by Nalini P. Kotamraju, Graduate Student, Department of Sociology, University of California at Berkeley, <nalinik@uclink4.berkeley.edu> This paper is the final project for the course, Impact of New Information Resources: Networks & Multimedia, taught by Professor Howard Besser. The course was offered by Haas School of Business and the School of Information Management Systems at University of California at Berkeley in the Fall of 1996.


I. Introduction
II.Not-for-Profits & The Internet
A. The Sector
B. The Sector & Technology
III.Not-for-Profits in the Technological Revolution
A. The Fear of Technology Replacing Humanity
1. Replacing Humans
2. Replacing Humanity
B. The Internet: A Frontier Society
1. Volunteer Recruitment
2. Structuring the Frontier
3. Traffic Across the Borders
IV. Conclusion: A More Just Virtual World?
V. Footnotes
VI.Selected Sources

"We will have traded away a rich legacy of public interest principles in return for a digital mall...The mall is a private sector initiative with private sector benefits of consumer choice and convenience. Yet we do not rely on the mall to deliver K-12 education, health services, noncommercial access to information, or basic governmental services."

Andrew Blau, "Nonprofits as Engines of Social Benefit" (1)

The not-for-profit sector of society, which is often characterised as slow to adopt to new technology, has a complex relationship with the Internet which predates both the corporate rush to the Web and the subscription of over six million people to America Online. (2) In the framework of the topics raised throughout the semester, this paper discusses some of the better known ways in which not-for-profit organizations have utilised the Internet, specifically electronic mail and the World Wide Web.

Our class, the Impact of New Information Resources: Networks & Multimedia, has focused on how new technology, particularly the Internet, transforms the ways in which we live our lives. The discussions of "Social Implications of the Internet" Focus Group in which I participated narrowed this larger topic. In our weekly meetings, we asked how specific groups in society interact with technology and what themes recur in the course of these interactions. For the majority of the semester, we have worked from the assumption that new information technology and resources are fundamentally and irrevocably reshaping our methods of communication, our faith in authenticity and our notion of public/private distinction.

For my final project, I decided to examine the ways in which traditionally non-commercial sectors of society are using the Internet and to see whether the new technology issues that we have raised in class our relevant to this sector of society. To this end, using the Internet, the physical library and interviews with relevant professionals, I researched not-for-profit presence on the Web, analyses of not-for-profit involvement with the Internet, and some broader theories of the future of technology and democracy.

This paper is divided into three parts. The first is a brief, far from comprehensive documentation of the not-for-profit sector. The second section is a discussion of the sector's relationship with the Internet around two of the broad themes of my focus group: the fear that technology replaces humanity and the portrayal of the Internet as borderless, frontier space. The final section poses a few questions about the Internet as a democratic medium and about the future of the not-for-profit sector in the technological revolution.


The Sector

The not-for-profit sector of society is often underestimated in terms of number of organizations, non-monetary contributions to society and in total revenue. According to a 1993 analysis of the independent sector, not-for-profit organizations and institutions, excluding religious congregations, accounted for 416.4 billion USD in total revenues in 1990. Even taking into account that this figure includes the revenue generated by large private universities and does not include the work and products of volunteer workers in not-for-profit organizations, the amount gives some idea of the scale of this sector. Furthermore, less than ten percent of this revenue came from the United States government, which translates into for every one dollar from the government, thirteen other were raised from private sources. (3)

In comparison to other industrialised nations, the United States is unique in its reliance on not-for-profit organizations, largely non-government funded mechanisms, to support and implement many of the workings of society. The nation relies on not-for-profit organizations to provide expertise in a vast array of areas, to deliver health care and education and to nurture artistic talent and contributions. It is in this context, that we should begin to examine the interactions of not-for-profits with new media technology.

The Sector & Technology

In terms of computer hardware and software, the assessment of the technological situation of not-for-profit organisations seems very far from some of the trends discussed in class: the impending ubiquity of personal digital assistants (PDAs), the death of real-time, face to face transactions or sophisticated tracking and surveillance techniques.

In late 1995, Nonprofit World, a trade magazine, conducted a technology survey of non-profit organizations. Despite a low response rate, the survey researchers noted that most not-for-profit organizations considered themselves neither progressive nor static in terms of their technology (3). According to the survey summary, fifty percent of the respondents used standalone computers versus networked ones, less than thirty percent used CD-Roms, 8 MB was the most common amount of memory on the mainly IBM machines and the majority planned to upgrade to a Pentium with Windows in the next years. Most organizations had recently obtained Internet access and had started to browse the World Wide Web. (4)

On the World Wide Web, not-for-profits have certainly established a formidable presence. Guided only by one of the more comprehensive not-for-profit directories on the Web, users can access thousands of web sites of organizations as diverse as the American Red Cross, the Association for Neighborhood and Housing Development Inc of New York City and the United Methodist Office. Some of these web sites are little more than electronic brochures, intended simply to publicise information and not to reflect the breadth of the organization. As one cynical webmaster for a not-for-profit told me, "we put up a site to convince our funders that we were on top of things."


In this section, my purpose is to examine two of the themes which were raised in our focus group discussions and see how the experiences of not-for-profits and the Internet corroborates or challenges these ideas. The first is fear of tehcnology replacing humanity and the second is the notion of the Interent as a virtual frontier. The examples of specific uses of technology presented are meant only as illustrations, not as representative in a statistically sense or as case studies in the ideal-type sense.

The Fear of Technology Replacing Humanity

A requirement of this course was to view two science fiction films relevant to the interest of our focus group. Our focus group watched and discussed Metropolis and BladeRunner. We noted that both movies and many of the anti-technology rhetoric in popular culture shared one fear: that technological innovation would make humans obsolete. For the purposes of the this discussion, I will split this fear into two components: the fear that improved technology replaces human labor and that the increase use of technology depersonalises and degrades societal relationships.

Replacing Humans

From the printing press to the invention of the automobile to the digitalization of libraries, the introduction of new technology inspires fear. Though sometimes couched in the language of the sad demise of a familiar and treasured way of life, often this fear is related to the loss of income through employment. In "Bladerunner," the target escapees that caused so many problems were originally automatons created to fulfill human jobs. In an article about "Digital Palsy," R. Dennis Hayes repeatedly links "layoffs and computerization" and companies restructuring and downsizing around information technology. (5) Certainly, history is full of examples of industries and job descriptions that were rendered obsolete by technological advances, some of which we have discussed in class.

Traditionally, in the history of the United States labor movement, sometimes erroneously, unions were traditionally associated with this resistance to technological innovation. In the midst of this technological revolution, it is interesting to note that the unions have a considerable presence on the World Wide Web. The AFL-CIO and AFSCME have well-developed, professional web sites. The American Federation of Teachers maintains a site on the web as well as an active area on America Online for its constitency.

While the debate around the "productivity paradox" continues in economics, some social scientists argue that in our new global economy, the fear of people being replaced by machines is groundless. (6) Manuel Castells and others note that this fear is based on assumption of fixed demand. Roughly, this argument is that while a company may lay-off employees because their jobs have been rendered obsolete by new technology, another company will start-up or hire new employees to research, produce and implement that same new technology. (7) In the light of current government policy, the demand of for the services offered by most not-for-profit organizations shows no sign of reach a manageable growth rate, much less declining.

In the not-for-profit world, the introduction of new technology, specifically introducing the use of electronic mail and and establishing a presence on the World Wide Web, seems to have demanded new staff resources rather than less. In the guide, "Fundraising on the Internet: Recruiting and renewing donors online," Michael Stein recommends a quarter-time or half-time person to handle online needs. (8)

However, there are several examples of not-for-profit organizations who needed to invest considerable more resources than even this implies. The American Cancer Society, with relatively little promotion of its site, receives over 100 email messages per day and an assistant spends ninety percent of her time answering the emails that need to be addressed individually. (9) My experience coordinating the online strategy for Stand for Children Day 1996, a six month campaign, required two full time staff and a few volunteers.

While some organisations use autoresponders to alleviate the workload generated by electronic mail alone, the mission and substance of their work often cannot be satisfied by one or several standardised messages. At a recent workshop entitled "The Virtual Activist," one representative from a national organization with a small staff said that the biggest reason that it had not even procured an electronic mail address is that there was no spare staff to deal with the traffic. (10) The Internet requires quick, immediate responses and many not-for-profits do not have the resources to deal with this burden.

Replacing Humanity

A recent article in Link-Up cited three reasons why not-for-profit organizations were slow to adapt to early online technology. The first reason involved vendors' failure to market to and train this sector. Second, the financial and human resource limitations of many not-for-profit organizations often precluded systematic planning and implementation of new technology. The third reason touches on a larger theme of society and technology: the perception that technology is a dehumanizing force. (11)

The current technological revolution involves the elimination of time-costly, face-to-face or even voice-to-voice interaction. Most of us in the class have always conducted our banking transactions with automated teller machines. No one expects to call a toll free number for an airline and be greeted by a live human voice. On my antisocial days, I can pay the pump rather than a person for my gasoline. The current generation has accepted and adapted to the decline of face-to-face interaction to a degree that previous generations may not have imagined.

The work and substance of most not-for-profit organizations are "people issues." (12) These organizations often deal with people who cannot quite negotiate the system or people who are looking for community, legislative change or a hobby. None of these needs are easily or directly satisfied by anything but live, face-to-face interaction. Even Howard Rheingold, the famed author of "Virtual Community" admits that he tries to remain aware of "the pitfalls of mixing technology and human relationships." (13)

Given their missions, it is not surprising that not-for-profit organizations are struggling with the depersonalizing aspect of online communication. Recognising that people's demand for instant, efficient responses is increasing and in some cases offsetting the demand for personal, voice-to-voice service, some organizations, particularly the large, membership-based ones are implementing new online strategies. Akin to the premise of customised service in Internet commerce, groups like the World Wide Fund for Nature and the Sierra Club are recruiting members online and attempting to provide online service membership through making databases available online and electronic email.

Not-for-profit organizations are also weighing the differences between their direct mail and phone solicitation campaigns and potential new email campaigns. For instance, to alert people of an action such as a lobbying effort conducted by the Children's Defense Fund, electronic mail is ideal format not only because it is cheap, but also because it is less intrusive than a phone call. However, Audrie Krauss, the former director of the San Francsico-based Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility, also acknowledges that the impersonality of electronic mail versus a phone call may also mean that potential donors or interested activists can decline with relatively less pain or guilt. (14)


Though not as omnipresent as the information highway, the metaphor of the Internet as a frontier in the tradition of the Wild, Wild West has enjoyed some popularity.The frontier metaphor captures the most idealistic vision of the Internet, what Laura Miller's article describes as "a realm of limitless possibilities and few social controls." (15). In "Wired Women," a collection of essays about gender and cyberspace, Stephanie Brail's article is entitled "The Price of Admission: Harassment and Free Speech in the Wild, Wild West." (16) And of course, the word, frontier, appears in the name of the leading nonprofit, civil liberties organization concerned with technology and the public interest, the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

The usefulness of the virtual frontier concept is that it can also highlight the degree to which the Internet depends on the innovation and pioneering spirit explorers, in this case, not-for-profit organizations. I would like to highlight two ways in which not-for-profit organizations have capitalised on the virtual territory full of friends and strangers: the online recruitment of volunteers and the creation of structured information exchange. Then, I will briefly discuss the degree to which the Wild West of the Internet is indeed borderless, using the example of the environmental movement.

Volunteer Recruitment

Unpaid labor, volunteer time, is one of the mainstays of not-for-profit work. In 1989, an estimated 41% of total employment in this sector was volunteer time and in religious and cultural organizations, volunteers accounted for over half the total employment. (17) The work of volunteers supplements the often stretched budgets of smaller organizations like health clinics and arts organizations, but also enables larger entities such as museums and relief organizations to deliver public goods.

Established volunteer clearinghouses such as the Points of Light Foundation and People Making a Difference have started to recruit volunteers online as well as through more traditional means. (18) In addition to these efforts, organizations have formed online with the purpose of getting people more involved in their physical communities through volunteer work. One effort is Impact Online, a Palo Alto and Washington DC based group, which attempts to facilitate and increase community involvement by offering online space for people and organizations to exchange information. Another Bay Area effort was the October 6-7, 1996 Virtual Summit for Children & Youth. In tandem with hearings by the Mayor's Office, an organization called CHALK arranged for live Web coverage of the event.

Getting information about how to volunteer online and in some cases being able to perform volunteer work online is proving essential in the current framework of our society. As a woman who runs a newsgroup for volunteers said, "Now families have two kids, two days, two cars--and two jobs."(19). Radcliffe College recently implemented a mentoring-vai-email program for its alumnae to expand women's professional networks across the country and allow for more participation. In order to maintain their volunteer pool, organizations are incorporating the Internet into their volunteer work.Technology and virtual volunteers are successfully eliminating some of the administrative burdens of not-for-profit organizations. However, as the percentage of the population online becomes more used to giving less and less time, it becomes less clear who will be carrying out the important face-to-face or voice-to-voice work of organizations, such as staffing the hotlines and visiting the elderly.

Structuring the Frontier

Not-for-profit organizations understand the importance of networks and the timeliness of information distribution as well, if not better, than do other sectors of society. However, rather than succumb to the romanticism of the metaphor of the frontier, some of the most effective uses of Internet technology in the sector has been through highly structured forms of online interactions such as HandsNet.

For many not-for-profit organizations, particularly those concerned with lobbying and policy, the information part of the information technology is their primary concern. The Internet's capacity for almost immediate, widespread dissemination of information is the most powerful asset for these groups. In the same way that our class has discussed the problem of legitimacy and verifiability of digital art work, these organizations are concerned with these issues regarding information.

Originally a closed online service, HandsNet launched its website early in 1996. Organizations who are members of HandsNet have access to high-quality, well-organized information on a broad range of issues. The purpose of organization is to promote cross-sector collaboration at grassroots level and to use the online medium to ensure that organizations with information that is potentially useful to others is distributed efficiently and cheaply.

Crossing the Borders

The world of the web is relational, the links matter. Though the technical borders around entities on the Internet may be negligible, the social ones are considerably more formidable. Far from the corporate web world in which links have a dollar price, links in the not-for-profit sector have a much higher price, that of professional integrity and organizational stances on issues. Some organizations liken a link from their site to a referral. Linking to a site thus would imply responsibility for someone's else's work and is a risk to one's credibility. Other groups fear that a link to an organization that is objectionable to a user may jeopardize a potential donation.

In response to some of these worries, a frustrated not-for-profit technology consultant stated at a recent workshop that if organizations were not willing to link to other organizations than they should not put up a web site. (20) Using the Internet, by publishing an electronic mail address or putting up a web page, necessitates opening one's time, resources and mission for easy comment by a broad, self-directed and demanding public.

The strong and effective online presence of environmental organizations emphasises the degree to which the Internet can facilitate borderless activism and information exchange. EcoNet, one of the arms of the Institute for Global Communications, is one of the oldest directory sites for information related to the environment, including web sites and gophers. The web sites of the Sierra Club and the Nature Conservancy are among the most innovative in their design, structure and purpose. The success of this particular subset of not-for-profits can be contributed in part to the degree to which it was previously organized as a coherent, well structured movement. From the United National Conference on the Environment and Development in Rio several years ago to the proliferation of Earth Days on US university campuses, this community already had an effective network which translated easily to the web and electronic mail


In "Virtual Community," Howard Rheingold proposes that computer-mediated communications (CMC) has the potential to "revitalize citizen-based democracy" (21). Proponents of the Internet claim that the fundamental structure of the Net is akin to democracy giving differently-resourced entities equal voice and promoting a more egalitarian form of discussion. The attempt to portray the Internet as an intrinsically democratic medium is by no means novel in the history of technology. In the introduction to his book, America Calling, Claude Fischer notes how new technologies such as the telegraph, the telephone, and the automobile, when introduced were all hailed as promoting community and the values of democracy. (22) The need to root actions and technological change in the framework of democracy runs deep in the United States.

Richard Sclove in his book "Democracy & Technology" writes that "many of the most important technology decisions are made today via a covert politics that occurs within corporate headquarters and government bureaucracies or via the tacit politics of the economic marketplace." (23) Sclove argues for a democratic politics of technology with more citizen involvement and more widespread distribution of information about technology.

The Communications Policy Project of the Benton Foundation is an effort to "strengthen public interest efforts in communication policy." Throughout US history, provisions have been made in communication policy to protect the interests of not-for-profits and society at large. The Corporation for Public Broadcasting was created in the late 1960s in part to support public broadcasting. The introduction of public access cable channels is a another example of communication policy which addressed the needs of not-for-profit organizations. The implementation of Free Nets and the growing call to address the access gap between have and have-nots is just the beginning of the movement which some not-for-profits are mounting.While it may be unclear what exact steps will need to be taken to ensure the protection of noncommercial interests vis a vis the Internet, it is imperative, as Blau argues, that a role must be reserved for not-for-profit organizations to participate in these decisions. Perhaps, there is hope perhaps in the fact that the Internet, more than any other previous communication medium, can allow theoretically and financially for interactive dialogue and collaboration.

The romantic Internet story of spontaneous, coordinated social action on the Internet is a myth. Users and institutions from all sectors of society, as well as those offline, remember the notorious Blue Ribbon Campaign in March 1996 in which web pages across the Net changed their backgrounds to black in protest of the censorship legislation. People who advocate the Internet for commerce, education or academia all point to this mobilisation as demonstrating the promise of the Net: new forms of organization and action with little financial costs. The lesson to remember from this campaign is that the same event that inspires people about this new technology and correspondingly makes others wary, was not produced by companies or the government. Spearheaded by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a small, well-connected, technology-savvy coalition of not-for-profits led a systematic protest that spread easily on the Net. It appears that it is perhaps the less technically endowed, less high profile, not-for-profit sector of socety to which we should look to help shape the technology that is determining our future.


(1) Andrew Blau, Nonprofits as Engines of Social Benefit," Benton Foundation (April 1995). http://www.benton.org/Catalog/Working9/working9.html - (Back to text)

(2) Atlanta Journal, 29 September 1996 (Back to text)

(3) Nonprofit World, May/June 1996 p36-39 "How you and other nonprofits are using technology: Latest survey results". The response rate was less than 1%, 200 returned surveys out of the original 4,200 mailed. (Back to text)

(4) ibid (Back to text)

(5) R. Dennis Hayes, "Digital Palsy: RSI & Restructuring Capital," in Resisting the Virtual Life, p 180. (Back to text)

(6) For a comprehensive discussion of the productivity paradox see, the survey in the "Economist" (19 October 1996) (Back to text)

(7) Manuel Castells, "Rise of the Nework Society" (Blackwell, 1996) (Back to text)

(8) Michael Stein, "Fundraising on the Internet" p. 3.12 (Back to text)

(9) ibid, Stein, p. 1.12 (Back to text)

(10) "Virtual Activist Workshop," San Francisco, 16 November 1996, sponsored by Media Alliance (Back to text)

(11) Wallys W. Conhaim "Nonprofits," Link-Up, 19 September 1996, Vol, 13, #5, p12. (Back to text)

(12) ibid, p12. (Back to text)

(13) Howard Rheingold, "The Virtual Community: Homesteading on the Electronic Frontier," New York: Harper Collins, 1993, p4. (Back to the text)

(14) Audrie Krause, "Taking the Plunge into E-mail Fundraising," in Fundraising on the Internet, p. 6.2 (Back to text)

(15) Laura Miller, Women and Child First: Gender and the Settling o the Electronic Frontier," in "Resisting the Virtual Life " p.50. (Back to text)

(16) Brail, Stephanie, "The Price of Admission: Harassment & Free Speech in the Wild, Wild West," in Wired Women - (Back to text)

(17), ibid, Blau, p. 17 (Back to text)

(18) Carolyn Jabs, "Online Volunteering," Home PC, 1 October 1996, p 124 (Back to text)

(19) ibid (Back to text)

(20) ibid, "Virtual Activist Workshop" (Back to text)

(21) ibid, Rheingold, p. 14, (Back to text)

(22) Claude S Fischer, America Calling: A Social History of the Telephone to 1940, Berkeley: University of California, 1992, p. 2 (Back to text)

(23) Richard E Sclove, Democracy & Technology, New York: Guilford Press, 1995, p. 239 (Back to text)


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