Revised with new information as of March 5, 2008

Part III: What use is the Internet to a not-for-profit organization (NPO)
or public sector agency?

Continued from a previous document.

Barriers to Being Online

The barriers to NPOs access to the Internet -- or access the new technology tools -- include the cost of hardware, software and network connections; lack of computer or network literacy; lack of appropriate and continuing technical support; reluctance from staff and volunteers to support technology; and high turn-over rate for staff and volunteers.

There are still people who see at least the latest technology, if not all computer and network technology, as merely a "fad," or simply cannot see why a mission-based organization staff, particularly the receptionist, the volunteer manager or a program director, need Internet access at all - and such people usually make up the majority on NPO boards or bodies that provide funding to mission-based organizations. The people who "hold the purse strings" can be particularly hard to convince when it comes to the need for basic office supplies, let alone network technologies.

The climate that can permeate a mission-based organization also can be an obstacle to the introduction of the Internet as a tool for ALL departments. Supporters are unforgiving of innovations that don't work immediately in mission-based organizational settings. The culture of these organizations often does not allow for experimentation and learning curves, because these can lead to a perception of failure if results aren't immediate and obvious. And this perception of failure can look like a wasteful use of already-limited resources.

Finally, technology forces accountability in a way that can make an agency uncomfortable, because it can shine the spotlight on unproductive programs or organizational weaknesses. For instance, organizations often initiate web sites anticipating that they will have plenty of new information each month to add to it, and plenty of time to do it. Later, they realize that program staff do not offer or detail new information or activity updates regularly -- this is not a technology problem, this is a program or staff problem.

A contributor offers this advice on overcoming these barriers:

"Don't try to network an existing organization unless the leadership can overcome cultural resistance. A new way of doing it has to be justified as enhancing the work enough to justify the time it takes to learn it. As people understand what it can do and what they can get done through it, most really want it. That was true of computers; it's going to be true of telecommunications as well."

(See also "The Growing Digital Divide Among Nonprofit Organizations / Civil Society in the USA (and maybe it's not just digital)". This is a commentary about a disturbing trend: a gap between those organizations who are using the Internet in a myriad of ways to support their missions, and those who are still largely on the sidelines and not using network technologies in working with their volunteers. The question is, are these sidelined nonprofits there because of lack of access to resources, of lack of will to embrace them?)

Change is stressful. Throw the word "computer" or "upgrade" or "Internet" or the latest techno-jargon into this equation, and stress can skyrocket. Many agencies invest considerable resources in computer hardware, software and staff training for computerized systems that then end up being under-utilized and failing to live up to their vast potential, because the staff had unrealistic expectations for the technology, or they never bought in to the idea of the technology in the first place. Introducing New Technology Successfully into an Agency provides an overview of the reasons to computerize or upgrade a system, the disadvantages and risks, getting staff buy-in, and links to other resources.

One of the questions that drives me batty on online discussion groups is this: "Where can I find a grant to pay for new computers?" You can't. But what you CAN find are grants that are focused on supporting particular types of MISSIONS -- serving children, the elderly, people with AIDS, the environment, promoting the arts. Look for grants that are focused on missions like yours -- what you are proposing for funding is your mission, not technology; technology is merely the way in which you intend to meet your mission.

TechSoup offers some of the best information online anywhere to help mission-based organizations get online -- its free, and frequently updated. The TechSoup web site is the reason I don't update the technology-tips sections of my web site more often; their information is much more detailed and complete than mine.

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