grant from CA in 1999?reveals the fruits of Minicucci’s labors. Case managers access more than 200 fields of data from a CA Ingres II database?a relational database server CA typically uses in e-business?supported by database drivers from Merant, a software vendor from Rockville, Md. Workers in the exploited child unit examine leads of child pornography that come in through the website’s CyberTipline, powered by donated Sun Solaris servers and a Unicenter TNG enterprise management system from CA. Donated CA staffers and discounted helpers from Sun recently engineered an upgraded tip line that can handle four times its original capacity. Merant has also donated its data integration software, and Resonate, an e-business software vendor from Sunnyvale, Calif., provided traffic management software.

Donated databases and servers perform the same functions they would in any for-profit business, but donated staffers feel the joy that Minicucci did when he first volunteered 12 years ago.

“I think people are interested in helping for the same reasons I was,” he says. He also knows how work at NCMEC can affect the helpers when they go home. Dan Curtian, a project manager for CA, spent several months improving the CyberTipline. “As the father of a 5-year-old, it was very disturbing to think something could happen to my daughter,” he says. “I share my experiences at NCMEC with my daughter. At night, if she knows I am working for the missing kids, she has a better understanding of why daddy is busy.”