Technology and the voluntary sector

By David Wilcox.
Published in
Inventing the Future, January 1996.


The use of information technology by the voluntary sector has changed rapidly in recent years. Most voluntary organisations with paid staff now use computers. Some are using electronic mail to communicate internally and externally, and publishing globally using World Wide Web. A few are involved in telematics projects to promote the use of electronic networking locally or regionally.

Ten years ago a minority used fax. Now its use is almost universal. Are electronic mail, bulletin board systems, and the World Wide Web simply additional communication tools, or will they lead to significant shifts in the way voluntary organisations operate?

This article - and the one on Community Networks - explains some of the basics of networking, and touches on policy issues for the voluntary sector raised more fully by other authors.

For example, will the growth of new media lead to fresh concerns about the 'information elites', and will it further disadvantage those without access to the technology? Or can the Internet act as a leveller, where every user is also potentially an information provider - a democratic system where readers can become writers? Opinions differ.

The first barrier to addressing these issues is the mystique of the world of information technology and the Internet. For those without experience of electronic networking it is rather like trying to discuss the future of public broadcasting without having listened to radio or watched television - so this is a deliberately non technical explanation.

My main recommendations is that NCVO and other voluntary sector organisations should work with the telecommunications industry to help policy makers and practitioners get online and explore the possibilities the technology offers. Without that first step there can be no real debate about the virtues or otherwise of the new medium.

Current use of information technology

Computers process information in files. These may be, for example, word processed files, graphic images, audio or video files, database records, or financial spread sheets.

Much of the work of writers, designers, broadcasters - indeed all communicators - is now being handled by computers. In the jargon, it is becoming digital. Once in a computer information becomes infinitely flexible. Text, sound and pictures can be mixed (multi-media) and then produced in any appropriate format: print, CD-ROM, video tape etc. Increasingly this can be done by individuals or small organisations as well as large studios.

Many of these changes are filtering into public awareness. They are transforming industries: changing, creating, and also destroying jobs. Voluntary organisations experience these changes when they work with designers, printers and broadcasters.

While the great majority of voluntary organisations use computers in some way, the degree of sophistication varies enormously. Some large organisations match private and public sectors - yet many struggle to get beyond basic word processing and databases for mailing lists.

The next step - electronic networking

If many voluntary organisations have difficulty keeping up with basic computer functions, should they now try and engage with the further complexities of the Internet? To explore the issue we need first to disentangle the reality of the Internet from the hype and hysteria.

The Internet is several million computers connected together, some permanently, some temporarily. Anyone can become part of the network by using a modem (costing from about £60 to £200 depending on speed) to connect their computer to an ordinary telephone line, and so dial an Internet Service Provider (typical flat rate charge £10 -£15 a month). Then for the cost of a local telephone call the computer can then be connected to any other computer on the Internet, and exchange files.

This connectivity has been available for years through commercial systems like Compuserve and America Online, which also provide subscribers with news, databases of information, and discussion areas. In addition technical enthusiasts have for 20 years run simple bulletin board systems from back bedrooms providing a similar basic service. Microsoft and others have recently launched additional services providing connectivity and information.

These bulletin board systems (BBS) can be run on standard low-cost computers. Users dial in using a modem and phone connection, or - if the BBS is connected to it, through the Internet. They can then become 'friendly islands' on the Net.

The Internet is different from earlier commercial systems because it is potentially universal, low cost, and unmanaged. No one body is controlling content or access.

While you do need a computer, modem, appropriate software (generally free) and an Internet Service Provider to use it, you do not need to join a particular service or bulletin board system, or ensure those you wish to communicate with are on the same system.

You can connect to the Internet through Compuserve and other commercial systems, but you do not have to use them. The Internet is public space. It is a medium where readers can be writers and publishers, viewers broadcasters, at low cost. All the basic software is free to users.

What electronic networks can do

There are four basic functions to the Internet and other forms of electronic networking. These are also covered in the Community Networks article.

Private email (electronic mail).

Messages sent from one computer to another in the form of simple text, which might otherwise be sent by fax or letter. Email may be distributed internally within an organisation, and/or externally via the Internet, Compuserve or other system. Messages may wait on a server (large computer) until collected, if the receiving computer is not permanently connected. There is generally no message-by-message cost - only that of the phone call and any service connection charge.

There is no difference in cost in sending a message to one recipient, or the same message to thousands. It is fast and easy to reply to with no paper handling. Unlike fax, the content can immediately be used with no retyping. Surveys show it is the favourite use for the electronic networker.

Public email.

This takes two forms: first, public posting of messages at one electronic address, variously called conferences, forums or newsgroups; second, distribution through a mailing list.

To read a conference the user has to 'visit' that address - the equivalent of a notice board. Mailing lists are different. Any message sent to the central address is automatically remailed to any subscriber to the list and drops into their mail box with other email. There is no charge for joining Internet conferences (called newsgroups), or mailing lists, and they are relatively easy to create.

Public email allows the formation of international interest groups, and rapid propagation of news and views. There are tens of thousands of mailing lists and newsgroups on every imaginable subject.

File transfer

General file transfer theoretically enables electronic network users to send anything on their computer to the computer of anyone else on the network: whether formatted word processed file, magazine layout, spread sheet or graphic. In practice, the ease of transfer depends on the nature of the system and agreement of common standards.

Files sent attached to Internet email have to be encoded and decoded, and this can be troublesome. In addition, unless users agree simple matters like which word processing format, anything more than a simple text file must go through tedious processes of translation.

File transfer beyond email is much easier on systems like Compuserve than on the 'open' Internet, although you still have to agree on the file formats you are each using.

While Compuserve, America Online, Microsoft Network and Apple eWorld are global commercial ventures, some of their functions are offered by the latest 'user-friendly' bulletin board systems running First Class and similar software.

These systems are used within large companies for internal email and to enable teams to work together as 'virtual' work groups. The same systems can be run on a PC or Macintosh with a couple of phone lines, or form the basis of a sophisticated system linked to the Internet.

Media industries use 'the frame' network system to communicate, search databases, and transfer graphic, sound and video files and are prepared to pay a subscription of £00 a year for its functions. However, lower cost systems can be run with more limited functions. For example pHreak - also run by Intermedia Associates - offers limited free access and is the home for a pilot version of the Community Regeneration Network, described later. There a £25 subscription offers users an hour a day access including Internet email.

World Wide Web

The World Wide Web is the application which has led to most Internet hype, and 'consumer' use, because it is so attractive and easy to use.

Web browser software presents the user with attractive pages of text, graphics and hypertext 'hot links' to other pages which may be on the same computer or anywhere else on the Internet. Just click on a link and you can 'surf' across the world to further information, download a file, email a response or join an associated conference.

WWW appears to be the application which makes everything work easily - but there are problems even there. All pages must be designed and prepared using HTML - HyperText Markup Language. While this is becoming easier, it means that WWW is principally a one-to-many publishing medium, compared with, for example, many-to-many publishing through a mailing list.

And although WWW can be read as text only, its main benefits require a computer capable of running Windows, or a Macintosh. Links can be slow, and combined with the temptation to just try the next connection to find what you really want, can consume a lot of time.

Nevertheless, the Web provides organisations - and individuals - with the opportunity to create a shop window on the Internet, and quite a few voluntary organisations are doing just that assisted by organisations like VOIS, Poptel, and One World Online.

The Web provides novice users with an easy route on to the Internet and is rapidly becoming the standard method for putting information online in the public domain. New 'groupware' developments are making it easy for users to contribute material to discussion areas linked to Web pages.

A personal evaluation

Email is wonderful. Once you have it, you want to deal with all written communication that way.

Conferences and mailing lists are excellent low-tech, low-cost methods for many-to-many networking - but they can be like unfacilitated meetings: poor signal to noise, dominated by loud mouths.

File transfer is very useful for working teams, and for creating libraries of information, but requires special systems like Compuserve, or their smaller equivalent on bulletin boards, for easy use.

World Wide Web is an attractive one-to-many publishing medium, but at present it is not ideal for many-to-many discussion. It can be linked to public email conferences and mailing lists, but in practice can be slow to use. Its full graphic capabilities require a PC powerful enough to run Windows, or an Apple Macintosh.

Because the Internet has no central management, it is rather like an information car boot sale - or a library with the books in heaps on the floor. That is changing with the development of powerful 'search engines' which scan billions of conferences and Web pages through key word search, but it can still be frustrating and confusing.

Compuserve and other similar networks provide organised information, but at present are geared to commercial or leisure use.

The vast majority of network users are North American, and that is reflected in the information available. However, while much of the information may not be relevant to the UK, some network uses do give us pointers to the future. There are also some interesting developments already under way in the UK, and some evident benefits for users.

Any new initiatives for the voluntary sector are likely to need a combination of methods - mailing lists, bulletin boards and Web - if they are to satisfy the needs of users. That becomes evident once we examine the potential benefits as they relate to the day to day work or organisations and individuals.

What are the benefits of getting online?

Michael Mulquin, of the Community Involvement Unit in Newham and Partnerships for Tomorrow, offers an assessment of some of the basic advantages of going online. The Unit is developing a major telematics project with European funding. He writes:

You can send a message to many people at once very cheaply - useful for building campaigns and alerting users or potential users and partner organisations to new initiatives etc. It costs the same to send a message to 1 or to 100 or more people.

Research indicates that there is only a 20% chance of reaching someone by phone during the business day. Using e-mail eliminates this problem as both parties can read/write at their convenience.

You can ask a question of a lot of people at once to find if anyone knows the answer or has relevant experience. Using electronic mailing lists and newsgroups give access to a theoretically unlimited pool of international expertise.

You can send documents almost instantly. This includes spreadsheets, databases, graphics and even sound as well as text and also, using a scanner, you can copy documents to send.

Bulletin Boards can facilitate the discussion of issues. You can post your ideas publicly and other people can publicly or privately comment on them.

You can link up with users and other local, national and international groups with similar interests, whether they are voluntary, statutory or private.

The ethnic background, gender, age or physical ability of people online is much less obvious and so people's contributions are valued much more on their own merit.

You can acquire a skill that is becoming increasingly important.

You can carry out research by using 'search engines' to hunt through billions of words on the World Wide Web and in discussions groups.

What is already happening in the UK

Voluntary organisations already make extensive use of broadcast media, linked to video, telephone and print, and are moving on to the Internet. To quote just a few examples:

TV and radio broadcasters develop programmes with voluntary organisations, and then use Broadcasting Support Services to answer enquiries from viewers and listeners directly, signpost them to help or send out back up materials. BSS can also organise and administer broadcast-related appeals. It manages media helplines as well as establishing and running permanent helplines. BSS has recently started producing pages for the Internet, most notably the Channel 4 Programme Support web site.

Voluntary sector TV broadcasts every Thursday morning between 5 and 6 am on BBC2, successfully relying on people setting their videos. VSTV includes an open access slot for organisations to broadcast their own video material. There are plans to provide further materials both in print and via the Internet. VSTV is produced by The Media Trust.

Poptel has been providing on-line services for the past 10 years. Amongst its 3000 clients are many voluntary sector organisations, charities and campaigning groups,trade unions, membership organisations like the Labour Party, local authorities as well as businesses and information providers.

GreenNet is Britain's main Internet Service Provider for voluntary and campaigning groups. Besides providing normal Internet services (such as e-mail and the World Wide Web) it specialises - along with its partner networks around the world - in providing international on-line conferences covering thousands of topics in the fields of environmental, peace, human rights, and third world campaigning. GreenNet also provides connections to third world countries.

Recently VOIS - Voluntary Organisations Internet Server - has launched a service whereby voluntary organisations can easily create a presence on the World Wide Web within a standardised package. The aim is to create an online community for the voluntary sector.

OneWorld Online has an impressive range of international partners on its Web site, with an associated news service. It includes audio and video clips.

The National Institute for Social Work has established a free dial-up bulletin board with a range of on-line resources, including full text of Department of Health circulars and Joseph Rowntree Findings, and a free e-mail gateway to the Internet

Samaritans provide confidential emotional support by email, which can be anonymous if the user wishes.

YouthNet - chaired by news reader Martyn Lewis - provides online information and opportunities for young people.

VOLNET provides a CD-ROM and online access to databases of research and articles.

Regen.Net started by using a First Class bulletin board system to enable partners in regeneration projects to access official information, research, and exchange email. In 1999 it moved to a Web based system

Community Network offers telephone conferencing to other charities - up to 10 people can link-up in a discussion enabling those who are lonely, isolated or housebound to participate in self-help groups. For Trustee/management meetings it reduces costs, time and travel demands. All telephone calls are charged at standard rates.

Contact details are given at the end of this article. In addition there are growing number of local initiatives, which range from very necessary guidance and training for groups getting online, to ambitious plans for community electronic networks on the North American model. These are discussed in the Community Networks article.

The past year has seen a sudden burst of activity and innovation in the UK - yet it struck me in compiling this book that many of the new initiatives do not know of each other, nor of the trail-blazing efforts of pioneers like GreenNet and Poptel. Despite the international nature of the Internet there is even less knowledge in the UK of what is happening in North America.

Lessons from North America

The Benton Foundation Communication Policy Project recently published a set of examples of how nonprofits use new technology in ways which could be replicable. Details are given later. The Foundation reports:

'A non-profit organization uses a simple computerized database and conference calling to help clients find the services they need from among 3,500 agencies. A low-cost electronic bulletin board enables a working-class neighborhood to organize a food co-op, publish a newsletter and establish crime watches. A civic-affairs group uses satellites to conduct live courses, forums, and town meetings for community-based organizations all around the country. Other groups publish extensive reports and case studies on the Internet.

'As these and many other examples demonstrate, the Information Age could be a golden era for the non-profit sector. New information and communication technologies are creating enormous opportunities for non profits to increase their efficiency, improve the quality of services they provide, and influence policy-makers.

'But even though an array of new technologies is becoming available and their cost is rapidly declining, all too many non profits have yet to take advantage of them. And even where non-profit groups have made effective use of new technologies, their successes aren't well known. Environmental advocates, for instance, generally aren't aware of ways that health-care providers have found to use technology to improve their operations. Social service agencies often haven't heard of valuable innovations by community organizers. And public interest groups operating on the national scene often aren't aware of techniques being refined in localities, while others serving relatively small areas don't know how large-scale applications could be adapted to meet their needs.

'These are applications of technology that help non profits to achieve specific goals and reach target audiences. They help organizations increase their own efficiency and effectiveness, improve the quality of services that non-profit groups deliver, and give non commercial interests greater influence in policy debates. Expanding use of these technologies could revolutionize the way non-profit organizations operate, offering ways to broaden constituencies and reach far larger audiences than previously thought possible.

'Communications companies are still trying to determine exactly what technological services the public will demand: Does it want entertainment or a system that gives people access to health, environmental and civic information? Does it want a one-way system for transmitting information that turns individuals into passive consumers, or does it want the opportunity to originate, as well as receive, messages--and in the process gain more say in how institutions are run?

'Public opinion polls have suggested that most people want access to noncommercial information and new ways to communicate, rather than additional vehicles for entertainment, home shopping, and 15-second sound bites. But technology won't be deployed on the basis of poll results alone. The public debate about the future of the nation's information infrastructure needs to be better informed about how technologies are being used to provide valuable services outside the commercial sector and what's working for nonprofits, their clients, and their communities. '

The Benton Foundation is promoting that debate, and exploration of benefits for voluntary organisations in the United States. So far there is no comparable exercise under way in the UK. Although much of the promotion of the new technologies is driven commercially rather than social concerns, there are sufficient evident benefits for further systematic exploration to be worth while.

In addition to initiatives like the Benton project US voluntary organisations have their own communication system, Handsnet, which provides access to the Internet and user-friendly conferencing on a bulletin board system. This means that voluntary organisations have a means of rapidly exchanging news and ideas within their own field, and checking what is happening elsewhere in the sector.

Below are some other examples cited by the Benton Foundation.

Examples from North America

Civic Network Television (CNT) is a non-profit organization that provides equipment and support to enable local non-profit groups to participate electronically through satellite teleconferences in courses, forums, and town meetings. The events take place in Washington, but they are beamed via satellite to conference rooms across the country. Individuals at remote viewing sites can observe and communicate via telephone lines with participants in Washington and other places.

The Civic Practices Network, a nonpartisan, collaborative project involving a diverse collection of organizations, offers a rich collection of "civic stories, best practices and case studies" dealing with creative problem-solving at the community level. The web site, which can be reached with a computer, a modem, and Internet access, uses pictures and icons to guide journalists, social studies teachers, students and community activists to current information on everything from environmental issues to religion. With a click of the computer mouse, users can seek information about what's going on in specific states, search by subject through hundreds of reports and case studies, or get the names of key contacts.

I*EARN, the International Education And Resource Network, helps bring together schools and institutions as varied as Save the Children and the U.S. Information Agency for project-oriented, collaborative learning. Participants-some 1,500 schools and youth service organizations in more than 20 countries-communicate primarily by electronic mail and on-line conferences. Some use speaker telephones and video telephones as well.

Advances in telecommunications may be turning the world into a global village, but they also can bring individual neighborhoods together.

Linking Up Villages (LUV) is a Boston-based project designed to reinvigorate communities through local electronic bulletin boards and software called Multi-User Sessions in Community (MUSIC). "The LUV motto is, rather than focusing on National Information Infrastructure, to us, NII is really about Neighborhood Information Infrastructure," says Alan Shaw, president of MUSIC, Inc., the for-profit counterpart to LUV.

Shaw designed the MUSIC software a few years ago at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Media Lab. It enables participants to create an on-line version of their communities, complete with "buildings" and, within the buildings, "rooms." Subject to rules adopted by individual communities, individuals can "stroll" through this graphical "virtual neighborhood," obtain information on community services and activities, make their own contributions to the database, participate in live "chat" groups or engage in sustained discussions through various community forums. All that's needed is a computer and a modem.

People's House, which has been operating in Washington, D.C., for four years, combines two common and easily accessible technologies, three-way phone calling and a computer database to make getting help as easy as finding a phone booth. Once People's House gets a call from someone in need, a staff member types key words into a computer (donated Macintoshes) to find which of 3,500 organizations in its database can best help. People's House then sets up a three-way call to bring client and service provider together. By participating in the call, People's House makes certain the client's needs can be met; the search continues until a successful match has been made.

While the idea of connecting students to global computer networks is one of the hottest topics in educational technology today, some schools are trying networking on a smaller scale-they're linking schools and students' homes.

At New Trier High School in Winnetka, Ill., about 75 sophomores each year are given donated IBM computers to use at home during the school year. Besides doing much of their English, geometry, geography and biology homework on the computers, the students use e-mail to collaborate with fellow students and communicate with teachers. Parents are urged to use the computers as well; they can consult with teachers via e-mail, and they can log on to learn their kids' grades, check homework assignments, and in some cases participate with their children in projects assigned by teachers.

How do you meet the demand for more services even though budgets are getting squeezed? That is an increasingly common challenge faced by nonprofit organizations. Technology may provide one answer.

Reacting to a wave of cuts in city, state and federal social service spending, United Neighborhood Houses of New York, Inc., which provides a wide variety of social services and sponsors various cultural and educational activities, installed a computer network linking two UNH offices and five settlement houses to common stores of data. UNH hopes the network, which supports 250 work stations, will save caseworkers many hours of paperwork by consolidating records and storing them electronically.

A caution

It is easy to get carried away with enthusiasm for the applications of the new technology, so I asked Terry Grunwald to review reality at the grass roots.

Terry is Project Director of NCexChange, an initiative that promotes and supports electronic networking for nonprofit organisations and low wealth communities in the state of North Carolina.

NCexChange was the first statewide program in the US designed to meet the special networking needs of the nonprofit community. Since September 1990, NCexChange has helped over 160 North Carolina rural, human service, and community development organisations connect electronically for information exchange, communication, and collaboration. Terry responded:

'There is no way that voluntary organizations (I will call them NPOs) will participate in the policy debate unless they experience tangible results that make them feel they have a stake in telecommunications.

'The Internet is only theoretically a "leveller" ... NPOs will need incentives to participate: online information designed to meet their specific needs and a support framework to handhold them through the process. These are key. Who in England is willing to provide these incentives?

'There are pre-existing reasons why NPOs don't participate more actively: lack of time and resources, a reluctance to share information, the problems inherent in any kind of collaboration, etc. Telecomms can't solve these problems.

'Too many people inside the Beltway (Washington D.C.) try to hype the Info Highway without acknowledging the real barriers that NPOs face. NPOs need to go online with their eyes open - prepared for the commitment it entails. Otherwise they may sour on networking completely

'I've seen it happen a lot.'


Single copies of the Benton Foundation Communication Policy Project report: Inventing the Future: Nonprofits and the new technologies are available free from the Foundation, 1634 Eye Street, N.W., Washington D.C 20006, USA

Tel: 001202-638-5770. Fax: 001 202-638-5771



Terry Grunwald, NC Client and Community Development Center, PO Box 28958, Raleigh NC 27601, USA

Tel: 001 919-856-2176. Fax: 001 919-856-2120. E-Mail

Broadcasting Support Services

Tel: 0181 280 8000. Fax 0181 810 0169. Email (publishing):

URL for Channel 4:

The Media Trust

Tel: 0171 637 4747. Fax: 0171 637 5757. Email:


Tel: 0161 839 4212. Fax: 0161 839 4214. Email:



Tel: 0171 713 1941. Fax: 0171 833 1169. Email:


Community Development Foundation

Tel: 0171 226 5375 Fax: 0171 704 0313. Email:

VOIS - Voluntary Organisations Internet Server

Tel: 0171 435 5787. Fax: 0171 435 8144. Email:


OneWorld Online

Tel: 0494 481629. Fax: 01494 481751.


National Institute for Social Work

Tel: 0171 387 9681. Fax: 0171 387 7968. Email:


The Samaritans

Tel: 01753 532713. Fax: 01753 775787. Email:

Support by email or (anonymous)

YouthNet UK

Tel:0171 6051693. Email: URL:


Tel: 0171 226 5375. Fax: 0171 704 0313. Email:


Tel: 0141 248 8541. Fax: 0141 248 9433. Email

Community Network

Tel: 0171 359 4594 Fax: 0171 704 6471. Email: