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News Review

Virtual Promise

- the Internet and vol orgs

Updated 3/3/03

Virtual Promise - Are charities keeping up with the Internet revolution? by Joe Saxton (Future Foundation) and Stephen Game (Horwath Consulting). ISBN 1 873463 28 6, distributed with Third Sector, 22nd Feb 01. Downloadable from VirtualPromise site, the full report itself is 444Kb (30 pages) in pdf (Acrobat) format.

Being added below, June 01: More Than Bit Players: How Information Technology Will Change the Ways Nonprofits and Foundations Work and Thrive in the Information Age A Report to The Surdna Foundation by Andrew Blau, May 2001. Download 52 pages, 127Kb in pdf (Acrobat) format.


Virtual Promise

A quick overview

  • Much of the discussion is based on a survey of 150 of the largest charities/voluntary organisations. They achieved a 50 per cent return, but some key questions were not answered by a majority.
  • While not a technical document, it has a good glossary of terms.
  • The report is aimed at those interested in the issue of internet use by the sector, rather than as a resource for practitioners. It does give definite opinions on what organisations ought to be doing, which are more cut and dried than is warranted, we believe.
  • A useful tool for those interested in supporting the sector. They are proposing to create a Voluntary Sector Internet Development Task Force. Contact Joe Saxton, email:

UPDATE: The Internet Task Force is going ahead (launch 29th Nov 01) - we have reproduced the paper giving outline plans. You can still see the original proposal paper too.


Check these out too

As one of VolResource's stated aims is to "Promote use of the technology, and good practice, within the sector", I was eager to read this report. It covers a wide area and makes some useful suggestions. However, ultimately it left me unsatisfied, with other recent reading highlighting some of the reasons why.

Firstly, Voluntary Organisations and Social Policy in Britain (see review) reminded me why I get uptight about generalisations made for the 'voluntary sector' from a limited study of large, generally well-known, organisations. The concept of a sector is somewhat artificial, and any serious research report ought to clarify what area it is trying to cover - a simple statement that the term 'voluntary organisations' is used interchangeably with 'charities' hardly addresses this.

Secondly, in checking some new web links, I was reminded of the study Information and Communication Technologies: reshaping voluntary organisations?, of which the internet forms a large part. Undertaken in 1998 as part of Virtual Society? research, it had a much larger survey size, and useful statistics, but seems to have been ignored here (ref 1). It reaches similar conclusions on poor take-up of technological opportunities, but in our opinion has a better understanding of why.

My main frustration with this publication is the bias towards large organisations, with no acknowledgement of the different challenges that small and medium sized bodies (SMOs) face. Comparisons are made with the largest commercial companies in the US, not exactly the sort of organisations most want to emulate. While some results from the survey are broken down in detail, other statistics are glossed over. Please, where does the 'average annual cost for a charity website of £26,000' statistic come from? No way do SMOs, the majority of charities after all, spend this sort of money purely on the web.

The recent growth in internet use has been dramatic. Any 'public facing' site would expect a doubling of traffic in a year just to reflect this, so it was surprising that only 20% of the respondents reported an increase of more than 100% over the year to summer 2000. Given that 65% of survey respondents didnt answer the relevant question, and the confusing way such statistics are quoted generally, some context of how stats are generated and put to use would have been helpful.

Included in the report is a survey (by the authors) of web sites from '50 leading charities', looking at the issues of how they:

  • raise awareness and influence (eg online opinion polling, email campaigns)
  • create an information resource
  • improve service delivery (eg online counselling, advice, self-assessment quiz)
  • develop income generation (which is the most developed area)
  • mobilise and motivate people
  • improve operating efficiency (eg e-training, member areas and email communication, trustee/staff intranet)

Governance effect

An under-appreciated area, covered in different ways by this report and the Virtual Society study, is the potential for electronic networking to 'transform internal governance'. Adequate communication between diffuse stakeholders such as staff, trustees and active members is a common problem where such things as electronic voting, virtual conferences or discussion forums could make a real difference. Care would obviously be needed to ensure this didnt create a new excluded group of those unable to join in, for whatever reason. At a minimum, wider access to information such as accounts and meeting agendas will increase openess and trust. This is probably of higher value to most SMOs than focusing on such targets as 'getting most job vacancies promoted and applications submitted online'. (Note: an article entitled 'Virtual Governance' is in Charity Finance magazine, Mar 01 - it arrived after this was written!)

The strongly put point that web sites dont magically market themselves, even though they are automatically available to millions of people, is welcome. The ways of addressing of this are perhaps a little simplistic, however. Search engine ratings are a tricky area to master, with the goalposts moving constantly. Raw comparisons of how different sites rated may well be reassuring to many, showing that even the big boys and girls struggle.

The authors identify a number of areas which would help the voluntary sector improve its use of the internet:

  • development of free or low-cost software
  • development of national and regional training seminars
  • development of portals (they seem not to know of VolResource!)
  • higher priority with umbrella bodies
  • clearer role for voluntary sector in government policy (of online delivery of services)

While I fear that SMOs would be put off by the emphasis on using the internet to 'revolutionise the way they work', without solid, relevant examples to offset the current negative images created by the shake-out, this report does give a pointer to the possibilities. It has inspired me to try to put together a 'manifesto' of issues to help the voluntary sector benefit from and contribute to the digital economy. Your ideas would be most welcome. Our wish list includes consultants who understand the wider sector and the competing demands for limited resources (time as well as money), rather than pushing the stakes (and fees) ever higher.

John Howes, March 01

More Than Bit Players

There are a whole host of interesting observations from this report written for an American foundation to inform its (and others) thinking on why and how to fund IT developments (in particular internet related). Here are some:

'... research suggests .. investments in technology without concomitant investments in other human and organizational factors can be all costs with few or no benefits.' (page 32)

'spending more without spending enough to make a project dominant in its sector will not likely result in returns that are in any way proportional to the investment.' (p 33)

'There is a downside for smaller groups that cannot afford to build sophisticated websites and employ new technologies. Traffic patterns on the Internet will give some larger, more familiar nonprofits a big edge in fund-raising and membership development. "e-philanthropy will do to nonprofits what Wal-Mart has done for local retail." ' (p iv)

'While many digital utopians describe a new wealth of diverse services, experience suggests that networked markets are likely to become more concentrated and perhaps more uniform, not more diverse and more decentralized.' (p 41)

Inevitably there are some issues where the American experience differ, due to how technology or the sector has developed. In general though they are pertinent to considering the impact of ICT* in the UK too. The author perhaps hasnt quite grasped that the potentially conflicting interests of funders (whether individual or charitable foundation) and beneficiaries exist in the offline world too. Hence the real lesson here - that ICT can make donor relations closer and more 'sexy' while having little impact on how the organisation communicates in classic client services - gets a bit lost. It is of course possible to use ICT to collect more data from service users, and even to encourage their involvement, but this may well be the last area to be considered.

We would add to the dilemma of how geographically specific funding can operate with an online service accessible globally by pointing out that internet technology makes it relatively easy to adapt such services for different client groups at low cost. It would be a waste of society's money to keep everything neatly divided as has tended to be the case in the physical world.

May 01


* We think that ICT is a more appropriate abbreviation than IT, as the Communication element is crucial, adding a dynamic aspect to the rather dry 'data management' subject of Information Technology.

Ref 1: On the net, see Winter 2000 edition of Nonprofit Management & Leadership (but no longer online, Feb 03?)- related articles have appeared elsewhere in print. See Voluntary Sector and the Internet page for other research and projects.

Do you have comments on this subject? We would be happy to host a debate.