Last summer, a well-intentioned parent at an area school proposed a sizable donation. It was, he claimed, a very valuable piece of his company’s technology infrastructure: A Storage Area Network, referred to hereafter as “SAN”. Now for those readers that don’t know what a SAN is, or are wondering now why they don’t have one, it is a large (often very large) set of equipment that interconnects many storage devices with many servers. I’m not going to get much further into it because it matters little.

What does matter is that this school didn’t need one, and the donor no longer needed it. His company had undoubtedly upgraded to a newer model, this one had depreciated, and he though, as many parents think, “why not give it to my child’s school? they operate modestly, and this high-value piece of equipment must surely help somehow.”

Let’s stop here and think about some upfront questions. Answering “no” to any one of these should set up a flag that the donation needs more evaluation before being accepted.

  • Is this equipment it in the school’s technology plan?
  • Does it substantially upgrade a piece of equipment already in use?
  • Does it require any additional skills to operate it? Do we already operate a similar piece of equipment?
  • Will it easily integrate into our technology support and management system? If not what will it cost us to operate it?
  • Will the donor cover the additional costs of installation and operation?
  • Can it be set up easily?
  • Is it still covered by manufacturer’s warranty? If it fails, is there money to repair it?
  • If we had the money to purchase this, would we purchase this or something different?

When a large donation is being offered, these questions must be asked and answered. Unless each answer is “yes”, get more information and take the decision up with the Advancement department, who might help you go back to the donor to help fill the gaps, or politely reject it.

Back to the donated SAN. In retrospect, only one of the questions above was affirmative. The equipment absolutely not in the technology plan, it did, however, upgrade their only (one) server with additional space, which was needed. To operate it, neither their technology staff nor their consultant knew how to operate it, and a second consultant had to be hired to set it up and wire it in to their existing systems.
The cost: Just over $10,000.
The time: about 4 months (though they will tell you that things still aren’t functioning at 100%). They had to tell the consultant to stop as they had no more money to pay him.
Warranted? Of course not, it was a castoff from the donor’s company that had no use for it any longer.
If they had the money to buy this system (roughly $75,000), would they? Most certainly not.

Here’s the thing, if they would have come to us and said, “Look, we have this one server, but it’s running out of storage space. What’s the solution?” we’d have said “put a replacement server in your budget for a year or two, get an extended warranty on your current server, and a few 1 TB drives to last until then.” Total cost: around $1,500, including installation. And now there’s a warranty. There is no way that a reasonable, conscientious person would say “yep, a SAN’s the way to go, alright. A clearly winning strategy.” A SAN is all wrong for this school, so why accept it as a donation?

Now they have technical Sword of Damocles dangling precariously above their budget. They’ve burned through the consultant’s installation fees, they have a complicated system that no one knows how to operate, and is not covered by a warranty. Who wins? One consultant, certainly. The donor got a receipt for the donation. If that system, now relied upon, fails, they will have to come up with more money.

Schools tell us all the time that parents want to donate 5 year old laptops, HP inkjet printers, even CRT monitors! That’s all e-waste. It would cost a small fortune to refurbish and operate that junk. Having seen this for many years, I think the best response I’ve heard might be “Thank you, we will gladly accept this you so kindly offer. If you wish to have a receipt for the donation, please see the Advancement department. We are not going to be able to use this equipment, as it is not in our technology plan, but we will see to it that it gets eWasted appropriately as part of a student service project. If you wish to make a donation to our technology program, we will be starting our “FUND-A-NEED” program this spring, and you can help with planned equipment that will directly benefit your child’s classroom.”

What’s the moral here?

  • Have a clear technology program and recognize when a donation strays from it.
  • Have a prepare response to politely acknowledge the donation but encourage a donation of cash or planned new equipment.
  • Don’t accept mishmash equipment – if the donated equipment is different from equipment you already operate, it is going to cost you time and money to operate and support it.

And that’s your money.

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