First Monday

The Potential of the Internet for Non-Profit Organizations by Tessa Spencer

The Potential of the Internet for Non-Profit Organizations by Tessa Spencer
This paper examines the concept of a digital divide faced by third sector organizations. It introduces problematic examples of Internet use by non-profits, identifies characteristics defining their involvement in the digital world and analyzes models of technology access that suggest significant potential benefit. Drawing on the growing understanding of people's Internet behaviors and the nature of online communities it examines the resources necessary to promote access and social inclusion through the example of strategy development for an environmental organization operating in Australia.


The Third Sector
Non-Profit Use of the Internet
Potential of the Internet for Non-Profits
Harnessing the Potential of the Internet for WIRES
Online Community for Knowledge Sharing
Building an Online Community
Putting the Internet to Work for WIRES





Not operating to make a profit; nor part of government, though they may perform a public service; non-profits make up the third sector of organizations seeking to benefit from the Internet. "The Internet now makes possible a resource that has never been available to non-profits before now: affordable, direct, interactive access to the public at large" (Civille, 1997).

However, non-profit organizations face particular difficulties in using the Internet to pursue their goals. Some limit their Internet use to e-mail or have launched small, static Web sites to establish a 'Web presence', others are simply waiting. Yet advances in technology make it increasingly important for them to be an active part of the online community.

Although little formal research has explored use of the Internet by non-profit organizations, industry commentators and practitioners acknowledge consistent trends in current use and areas of potential benefit. These findings have implications for development and implementation of Internet strategies for non-profit organizations seeking to benefit from the Internet's growing potential.



The Third Sector

Tremendous diversity exists among third sector organizations, in their origins, size, finances, activities, the people they serve, and the means used to achieve their goals. Non-profit causes include environmental preservation, health education, youth recreation and the arts. Together with well-known organizations, such as the Red Cross, World Wildlife Fund and Greenpeace, the sector includes environmental groups, local playgroups and child care centers, charities, sporting and recreation associations, church groups and service clubs.

Despite their diversity non-profit organizations share a number of common characteristics. Although there are a few large non-profits (80 percent of all non-profit assets are held by only six percent of all non-profit organizations) the majority are small and community-based with limited resources and a reliance on volunteer labor. Non-profit organizations are independently organized and self-governing; they seek to engage people in the local or wider community for the benefit of their membership or to promote a broader cause. Successful non-profits have developed skills in building the relationships with volunteers, supporters, donors and the media that ensure their survival. The relationships are based on shared causes and the sense of goodwill from 'doing a good deed' rather than satisfying a consumer need. Non-profits can take advantage of these skills to engage a far greater number of supporters through the Internet.

Non-profits are typically a step behind for-profit and government organizations in capitalizing on new technology. The reasons are fundamental to their operation, lack of funding and technical expertise and a failure to see the importance of the Internet in fulfilling organizational objectives (Jamieson, 2000). Despite these disadvantages, the Internet holds considerable potential for fulfilling objectives of providing information, educating, advocating, building expertise, raising money and developing relationships with members, volunteers, sponsors and the public. The potential is growing as technology improves, enhanced features and applications are developed and the number of Internet users and their proficiency increases.

Threats also exist for organizations that do not make use of the opportunities made available by the growth of the Internet. Increasingly, potential donors use the World Wide Web and non-profit Web sites as a source of information when distributing funds. Inaccurate and poorly designed Web sites can convey a poor impression of the professionalism and credibility of the organization. Non-profit organizations will 'lose their voice' by not having a significant presence in the new communications environment and may lose their funding in competition with more technologically advanced organizations (NSNT, 1999).



Non-Profit Use of the Internet

Various surveys and third sector reviews indicate that, apart from a few notable exceptions, there is a significant gap between the potential use of the Internet by non-profit organizations and its application. The number of non-profit Web sites and organizations using e-mail has grown considerably but this does not equate to an effective use of the Internet's potential.

The literature attests to common patterns in the take-up and use of the Internet by non-profit organizations. Gilbert (1999) stated that activist environmental organizations tend to go through three phases of Internet use - experimental retrieval, broadcast power and interactive dialog. The investment in technology for these organizations is first realized in the use of the Internet for e-mail and basic research followed by creation of a Web site. This first presence on the World Wide Web is often an 'online brochure' which broadcasts information to a general audience with the goal of establishing a presence, providing basic organizational details and 'educating' the public about the organization's work. Wagner (1998) commented that "charities offer mainly online versions of their brochures with vanilla HTML content and interactivity limited to sending an e-mail for more information". Jamieson (2000), in reviewing Canadian non-profit sites, noted that with few exceptions they are "half hearted, unsophisticated and largely ineffective efforts".

Although a number of commentators have reviewed or compared use of the Internet by non-profit organizations, little formal research or empirical data on use of the Internet by non-profits is available. Finn (1998) surveyed non-profit agencies using the Internet and found that although most organizations were satisfied with their Internet activities less than five percent of funds and 10 percent of volunteers were derived this way. Most agencies used in-house resources to build and maintain their Web sites and "expressed frustration at the staff time involved" [1]. Johnson (2001) conducted an online survey of non-profit organizations in Australia to determine their use of the Internet, 'use' being equated to the presence of an organizational Web site. Most non-profits (91 percent) felt the investment in developing and maintaining a Web site was worthwhile. Some organizations had developed their site in-house (38 percent) while others had used external resources, most used an Internet service provider to host the site and updated it monthly (74 percent) with only two percent of the total sites surveyed updating their site daily. The size of Australian non-profit Web sites appears to be increasing with 41 percent having 20 pages or less (down from 59 percent in 1999 and 50 percent in 2000) while 27 percent had over 100 pages (up from 17 percent in 1999 and 20 percent in 2000). The majority had established a Web site to share information but an increasing number of these organizations recognized the importance of interacting with visitors by providing an e-mail subscription option.

Civille (1997) reviewed U.S. environmental organizations and found that action alerts and tools for individuals to submit comments were not readily available. Gilbert (1999) looked at interactivity on the Web sites of non-profit environmental organizations arguing that without interactivity an organization is wasting the potential of the Internet to build relationships with supporters, volunteers and sponsors. He concluded that only 35 percent of the 408 Web sites surveyed provided an e-mail address or some other form of interactivity on its home page. Early results of a recent survey of 900 non-profit organizations showed that although 80 percent of organizations had a Web site only 12 percent had established a strategy to take advantage of e-mail (Gilbert, 2002). The report by the National Strategy for Non-Profit Technology concluded "a year's research has shown that non-profits are hesitant to use technology and are ill-informed about the impact that it could have on their work ... the fundamental problems are lack of knowledge, fragmentation, inadequate investment and lack of skills" (NSNT, 1999).



Potential of the Internet for Non-Profits

The potential for the Internet for non-profit organizations has been discussed by a number of commentators. Landesmann (1997) identified publicity, public education, fundraising, volunteer recruitment, service delivery, advocacy, research and communication as ways the Internet could be put to work for a non-profit organization. Barndt (1998) highlighted the benefits of networking between national non-profit organizations and their local branches. Opinion sampling, training, media relations, community building and knowledge sharing could be added to this list. Government and for-profit organizations share several of these potential uses. However, third sector organizations differ from government and commercial organizations in their focus on fundraising and advocacy, reliance on volunteers, reputation for credible information and strength in relationship building.


Fundraising dominates much of the popular literature addressing the potential of the Internet for the non-profit sector and is a common theme in philanthropy newsgroups (Johnson, 1998).

However, it is becoming increasingly evident that "simply having an online presence does not generate increased donations and few organizations have raised much money this way" (Stewart, 1999). Although a few non-profits have received over US$1 million, the estimated volume of fundraising achieved over the Internet is 0.14 percent of non-profit funding (Stewart, 1999).

Johnson (1999) suggested that people's reluctance to make donations using the Internet is due to concern about credit card security, privacy of information and lack of confidence that donations go to those for whom it was intended. Jamieson (2000) commented that although the Web and e-mail have the potential for fundraising they are still fundamentally relationship building tools, instead non-profit organizations should be understanding and fulfilling the information and communication needs of their existing and target audiences. For the time being, the real potential of the Internet is to develop an understanding of the organization's work and mission and enhance the level of trust of potential donors.


Unlike fundraising, use of the Internet for volunteer recruitment and management has proved quite successful. Some organizations have begun to advertise volunteer opportunities online and 'meta-sites', e.g. Impact Online in the USA, enable non-profits organizations in a geographical area or with a common focus to post openings. The concept of "virtual volunteering", where volunteers provide services online e.g. writing or web site management, is also being promoted (Cravens, 2001). Early indications are that while individual non-profits have had limited success in recruiting volunteers online, agencies and umbrella organizations indicate growing success. Finn (1998) found the agencies he surveyed were less satisfied with volunteer recruitment than other Internet objectives. Impact Online, by contrast, quoted 10,000 volunteer referrals in a week during 2002 and the Canadian Volunteer Opportunities Exchange (VOE) cited growing success with 20 organizations and 200 volunteers registering weekly across the country (VOE, 2001).

Information Credibility

Non-profit organizations are typically committed to educating the wider community on their area of concern. Often they "make a substantial investment preparing and distributing materials designed to support this educational agenda" (Barndt, 1998). The Internet offers the opportunity to provide tailored information enhanced by color, graphics, photographs and video, often too costly to use in published material. Quality design and content can only add to perceptions of organizational credibility. However, the commitment to rich content requires the necessary support to keep it up-to-date and meet the needs of an increasing audience. Tasks often difficult for smaller non-profit organizations. Careful thought needs to be given to site architecture and tools used to develop and maintain the Web site so it can be managed with limited resources.

Non-profits, as non-commercial organizations, can build on a perceived reputation for providing credible information. Internet searchers are often advised to consider information provided on .gov and .org sites in preference to commercial ones. A survey of journalists found they relied more on non-profit Web sites than business sites for credible information (Dollarhide, 1999).


The non-profit sector is increasingly aware of the potential of the Internet for effective advocacy. Pomeranz et. al. (1999) identified e-mail, listservs and the Web as the most common tools for Internet advocacy. E-mail has the advantage of being the most commonly used Internet function while listservs are effective when engaging large group in advocacy around time sensitive issues. Although it has been argued that Web sites are too passive for advocacy and are better seen as a "virtual library", they can provide people with selective access to information in a variety of formats and the ability to take action on issues.

Stewart (1999) identified the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) as a non-profit environmental organization that has successfully adapted their advocacy strategy to the Internet. The WWF site enables people to select specific species and areas to watch and receive e-mails on WWF actions they can support. Supporters receive thank you e-mails and notices if they take no action in a month. Other non-profits provide an editable letter addressing an issue that supporters can direct to government representatives. Civille (1997) noted that government organizations now commonly accept public comment via e-mail and forms submitted through Web sites.

Community Building

Although most non-profit organizations are lagging behind other organizations in making use of the potential of the Internet they do have a significant strength to bring to the task - a strong sense of the value of their supporter community (Jamieson, 2000). Non-profits rely on donors, volunteers and activists to fulfill their objectives; "the primary mission is to constantly build and develop a force of individuals who understand and support the initiatives the organization would like to take" (Stewart, 1999). They have had "to develop the tools and attitudes to build relationships which encourage people not to buy goods but give money and time just for the reward of feeling good" (Stewart, 1999).

The Internet offers considerable potential for even small non-profits to engage a wider audience in their cause and is emerging as an essential tool to engage a greater number of people in becoming online activists and donors (Jamieson, 2000; Stewart, 1999). Realizing that potential depends on an Internet strategy which focuses on using e-mail to distribute information and build support, engaging Web site users, stimulating interest and providing facilities for people to take action, share knowledge and provide feedback. A strategy that looks beyond the 'online brochure' Web sites that characterize the Internet use of many non-profits.



Harnessing the Potential of the Internet for WIRES

The Wildlife Rescue group - WIRES - is a non-profit environmental organization operating in New South Wales (NSW), Australia. Its experience using the Internet to fulfill organizational goals reflects that of many non-profit organizations.

Seeking to care for wildlife through education, advocacy and the rescue and care of injured and orphaned animals, WIRES relies on volunteers to support its two permanent staff. While the staff raises funds, develops publicity campaigns and co-ordinates the operation of branches and their members operating across the state, fourteen hundred trained volunteers rescue and care for injured and orphaned wildlife. The organization uses the Internet for research and e-mail. A brochure style Web site was created in 1996 to 'create a presence on the Web', but the site was not maintained after its volunteer creator left WIRES.

Internet Strategy

A new Internet strategy was an opportunity for WIRES to consider the array of possibilities the Internet holds for the organization and those that could be realistically managed with limited resources. The new strategy would target students, the organization's foster carers and potential sponsors and supporters.

The WIRES staff and volunteers were enthusiastic and active contributors to the development of their Internet strategy and design of a new Web site. They had a strong commitment to the cause and probably felt a strong sense of ownership of the proposed Web site. Abels et al. noted that when members of the target group are familiar with using the Internet "they have a good sense of the features that influence their use of a Web site and can participate effectively" [2]. As people were introduced to ways other organization were using the Internet they became enthusiastic about the range of possibilities. These ranged from simply collecting their members' e-mail addresses to the use of chat groups, distributing media releases and newsletters, online fundraising and encouraging their members to use e-mail for advocating the organization's position on issues of concern. While the organization's administrative staff focused on using the Internet to help fulfill their education, advocacy and fundraising objectives, the volunteers were more interested improving the quality of animal care and rescue.

An early objective for the Internet strategy was to portray WIRES as a professional and credible non-profit organization. Anecdotal evidence from the staff indicated that mainstream environmental organizations were more likely to receive sponsorship and donations. Furthermore, businesses were increasingly relying on information found on the Internet in deciding on causes and organizations to support. The strategy focused on developing an ongoing relationship with a wider community of potential sponsors and supporters through a Web site with professionally designed graphics, rich in content and interactive features. Provision would be made to acknowledge significant sponsors, however, facilities for direct fundraising were seen as a future objective.

Usage statistics indicated that information on the existing WIRES Web site attracted users from around the world including Australia, the U.S., Japan and Europe. The most popular page described Australia's native wombat and platypus. The organization's phone log indicated that users were likely to be students seeking information on Australian animals or environmental issues. Plans for the new Web site sought to build on the existing user groups, providing navigation features designed for children and enhancing the existing content with new pictures and updated information.

The organization used e-mail widely to communicate with branches across NSW and to respond to enquiries. Part of the new Internet strategy would expand the potential of e-mail to reduce costs and increase communication effectiveness by using by e-mail rather than traditional telephone and postal services. The Web site would include means to send letters to government representatives via e-mail.

WIRES members were particularly interested in establishing a way in which carers from across the state could use the Internet to share their knowledge on practical techniques and experiences in caring for injured and orphaned native animals. A number already participated in mailing lists devoted to native animal care, BATLINE and OZARK for example, and were quite passionate about the need to conserve wildlife, educate the public and share expertise readily. The potential existed for the organization to use the Internet's potential for communication to support not only distribution of information on animal care but also the development of a community of practice to share knowledge and practical skills, capturing best practice to improve animal care and rescue methods.



Online Community for Knowledge Sharing

The term 'virtual community' is commonly used to refer to groups of people using the Internet to share knowledge, interests, emotions and problems on an ongoing basis for mutual benefit. The term has become the latest Internet 'buzzword'. Web sites developed by organizations and individuals alike will include a chat room, discussion forum or subscription to a mailing list and claim to have established a virtual community. However, simply providing the tools does not bring together online a group of people, with a common interest or purpose, communicating on an ongoing basis.

Schuler [3] suggested the Internet held great potential as a participatory medium for members of existing communities and activist groups seeking to advance social goals. However, he noted that introducing a new technology can "disrupt prior conventions and patterns of interaction in the user community" [4]. Ryan (1997) stated that the existence of real-life social organizations is a good indication that people might want to talk about these subjects via the Internet. Preece (2000) pointed to the need for more purpose in thinking about online communities and noted "most successful online communities develop from an already existing community that wants an online component". Furthermore, "random encounters in chat rooms are not enough - continuing communication is needed that encourages collaboration and trust in health groups, local conservation groups, community activists and political action groups". Preece (2000) acknowledged the emotional ties associated with the concept of 'community' but made explicit the notion that people make a choice to become part of a virtual community and that there is reason and purpose behind the choice.

Shared interests, ongoing participation and shared language and conventions indicated that the WIRES carers had the potential to establish a successful online community. Specifically, their commitment to informal learning and sharing of knowledge and expertise are characteristics of a "community of practice".

Communities of Practice

Recognizing the particular characteristics of an online community can enable it to focus on the benefits to the members and the organization. Wengner (1998) distinguishes between a community of practice that is bound by what they do and a community of interest or a geographical community. Many virtual communities can be considered communities of common interest where the objective is online discussion among people of common backgrounds or interests. A community of practice, by contrast, has a "tight focus on a common set of practices and composed of people who share professional responsibilities or activities" (Carotenuto et al, 1999). Such communities can be a "greenhouse for functional competence" (Carotenuto et al, 1999). Examples include a group of research scientists but could equally be a group of wildlife carers. Cotherel and Williams (1999) determined that the most important ingredient for organizations seeking to benefit from online communities of practice is "attention to community building and the sense of belonging which is essential to participation".



Building an Online Community

All virtual communities need to attract and keep people involved in the community's purpose. However, as a relatively new phenomenon, there is only a small body of literature that seeks to understand how communities form and how they can be sustained in a form that meets the needs of their members.

Case studies and observations indicate that although online communities will evolve according to the needs of members they also require a host, co-ordinator or moderator. Cotherel and Williams (1999) studied a number of different online communities to determine how they form and grow. Although the main focus was communities within commercial organizations, it was determined that viable communities evolved where effort was directed at activities to increase participation, avoid controlling communication and encourage off-site communication via e-mail, etc. The size of the group was less important than the level of participation and members being willing to encourage others and guide the discussion.

Preece (2000) stated "the development of successful online communities is dependent on a careful blending of well-designed software and artfully crafted social procedures". However, for many non-profit organizations the choice of tools for community building is largely limited to those provided by the organization's Internet service provider or available as 'freeware' and their success rests more with the commitment of an existing group of members and their skills in relationship building.

Establishing an Online Community of Carers

Wildlife foster carers are a highly specialized but often isolated group. Most are middle-aged women, although there are a significant number of older men, living in both urban and rural areas across NSW. Concern was raised that this group were less likely to be Internet users due to their age or isolation. However, the demographics of Internet users are changing rapidly and approaching that of the population. Furthermore one of the greatest rates of Internet take-up is among women over 30 (PEW, 1999). These trends were evident in the group of women who participated in the development of the Internet strategy; all were regular e-mail users who were gaining confidence in using the Web through their jobs or their children. Several participated in the mailing lists on care of wildlife. The problems of rural carers were significant, telecommunications quality and costs limited use for those who had Internet access and this would have implications for development of an online community.

The enthusiasm and commitment of the WIRES carers, together with an understanding of the Internet behavior of the target group, prompted the inclusion of a moderated online discussion forum as part of the design for their Web site. The forum would initially be advertised only to members as the organization developed their skills and resources for its management. Unlike the mailing lists like BATLINE and OZARK, the forum would aim to capture the knowledge presented in discussions, make it available through searchable archives and incorporate best practice in the development of guides and training material for new carers.



Putting the Internet to Work for WIRES

The Internet strategy developed for WIRES has been gradually put into practice. A new Web site architecture and design has been developed and launched and staff now maintain the site using Microsoft FrontPage. Material is being rewritten and added, the home page is updated regularly and a concurrent advertising campaign has publicized the new site. WIRES staff are actively seeking the e-mail addresses of their members and promoting online advocacy with their branches. An online community of practice has been established, but limited to carers within WIRES. The community is growing slowly, hampered by a lack of equipment for the moderators.

The issues WIRES has faced in implementing its strategy typifies the experience of small to medium non-profits - a complete turnover of staff, balancing the goals of new sponsors with those of the organization but also the impact on wildlife of the devastating bushfires in Sydney during 2001.




Third sector organizations are failing to harness the potential offered by developments in Internet technology and its growing acceptance and use. Hampered by a lack of resources, skills and a vision of the Internet's potential, they lag behind commercial and government organizations.

Non-profits can draw on the experiences of other organizations and consider online volunteer management, discussion forums, information-rich Web sites, innovative fund-raising, online advocacy and tailored information distribution, to develop an Internet strategy that reflects their needs and resources.

The process requires an understanding of the organization's overall aims and objectives, the target audiences and the needs and focus of the interest or 'stakeholders' in the organization. The Internet offers new and powerful ways to communicate with this supporter community, other organizations and the public at large. However, it is important that the strategy not only focuses on the goals of the organization but also on its biggest asset - their community of members, volunteers and donors.

The experiences of developing an Internet strategy for WIRES reveals the knowledge, professionalism and dedication of the members and volunteers that is vital to the success of small to medium non-profit organizations. A strong sense of ownership and sense of purpose provided significant input to the strategy, tempered by a need to manage their expectations. The volunteer carers, separated geographically but with tasks and skills in common, had the potential to build an online community of practice to significantly enhance the organizations work by capturing specialized knowledge. Ongoing changes in Internet technology and the characteristics of its users will lead to new opportunities for non-profits to benefit from the Internet. End of article


About the Author

Tessa Spencer is a freelance information designer. The project was part of the requirements for the degree of Master of Arts (Information) at the University of Technology, Sydney in 2001, earning her the A.L.I.A. award.



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2. Abels et al., 1998, p. 40.

3. Schuler, 1994, p. 39.

4. Op. cit., p. 50.



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Editorial history

Paper received 24 May 2002; accepted 22 July 2002.

Contents Index

Copyright ©2002, First Monday

Copyright ©2002, Tessa Spencer

The Potential of the Internet for Non-Profit Organizations by Tessa Spencer
First Monday, volume 7, number 8 (August 2002),