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Non-Profit Organizations' Use of the Internet
Linda Jean Kensicki, Ph.D.
University of Minnesota
304 Murphy Hall
206 Church Street S.E.
Minneapolis, MN 55455
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According to previous research, the internet can potentially form a
Habermasian public sphere that will improve public education, fundraising,
credibility, volunteer recruitment, publicity, advocacy, service delivery,
research and communication. Yet, there is very little research that
evaluates the internet based on information from those actually attempting
to use the technology toward these utopian goals. In this research,
fifty-two people responsible for creating internet strategy and/or web
content for non-profit organizations participated in seven focus groups
across the country. This research found that claims of sweeping
improvements in democratic participation through the internet are not
supported. Almost no organizations utilized the technology for horizontal
and vertical flows of communication, data communality, interactivity, or
engaged participation. Rather, non-profit organizations continue to use the
internet for one-way information dissemination, believe the corporate model
will drive future internet growth, rely exclusively on email and rarely
train internet workers. Further, these non-profit organizations believe the
internet offers little democratizing power (but paradoxically provides
instant credibility), see little measurable value in the internet and
possess little strategic vision for their internet activities. The
implications of these findings for non-profit organizations are discussed.
The strength of any democracy is measured against several factors: the
ability for citizens to organize, the levels of exposure citizens have to
alternative positions, and the range of common experiences citizens share
(Sunstein, 2001). Social movement scholars have long warned that if
non-profit citizen organizations are to flourish, an organizational model
must be in place that is "sufficiently robust to structure sustained
relations with opponents, but flexible enough to permit the informal
connections that link people and networks to one another to aggregate and
coordinate contention" (Tarrow, 1998).
Before the arrival of the internet, technology – which was exemplified by
newspapers, television and radio - was not conducive to creating community
because of the consistently replicated top-down structure that produced
content for the masses (Rucinski, 1991). After the discovery of the
internet, scholars and populists alike predicted sweeping improvements in
democratic participation (Bertelson, 1992). With no central control point
(Berman & Weitzner, 1997) and the ability for users to produce, receive and
distribute information with government officials (Bacard, 1993) almost
instantaneously (Fisher, et al., 1996, Lunenfeld, 1999), citizens could now
utilize the internet to better participate in the democratic process. The
technology of the internet itself appeared to allow for horizontal and
vertical flow of communication (Stromer-Galley, 2000), physical
connectivity, data communality, interactivity and ease of use (Flanagin et
al., 2000). While other media remained one-way, top down forms of
communication that effectively remove public citizenry from the process
(Rucinski, 1991), internet users could interactively exchange information
and participate directly (Bertelson, 1992) for a relatively low cost
(Coombs, 1998) – presumably making the system more responsive to those
outside of the political sphere (Hacker, 1996). The end result of this
progression would inevitably be the removal of representation in government
– through the internet, citizens could participate in a "direct democracy"
Yet, with all the technological advancements, dramatic shifts in democracy
and social change have not followed. Over a decade after the World Wide Web
exploded onto the technological landscape, voting – the principal civic act
– has dropped to a sixty year low (Pew Research Center, 1998), citizens do
not trust governmental institutions (Pew Research Center, 1998), there
remain no citizen initiatives at the national level (Becker, 2001) and
unlike earlier claims of a "direct democracy," citizens continue to seek
representation from governmental officials. In fact, the advent of new
democratic processes because of the internet has not been made clear
(Blumler & Gurevitch, 2001; Diani, 2000).
The three major camps critically examining the internet's democratic
capabilities have centered on questions of general access (Katzman, 1974;
Lengel, 1998; National Telecommunications and Information Administration,
1999), content corporatization and commercialization (Dahlberg, 1998,
Habermas, 1989; Jensen, 1997; McChesney, 2000, Samoriski, 2000) or
universal usage patterns (Leonhirth, Mindich, & Straumanis, 1997; Streck,
1998). Thus, while there have been critical explorations into the
democratic components of the internet, the majority of research has
centered on general communicative issues outside the realm of citizen
non-profit participation for the purpose of social change. Yet, much
scholarly investigation continues to suggest that the internet remains a
strong democratizing tool because of its inherent interactive capabilities
alone (Bolter, 1991; Coombs, 1998; Flowers, 1995; Kapor, 1994; Lanham,
1993; Mitra, 1997).
To date, there are very few studies that examine the actual presence and
performance of non-profit organizations on the internet (Boeder, 2002).
Further, no research could be found that actually evaluates perceptions
from those who actually create non-profits' internet strategy or web
content. Thus, it remains unknown if those responsible for creating the
content actually think that the internet is a purposeful and important tool
in creating social change. Much research has pontificated the seemingly
endless possibilities of the internet, but none has actually based these
conclusions on information from those attempting to use the technology
toward these utopian goals.
This research is built on the supposition that the users, and not
technology alone, predicate social change. Therefore, the impressions and
perceptions of those who create web content for social change are vitally
important in understanding the nascent history of social change through the
internet, the present state of that technology for non-profit
organizations, and the possible future directions of this continuously
burgeoning communication tool. In this research, fifty-two people
responsible for creating internet strategy and/or web content for a
non-profit organization participated in seven focus groups across the
country to gain a better understanding of how non-profit organizations
perceive, negotiate and utilize the internet as a tool for social change.
The Importance of Media to Non-profit Organizations
Non-profit organizations are inherently diverse along almost any
measurement of categorization: size, activities, clients, approach,
origins, and financial security. However, despite this diversity there
appears to be some common characteristics (Spencer, 2002). The
overwhelming majority of non-profit organizations are small,
community-based groups that rely heavily on volunteers. Non-profit
organizations tend to agree on shared causes and are dedicated to a
progressive process of social change for the betterment of themselves and
others, rather than a strictly financial or consumer-driven business model
While initially slow to adopt new technologies in the past (Jamieson,
2000), non-profit organizations have increasingly adopted new technological
modes of action. However, their motives for doing so have "remained largely
familiar, conventional and instrumental" (Scott & Street, 2000, 234).
Indeed, non-profits have adopted new technologies to varying degrees, but
the fundamental need for coverage from the media (including the internet)
has kept the politics of social change relatively unchanged (Scott &
Street, 2000). Publicity has always been a political resource for social
movements and non-profit organizations — an essential political resource.
As Kielbowicz and Sherer stated (1986), the modern media "have become
central to the life and death of social movements."
The media provide information to others, which plays a fundamental
structural role in personal decision-making (Gandy, 1982). Media content
become an "authoritative version of reality, a way of knowing associated
with high levels of cultural legitimacy" (Barker-Plummer 1995, 3). Thus,
media offer a type of membership of knowledge that participators engage in
and learn from. The media continue to be the place where publics attempt to
define themselves and obtain legitimacy from elites in society
As Olson (1965) noted, social movements and non-profit organizations are
already fighting the almost insurmountable task of presenting activities in
an appealing way for the potential recruit. In media-saturated societies,
"voice in the news is a key part of making one's 'account count' in the
public sphere" (Barker-Plummer 1995, 307). Traditionally, media has served
as a symbolic form of power for an organization because with it, groups
have the possibility for achieving the social change they are striving for.
Unfavorable media coverage can halt the growth of an organization —
effectively slowing the process of social change.
Whether it is through "traditional" or "untraditional" avenues, the public
continues to receive their information concerning non-profit organizations
primarily from the media. Relatively few in our society form their opinions
of social movements and non-profit organizations through personal contact.
Gitlin stated that the media image, "tends to become 'the movement' for
wider publics and institutions who have few alternative sources of
information" (1980, 3). It has been found that media contribute to learning
and adoption of norms and behavioral expectations by showing symbolic
rewards and punishments for particular attitudes and behaviors (Bandura,
The importance of media to non-profit organization has been made clear.
Yet, non-profit organizations and activist groups have long charged that
traditional mass media misrepresent their purpose or polarize their issues
to the general news audience (Barker-Plummer, 1996; Gitlin, 1980; Lang
& Lang, 1981; van Zoonen, 1992). Their frustration has stemmed from the
knowledge that those who control power within society have traditionally
created the mass ideology of citizen organizations (Grossberg, Wartella &
Whitney, 1998). However, the arrival of the internet has allowed for
organizations to present their own ideology to a truly mass audience —
without any mediation — for the first time in history. This ability to pass
the traditional media gatekeepers is the central reason for the internet's
ability to rival mainstream outlets (Hume, 1995).
Technology that made the web possible first emerged in 1991 (Leiner et.
al., 2002). Only two years later, web browsers became available. Since
then, internet use has skyrocketed. In 1995, five million Americans had
access to the internet. Four years later, in 1999, that number jumped to 50
million (Stempel, Hargrove & Bernt, 2000). The Commerce Department (2000)
estimates that one billion users might be online by 2005.
With the unprecedented growth of the internet, has come the potential
benefits of self-representation for non-profit organizations as well as the
ability to communicate with other individuals and organizations that have
similar causes – essentially forming a Habermasian public sphere. The
internet now makes possible "a resource that has never been available to
non-profits before now: affordable, direct, interactive access to the
public at large" (Civille, 1997). The technology allows for an
extraordinary opportunity to propel democratic participation (Ess, 1996),
where individuals can assert their "ideas, concerns and demands before all
others" (Dertouzos, 1991). In fact, the technology alone could likely be "a
way of revitalizing the open and wide-spread discussions among citizens
that feed the roots of democratic society" (Rheingold, 1993). As one
scholar stated, "the age of public sphere as face-to-face talk is clearly
over: the question of democracy must henceforth take into account new forms
of electronically mediated discourse" (Poster, 1997, p. 209).
The Potential of the internet for Non-Profit Organizations
Many researchers have talked at length about the potential uses of the
internet for non-profit organizations. Landesmann (1997) argued that
non-profits could improve their public education, fundraising, volunteer
recruitment, publicity, advocacy, service delivery, research and
communication through an effective internet presence. National non-profits
could communicate with greater ease to their local branches (Barndt, 1998).
Third sector organizations could also expand training, media relations,
community building, knowledge sharing and opinion sampling (Spencer, 2002).
Certainly, governmental organizations and businesses with a commercial
interest have many of these shared concerns. Yet, non-profit organizations,
with their particular emphasis on advocacy, volunteerism, fundraising
(Johnson, 1999), and relationship building, have a unique opportunity to
utilize the internet as a Habermasian public sphere in the way that many
early scholars predicted.
Advances in technology make it immediately important that non-profit
organizations take an active part in the online community (Spencer, 2002).
Spencer goes on to state that the internet "holds considerable potential
for fulfilling objectives of providing information, educating, advocating,
building expertise, raising money and developing relationships with
members, volunteers, sponsors and the public" (Spencer, 2002). While it was
difficult to even find non-profits online before 1999 (Boeder, 2002), they
have been turning to the internet at a faster rate – particularly large
non-profits (Princeton Survey Research Associates, 2001).
As technology advances, the potential of the internet for non-profit
organizations only continues to grow. The W. K. Kellogg Foundation (Clohesy
& Reis, 2000) identified eight emerging categories of non-profit web sites:
e-commerce shopping/profit sharing, fundraising and advertising,
philanthropy and donor services, knowledge and capacity building,
volunteering and service, social advocacy and action, events and auctions
and portals/full spectrum services. These categories all coalesce into a
"single, all-encompassing communication platform in an increasingly global
informational economy" (Boeder, 2002).
An examination of for-profit use of the internet reveals that an effective
and strategic use of the internet leads to more "efficient production
structures, improved economy of scale and intensified co-operation"
(Boeder, 2002). Fundraising, the internet's initial beacon of hope for
nonprofits, hasn't proven to be as profitable for the non-profit industry
as many had hoped (Johnson, 1999). However, as people become more
accustomed to the internet and if confidence concerning the privacy of
donations continues to grow, that fact may change.
Recruiting volunteers is an important burgeoning area of the internet for
non-profit organizations. It appears that meta-organizations and umbrella
organizations have seen the biggest success thus far. For example, during
only one week in 2002, Impact Online, an umbrella volunteer organization
quoted 10,000 volunteer referrals (Spencer, 2002). However, with the right
mix of publicity and networking, individual organizations certainly have
great opportunity to connect with potential volunteers.
The internet also has the potential to lend credibility to a non-profit
organization. These organizations depend on educating the public about
their causes and mission. Persuasion depends on a credible perception. Much
like commercial sites, the viability of future operations depends on it.
Thus far, it appears as if this is working –journalists rely on non-profit
sites more than for-profit sites for credible information (Dollarhide,
1999). If non-profits maintain this adherence to credible messages, they
could serve as a model for other organizations to follow on the internet,
and the result would only mean more attention to their cause.
The third sector is "increasingly aware of the potential of the internet
for effective advocacy" (Spencer, 2002) and it implicitly understands the
importance of community building (Jamieson, 2000). Indeed, the "primary
mission [of a non-profit organization] is to constantly build and develop a
force of individuals who understand and support the initiatives the
organization would like to take (Stewart, 1999). Through three main
functions – email, listserves, and a web presence (Spencer, 2002), advocacy
and community building on the internet could flourish. If users continue to
rely on email for routine communication because of its simplicity and ease
of use, effective email contacts could support continued advocacy and
organizational website use. Meanwhile, more complex issues could be more
effectively discussed in a listserve forum, where information can be shared
and feedback given. Finally, the web could serve as a space for strategic,
focused information dissemination, which provides specific space for
individuals to take action (Spencer, 2002).
As one scholar wrote, "non-profit organizations cannot afford to ignore the
internet." (Johnson, 1999). Fortunately, the level of resources needed may
be decreasing as more open source software and open, XML-based standards
for data exchange become more prevalent (Boeder, 2002). This may mean that
more and more non-profits are using and will continue to use the web to
bolster their causes. It certainly appears that a lack of presence on the
web, a lackluster visual site, or a poorly organized structure can lead to
a loss of funding when competing with other more technologically advanced
organizations (National Strategy for Non-Profit Technology, 1999).
Under-representation on the web also translates to a lost opportunity for
continually struggling non-profits to encourage advocacy, build community,
gain credibility, and attract volunteers. But, what of the non-profits that
are utilizing the internet for social change? How do they gauge the
efficacy of their actions? Are the utopian projections of a flourishing
on-line community that can translate to off-line action coming to fruition?
While research suggests that organizations gain credibility by going
on-line, are there any other tangible benefits to internet technology?
In total, seven focus group meetings were held across the country between
March and June of 2002. Three meetings took place in Austin, Texas (pop in
2000: 456,562), two in San Francisco (pop in 2000: 776, 733) and two in New
York City (pop in 2000: 8,008,208). These cities were selected because they
are evenly dispersed geographically across the country; their populations
roughly represent a small, medium and large urban area; and all were among
the top ten cities with non-profit associations in the United States
(National Directory of Non-profit Organizations, 2002). The author served
as the moderator and one assistant was present.
Participants were recruited from two sources: Guidestar, an online national
database of non-profit organizations and the National Directory of
Non-profit Organizations. Email addresses of organizations listed in these
two directories were compiled into a master list for the three cities.
Respondents received lunch for participating and were told that their input
would be anonymous. Samples of job titles from focus group participants
were Vice President of Public Education, Marketing Director, Website
Contact Coordinator, Web Manager, Technology Manager, Executive Director,
Webmaster, Director of Public Communication, Website Editor, Information
Technology Coordinator, Communications Director, and Technology Specialist.
Again, only those who were responsible for creating internet strategy
and/or web content for a non-profit organization were invited to attend.
Using the eight categories of non-profits listed in Guidestar as a guide,
some examples of organizations represented at the seven focus groups were
religious organizations such as the Jewish Community Centers of America and
Christians for Fatherhood; public, societal benefit organizations such as E
the People.org (an online town hall), Century Foundation for Public Policy
(focused on federal election reform and generating social services policy),
Democracy Net (a voters guide service), ACLU, League of Women Voters, Black
Radical Congress, and Campaigns for People (promotes reforms that restrain
the influence of money on state government); international organizations
such as Action Without Borders, Center for Third World
Organizing, Population Council and UNESCO (United Nations Educational
Scientific & Cultural Organization); human services organizations such as
FreeNet (an organization that provides access to the internet for the
poor), Sustainable Food Center, Safe Place (an organization for battered
women), Family Violence Prevention Fund, United Way, and Urban Housing
Assistance Corridor; health organizations such as Guinea Development
Foundation (promotes healthcare for Guinea), Sunrise Center (a mental
health center for immigrants), California Physicians Alliance, Engender
Health (services surrounding reproductive health), and Project Transitions
(provides hospice care for people with HIV); environment and animal
organizations such as PetsAlive and Earth Justice; education and research
organizations such as the Teachers Education Association, and the Institute
for Retired Professionals at New School (a campus based organization for
older students); and arts, culture and humanities organizations such as
Voices Lesbian Choral Ensemble, Girlscouts, Arts, Crafts & Theater Safety,
Campfire Organization (creates activities and experiences for girls), and
the Bay Area Labor Chorus.
While this list is not a comprehensive tally of all organizations that
participated, it is indicative of the breadth of input received from all
seven focus groups held across the country. Organizations that participated
ranged in size from one, such as the Christians for Fatherhood
organization, to hundreds, such as Girlscouts and the United Way. These
organizations had services ranging from only a few members to more than
400,000, as is the case of the ACLU.
Using theoretical saturation as a goal, focus group meetings were added
until little new information was obtained (Krueger, 1988). In total,
sixteen people participated in Austin focus groups. The first and second
focus group meetings in Austin consisted of six each and the third had four
attendants. Nineteen people participated in San Francisco focus groups. The
first San Francisco meeting had 10 participants while the second had nine.
Finally, 17 people participated in New York focus groups. The first New
York focus group meeting had 6 and the final New York group had 11
participants. Thus, the total number of participants was 52 – well above
what is typically needed for theoretical saturation (Morgan, 1997).
In keeping with recent focus group research (Goodman, 2002), individual
statements were coded according to a four-stage constant comparison method,
first developed by Glaser and Strauss (1967) and later outlined by Lincoln
and Guba (1985). Each statement from participants was coded into as many
categories as possible (Lindlof, 1995; Krueger, 1988). Following the
four-stage comparison method, statements were repeatedly compared with the
attributes of each category to integrate categories as much as possible,
given the theory's boundaries and theoretical saturation. This process
allowed for further unification and the ability to "make some related
theoretical sense of each comparison" (Glaser & Strauss, 1967, 109).
Focus group interviews followed a loose structure that was often dictated
by the direction of discussion. In employing a qualitative methodology, it
was possible to obtain open-ended responses that allowed participants to
articulate their own perceptions of the success of non-profit organizations
on the web, which could then be compared to researchers'
conceptualizations. Given that web content changes so frequently, and that
the results reported here are from meetings that took place over four
months, conclusions should be viewed as a representation of one particular
moment in time.
Following the Corporate Model
Over half of all internet users shop online (Pew Research, 2001). This,
coupled with the fact that online shoppers are more impulsive than others
(Donthu & Garcia, 1999), makes the internet fertile ground for electronic
commerce – and the line between for-profit and non-profit organizations
appears to be blurring when it comes to ecommerce. An examination of
corporate web pages, found that 82 percent of Fortune 500 companies
addressed at least one social responsibility issue in their web page while
promoting their product (Esrock & Leichty, 1998). As Boeder (2002) writes,
when it comes to fundraising, the border between non-profits and
for-profits is by no means fixed.
The non-profit organizations in this study stated emphatically that they
were either pursuing or had already established a "corporate model." One
woman who identified herself as the Marketing Director of an Austin
non-profit organization stated flatly that her "directive is to bring the
for-profit business model into this sector." Another participant in Austin
stated that her organizational directive was to turn the "informational
tool of the internet into a marketing tool. We've built our site around
business models." A San Franciscan lamented that "I'll see some corporate
site that's doing all these things. And I'll be like, I want our nonprofit
site to do that."
In New York, another participant said that "what we're doing more and more
as an organization, as I'm sure a lot of nonprofits are doing, is getting
corporate sponsorships." Although one participant in that group did say
that she was skeptical of any corporate involvement in her organization,
the remaining participants agreed that this is an inevitable next step in
any economic model based on the internet.
While some research shows that for-profit organizations are implementing
e-commerce at a rapid pace (Boeder, 2002), other research finds that
corporate pages do not use the technology to its fullest potential (Esrock
& Leichty, 1999) and only 15.9 percent of Fortune 500 companies used the
web for financial transactions (Aikat, 2000), non-profit participants in
this study fully believed that the corporate world had established a
burgeoning web-based sales process and they were determined to follow. As
one New York man said, "commercial organizations have invested so much in
keeping in touch with me….what can we learn from the other side of the fence?"
As Flanagin (2000) states, ambiguity is inherent in internet technology.
This uncertainty inhibits rational organizational decision making (March &
Simon, 1958) and increases the likelihood that one can be influenced by
others (Moscovici, 1976). Thus, the adoption of internet technologies may
be subject to social pressures (Contractor & Eisenberg, 1990, Flanagin,
2000). In this case, these pressures to adopt technology for the promise of
economic return may be unfounded.
The adherence to a commercial model persists despite little factual support
for the efficacy of non-profit fundraising or volunteer recruitment (Finn,
1998) on the internet. While fundraising dominates non-profit literature
about possible economic returns of internet adoption (Johnson, 1999), it
appears as if very few organizations have raised money through the internet
(Stewart, 1999). In 1999, the estimated volume of fundraising achieved over
the internet was .24 percent of non-profit funding (Stewart, 1999).
One New Yorker agreed that "the things that people were hoping for
initially, which was basically money, certainly hasn't been the big – it
hasn't sort of helped people in the way they really had been expecting."
Another New Yorker said "a couple years ago, I remember, everybody thought
they were going to raise money online and that, sort of hope, finally
crashed…not, in the kind of numbers that people were hoping to, sort of,
get….figuring out what the value is, is, sort of tough." Another Austin
woman, following the nodding heads of agreement from all others in the room
said plainly, "we've had no luck on our website…." Indeed, almost no
participants found the internet to be financially beneficial. Yet, even in
the face of economic losses, most non-profits remained committed to the
e-commerce model. In Austin, one woman said that her organization is
"pretty excited that they can finally accept donations online." The
organization had set up an e-commerce function on their site just over six
months ago. The organization had still not "seen any real benefit from it",
but "the fact that it is there" was an "exciting prospect" for the
Indeed, hope of what e-commerce may bring to a non-profit appear to be
dwarfed by financial returns that have only remote possibilities of
success. In New York, one man stated that "we like a personal contact with
our buyers and contributors…so we've been afraid of losing that personal
element…but, whatever, we're ready to go though. We're making a change to
e-commerce in the next quarter."
Surprisingly, many participants admitted to selling goods and services that
were once free simply to prove the benefits of the internet to themselves,
board members and potential donors. In scrambling to find ways to make
money on the internet, one New York organization has decided to sell
previously free items, "simply to prove that the internet has some value…we
just really find that we can not give away that much stuff any more…we've
found in this economic environment, people are just going to have to pay a
little bit of money for it." The desperation to raise funds on the internet
has led several of the participating groups to even consider selling
information that was once considered private. As one New York participant
said, "we get calls every day from people who want to buy our mailing list.
That might be something…". Nobody in the focus group refuted this possibility.
Interestingly, this adherence to corporate dollars also persists even
though the majority of participants found the growing corporate presence on
the internet dismaying. As one San Francisco woman stated, "It [the
internet] became so horribly commercialized. I mean some of it was cool,
but on the other hand…I find it extremely annoying that any time I go onto
a search engine, I have to close down at least two advertisements before I
can do what I want to do. And, to me really, that gets in the way of the
social change power of the tool. And, I think that the non-profit community
has continued to be very creative in how they use the technology but it
pales in comparison to the commercial and military applications."
E-mail is, by far, the most commonly used internet function (i.e. Buie,
2001; Princeton Survey Research Associates, 2001; Spencer, 2002).
Non-profit participants certainly agreed. As one New York representative
said, "what did I do before I had email? No way did I call all these
people…email allows you to be so much more productive…" In San Francisco,
another commented, "and to do it on your on schedule. It's kind of like, in
the old days, voice mail systems or answering machines…first it seemed like
a pain and then when you were using it, it was like, 'why don't they have
an answering machine? I don't want to call all day until I reach them!'" In
Austin, one man said it's central benefit is because "it's non-obtrusive.
You can send an email at 2 in the morning. You're not waking them up in the
middle of the night but you are getting that thought off your mind and
This reliance and adoration of email has changed how non-profit
organizations operate internally. In San Francisco, one woman said
that "somebody may be sitting in the office next to me, but I'll send an
email." Such reliance has led many non-profits to seek volunteers simply to
answer email. In New York, one man said that his organization simply can't
"handle that volume." This reliance on email led some to question the need
for it in the first place. As one Austin man said, "the whole internet has
increased my workload…just email. I could spend the entire day just doing
Email appears to be a large benefit for general access as well. "Email…sort
of the lowest common denominator, so you don't sort of have this very high
bar set that a lot of people can't reach. Often, you go to sites that are
say for non-profits and they've got, like, fifty frames, and flash 6
animations that take an hour to download and it's just ridiculous…Email is
a good tool to exchange and share information. It's sort of the common
denominator that everyone can use."
Interestingly, while the benefits of email are well-documented (Gilbert,
2001), very few of the participants reported collecting addresses on their
website, and only a few participants reported having an up-to-date listing
of email addresses. There also seemed to be some lament over personal
relationships lost and the possibility that this reliance on email has
caused an actual reduction in participation. As one Austin man said Austin
man: "I really hate to see us slip into this impersonal communication
style…once we connect, it's so much more powerful. Rather than [when] I'm
part of a broadcast to a 1,000 people…hey, come to the meeting. Wow. How
important is that. Should I be there or not? I'm just one of many."
All of the participants said that they use email for daily contact with
potential funders, members or clients. Yet, many said that when they are
looking for "increased credibility" as one person put it, they move to the
telephone. In New York, several participants agreed that people are getting
"sick of their in-boxes." Others agreed that email was losing credibility
for many of their clients. In Austin, one woman said, "We have this
argument constantly…whether its better to send written testimony or
email…some people do not believe that email is a viable contact."
Further, there appears to be a growing backlash against email. In San
Francisco, a male participant stated that "we have 15-1600 members that
receive newsletters and we ask, who wants to receive it electronically?
Maybe 50 or 60 do. So, I'd like to see it as a higher number, especially
since I know 70-80 percent of them have emails." Put bluntly, one New York
participant stated that "people are just getting sick of email…and frankly,
I don't blame them. I'm one of them!"
Questionable Democratizing Power
Several researchers have asserted that the internet has created a deeper
deliberative democracy whereby a Habermasian public sphere can develop
(Abe, 1998, Dahlberg, 2000, Wilhelm, 2000). Much research is convinced that
the internet will make citizens more informed about political, cultural and
social events and thereby more active and engaged in the democratic process
(Budge, 1996; Nederman, Jones & Fitzgerald, 1998; Tapscott, 1995).
Indeed, there are literally tens of thousands of virtual communities in
cyberspace, "flourishing via e-mail lists, electronic bulletin boards,
online chat groups and role-playing domains" (Dahlberg, 2001, 617). These
are often linked to mega-communities, such as the onelist.com, which has
over 900,000 groups and Geocities, which allows users to build homepages
around interest areas with other participants. At first glance, entities
such as these seem to support a thriving online democracy, but other
researchers have found that these groups do not expand beyond ideologically
homogeneous clusters (Davis, 1999; Hill & Hughes, 1998).
Non-profit participants appeared to be skeptical of the on-line democratic
transformations suggested by scholars. Certainly several participants
believed that the internet had democratized their cause. Many pointed to
the global abilities of the internet. "Without the internet we couldn't
possibly have the international infrastructure that we have now" said one
San Francisco participant.
Others supporting the democratizing power of the internet pointed to the
ability for transparency – particularly within the organization itself. In
Austin, one person said that "we really rely on our intranet more than the
internet. I don't know how much outsiders feel more democracy, but we feel
it inside the organization." A New Yorker said that "the internet is more
of a valuable staff tool than it is to reach clients."
Still others in support of the democratic ability of the internet pointed
to it's inherent ease of access. "The use of the internet, no matter how
poor, and we're as poor as they come, can have some sort of publication
where widely available, maybe not great circulation, but can put out
something…" Another San Franciscan said, "The most exciting thing about the
internet for me is that it is flattening the playing field." In New York,
one man said that "it's totally revolutionized the way we work. I think we
are 10 times as effective and efficient as we were before, being able to
get our message between each other and network with other groups…."
Yet, roughly 60 percent of participants thought that the internet is merely
more of the same and that early hopes of democracy on the internet were
overstated. Some participants argued that it hasn't improved democracy, but
it hasn't hindered it either, but the majority echoed the concerns of one
researcher who wrote that the internet has so far "been an instrument
extending and reinforcing existing political behavior and beliefs"
(O'Loughlin, 2001, 602).
In San Francisco, one man summed up the expressed thoughts of many present
by saying "there was this sort of this mythos of the web early on where if
you had a website all of a sudden there was like, the whole word had access
to your information where in fact the rules now are well, it's just like
all the big players, like if you're a big enough player to get your message
out there then yeah, people will come to your website, you know, and it
still it comes back to the major media…it's about money and access."
Another San Francisco participant quickly interjected, "even within the
nonprofit community, when you have $80,000 to spend you sure as hell can do
a lot more than if you have $5,000…and so, when you're a corporation and
you've got a million dollar web budget or whatever it is, you know, there
is no way we can compete with that."
In New York, one member stated emphatically that she was not "completely
sold on the whole idea that our website is democratizing our information.
Viewers can't get any more information from us that they couldn't already
get from our paper-based promotional materials…It's still people who have
access to the internet in general who will have access to that
information." At that point, the entire New York group agreed.
One participant commented that "ten years ago, I would have thought that
the access to the technology and the technology would have changed the way
we organized our work in our offices…that certainly does not seem to have
happened." A San Franciscan said, "is it really using the internet to its
greatest demand? Is it drawing in new communities to bring them tools that
they didn't have before? Is it leading to greater democratization? No."
Asking similar rhetorical questions, a New Yorker stated, "are we changing
people's lives? Are we helping people? That stuff is hard to gauge." In San
Francisco, one participant adamantly argued, "Just keep in mind, why was
this technology developed in the first place? It was developed by the
military….this was not designed to democratize anything. This was designed
to allow for coordinated communication across vast distances by multiple
parties. It was not designed for what we want it to do."
The ultimate lack of democratic power appears to lie with the inability of
most non-profits to reach their client base through the internet. In New
York, one man said that "people who need these services, some of them will
get to the internet, but we certainly don't expect it." One Austin
participant said that "what concerns me is that, to what extent is our move
toward technology a move also toward homogeneity. That's a concern. When we
finally do have face to face meetings, it's a whole bunch of white people
sitting around a table. Middle-class folks for the most part."
Recent studies have shown that credibility ratings for both the internet
and traditional media may be on the rise (Stepp, 2001; Pew Research Center,
2000). Yet, as the internet gains in popularity, research has shown that
users may be becoming increasingly savvy about which information and
sources to believe and which to disregard (Flanagin & Metzger, 2001). Other
research finds a reduced credibility on the internet that is due to a lack
of professional standards (Finberg & Stone, 2002), a dearth of editorial
gatekeeping (Flanagin & Metzger, 2000), widespread attempts to parody
official sources online (Shenk, 1997, Whillock, 1997), the propensity to
rush deadlines on a 24-hour web clock (Brill, 2001), the possibility of
linking to other pages that may contain errors (Nadarajan & Ang, 1999), and
the simple fact that users are more accustomed to reading contextual cues
of credibility from traditional media (Newhagen & Levy, 1997). However, a
remaining vestige of apparent credibility for non-profit sites in
particular is reflected in a recent survey of journalists that found they
relied more on non-profit Web sites than business sites for credible
information (Dollarhide, 1999).
Focus group participants seemed unaware of any plunging credibility gap on
the Internet. In Austin, one focus group participant said, "It's a tool of
credibility…whether there is something on that web page or not, it probably
wouldn't even matter. If you have a URL, [potential funders] are
interested." As one woman, responsible for her organization's website
stated, the purpose of our website is "just there to find us. It makes us
Even when many questioned the accuracy of the internet, the fundamental
credibility was unwavering. As one San Franciscan said, "the problem of
sending information via the internet and all of that, is that we don't
always know the accuracy of it. We assume that it's accurate but it's not."
Asked how do you build credibility, the same San Franciscan answered,
"information. Consistent information…and just being there." This was echoed
by an Austin participant who said "you are almost not legitimate unless
you have [a website]."
Indeed, there appears to be a widespread assumption that every organization
simply must have a web presence – regardless of the content that it holds.
The internet has become an essential form of communication (Jordan, 2001)
that requires anyone and everyone to have a presence on it. Given this
absolutist approach to participating on the web, many in these focus groups
have come to regret the amount of work that the web has added to their
already pressured lives. In reporting to a board of doctors for a health
non-profit organization, he found that board members think "because the web
exists, because computers are fun and cool, we have to do everything using
the web and computers. Every document we produce has to be in an index
that's on the web. Every event that we have has to have a web forum
discussion. Even though these members have no interest in it, it's the
thing that we should be doing."
Another in San Francisco, stated that he spends a big portion of his time
constantly questioning, "do we really need to do this? All this work to
create a web forum, for example…are we going to have a single person there?
Once you have the skills the issue is no longer what can you do, but what
should you do. Unfortunately, everyone I work with says do it if you can do
it, it makes us look better."
Rogerson (2003) states that one of the great dilemmas of the information
age is for free-flowing information to maintain its value as it moves.
Unfortunately, the overwhelming majority – while still viewing the medium
itself as credible – found that they simply could not place a specific
value on the internet, nor quantify how the internet has helped their
non-profit organization. In New York, one man stated plainly that "nobody's
quite sure how to demonstrate the value of the internet. If somebody
downloads 1,000 reports, is that good? Or if you have 10,000 visitors come
up, is that good? I don't know." Similarly stated, an Austinite said, "yes,
you've gotten 10 hits in one day for potential volunteers. Is that 10 out
of 10 or 10 out of 10,000?" Even organizations that began with the internet
have difficulty measuring success. One Austin woman said, "we're not that
old…We started our organization with a web page. From the get-go, we had
something on the web. We don't even have a telephone. We have a telephone
number, but it's just a voicebox. We're a virtual company. We have a couple
of Yahoo groups and electronic newsletters. But, honestly, I don't think I
could parse out the effectiveness of all this technology."
Many felt that they were continuously busy reinventing old modes of
communication and simply repeating content. A webdesigner in Austin argued
that, "you just feel like we could do a better job of capturing the
knowledge base….because people keep asking the same questions." To that, a
roomful of participants agreed.
Echoing the concerns of others in the room, a New Yorker said, "the whole
idea that if we have a website, people will find us. There's a billion
websites out there and people finding you just because you have one…it's
just really hard to make this work." In New York another participant said,
"I don't really think that, in some ways I think the web has been really
helpful to an organization like mine, because we can get our research out
to a lot more people, but I'm not convinced that its really helped our
organization in any way other than to disseminate more quickly, but we
haven't found a way to make the information we give away and the services
we provide on the web come back to help us in the form increased funding or
increased publication sales." In San Francisco, participants were
particular about what has not been working for them on the internet. One
man said, "we don't see anybody use our listserves or discussion boards."
Another followed up by said, "I don't know what to make of all this. I'm
not sure what the internet has done."
Certainly, not everyone agreed with the perspective that the internet had
minimal value. One Austin man stated plainly that "it is absolutely
indispensable to the area I'm in…we are both a service and an advocacy
organization…[our] issues are basically frozen out of the media…the only
place where the message that we have to give can get out to the public
without being filtered through the media is the internet. There are
enormous resources on the internet that you can't find anywhere else." Yet,
roughly 90 percent of participants found great fault with the performance
of the internet thus far. As this exposed discontent continued to rise
throughout discussions, some participants stated absolute disappointment
with the internet. In Austin, one woman said, "I guess the internet can be
an effective tool. It has not been yet for us…for our cause." To that
statement, another responded, "It provides instant gratification. We have
to have it, but I'm not sure how to say what we've got." Yet, given this
discontent, relatively few of the participants took active steps to measure
their internet presence. Roughly 75 percent of participants did not track
how many users access their site – a relatively simple execution on the web.
Coombs (1998) argues that activists and non-profits must promote their
websites on major internet search engines, such as Yahoo, Google or Lycos –
and also must urge similar sites to link to their own. These steps will
help "trigger interest and awareness of a web site" (Coombs, 1998, 300).
However, in Austin, one woman questioned the very purpose of all this
information. "Others have set up a lot of lists…Yahoo Groups and so on. And
none of us – and we are community technology folks – and we don't use it.
We don't like to use it. We don't use it often. It's the last thing we
think of. We don't read half the stuff that gets posted. Maybe we scan it
for what might be useful. But almost all of it isn't. Nobody can keep up."
In explaining some of the unlocated value of the internet, one Austin
participant said that "if you don't know how to organize then no amount of
online petitions is going to help or going to work or be any benefit. You
have to know the fundamentals."
Interestingly, after all of this largely negative discussion, each
participant was asked if they would prefer to return to the early nineties
when the internet was not widely used. Not one participant thought that
this would be a beneficial alternative. As one participant said, "I don't
know how people did it before the technology." And all echoed one
participant's statement that "I don't know what we would do without it."
Lack of Training
As of June 2000, the internet Economy directly employed more than three
million workers in the United States (University of Texas, 2001). However
this number measures only those that work in for-profit corporations,
either for young Web-centric companies (SpencerStuart, 1999) or for
traditional industrial and service firms that are just beginning to
integrate the internet into their business strategy (Marschall, 2002). To
date, there has been no measurement of internet workers' employment in the
Measuring new media employment is difficult due to the flexible nature of
information age work (Castells, 1996, Sennett, 1998) in which those
responsible for managing and strategizing new media content must update
their skills and job titles constantly (Webster, 1995). Indeed, "new media
workers, in particular, exemplify this kind of flexibility, facing job
insecurity in contract-based service work, variable work schedules, and
constant readjustment to the new, digital technology" (Kotamraju,
2002). Those embedded in this quickly changing workplace (Herman, 1998)
face extreme financial costs in updating skills, such as constant software
upgrades (Manis, 1991) in an almost simultaneous process of reskilling
(Zuboff, 1988). These relatively high costs may be the reason that those in
the non-profit sector are falling behind their for-profit counterparts.
Yet, it is precisely these advances in technology that make it increasingly
important for non-profits to become actively involved in the development of
online communication (Spencer, 2002). The non-profits participating in this
study clearly saw the disconnect between training and progress. One
participant said that "we absolutely need training. If we want it global,
we need it." However, while the recognition of this disconnect exists, the
funding for these positions does not. In Austin, a woman stated flatly that
"we're not giving anybody any kind of training for technology." All of the
participants in that focus group meeting agreed saying, "it's just not in
the budget." Most agreed with one San Franciscan's statement that she had
""so many more plans in [her] head than [she was] able to execute." Another
participant said, "we'd like more bells and whistles in terms of graphics
and things like that. We just don't have anybody to do it."
In fact, the overwhelming finding through these focus group meetings was
that all those responsible for designing and maintaining their web pages
had absolutely no training nor experience. As one participant said, "I'm
the webmaster because I sit closest to the biggest computer we have."
Another commented that, "I'm involved in everything from which fax machine
is best for our organization to building web pages and stuff." Another
participant stated flatly, "we have absolutely no training…and we're in
charge of doing this stuff." One organization representative said "it seems
like, you know, the youngest person in the organization is always
responsible for the website." To this statement, another replied
"unfortunately, we are leaving some of our most sophisticated leads to some
of the most unsophisticated people."
Non-profit organizations appear to dispatch much of their information
technology work to volunteers (Burt & Taylor, 2001), primarily because
qualified IT professionals usually can demand higher salaries in the
private sector. However, when non-profits are not fortunate enough to
locate volunteers with that important information technology skill set,
most non profits simply remain ambivalent towards technology adoption
(Tsaliki, 2003). An Austin woman said that their organization finally made
much needed changes on their website "only because an advertising agency
volunteered to redesign our website. Nobody in house could do it."
Yet, farming out technical expertise has huge costs according to many of
the participants. Non-profits often find themselves in what one participant
called "the hell of someone making something and no one else can support
it." In Austin, the Communications Director of one organization said that
"we've had volunteers come in and update [the organization website], but it
hasn't really worked out really well. It ends up falling on the shoulders
of one poor, unfortunate person who knows vaguely how to do it."
Again, this finding was not monolithic. There were rare exceptions to this
majority view. One Austin woman said that her organization does indeed
offer technological training. Yet, she represented one of the only
organizations that said this was the case. In total, there were 6
participants who boasted an internet training system for employees.
One-way Information Dissemination
Through the framework of Habermas' theory of communicative action (1984),
the internet seems to allow for non-elites to negotiate multiple views of
reality (Leonhirth, Mindich & Straumanis, 1997). While discussion may not
meet Schudson's (1997) guidelines for democracy (rule-governed, public,
civil, yet uncomfortable discourse oriented toward problem solving), nor
allow for outside interests to enter debate (Leonhirt, Mindich &
Straumanis, 1997; Streck, 1998), the internet has the possibility to allow
citizens to problem-solve complicated issues (Murray, 1998). One thing
appears clear from the research: interactive, personalized, one-to-one
relationships is emerging as a successful component of strategic internet
growth (Peppers & Rogers, 1999).
While this debate on democratic levels of internet discourse continues,
this research found that all of the focus group participants rarely or
never used the interactive functions of the internet. The overwhelming
majority of participants in this research (roughly 90 percent), saw the
internet principally as a tool for information dissemination. Echoing
previous research that found very little discursive, interactive
communication and a preponderance of publicity-focused information
dissemination (Tsaliki, 2003), focus group participants stated that having
information available on the web is their organizations' primary concern.
While all of the participants knew of the possibilities inherent in the
internet, most kept their web presence basic. One participant characterized
her organizations' web presence as "static information only…very blah."
Another participant said that "we us the internet to push our information
out to as many people as possible. Pure and simple." Although this
persistent push of information out had some participants wary. As one man
said, "I need personalized contacts…personalized hand written notes, I
can't just send out blank emails…if I just do that, they won't read it any
more. We don't want to make it so the internet is just left spam."
Other research has found that many non-profit websites receive the same
information via the internet that they could have received if they
approached the organization with a request for printed information
(DiGrazia, 2000). One participant stated succinctly, "all the information
we have the web, you could get ten different places." In New York, one
woman stated that after evaluating her organizations' hits over the last
years, she found that there was indeed a rise in traffic. However, she also
found a concomitant decrease in the amount of inquiries she gets at the
central office about her organization. Another participant responded:
"because you are getting everything you need from the web. Why do you need
to talk to someone? I'm perfectly happy not talking to people."
The reliance on information dissemination was overwhelmingly viewed as
positive although most had basic knowledge of the technological
capabilities of the internet. As one Austin woman said, "90 percent of new
members joined my organization during one legislative session because of
what they learned online." This information learned was clearly central for
how these non-profit organizations viewed their growth via the internet.
The central tenet of the organizations that participated in this focus
group was to get information out to the public. While many saw future
possibilities of interactive communication through the internet, most cited
a lack of resources for immediate implementation. One participant stated
that "our people are so far maxed out that the addition of an internet
conversation piece, I think, would just be too much right now."
Lack of Strategy
While some research has found that non-profits must continuously examine
the changing needs of society and constantly redesign their organizational
structure accordingly (Perlmutter & Gummer, 1994), only very few of the
participants mentioned even a passing knowledge of organizational strategy
or societal needs. Certainly, there appeared to be a huge disconnect
between those responsible for the organization's internet presence and
strategic implementation of any stated or implicit goals. As one
participant in New York said, "people just sort of, got together, and had a
beer and said we should do [a webpage]." Another participant said that "we
can't even figure out what is or is not relevant on our webpage." In San
Francisco, one participant said that "the maintenance of our webpage
appears to be the end objective."
There appeared to be very little explicit conceptions of strategy that
permeated throughout these non-profit organizations. In New York, one woman
said that her organization has not "institutionally changed to make people
think about the internet holistically. They are not staffed up for it.
People will tell me that we don't have the staffing to give you what you
want. And, I'm like, what I want? I'm trying to help disseminate your
research. So there is this mindset that I think has not been integrated
well into our organization and this is universal."
Most stated clearly that they had no conception of who visited their
webpage or why. As one participant said, "even if we know who our audience
is, in terms of your mission, evaluation is a big thing that we can't
figure out through the web." Although most participants clearly wanted to
have a better grasp on usage patterns. In New York, one man said, "I want
to know where people are coming from and why. But, there's no meaningful
way for me to get there now."
Many noted that if they had a strategic vision, it was for internal
purposes. One participant said that "marketing people can get to each other
and ask each other questions, which is great." Yet, this reliance on
internal efficiency could be confusing for outside users. As one New Yorker
said, "we have this behemoth website, just navigation difficulties all over
the place. God forbid we find our own stuff on there, but somebody coming
in from the outside…" Another New Yorker agreed and said, "I think when our
website was first developed, it was developed more from our perspective
out, rather than the reader's perspective in. And, so, when you look at our
site, you kind of have to know how we are structured to find anything."
The exceptions to this majority appeared inspiring to the rest of the
participants. One woman in New York said "we have a group that focuses just
on what the website will, can and will be doing. It gives us an opportunity
to be a bit more forward thinking about what goes on up there and about how
we can present ourselves to our internet audience." To that, several in the
group shared their admiration for instilling this kind of organizational
leadership. In another focus group, the lone participant that claimed to
have strong strategic focus within the organization said, "we really needed
to change the way that we thought about communication and integrate it into
everything we do. Once we did that, it worked….it was really a top down
effort and a lot of side by side persuasion and negotiation." Immediately
afterwards, another participant said, "God, I wish we could do that."
The media remain an essential political resource for non-profit
organizations. The media can provide information to others, offer a sphere
for "knowledge membership" for the public to engage in, allow organizations
to define themselves, legitimize burgeoning groups, provide potential
avenues of growth for social change organizations, and contribute to the
adoption of norms. However, many non-profit organizations have charged that
traditional mass media misrepresent their purpose or polarize their issues
to the general news audience. The advent of the internet has allowed for
organizations to represent themselves and communicate with other
individuals and organizations that have similar causes – potentially
forming a Habermasian public sphere. Many scholars have argued that
organizations can greatly improve their public education, fundraising,
credibility, volunteer recruitment, publicity, advocacy, service delivery,
research and communication via the internet. Indeed, a lack of presence on
the web, a lackluster visual site, or a poorly organized structure can lead
to a loss of funding when competing with other more technologically
This research found that claims of sweeping improvements in democratic
participation through the internet have not been supported. While the
participants in these focus groups clearly understood the potential
capability of the internet, almost none utilized the technology for
horizontal and vertical flows of communication, data communality,
interactivity, or engaged participation. However, participants were keenly
interested in pursuing a corporate model. This insistence on a e-commerce
framework continued without any strong support that the e-commerce model
has worked in for-profit businesses. Seen as an inevitable next step in the
internet evolution, participants stated emphatically that they were either
pursuing or had already established a "corporate model" – even when
organizational fundraising efforts had thus far proven unsuccessful. As
others have argued (i.e. Contractor & Eisenberg, 1990; Flanagin, 2000),
this inexorable move toward a corporate model may be based on nothing more
than perceived social pressures. However, given that almost all of the
non-profits were struggling to economically maintain their web presence,
this sense of inevitability may be well founded for purely financial
reasons. Yet, it is disheartening to see this trend developing, which many
participants found disturbing themselves, merely to prove that the internet
has some financial benefit. Given the largely different missions between
for-profit and non-profit organizations, future research might further
examine how social change agents could (or if they even should) learn from
Participants depended upon email but only few reported any strategic
collection of e-mail addresses on their website, or having an up-to-date
listing of email addresses. Thus, it appears that the technology is being
used but without regard to its capabilities. Further, the unmitigated use
of email appears to be creating a backlash. Several stated that people are
losing faith in email and the credibility of its usage. This result may be
due to the continued reliance on email without any strategic plan.
Scholarly projections of a deliberative democracy on-line has certainly not
materialized, according to these participants. Previous research, which has
largely purported the conceptualization of a democratic public sphere
through the internet, was not supported in this research. Most argued that
the internet, like other media, remains a contentious battleground over
access. Citing their continued difficulty in reaching actual clients,
participants argued that the internet is largely redundant in its efforts
to communicate with the public. Yet, having an internet presence offers
instant credibility for non-profits. While the research is decidedly mixed
on this issue, focus group participants unanimously agreed that they are
seen as a more credible organization simply by having a web page.
Given participants unwavering dedication to the perceived credibility
gained from an internet presence, it was surprising that most struggled
with an inability to measure any value of the internet. However, roughly 3
out of 4 participants did not even track how many users came to their sites
– a relatively simple execution on the web. This juxtaposition between
credibility and value was initially very perplexing but when investigated
further, participants did seem to see clear value for internal purposes.
Perhaps, this internal value may simply be more useful to non-profits for
intra- and inter-organizational collaboration and networking. This internal
efficiency could also lead to expansive future democratic advancements.
While this was not clearly enunciated by participants, it appears that this
might be one reason for this confounding juxtaposition. Perhaps scholars
and practitioners should be investigating how we place a "value" on
cyber-participation and even if we need to? For example, many corporations
have customer service centers, even while placing a value on this direct
communication with consumers is intrinsically difficult, if not impossible.
Perhaps, the internet is a comparable enterprise for non-profit
organizations struggling to maintain relationships with clients, donors,
Perhaps due to a lack of external value, very few non-profit organizations
invested in any internet training. Reflecting what has been reported in
outside research, participants lamented their inability to secure funding
for these positions. Yet, non-profits present for these focus groups were
also keenly aware that their inactivity may stall their future growth. They
all apparently saw future value in the internet, but maintained that their
present needs were far to great to make a web investment. Again, it appears
that this disconnect may be due the inability of non-profits to place value
on the internet itself.
Research has found that interactive, personalized one-to-one relationships
and a continuously reexamined strategic plan are the cornerstones to
successful internet growth. Yet, the overwhelming majority of non-profit
organizations rarely or never used the interactive functions of the
internet, nor considered any cohesive internet strategy. Rather, they saw
the internet principally as a tool for information dissemination and
internal efficacy. Indeed, many felt pride that the same information could
be located through several different methods and that the internet was used
principally as a tool for internal communication. With little regard to
strategic networking, the capabilities of the internet were rarely examined
or pursued. Clearly, non-profit organizations appear to be using the
technology to enhance routine administrative and operational efficacy
rather than strategic applications that coincide with a reconfiguration of
the organization internally or a redefinition of external and internal
organizational networking and stated mission. Future research should
examine how and why the dissemination of information has become the
principal goal for these social change organizations.
These focus group sessions illustrate that non-profit organizations are
failing to harness the potential offered by internet technology. Without
the resources, skills, and vision of this potential, the third sector
continues to lag behind their commercial counterparts. There appeared to be
little thought given to understanding the organizations' overall aims and
objectives, their clients, their target audiences, and their stakeholders
as these communities relate and exchange information through the internet.
While there does seem to be a clear conception of an organizations'
specific goals, there appeared to be little emphasis on strategically
thinking about what is arguably non-profits' biggest advantage – their
community of volunteers, donors and members.
It is argued that with competitive pressures facing non-profit
organizations, they simply must begin to strategically adopt new
technologies if they are to compete in the information age. Certainly much
research reveals success stories on the internet (i.e. Buie, 2001; Crist,
Glazer & Rasmusson, 1999; Danitz, Strobel, 2001), but the findings of this
research suggest that much more can and should be done.
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