Promising Progressions: Nonprofits and Technology

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What is the promise that technology holds for each of our organizations and for our work? The answer is always multi-layered. Nonprofit organizations, networks and associations have made many ambitious attempts to incorporate technology tools and strategies into the way they do their work. Very often these same groups, whether successful or not at technology integration, find that information and communication technology profoundly affects the organizations’ ideas about how their work can and should be done. There is, as a result, a kind of rapid co-evolution of our ideas about what an organization should look like and about what role technology can play in our work.

Some of the advances we have observed in nonprofits include: diminished barriers to carrying out programs and developing strategy; stronger connections to constituents and to  accountability mechanisms; and achievement of critical mass v ia networks of networks. However, the ability of nonprofits to achieve these objectives depends greatly on their capacity to adapt themselves for the effective use of technology. Such settings are those in which everyone is clear about purpose and vision and where there are commonly understood principles and practices in place and in continuous development; where transparency and inclusive decision making are more the norm than “command and control” management; where leaders invest in the continuous development of each staff person; where curiosity and a drive to excel abound; and where accountability is prized. These learning organizations tend to push at their own current horizons to attain progressively more effective uses of information and communications technology.

This article scratches the surface of the complex set of organizational change and human interactions triggered by the use of technology. We plan to explore how learning organizations really can effectively integrate technology, from a human systems perspective, in a later article. For now we would like to share some stories about what technology can enhance if the setting is right.

Appropriate use of information and communication technology means conversations can be had more easily across boundaries between programs within the same nonprofit, across geographical boundaries between organizations working on the same issues or between groups working on integrated issues in a single community, and across status boundaries. In this way, boundaries that limit nonprofit service delivery and advocacy can be bridged. The Heart of America Family Services example in this issue’s story, “Spinning Straw into Gold: Ferocious Resolve,” incorporates a lot of cross-boundary conversation about the organization’s future, including a daily substantive and highly productive e-mail exchange between the executive director and her board. The enhanced ability to quickly connect and share with staff, board members, volunteers and those we serve or represent in a single or multiple site organization can deeply enhance the ability of new or strengthened collaborations to emerge. Take the experience of Community Partners, a Massachusetts-based statewide health access network. “When done well, we have found that better information exchange can pull people together and create better teams,” states Michael DeChiara, the network’s Executive Director. “The sharing of information, the editing of one another’s materials, all of this encourages us to work as a team, instead of everyone working alone, segregated. It breaks down the feeling of isolation that many of us feel as we are spread all around the state.”

In some situations it makes good sense to replace some level of face-to-face interaction with virtual contact. Take the case of an organization that regularly convenes citizens in a rural county. Due to annually expected inclement weather the organization sees a major dip in attendance at the winter gatherings. As a result, they cancelled the winter gatherings until one citizen suggested that they start up an e-mail discussion list that citizens could use to stay in touch through the winter months. Though not used by all the citizens who show up for face-to-face convening, the e-mail list provides, for those who wish it, the opportunity to stay more closely connected with others until the snow melts.

Although there is a clear potential benefit to be gained in virtual communications, as the examples above demonstrate, we observe that technology evangelists and resisters often miss the more nuanced issues that arise as organizations consider how to supplement face-to-face with online interactions. Without attention to these issues, use of technology could even damage the depth of relationships built face-to-face. It is imperative that organizations discuss this with the stakeholders who will be affected by the use of technology.

“There can be no disputing that the computer has increased the power of large-scale organizations like the armed forces, or airline companies or banks or tax collecting agencies . . . but to what extent have computers been an advantage to the masses of people? To steelworkers, vegetable-store owners, garage mechanics, musicians, bricklayers, dentists and most of the rest of us into whose lives the computer intrudes?” (Neil Postman, Technopoly)

Technology can help improve the relationship between nonprofit organizations and those they serve, organize or represent, but only if it is a priority for us. If they miss this opportunity to deepen relationships through the appropriate use of technology, nonprofits may find themselves increasingly ineffective and possibly irrelevant.
Take the case of membership-based organizations that now find themselves grappling with the public’s changing expectations about “belonging” to institutionally-based organizations. “Any group of Alzheimer’s caregivers, breast cancer patients, parents of learning disabled children, scholars, horse breeders—any affinity group that has a need or desire to communicate -— can start a Listserv (e-mail discussion list),” points out Howard Rheingold.1 Rheingold forecast both the PC and Internet explosions, and today he talks about the emerging combination of mobile communication and the Internet that enables people to cooperate in ways not previously possible.

The implications are immense as many organizations previously in the role of director of activity or spokesperson for community interests may find that they must become facilitators of community action as opposed to controllers of it. If they do not, some predict that people may increasingly ignore what nonprofits offer them as engaged citizens. Three examples highlight the trend that portends a new role for nonprofits: the anti-WTO (World Trade Organization) demonstration in 1999, where activists used cell phones and Web sites to fight the “battle of Seattle;” the 2000 Filipino presidential elections, where a million citizens toppled President Estrada through public demonstrations organized by cell phone-triggered text messages; and the use by U.K. automobile drivers of information and communication technology to immediately self-organize actions protesting rising oil prices. These events, all examples of what Rheingold calls “smart mobs,” provide nonprofits with new opportunities to support citizen action as long as there is a willingness to adapt. If there is not, then citizens will not see organizations as necessary for such activity.

Research Group (VPIRG) demonstrates that organizations willing to be flexible can adapt quickly to turn potential threats into new opportunities. Sensing that there was great potential if they went online with traditionally offline programs, they started the first online gubernatorial debates in the state and were able to instantly take questions for the candidates via the Web. “All of this,” comments Mark Flogel from VPIRG, “has kept us focused on getting more information, more quickly, to more people, so they can act and stay informed.” Though VPIRG had a long history of strong relationships with their constituents, the new online debates punctuated for them the importance of making most of their future decisions based on how quickly and widely they could distribute information to engage people.

Today we see organizations more and more interested in technology-enhanced “feedback loops” in the form of online surveys and tools that allow Web users to instantly comment on others’ articles. The Alliance of New York State Arts Organizations, a statewide arts service organization, considered adding a group insurance program for medical, dental, disability, life and long-term care services. Alliance staff members had anecdotally heard from members and other nonprofit arts organizations that people wanted the benefits, but staff needed to see how widespread the interest was. Using an online survey tool, the Alliance was able to quickly survey its arts organizations around the state. It learned there was enough interest to begin working with an insurance vendor to put a program together. This example is not an isolated use; the Alliance regularly communicates with its constituents via e-mail and requests feedback through online surveys to make programmatic decisions.

We hear increased talk about the importance of networks of networks as organizations and individuals previously able to work only within their own milieu now realize major benefits if they are part of a network that is actively connected to other networks. One network, the Win Without War Coalition, exemplifies this new approach by using advanced technology tools to trigger and support action by other networks. In March 2002, for example, to increase their impact, the coalition actively supported other networks like the Women Against Nuclear Destruction (WAND), whose leaders and local followers were empowered to host rallies and other grassroots efforts demonstrating the widespread opposition to the Iraq war. The anti-war coalition and WAND network shared information tools and were able to operate in a more transparent way made possible only by the Internet. “These days, groups have more of a choice of whether to just inform their supporters with information or to enable their supporters to engage their own networks of supporters and contacts,” states Rob Stuart, an online campaign strategist working in the commercial and nonprofit sectors. “Win Without War provided local partners, like those from WAND, access to professionally produced ads as well as a tool to organize local meetings and rallies. As a result they were able to stimulate more than 6,000 local candlelight vigils across the world on the same day.” This would have been simply impossible without the ability to network with other networks and their supporting groups.”

We all know that life is full of paradoxes, silver linings and two-sided coins. So it is with technology tools and the strategies we use to take advantage of the tools.

The stories featured in this article do show promise but, as Neil Postman, author of Technopoly, points out, there is much in the advance of information and communications technology that should worry us. While incidents such as Jet Blue selling its passengers’ names to a defense department contractor make headlines, we are all confronted with the central dilemma posed by Postman: Because technology enables us to do things, should we? We need to think more carefully not only about our own uses of information technology, therefore, but also about the need to create ethical controls for the way that technology is being used overall. As Postman comments, “it is not always clear, at least in the early stages of technology’s intrusion into a culture, who will gain most by it and who will lose most, because the changes wrought by it are subtle if not downright mysterious, one might even say wildly unpredictable . . . new technologies change what we mean by ‘knowing’ and ‘truth’; they alter those deeply embedded habits of thought which give to a culture its sense of what the world is like—a sense of what is the natural order of things, of what is reasonable, what is necessary, of what is inevitable, of what is real.”
The authors wish to caution readers that an abundance of literature and our own experiences suggest there are types of organizational settings that are much better suited to the fully effective use of technology than others. As noted at the outset of this article, technology cannot work effectively without well-functioning human systems. Organizations that excel in learning and adapting tend to push at their own current horizons to progressively more effective uses of information and communications technology.

In the context of increased technology-based communication, human (face-to-face) contact can sometimes be seen as less important than it once was. It is, in fact, increasingly important but can be done more strategically. Collective development of programs and strategy requires a certain level of understanding of one another’s thinking processes and embedded assumptions. We all come to our work with a wealth of “knowledge” about things, much of which others would question if they knew we thought such things. But this “knowledge” informs what we pay attention to and the way that we see things. These are called mental models and the exposing of these to one another is often best done face-to-face when we are engaged in developing the vision for a collective project or product.This deeper level of communication, where people can honestly challenge one another’s assumptions, is an important step to building the conditions for more successful online communication. And for many organizations, it is a new discipline.

1. Rheingold, Howard. December 3, 2003. “Community Development in the Cybersociety of the Future.”

Marc Osten is founder and a senior partner in Summit Collaborative, and Dot Org Media. Ruth McCambridge is the editor-in-chief of the Nonprofit Quarterly.