Progress in the two preceding areas -- policy advocacy and constituency development -- will be seriously hampered unless a third leg in the stool is added: getting online and innovative at using the technology. Nonprofits as a whole are grievously behind. Worse, there are only a few fledgling efforts to remedy the growing chasm between the nonprofit and commercial worlds. Section C discusses how to get nonprofits online and how to propel them to the forefront of creative experimentation with the technologies.
As mentioned earlier, this need is not propelled by techno-faddism or "keeping up with the Joneses." It is prompted by the technology's potential to achieve core missions and effect change. As Harvard Professor Mark Boncheck writes in an April 1995 paper:
[C]omputer-mediated communication [CMC] offers geographically dispersed groups with a need for intra-organizational communication and information exchange an important alternative to more costly personal and broadcast media. CMC reduces communication, coordination and information costs, facilitating collective action by making it easier for groups to form, improving group's efficiency at providing collective goods, increasing the benefits from group membership, and promoting group retention through more informed decision-making. [Grassroots in Cyberspace: Using Computer Networks to Facilitate Political Participation. Working Paper 95-2.2: Presented at the 53rd Annual Meeting of the Midwest Political Science Association in Chicago, IL, on April 6, 1995.]
Information technologies allow time and resources to be used more efficiently, and coordinated better both internally and externally. Nan Aron of the Alliance for Justice reportedly claims that the new technologies "changed her life" after they were introduced within her organization. Others have had similar epiphanies. The new networking capabilities are not "add ons" to the organization; they change organizational practices in profound ways, creating a new, more versatile "platform" of capacities. It is therefore a mistake to see new technology investments as "capital expenditures" that are somehow distinct from program-related expenditures. Increasingly the technologies are utterly integral to program.
The challenge thus becomes, How can foundations begin to close the "technology gap"? Training and technical assistance are an obvious answer, but early attempts in this area suggest that getting nonprofits online and developing their techno-sophistication is a complex matter. It implicates an organization's leadership, its established practices and the work culture. Precisely because networking technologies cut so deep, it is difficult to help organizations make the cultural transition. It is not enough to offer technical seminars or even on-site demonstrations. Because of the numerous and subtle barriers, nonprofits need close, ongoing collaborations with technical experts and active interventions and inducements.
One fledgling effort to get more nonprofits online is being led by Rob Stuart of the Rockefeller Family Fund. The project, highly cost-effective at $75,000 a year, pays for a "circuit rider" technical expert who meets with nonprofit leaders, sets up their equipment and software, and consults with them on an ongoing basis to deal with glitches, questions and general advice. The RFF project seems to have learned a great deal about how to get nonprofits online:
"Based on the first six months of the Project, we have identified four strategic goals essential to building the nonprofit community's capacity to use modern technology for increased effectiveness.
"1. Expose the groups to the technology. Despite the ubiquitous presence of the Internet in the news, many nonprofit groups do not have even basic electronic communication capacities. . . . Nonprofit leaders are often too busy with ongoing projects to afford themselves the opportunity to explore new technologies. Thus, a major goal of the project will be to take the technology to the leaders. The project will perform on site demonstrations and pursue opportunities to give presentations at conferences attended by nonprofit leaders.
"2. Train foundations to identify and support effective communication/technology strategies for grantees. Like their grantees, foundation officers suffer from a lack of exposure to technological advances. The Project will meet with foundation staff, sponsor seminars, make presentations to boards, if desired, and be available for consultation on an ongoing basis.
"3. Help the helpers. The Project will identify models and strategies for "teching up" and "training up" the grantee community. The Project will develop opportunities and strategies for grantees and foundations to increase their technical capacity by keeping track of new products introduced on the market. Additionally, the Project will promote existing technical assistance organizations and work to stimulate new innovative technology training programs.
"4. Promote collaboration amongst the community. The Project will serve to insure that groups and foundations active in promoting technology are kept abreast of what each other are doing. Where possible, the Project will promote the development of a longer term technology strategy within this community."
As this description suggests, simply making expertise available is not enough to get nonprofits online. Outreach must be hands-on and interventionist, not generalized and passive. Many experts I talked to said that nonprofits virtually have to be taken by the scruff of the neck to be put online. But once they're online, they become immensely grateful and enthusiastic users, quickly expanding their general outreach, membership communications, press relations and networking.
One way that the learning curve can be flattened, and innovations quickly diffused through a nonprofit community, is to develop cooperative ventures. Whether it is a technical assistance program or a group Web site, the sharing of online expertise allows new ideas and new solutions to circulate quickly. This kind of collaborative effort was one of the lessons that W. Alton Jones/Brainerd learned: "Environmental organizations also need to leverage their investments in information production by promoting cooperative 'electronic gateways' that guide individuals to the information they need, regardless of who produced it." Beyond the inter-group advantages of such cooperation, electronic gateways shared by like-minded nonprofits help establish a "branded identity" for the groups. They become recognizable, respected editorial platforms, which themselves serve to attract audiences. The more that the site has a distinct personality and reliable, timely information resources, the more likely that it will be accessed by users. (See the excellent report, "Circuit Riders: Pioneers in Non-Profit Networking," published by the W. Alton Jones Foundation.)
Nonprofit groups do not just need to be online; they need to have the capacity to develop their own creative applications. While they ought to use off-the-shelf technologies and software as much as possible, nonprofits have much to gain by using them in innovative ways. Some examples help illustrate this point:
One can imagine other innovative applications. I know of one advocacy organization whose leader conducts 15-minute telephone briefings for his local affiliates via a speakerphone. Imagine the time savings if he could put those briefings on a Web page that could be downloaded at any time using RealAudio software and passwords. Or consider if a video camera were mounted on a computer screen, so that the briefing could be interactive in real time with a small group of people. A virtual meeting could be held fairly inexpensively and spontaneously.
Developing new applications is not without risks. Some innovations fail, or don't quite work the way they are envisioned to work. This has been one criticism of putting online the statistics collected under the Home Mortgage Data Act. HMDA data is far more sophisticated, and generally must be "packaged" and interpreted in order to be useful to local groups using the Community Reinvestment Act. Online access to the raw data does not seem to be the ideal delivery mode for HMDA statistics. One alternative, developed by one group, has been to interpret and synthesize the data so that it can be more useful to local activists -- and then to put that data online. To judge by the impressive number of hyperlinks on the World Wide Web linked to this database, this database seems to be much used.
Tracy Westen has suggested a meta-project that could provide a significant service to the nonprofit community. He proposes that foundations sponsor a software template, or networking model, through which nonprofits could index themselves and their considerable information resources. Westen calls for a "Dewey Decimal system" that will organize the knowledge, resources and expertise of nonprofits and make them widely accessible via the Internet. Such a template would be a new platform that would pro- actively influence the evolution of nonprofits by encouraging them to orient their work and information resources around the new platform. This would echo the role played by the public television broadcasting platform, which made possible and elicited a new genre of television programming that would otherwise never have developed.
A depressing counter-example could be cited as well: the failure of nonprofit and religious groups to secure broadcasting spectrum for themselves -- and thus a viable mass-audience platform -- during the legislative debates leading up to the 1934 Communications Act. This defeat gave commercial broadcast interests free rein to shape American culture and public discourse as they saw fit. Whatever the merits of commercial TV, the effective exclusion of nonprofit, civic interests from radio and TV resulted in an incalculable loss to American culture over the following generations. We occupy a similar window of opportunity -- and peril -- right now.
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