Revised with new information as of February 19, 2010


 
What use is the Internet to
mission-based organizations?
(nonprofits, NGOs, civil society and public sector agencies)

 
This document started in early 1996 as one page with a few quotes from people who were a part of soc.org.nonprofit, then a popular online gathering place for nonprofits. It was originally intended to help mission-based organizations (not-for-profit organizations/NPOs, non-governmental organizations/NGOs, civil society organizations and public sector agencies) to justify use of the Internet to board members and funders, many of whom were dragging their feet at funding computers and Internet access (believe it or not, what nonprofits are doing now with the Internet is, in fact, not much different from what they were doing in the 1980s and early 1990s). Back in 1996, the page was comprehensive.

Now, almost 15 years later, there's so much information about how nonprofits are using the Internet that I've had to divide the page into four different pages. And even with the updates, it is by no means comprehensive anymore -- the possibilities about for mission-based organizations regarding Internet use are now truly endless.

(If you would like to see earlier versions of this material, to just how much things have changed for nonprofits and the Internet, visit archive.org and type in this URL: http://www.coyotecom.com/online.html)

You would think that, by now, there would be no nonprofits left who needed convincing regarding the value of the Internet and computer technology. But, in my experience, there are still such organizations. There are also many corporations and other funders of nonprofits who don't understand the critical value of such for nonprofits and, therefore, are reluctant to fund such. Therefore, this section of my web site remains.

People write frequently to various online discussion groups asking how to get technology funded. Showing how it will serve your mission is how!

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OVERVIEW

Online technology, also known as networking technology, has proven to be a tremendous asset to mission-based organizations (nonprofits, NGOs, civil society, schools) and to every volunteer and paid staff member of such.

However, visions of becoming a super-efficient organization, reaching vastly larger numbers of new donors and clients, raising enormous amounts of new money and effortlessly administering an agency will not come to pass simply with an Internet connection, a web site, a Facebook fan page, a new database program or producing a podcast.

While online technologies do offer tremendous of benefits, most nonprofit professionals agree that none of the things for which they use the Internet has altogether replaced faxes, phone calls, press releases or face-to-face meetings, nor will they ever. Nor will the Internet solve all organizational problems -- for instance, if board members or staff have poor communications skills offline, that probably won't improve just because everyone gets an email account. Or, that snazzy new volunteer management or donor management software won't automatically compel staff to gather the information needed to make the database useful.

Every mission-based organization has two primary resources: people and their ideas. What the Internet offers is an easy, immediate, extremely efficient way to connect with people and ideas. And therein lies the core of all of the benefits of the Internet for these organizations. Also, mission-based organizations should NOT necessarily look to the for-profit sector for leadership in the area of using the Internet to mobilize resources or communicate with constituents. Instead, look to each other -- the people working in the nonprofit/civil society sector, whether tiny new start-ups staffed entirely by volunteers or paid staff at large nonprofit organizations -- are THE experts in community outreach, in making great things happen with very limited resources, and in using tools to their fullest capacity.

Even if the majority of the target population for an organization's services does not have regular, reliable, constant Internet access, the Internet is still worth exploiting. For instance, sites like the UN's Online Volunteering service allow organizations serving the developing world -- most of them actually in the developing world -- to not only connect with online volunteers all over the world, it also helps them raise their profile online, which can garner attention from potential donors. Also, many organizations use their web sites to establish their credibility and transparency, two qualities that are very attractive to potential donors.

The Net as a way to network with peers is already invaluable, as is the access to various online information depositories that can drastically reduce time needed for research. And it's undisputed that the Internet has already, for more than a few years, offered an incredible avenue for recruiting more volunteers and working more efficiently with current ones.

With political pressure ever-increasing for NPOs to take the place of the government in delivering critical services, with "efficiency" and "accountability" becoming the mantra of more and more elected officials, it is even more essential than ever before for mission-based organizations to look to new ways to deliver more with less. The Internet can serve as a critical tool in this quest. One contributor to this thread on the soc.org.nonprofit newsgroup commented back in 1996, "I have a feeling of urgency about the subject of NPOs on the 'Net: that as technology continues to accelerate, we could very easily be left behind if we do not develop our own survival strategies." More than 10 years later, this statement remains true.

Putnam Barber of the Evergreen Society and the original maintainer of the soc.org.nonprofit FAQs observed back in the late 1990s a common misconception that nonprofit organizations can have regarding going online, an observation that is also still true:

Many colleagues seem to have given themselves very limited opportunities to benefit from using the Net and to have absorbed a distorted impression from brainless hype and shameless fear-mongering in the more breathless departments of press and tv "journalism." A frequent version of this problem is email from someone who says something like "Our organization just received word that a large grant will not be renewed. Where can I find information online about emergency sources of funding. I have been holding back from wasting time with this internet thing, but now I need to learn about it in a hurry." (!)

 
SECTIONS


 
Examples of Tangible Benefits of Being Online
  1. Immediate, one-on-one communications / email.

    Yes, Web sites are wonderful, and avatars are interesting, and Flash makes neat short movies, and the media loves talking about "blogs", and everyone seems to be producing his or her own podcast, but when all is said and done, even now, email remains the killer app for most Internet users. Email is two-way communication. Email is perceived as human-to-human. These kinds of interactions force an organization to keep things alive and current, unlike many web pages. Email is also not synchronous/live, and believe it or not, many people don't want live interactions for all or most of their online communications; many people still prefer the flexibility of asynchronous communication.

    Email provides access to all the other numbered benefits listed below, there's no receptionist to get messages confused, there's no paper to get lost, it can be archived easily without taking any extra space on your desk, it supports immediate action/response, and it can supplement phone calls and face-to-face meetings.

    Even as early as 1997, participants of various nonprofit-related Internet discussion groups said they were using email to:

    Ofcourse, email effectiveness varies, depending on how much email a recipient is already receiving. Relative to the late 90s, when the aforementioned was listed, most people are now suffering from online solicitation overload, and this has to be taken into consideration when using email.

    In addition to email, Instant Messaging (IM) is proving more and more valuable to mission-based organizations, as it offers a better way to discuss certain issues between two or three people or to show more "personality" in working with remote staff or volunteers you may never or seldom get to meet with face-to-face. For more information, see Using Real-Time Communications (VoIP, Chat, Instant Messaging, Etc.) With Volunteers

     

  2. Research

    You can eliminate HOURS AND HOURS of onsite library time with Net access (but, ofcourse, never eliminate visiting an onsite library again -- and why in the world would you want to, when libraries and librarians are so cool?). In fact, you can use online means to narrow or focus your search that will need to be ultimately taken at an onsite library. This can mean time and money saved. Participants of various nonprofit-related Internet discussion groups said they used online technologies (lists, newsgroups and web pages) to research various topics, including:

    Chesapeake Area Recovery Communities, a not-for-profit provider of housing for alcoholics and addicts, had a particularly interesting benefit to relate regarding its use of the Internet in 1996, and it is still valid today:

    "Last fall by chance we stumbled over information on Attention Deficit Disorder and that this disorder is linked to the presence of particular gene.

    The gene identified happens to be the same gene other medical researchers have identified as being present in hereditary alcoholism. Accessing the Internet through a local university, we researched the Cork database at Dartmouth on alcoholism, found information on ADD at a web page at MIT and checked out the Web page from the Genome project.

    "Were it not for the access to the free flow of information provided by the Internet we would not have been able to make this correlation. Nor would we have been able to learn of medical professionals interested in this subject.

    Thus at least for us, the Internet has had a significant impact if only for the availability to information which we would never have known about."

     

  3. Networking

    The Internet provides an easy, efficient medium of exchanging thoughts with people who we would otherwise probably never have had the opportunity to meet, or people we only see once a year at a conference. These benefits include:

    Read a list of my favorite online discussion groups and my best source of networking.

     

  4. Posting information

    Even if the majority of the target population for an organization's services does not have regular, reliable, constant Internet access, the Internet is still worth exploiting. For instance, sites like the UN's Online Volunteering service allow organizations serving the developing world -- most of them actually in the developing world -- to not only connect with online volunteers all over the world, it also helps them raise their profile online, which can garner attention from potential donors.

    Before your organization starts posting information, either on a Web site, in appropriate Internet discussion groups and electronic bulletin boards (including in the form of "blogs", or direct emails:

     
    There's more information about online promotion on: Outreach Via the Internet for Not-for-Profit or Public Sector Organizations.

     

  5. Advanced Use

    Larger mission-based organizations, and small organizations who have been online for many years, have also used the 'Net to engage in these more advanced outreach activities:

    See these Stages of Maturity in Nonprofit Orgs Using Online Services to think about where your nonprofit should be headed, and more examples.

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What About Service Delivery Online?

What is your organization's mission? For whom does your organization provide service primarily? How do you provide service to that primary community?

Those are the three questions you ask first if you want to contemplate adding a virtual component to your service delivery. If your agency wants to provide service online, it should be an extension or augmentation of your organization's mission and existing activities.

As is mentioned above, many organizations are already using the 'Net to engaged in quite "advanced" activities. But these activities are successfully only if they are grounded in the organization's mission, and are an extension of what the organization does offline.

 
What About Online Activism?

Many organizations channel the resources of volunteer activists to promote various causes, on and offline. Before you mobilize volunteers online to send emails to individuals and online discussion groups on behalf of your organization, however, you need to plan strategically to make your efforts successful and positive. The Virtual Volunteering Project has a comprehensive index of online activism resources, which includes advice and links to more resources. Also see NetSquared, a forum where nonprofits, many of them activist-focused, discuss using advanced Internet tools to further their causes.

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I Can't Keep Up!

It's as though new technology comes out every week, and nonprofits are suddenly pressured by a few tech savvy volunteers to get on the bandwagon now . But the reality is that most nonprofits are struggling to keep just their most basic online activities up-to-speed: keeping the web site up-to-date and answering the many inquiries they already receive. In addition, "old" network technology is already connecting nonprofits with many more people and organizations than they can keep up with.

Never be pressured into engaging in new networking activities until your organization:

See these Stages of Maturity in Nonprofit Orgs Using Online Services to think about where your nonprofit might be headed.

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Barriers to Being Online

The barriers to nonprofit organizations' access to the Internet include the cost of hardware, software and network connections; lack of computer or network literacy; lack of appropriate and continuing technical support; reluctance from staff and volunteers to support technology; and high turn-over rate for staff and volunteers. Here is advice on how to overcome obstacles to getting online.

 
What If My Organization Ignores Networking Technology

I'm seeing a disturbing trend: a gap between those organizations who are using the Internet in a myriad of ways to support their missions and involve volunteers, and those who are still largely on the sidelines, not using network technologies in working with their volunteers and limiting tech activities to their tech staff. The former project an image of being responsive, accountable, collaborative, in-touch with their communities, results-oriented and transparent. The latter project an image of being closed, reluctant to interact or collaborate, and strictly hierarchical. More about this gap, and which side your organization should be on, here.

 
What About Fund Raising Via the Internet?

One of the most asked questions at any "Nonprofits & the Internet"-type seminar or on soc.org.nonprofit is, "How can I use the Internet to fund raise?"

I've collected a LOT of resources on this subject -- so much so that I've had to move it to its own page.

 
Thanks to all who contributed to the original document back in 1996 (who aren't already noted above); they are listed below, with their affiliation at the time of their contributions:

 
Other Resources

I've removed this list from this latest version of this resource, because most of the resources were no longer in their stated locations. If you would like to see this original list, visit archive.org and type in this URL:
http://www.coyotecom.com/online.html
The list is at the end of the archived page.

TechSoup is nonprofit organization and is focused entirely on tools and information for nonprofit organizations regarding computer and networking technology. Up-to-date and cutting-edge, it's your first stop for anything you can't find here on my site!

 
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See more resources re: Community Relations, With and Without Technology


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