Organizational Narrative

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The technology revolution benefits many, but it also creates two serious problems. First, computers manufactured today have a very short life cycle. Large numbers of computers are deemed obsolete within two years and discarded. The National Safety Council reported that during 1997 more than 20 million computers reached obsolescence and only 11% were recycled or reused. At the current rate, by the year 2005, 350 million machines will have become obsolete. Traditional methods of disposal of computer equipment have resulted in releasing dangerous toxins such as lead, chromium and mercury into the environment. In 2000, Oregon generated 46,353 tons of computer and electronic waste (e-waste) but only 1.33% was recovered. In 2002, the Metro region generated 4,597 tons of e-waste and recovered only 16%. Reuse and responsible recycling is the best process for the environment, capable of recovering over 99% of the materials for reuse. Without recycling, this discarded technology of ten ends up in landfills where the resulting accumulation of toxic/hazardous waste will create potentially disastrous results for the environment.

The second problem stemming from advances in computer technology is that many people lack even the most basic computer skills. This can deny them access to everything from getting on the Internet to getting a better job. In 1999 the U.S. Commerce Department reported that households with incomes of $75,000 and higher were twenty times more likely to have access to the Internet than households at the lowest income levels and nine times as likely to have a computer in the home. In 2000, the median income of a family of four in the Portland area was $53,7003, below the national average of $62,228. These technological advances are only going to accelerate in the coming years, resulting in more people being left behind.

The concept behind Free Geek is to use these problems to solve each other. A significant portion of computers bound for the landfills can be refurbished into working starter computers for those who cannot otherwise afford them. Individuals with little or no disposable income can be trained to help process the diverted computers for reuse or recycling, receiving one of the refurbished computers in exchange for their efforts. The result is less computer equipment in the landfills and more equipment being reused. In addition, a wide range of people get access to computers and the Internet that previously could not; a win, win situation for everyone involved, which is summed up in the Free Geek mission statement:

Free Geek recycles used technology to provide computers, education, job skills training and access to the Internet to those in need, in exchange for community service.


Free Geek was founded by Oso Martín in February of 2000. He saw a need in the community for access to no-cost or low-cost computer technology. Oso further learned that the large amounts of electronic waste going into Portland's landfills were becoming an increasing problem, and that much of the computer hardware being tossed away was still usable. He was sure these computers could be set up to perform Internet, word processing, and other basic computing functions. Oso envisioned a non-profit organization that would serve two needs in the community at the same time: recycling electronic waste and helping to bridge the digital divide. And so, Free Geek was born.

Jim Deibele, founding board member and CEO and founder of Teleport, provided financial support to fund an exploratory venture to test the Free Geek concept. A series of workshops were conducted at Portland State University to create the mission statement and bylaws, as well as to recruit board members.

During the summer of 2000 the search began for a facilty that would meet our needs. The FG-CTC would serve as a central location for donated hardware to be dropped off and processed. It also provides a place for volunteers to work together, sharing their knowledge and experience. A 5,000 SF office/warehouse space was located in inner SE Portland. Free Geek moved in and sent out word to the community that we were looking for volunteers. From the very start, computer enthusiasts and others saw the potential of the idea and quickly formed a core volunteer group that would begin to develop the technology needed to run the operation efficiently and at the lowest possible cost.

The Community Technology Center opened in September 2000 and soon after, several articles appeared in the local media and quickly spread the word about Free Geek. Donated hardware began flooding in. So did the volunteers, from all walks of life and with widely varied backgrounds; from computer industry professionals wanting to lend a helping hand, to laid off workers looking to trade their free time for a refurbished computer. People from all over the Portland area were attracted to the program.

In just four years, Free Geek has tripled in physical size, while growing it's budget ten-fold. Free Geek has gone from an experiment to a viable organization with a proven track record. Free Geek was recognized as a Founder of a New Northwest by Sustainable Northwest in May of 2003. We are regularly sought out by elected officials, government agencies and recycling advocates asking our advice and guidance on how to deal with the growing problems of electronic waste and bridging the digital divide. Free Geek participates as a non-profit stakeholder on the Oregon State Legislature Electronic Product Stewardship Advisory Committee.

In the past year, several nascent organizations around the country have been inquiring about how they can build on the work we have started. To that end, Free Geek is encouraging and supporting a sister project in the mid-west. This group, dubbed Free Geek-Michiana , has begun operations in South Bend, Indiana using software and documentation that we have developed. In Lancaster County Pennsylvania, Free Geek Penn , is just under way. Other groups are starting to use our tools in Seattle, Washington, and Toronto, Canada. We receive several inquires every month from around the world, wondering how this work can be replicated. Free Geek does everything we can do to help by making all of our software, documentation and procedures available for free.


Computer Recycling

Free Geek's central location is a convenient place for individuals, organizations and small businesses to recycle computer equipment. By accepting all computer equipment, in any condition, we make the choice of where to go to dispose of computers a simple one. Everyone who drops off computers for recycling is offered a guided tour of the facility and is shown how the program works and what happens to the donated equipment. We then ask for a voluntary cash donation to support our program. Approximately two-thirds of our customers need to dispose of monitors. Free Geek charges a $10 disposal fee for any and all monitors dropped off at our facility. In addition to the required monitor fees, over half of all recycling customers make a voluntary financial contribution in appreciation for the work they see being done to protect the environment and to help others. Computer donations are the exclusive source of computer hardware for both Free Geek's infrastructure and the equipmen t provided back to the community. As part of the recycling process, non-repairable and obsolete equipment is broken down into its base materials such as steel, aluminum, and copper. These commodities are then sold on the open market through our recycling partners. Sale of recycled materials provides a significant income stream to support operations.

Computer Adoption

Free Geek's flagship program, the Adoption program, enables individuals to exchange work in our recycling operation for a starter computer system of their very own. During their time at Free Geek, volunteers are exposed to computers on several different levels. volunteers work in three basic areas, receiving, recycling and testing. In receiving they learn to identify hardware and become familiar with the use of the mouse and keyboard. In recycling, volunteers learn about how the various pieces fit together and come apart. Testing teaches the volunteers how to insert and remove various components from the computer and how to run diagnostic software. After completing 24 hours of work, volunteers receive their computer and a introductory class on how to set it up and use it.

Computer Building

One of the more technically demanding programs, the Build program creates all the computers needed for our other programs. Volunteers are taught how to build computers working exclusively with used parts. The tested hardware is assembled into standardized desktop computers that are then loaded with an operating system and applications software. Each system passes a quality control test before it released to an adopter. Volunteers agree to complete six computer systems in exchange for the training in how to do it. After completing six systems, volunteers are welcome to keep the sixth computer for themselves. The remaining five computers are distributed into the community through our Adoption and Computers for Kids and Hardware Grants programs.

Computer Education

The education program began with the notion that "If we give someone their first computer, we need to teach them how to use it." The introductory classes are the core of a curriculum that has been expanded to include computer building, Linux command line basics and advanced computer programing languages such as Perl and Python. Volunteer teachers work together to organize classes, as well as documenting all of Free Geek's procedures to help train volunteers and volunteers working in any area. Education is ongoing for volunteers and volunteers from the moment they enter Free Geek, to long after they receive their computers and have it set up in their homes. We believe that everyone has something to learn and everyone has something to teach. The education program focuses that energy to provide the latest in computer skills development for an extremely low cost. Volunteering time, taking classes and the hands on experience with computers are also excellent resume builders for computer professionals looking to increase their chances for employment.

Computer Thrift Store

Free Geek receives more equipment than can be refurbished efficiently. In addition, the equipment donated does not arrive in equal amounts (i.e. approximately 10 good keyboards are donated for every usable computer). This surplus equipment and other donations that have some retail value but do not meet other program requirements, are sold through the Free Geek Computer Thrift Store. Monitors, printers, keyboards, cables and speakers are among the many items available in the store. This ensures that working, usable equipment gets back into circulation, rather than being broken down for raw materials recovery. Free Geek also sells various products such as t-shirts, mugs, stickers and crafts made from recycled computer parts. The thrift store is a vital part of the Free Geek financial strategy for self-sufficiency.

CforK (Computers for Kids)

Computers for Kids is a partnership with mentored at-risk youth programs such as those operated by the Boys and Girls Club and the YWCA. The program taps into the energy generated by both the adoption and computer building programs. Time slots are set aside for the program participants between the ages of 11 and 18. Staff and volunteers help to guide them through a somewhat abbreviated version of either the Adoption or Build programs, dependent on age group. Each participant receives a computer system and a class on how to use it. Additional family members are asked to take the class with the students to better integrate the computer into the home. Computers for Kids is sponsored by Computer Bits Magazine, a local monthly resource for the computing community, giving the project an excellent outreach resource for recruiting volunteer computer builders and teachers.


Non-profit Hardware Grants

Non-profit organizations can receive computer equipment for free or at an extremely reduced cost. We generally focus on local organizations and are granting about 20 requests a month. We recently had an opportunity to partner with the World Computer Exchange (WCE) and help the Portland based humanitarian aid organization Mercy Corps. Free Geek provided computer equipment for shipment to schools around the world to help bridge the global technology divide. We have helped send computer systems to Ecuador and are working on projects to send equipment to Argentina, Bolivia, Ghana, Macedonia and Nigeria. In 2003, Free Geek established a short grants process for non-profits to apply for hardware help from Free Geek. Assistance will be granted based on need and other factors to be determined by staff and the board of directors. In addition, Free Geek reserves all donated Apple computer equipment for transfer to a partner program called Mac Renewal, a Eugene, Oregon based organiza tion run by Lorraine Kerwood. She is able to use the majority of the Apple/Macintosh architecture based equipment, refurbishing it and giving it to low income families, elders and the disabled. See Appendix A for a list of non-profit organizations to whom Free Geek has provided technology assistance.

Geek Access Points (GAP)

Free Geek provides the hardware and technical support for several free Internet access terminals in Southeast Portland. Our current locations are at Resource Conservation Credit Union at 1910 SE 11th Avenue, The Red & Black Café at 2138 SE Division Street and the Back to Back Café at 628 E Burnside. Free Geek offers this service to community minded organizations and businesses that provide free public access to the computer and the Internet.

Printer/Electronics Refurbishing

Volunteers can learn how to repair and refurbish printers. This program refurbishes both inkjet and laser printers, making them available for adoption or sale in the thrift store. Printers that are beyond our expertise to repair are parted out for our own repair program or are sold to printer remanufacturing companies. Inkjet cartridges are removed from all printers and evaluated. Good cartridges are used in the repaired printers or sold in the thrift store. Bad and empty cartridges are sold to cartridge remanufactures. The program also evaluates and repairs non-computer related consumer electronics such as fax machines, stereos, VCRs and telephones. Repaired and tested electronics are sold in the Free Geek Thrift Store.

Special Events

Free Geek sponsors special events such as Portland Penguin Day and our own annual Geek Fair fund raiser. Geek Fair event is held on the block that the Free Geek Community Technology Center fronts and features information booths from several local organizations, live music, food and refreshments, a sidewalk sale and a raffle. The event is regularly cosponsored by KBOO 90.7 Community Radio, The City Repair Project, Southeast Uplift Neighborhood Program, Hosford-Abernathy Neighborhood District (HAND) and Computer Bits Magazine.

E-Waste Management Consulting

FREE GEEK provides computer recycling and reuse consulting services at a very competitive rate. Free Geek is consulted for the CREAM (Computer REuse And Marketing) Project, a partnership of Clark County Solid Waste Management, the Salvation Army and Clark College. Free Geek provided refurbishing and reuse training to faculty and students at Clark College. In addition, we are helping to inform the recycling end of the program, showing the best methods for disassembly of electronic waste and responsible marketing of the salvaged materials.



Free Geek participates as a stake holder in the EPA funded, WEPSI (Western Electronic Product Stewardship Initiative) process. WEPSI is a working group of computer and electronics manufacturers, industrial electronics recyclers, local and regional governments and non-government organizations (NGOs). The final action plan1 was published in the fall of 2003. WEPSI is a sub-group of NEPSI (National Electronic Product Stewardship Initiative) which is in its final stages.

Oregon State Legislature Electronic Product Stewardship Initiative

Free Geek is present as member of the Oregon Electronic Product Stewardship Advisory Committee (EPSAC). Chaired by State Representative, Jackie Dingfelder, the committee is tasked to explore workable solutions to the growing e-waste problem in the state of Oregon and present the findings to the Oregon Legislature in the Fall of 2004. One solution that is being discussed is based on replicating versions of the Free Geek Community Technology Center statewide.


Board of Directors

Dennis Bridges, Director
Dennis has almost 20 years of experience in the printing industry including 7 years as an environmental engineer. He is also certified as a Six Sigma Quality and Process Improvement Consultant. Dennis is currently the publisher and editor of Computer Bits magazine.

Mark Niemann-Ross, Secretary
Mark is the Third-Party Developer Evangelist for Adobe Systems. He has worked for all of the major graphic arts software companies, including Quark, and Extensis. He teaches a beginning programming class at the Metropolitan Learning Center.

Staff Collective

Free Geek employs 13 staff members with schedules ranging from 32 hrs/week to 10 hrs/week. The staff functions as a democratic and non-heirarchical collective, using a modified consensus model for decision making. All staff are paid the same hourly wage. Staff working over 17.5 hrs/week are eligible for participation in the health care plan. Current staff positions are:

  • Administrative Coordinator - Business administration, program development, outreach and fund raising.
  • Production Coordinator - Build program logistics, Open Source Software and data base development.
  • Education Coordinator - Documentation, volunteer teacher coordination, curriculum development.
  • Volunteer Coordinator - Intern recruitment and supervision, volunteer placement and follow-up.
  • Operations Coordinator - Daily operations manager in receiving and testing areas.
  • Build Co-Coordinators (2) - Build instruction, curriculum development, technical support.
  • Recycling Coordinator - E-waste management, deconstruction training and supervision.
  • Sales Coordinator - Thrift store management, pricing guidelines and sales policies.
  • Front Desk Coordinator - Volunteer intake, scheduling and hours, drop-off donation transactions.
  • Printer Coordinator - Printer refurbishing and resale management. Printer repair training.
  • Computers for Kids Coordinator - Program development and outreach, partnership development.
  • Technical Support Coordinator

Other Staff

Internships funded by Free Geek - Free Geek funds several short term interns (3 to 6 months), targeting individuals that have barriers to employment that could be helped by having some real job experience. Free Geek hopes that working an internship at the Community Technology Center will provide a opportunity for personal growth and experience.

Internships paid for by outside programs - Free Geek works with local organizations and schools to provide interesting opportunities for individuals and students to fulfill job training, educational and community service requirements. Free Geek has approximately 6 active interns from outside programs at any time. Volunteers


The following groups are the major groups that have regular meetings or perform defined tasks:

Administrators of Systems & Security - The original core group of volunteers, this group maintains our very sophisticated computer network and infrastructure. Like everything else, our network is constructed with donated hardware and volunteer energy. Our network is extremely secure and it provides an excellent example for volunteers that wish to learn about networks and network administration.

Adopters - are volunteers who come to Free Geek to earn a computer for themselves. Adopters perform 24 hours of community service, helping Free Geek by performing data entry, testing and recycling tasks. In exchange, participants receive a stater computer and an orientation class.

Builders - come to Free Geek to learn the ins and outs of computer assembly and trouble shooting. The program is free and is open to anyone at any skill level. Many builders stay on after they complete the program and help out as volunteer instructors or assistants. Volunteers provide Tier II technical support on Freek Box Computer systems. Participants in the build program feel a sense of accomplishment as each computer system they create goes to a person or organization in need.

Coders - Programming professionals volunteer to teach the latest computer languages to interested volunteers. Volunteers can then contribute to the many custom software applications that are developed to streamline and organize all operations. Free Geek software projects are structured like real world jobs, and participating volunteers get credit for being part of the software development team. It is an excellent resumé builder for volunteers. At the same time Free Geek gets quality, custom software designed and implemented for almost no cost.

Council - Made up of board members, staff and volunteers, the Council provides a forum for individuals to participate in guiding Free Geek as the organization continues to grow and evolve. Membership is open to all and all decisions are made using a consensus process.

Fund Raising - Volunteers bring many talents to the table, from grant writing to retail sales experience. The fund raising group works to help ensure that Free Geek has the resources that it needs to keep operating and expanding to meet the needs of the community. Fund raising also organizes special events such as our annual Geek Fair.

Hardware Grants - Made up of staff and volunteers, the Hardware Grants group allocates resources to fulfill hardware grant requests for non-profits. Membership is open to those individuals that wish to help guide projects through the system.


During the initial start-up phase of Free Geek, a few articles in the local media resulted in an avalanche of donations and more volunteers than we had the capacity for. We quickly developed a waiting list that was over three months long. Subsequently, Free Geek did not have an aggressive outreach campaign during the first few years.

During this time period we limited ourselves to our website and tabling at community events such as Earth Day and The Procession of the Species. In addition, Free Geek is listed in the Portland Green Map, the ReDirect Guide (a phone book for environmentally conscious businesses), the Metro Recycling Hot line and the Solid Waste and Recycling web sites for the cities of Portland, Oregon and Vancouver, Washington and the Oregon State Department of Environmental Quality. In the first quarter of 2004, the Free Geek website1 is receiving an average of over 14,000 unique visitors every month. Program Outreach 2000-2003

Free Geek has experienced a consistent and impressive customer and participant growth rate over the last four years. All with minimal advertising. Free Geek anticipates that there will be a need for a marketing/outreach effort in the coming months. To this end we are seeking funding for a Marketing Outreach Coordinator from a variety of sources, but it remains a low priority at this time.

Free Geek's volunteer designed database allows easy tracking of success in both categories. Every significant donated computer component is cataloged into the database. The current status of all donated equipment is tracked and reported monthly. Each of Free Geek's commercial recycling partners provides us with weight reports for processed and recovered materials. These totals are included in our monthly reports. Free Geek tracks the number of classes provided, the number of students, the number of client hours donated, the number of equipment donors, and how many computers are placed back into the community though the adoption program or though sales in the thrift store. In addition, Free Geek tracks the number of visitors to the website, providing a good indication of the success of our outreach efforts.


Since opening our doors in September of 2000 we have accepted the donation of over 150,000 computers and computer components. In the process we have recycled over 360 tons of electronic scrap, recovering the metals and plastics. Volunteers have refurbished over 3,000 computer systems, that are back in use in the community. We have also tested and redistributed an additional 17,000 components and peripheral devices. Over 3,500 volunteers have participated, donating over 75,000 hours of community service. Program performance for 2000-2003


In November of 2003, Free Geek received Honorable Mention for the Peter F. Drucker Award for Non-Profit Innovation.

In November of 2002, Free Geek was named a Founder of the New Northwest by Sustainable Northwest. They recognize leadership in sustainable business and economic practices in the northwestern United States. Free Geek was profiled in a book published by Sustainable Northwest in May 2003. Free Geek received the award at the 2003 Sustainability Forum awards banquet.

In June of 2001, Free Geek's Administrative Coordinator, Oso Martín, was presented an E-chievment Award from the National Public Radio program, E-Town, in recognition of his work to make "a positive difference in his community and beyond".