Harnessing the Web: Tools for Community Groups

Stephen Blyth, Department of Internal Affairs

Presentation to Connecting Communities Conference, 3-5 November 2003, Wellington

1.0 Introduction

After several years of over-inflated expectations about what the Internet can do, a more realistic approach to new information and communications technology is emerging. People are starting to work out what the Internet is good at doing, and what it is not. After much trial and error some core tools and functions that are suited to an online environment are being developed.

This picture is as relevant to people working in tangata whenua, community and voluntary organisations, as it is for business and government. There are tools and applications which can contribute to the activities of not-for-profit organisations in many spheres, including client management, fundraising, advocacy, communication and administration. Although based on the unique features of the online environment, tools can be incorporated with existing practices and protocols.

Access to computers, levels of connectivity and use of the Internet amongst tangata whenua and community and voluntary organisations in New Zealand continues to increase. There are many signs that people are starting to think and talk about how to use the Internet in more powerful ways than just surfing and searching.

However, what is evident is that the ability of groups in Aotearoa to use more powerful tools is hampered by their lack of availability. There are few tools developed specifically with the needs of groups in mind and that are consistent with community sector values. The development of tools alone is insufficient to meet the needs of organisations, as planning, support, training and re-development are also necessary.

Opportunities exist for us to develop an innovative, affordable and effective approach to the provision of tools. The purpose of this presentation is to describe what some of the tools are, look at trends in New Zealand and elsewhere, and outline issues that need to be addressed if we are to successfully meet organisational needs.

It is important to acknowledge that access to computer hardware and internet connectivity is not universally available to all tangata whenua and community organisations. Indeed, some will question why advanced Internet tools are being promoted, when some groups do not have even basic computers or skills.

From the Department of Internal Affair’s perspective, a multi-pronged approach is needed. This is reflected in the proposed areas of community support being discussed at this conference. Access to technical support, hardware, telecommunications infrastructure and community-based learning are key strands that are being addressed. Through the Connecting Communities strategy, planning is underway to support community-wide approaches to meet local circumstances. Ensuring relevant content and useful tools are available means there are good reasons for organisations to get online. Lack of relevant content is cited as a barrier to Internet uptake.

The Department is undertaking some preliminary steps to look into how tools could be provided to community groups, and initiating discussions amongst interested people. We see our role as facilitators, and we have no fixed view about our future role. A key interest is promoting community ownership in whatever approach is taken, and ensuring it is viable. At this stage there is no guaranteed funding for future development.

2.0 Quick overview: what sorts of tools are available

Rather than trying to define what an ICT tool is – a near impossible task – it is easier to look at what they can be used for and what functions they carry out. Tools are generally accessed using an Internet connection, either through an Internet browser or specialised software. Some tools are stand-alone, whereas others are incorporated into websites. In general, tools are designed for non-technical people to administer and use, so have easy-to-use interfaces. Many tools are not purchased outright, but are leased for a fee on a monthly basis.

Tools can help groups manage or carry out the following activities:
• raising and donating money
• recruiting and supporting volunteers
• managing staff and board business
• delivering services
• advocating improvements in legislation, public policies and programs
• keeping abreast of new developments
• communicating inside and outside the organization
• networking with other organisations.

New developments are occurring all the time so no list will ever be complete, but at the time of writing, possible functions listed in the eNonprofit guide included:
• accounting
• activism and advocacy (email and fax systems, legislative advocacy)
• alumni portals
• auctions
• content management and Web site maintenance
• credit card transactions online
• data and database management
• distance learning
• event management
• donor and membership management
• email messaging and listservs
• fundraising online
• group collaboration
• planned giving
• stock donations
• surveys
• search engines
• traffic access logs
• volunteer recruitment.

Although we need to be cautious about the claimed benefits of online tools, there is some evidence that online tools can improve administrative efficiency, generate more revenue, increase the number of volunteers, and influence political decision-making. Any claims do need to be treated with a wary eye.

I have selected four different tools to look at in more detail:

1. Virtual intranet or extranet: a tool to enable sharing of information that is accessible only by an organization’s members, employees, or others with authorisation. Uses a web browser and is accessible over Internet. Can contain address lists, documents, policies, a calendar, news, chatroom, website links, and discussion forum.

Example: Community Organisation Grants Scheme (COGS) Canterbury and Chatham Islands members are trialling a private intranet to store minutes and other documents, list meeting and application closing dates, discuss funding related issues, list commonly used websites, and list contact details.

2. Advocacy tools: enabling activation of members or the public to undertake lobbying or other advocacy action. Tools can track campaigns, send emails and faxes to selected targets, create online petitions and track membership activity.

Example:Take 5 (www.take5.net.nz) was an Internet only campaign promoting an extension to the moratorium on applications for releases of genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Visitors to the website were encouraged to take action by sending a message to a local MP and the Prime Minister. The advocacy tool, provided by private company iLobby, automatically generated and addressed messages. Over 35,000 messages were generated.

3. Directories: searchable databases containing listings of services, people or facilities. Entries can contain contact details, service descriptions, availability. Records can be added to or updated by organisations themselves. Databases can be accessed in more than one way.

Example: the Infoxchange Service Seeker directory (www.infoxchange.net.au) provides people with access to details of community and social services provided by governments, non-government organisations and community and self-help groups. In October 2003 there were over 90,000 entries for Victoria. It is available from the Infoxchange website, via a standalone CD-Rom, or in a customised format on third party websites. The software is being replicated for directories in other states.

4. Fundraising tools: tools to interact with donors via the web and email, evaluate donation trends, perform surveys, do event management, manage secure online payments, accept donations, and store membership details.

Example: UK based CAF (Charities Aid Foundation) is supporting organisations to use the web for fundraising (www.efundraising.org). They offer a free online profile or a fully outsourced online donation system to generate and track your online supporters. CAF manage the entire donation process: from data capture and card validation through to tax claims and reporting. Consultancy services are also available.

Of course the software does not work by itself. The value of tools is based on the commitment of people to using them, something dependent in turn on a combination of active facilitation, promotion, training and ongoing support. It is also important that appropriate policies (eg privacy, data ownership, intellectual property) and protocols govern the use of tools and safeguard users.

Services offered can dramatically vary in price. There are options available where organisations can essentially get ‘plug-in’ functionality without the need for extensive technical expertise in a community organisation. These services are offered by Application Service Providers (ASPs). An ASP is “a technology company that develops and delivers software tools over the Internet, usually for a monthly fee.” In the United States, it is estimated there are over 300 ASPs serving not-for-profit organisations, the majority of which are private companies, and ASPs are being set-up in many countries around the world. There are few options for ASP services in New Zealand.

ASP services generally sell services or products that require limited customisation, a so-called ‘cookie cutter’ approach. Starting from scratch or heavily modifying existing tools can be very expensive. While some ready-made tools may not perfectly suit identified needs, the trade-off is lower costs and requires less in-house technical knowledge. As well as tools organiations also need advice, support to integrate tools withing existing websites, and web design services that meet the needs of Mäori, Pacific and community organisation. Design, consultancy, and ASP services are often available from a single provider (see section 4.0).

3.0 Demand in Aotearoa

There is very limited data about usage patterns and the future needs of tangata whenua and community organisation with regard to information and communications technology. The research available is of inconsistent quality, not comprehensive, and at least two or three years old. Nevertheless, some tentative conclusions can be reached.

3.1 Internet usage by tangata whenua and community organisations
The trends indicate increasing levels of uptake of ICTs by tangata whenua and community organisations but some groups are still facing significant barriers. Relevant statistics include:

  • A survey of applicants to funding schemes administered by the Department of Internal Affairs in May 2000 found that an average of 55% groups had access to the Internet and/ or email.
  • A survey of 60 community groups in the Waikato region found that while 97% of workplaces had a computer, there was a wide range of models, including some that were ‘badly outdated’, and/ or unusable for Internet connectivity. A relatively high proportion of groups were Internet connected (81%, 47 groups), of which 72% (34) used email. 25% of groups had their own website.
  • 2001 survey of 582 Wellington community groups fond that 45% of organisations had email, and 36% had websites.

Barriers to using Internet based services include:

  • A preference by Mäori and Pacific Island people for face-to-face contact, therefore they less likely to favour online services.
  • A lack of phone lines and high costs meant Internet access is kept to a minimum.
  • New users lacked awareness of how much use would be made of online services.
  • Unreliable telephone lines in remote rural areas.
  • Different skill levels among users.
  • A single internet capable computer shared by many staff.

There are many things that we don’t know, including: the demographic profile of connected/ non-connected organisations; what the Internet is actually being used for; quality of websites, and impact on organisational mission; the skill level of users; and he pattern of uptake within organisations. Further research is required to flesh out this picture, something that is essential for funders and policy makers.

3.2 Demand for Internet tools
As the number of organisations online increases, awareness of the potential application of the Internet also increases. The evidence at this point is relatively general, and does not quantify the level of demand, the willingness of groups to pay for services, nor the internal capability of organisations to manage projects.

What we do know is that:

  • People working in the community sector are requesting access to tools. In the past twelve months, CDG has been approached to assist with the provision of directory services, mapping tools, content management systems for website maintenance, funding management and virtual private intranets. Groups are also seeking out advice on designing and maintaining quality websites.
  • People consulted during a review the CommunityNet Aotearoa website in March 2002 indicated they wanted “list servers, discussion groups, and specific applications to support collaboration. These tools would support collaboration within an organisation (e.g. one with distributed offices or membership); between organisations in the sector; and even between service providers and purchasers.”
  • The report of the Community-Government Relationship Steering Group, He Waka Kotuia (August 2002), recognised that “ICT is an essential tool for all organisations”. A number of recommendations were made to promote access to IT and online tools that supported strengthening of the community sector. A Community Sector Taskforce project on information networks is currently developing initiatives to address some of these needs.
  • The Community Information and Communications Technology Research Project (2003) undertaken by VictoriaLink, concluded that “Not-for-profit groups have a number of needs in common: publishing information online; online donation and donor management; volunteer matching and opportunity listing. A co-operative or centrally funded approach to developing tools that meet these needs would be very cost effective.”

Further detailed needs assessment and market analysis are required. However, the bottomline is, there demand for tools to support tangata whenua and community organisations.

4.0 Reflections from elsewhere

The situation organisations in New Zealand find themselves seems typical of a technology adoption curve described overseas. In the absence of easy access to tools, knowledge and planning expertise uptake of more advance applications by the community sector is limited. The bulk of organisations are distributed in the first two steps. Table 1 shows three broad stages of effective Internet use.

Table 1, Three stages of effective Internet use.

There are a large number and broad range of services available to non-profit organisations in USA, Canada, Great Britain and Australia. Yet, groups are still facing difficulties securing access to quality and affordable tools. This is borne out in a number of studies and reports, the highlights of which are set-out below.

4.1 Tools and application
A relatively high priority is accorded to development and improved access to tailor-made tools for community groups. Other priorities are developing strategic skills and knowledge through seminars, training and workshops, building technology capacity, supporting leadership, increasing the availability of funding for ICT, brokering access to hardware, etc and enhancing access to information through portals and databases.

A survey of 150 UK charities concluded that despite high levels of Internet uptake organisations were not using the web strategically. It was recommended that a taskforce be established to champion ICT use, training and mentoring provided, support offered for creation of technology plans and free or low-cost software developed. It was noted that

Charities are already able to access a number of packages that can make their life considerably easier in developing internet functionality. There are secure credit card donation programmes, measurement packages and contact management systems. However, many of these are out of the price range of small and medium-size charities and therefore by and large inaccessible.

As part of a major two-year research project conducted for the Canadian IM/ IT Joint Table of the Voluntary Sector Initiative, 2,500 organisations were asked to identify the top priority activities that would support their utilisation of ICT. The highest ranked options were increased funding, a funders database, improved funding practices and national one-stop shop information website. Three of the medium priorities related to tools with respondents wanting to access:

  • Fundraising tools, including fund processing, e-commerce, direct email campaigns and donor management software. Ranked sixth.
  • A stable, reliable and inexpensive service to allow voluntary sector organisations to create Web sites with their own domain names.
  • An updated online database of voluntary sector agencies and possibly contact information for experts in various fields.

In another Canadian report, From Access to Applications: How voluntary organisations are using the Internet (2001), many gaps were identified which blocked a transition to strategic business applications. As a result organisations were not getting the most from their Internet investments. Three priority areas were identified in response to barriers, including the need to build applications and services that meet sector-specific needs and simplify online service delivery. A proposed approach was to initiate:

Strategic projects that develop software, ASP services or web-based services for the voluntary sector, will be necessary to help non-profits quickly develop online business applications. These services could fill specific gaps, such as simple, customizable voluntary matching software for small organizations, or they might meet more generic needs by offering low-cost content management software to nonprofits via an ASP service. Initiatives of this nature should emphasize the sharing of technical resources across many organizations and, where possible, should use the open source model to ensure that results are widely available throughout the sector.

Participants at the Advance Community, Technology and Third Sector (ACTT) symposium hosted by the Queensland University of Technology in 2001 discussed strategic approaches and partnerships to enhance the social and technology infrastructure to support uptake of ICTs by the third sector. Amongst a comprehensive list of ways of sharing resources, there was reference on improving access to applications. Two relevant recommendations were:

  1. Sharing the costs of essential software packages (eg accounting) and associated support/ training costs. This also makes available a pool of other known users across the participating organisations to share the informal knowledge that comes from day-to-day experience.
  2. Developing applications specifically designed to meet the needs of non-profit groups.

4.2 Service delivery examples
Despite the barriers, there are many ways that overseas organisations can access tools. Options include:

  • downloading software and taking a DIY approach with support from peer networks
  • contracting with specialist providers supplying single tools
  • contracting with comprehensive, integrated service providers.

Organisations servicing not-for-profits include: private businesses; non-profit businesses; charities; and government agencies. Regardless of the type of organisation providing tools, there are generally charges for services though some services are subsidised, or free.

An example of an organisation providing online tools and services to community groups in Australia was outlined earlier in the conference by Andrew Mahar, Executive Director of Infoxchange Australia (www.infoxchange.net.au). This award winning non-profit business has been operating since 1989 and builds organisational capacity while maintaining a strong commitment to social justice. Below four approaches to providing tools are described based on some very quick Internet based research.

4.1.1 One NorthWest, USA & Canada (www.onenw.org)
Type: Non-profit organisation
Staff numbers: 8
Income: Fee for service, grants, sliding scale of charges (based on an hourly rate) including fully subsidised services.
Clients: environmental and conservation organisations
Established: 1995

Online Networking for the Environment is a non-profit organization based in Seattle, providing technology assistance to conservation activists and organizations in Alaska, British Columbia, Idaho, Montana, Oregon and Washington. It helps organisations get online, and use email, the World Wide Web, and other communication tools to help protect the Northwest environment.

Services offered include:

  • Web development, including planning, design, implementation, training and maintenance.
  • Database planning, upgrades and training.
  • An email list management service. Training, list moderation, and list size.
  • Consultancy and technology planning.

4.1.2 Web Networks, Canada (www.web.ca)
Type: Non-profit company
Staff numbers: ?
Income: Fee for service, grants, Sliding scale of charges (based on an hourly rate)
Clients: range of services. Smallest package, the “community membership”, costs only $50/year and has 1000+ subscribers.
Established: 1987

Web Networks “contributes to building a self-reliant online community based on non-profit enterprise, cooperation, and mutual aid which can support, maintain, and defend principles of social responsibility, ecology, and economic justice. To these ends, Web Networks provides appropriate and innovative communication technology and resources. Web Networks also seeks to foster healthy and productive work environments in non-profit organizations.”

Internet tools and services provided include:

  • website hosting, email, mailing lists
  • action pages, secure forms, site search for your existing web site
  • comprehensive design services
  • development services
  • portal for members and users. This service provides news, events, resources, directory and access to the community portal.

4.1.3 Groundspring.org, USA (www.groundspring.org)
Type: Non-profit organisation
Staff numbers: 18
Income: Fee for service, foundation funding, partnership support. Sliding scale of charges.
Clients: nonprofit organisations, including Ruckus Society, Red Cross, MSPCA, Bluewater Network.
Established: 1999

Groundspring.org provides simple, affordable, and integrated services for small to medium-sized nonprofit organisations related to fundraising and management of donors and supporters.

Groundspring.org works for positive social change. It believes “that a healthy society is founded on the principles of justice, broadly shared economic opportunity, a robust democratic process, and sustainable environmental practices. Healthy societies rely fundamentally on respect for human rights, the vitality of communities and a celebration of diversity.”

Software tools and services, training, and consulting are offered, including:

  • DonateNow: an online donation tool that lets nonprofits accept credit card gifts from individual donors. It is used by 900 nonprofits in the U.S.
  • EmailNow, a tool for nonprofits to send eNewsletters, raise money online, and communicate with supporters.

4.1.4 Vicnet, Australia (www.vicnet.net.au)
Type: Business unit of the State Library of Victoria
Staff numbers: 50+
Income: business activities (over 50 %), State government funding, special project funding from State and Federal governments
Clients: community organisations, government agencies, home and business users,
Established: 1994

VICNET is Victoria’s community network, delivering Internet services to people all around Victoria. It aims to encourage all Victorians to make the most of the Internet.

Government funded programmes include Skills.Net, GoVic, My Connected Community a virtual space where people interact, the Open Road multilingual website, Virtual Library, e-gaps funding and hosting of Victoria’s largest website, www.vicnet.net.au. A wide range of services are offered including Internet access accounts, consultancy and training. Tools related activities include:

  • Free hosting of 2,000 websites for Victoria’s community groups
  • Web hosting and related services
  • Domain name registration
  • Web and database design
  • Email list management.

Across the providers listed some common features are evident:

  • Provision of a comprehensive range of services, and support to integrate all online activities.
  • Service everything from small grassroots groups to large, service delivery organisations.
  • Provision of planning, support and back-up as well as software development.
  • Explicit recognition of social and environmental change as a legitimate activity by organisations.
5.0 Where to from here?

If overseas trends are anything to go by, it is only a matter of time before online tools are easily available to tangata whenua and community organisations in New Zealand. The big question is: will they be provided in a way that strengthens the community sector, or just line some investors’ pockets. There are many advantages in having a community-owned approach to the provision of tools.

Community organisations have unique ways of working that differ markedly from business and government. A successful approach to providing tools will be based on knowledge and experience of community sector culture, decision-making processes, organisational structures, and budgets. Community organisations set high standards for what they consider appropriate service delivery. The types of things that need to be considered include:

  1. Building long-term capacity. Service delivery premised on skills transfer so that internal capacity of organisations to use tools is strengthened.
  2. A cooperative approach.By sharing software development it is possible to reduce the cost for everyone and build better tools. Developing a common pool of knowledge from which all organisations can benefit from will mean lessons learned can be used to help each other.
  3. Community sector values.Organisations will be engaging in political activism and advocacy, and working to uphold the Treaty of Waitangi so these values need to be explicitly acknowledged. The expression of values may lead to preferences for open source software, employment of identified groups (eg people with disabilities, local youth), support for local business, and protection of cultural and intellectual property.
  4. Inclusiveness. The community sector has a very diverse profile, with people a variety of skill levels. Being able to cater for a wide range of cultures, including Mäori, Pacific, and recent migrants, and skill and knowledge levels is essential.
  5. Transparent governance and financial processes. Community organisations expect to be able to have confidence they will be treated with respect and dignity, and be listened to. Any surplus should be reinvested for the benefit of all organisations, and staff remuneration not exorbitant. Underpinning this is an ability to hold service providers accountable for service delivery. Meeting this principle will contribute to a high level of community ownership.

A successful approach will rely on basic business principles being adhered to. Any organisation needs to be of sufficient size to ensure the availability of skills and knowledge to cater for a wide range of needs, and have sufficient capacity to support ongoing learning. It almost goes without saying, but services will need to be high quality and affordable.

As the examples above indicate, there is more than one way of making tools available to community organisations. Options could include:

  • Building on CommunityNet Aotearoa by providing additional services. This is a government funded and managed service. It has an existing profile and reputation.
  • Networked business. Link existing developers and providers of tools in a loose network. Coordinated approach to maximise utilisation of skills and experience.
  • Partnership model between business and community sector. Negotiate relationship with businesses to provide tools and services at community rates. Likely to only attract businesses with a strong sense of social responsibility.
  • Private business. Rely on investors and entrepreneurs to service community sector needs. Only profitable services will be offered.
  • Community-owned business. Establish a new organisation to provide tools. Tailor services to needs. Will require philanthropic or government funding to provide subsidised services.

The business models on which these options are based will be a major influencer of the long-term viability.

More work is required to map demand, the size of the market, and current availability of services. An important part of any mapping is understanding what is currently available and what has been tried before. We are not starting from a clean slate. In particular, it is important to acknowledge the work of pioneering projects such as the Converge (www.converge.org.nz), Wellington CommunityNet (www.wcn.net.nz) and the Funding Information Service (www.fis.org.nz).

Understanding the various potential funders or supporters of this project is also important. Each of the potential funders has a different set of outcomes they are seeking to achieve. Government involvement would be hinged on ensuring equity of access to tools, and savings through efficient delivery of services to government funded organisations. Philanthropic grants are likely to want to provide subsidised services to targeted groups, and to promote capacity building. Sponsors and partners will be seeking high profile exposure. And social venture funders, such as CEG through its community employment organisation grants, will be expecting the creation of jobs for target communities.

It will be a balancing act to meet both organisation and funder needs, and establish a viable long-term approach to providing tools. The next steps on the road to providing tools are:

  • Establish what the priority tools are.
  • Agree on a process for developing a model and securing funding for this.
6.0 Conclusion

The underlying aim of any initiative to provide tools, online software and services to tangata whenua and community organisations is support people to achieve their goals. Whatever approach is taken, it needs to come back to the purpose people are working for their communities. As the focus of any provider of tools for community groups is much about planning, training, promotion and support, as it is software, there needs to be a strong emphasis on people skills and relationship building.

There are many opportunities, willing partners and a high level interest amongst groups, but these will not strengthen community sector unless services are provided in a community-centric way. The goal is not only to supply some software tools, but to support their use so that organisations are better able to do their work and enhance their long-term capability. This requires an inclusive, values-based approach. It is too early to identify a preferred option, however we can refine the criteria against which we assess the different options.

The Department of Internal Affairs is willing to contribute to thinking about and planning the best ways to meet the needs of groups. The aim is to support something that is viable, inclusive and effective, and work with other interested people in developing something.

The approach needed is perhaps best summed-up by Mark Surman in From Access to Applications (2001). He succinctly comments:

Developing sound and reliable Internet business solutions for non-profits will require cooperative partnerships for innovation between tech-smart leaders from government, private business and the voluntary sector. These partnerships will provide the expertise, resources and vision necessary to develop strategic applications and technology services that can be shared with large numbers of organizations in the voluntary sector. Concepts such as entrepreneurship, innovation and venture philanthropy will be central to the success of these partnerships.

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