Originally posted November 20, 2006

The Growing Digital Divide
Among Nonprofit Organizations / Civil Society in the USA
(and maybe it's not just digital)

by Jayne Cravens

I'm on dozens of online communities, most of which relate to nonprofit organizations and civil society in some way. I also attend onsite conferences each year relating to the same sector. Through these online and face-to-face gatherings over the recent years, I'm seeing a disturbing trend: a gap between those organizations in the USA that 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?

There are nonprofits where most or all of the volunteer and paid staff use the Internet as part of their core responsibilities -- not just email and web pages, but online discussion groups, blogs, podcasting, video conferencing, and even online social networks, such as MySpace. Tech tools are not the domain of just the tech staff at these organizations; those in charge of fund-raising, media relations, volunteer management and mission-based programming all use network technologies as an integral part of their work, and have their own visions on what these technologies will allow them to do in the future. They believe in "online civil society", and they embrace such through participating in it.

By contrast, there are also thousands of nonprofits in the USA that have email addresses for staff members and a web site controlled by just one or two people -- and that's the extent of their network technology use. When I've asked volunteer managers at such nonprofits why they don't have more information on their web sites regarding volunteering at their organization, or why they don't have an online discussion group for their volunteers, the reply is, "Oh, our tech staff is in charge of all tech activities."

Nothing illustrates this contrast in organizations better than two conferences I attended in 2006.

At the first, a major international conference, I spoke to a room full of veteran volunteer managers and representatives of long-established nonprofits. I talked about online volunteering and online communities. From the feedback I received, these were brand new concepts to most of the attendees, even though the practices have been around for many years. No one expressed interest in immediately exploring the practices, feeling that it was something to think about, but not to urgently implement. For them, volunteer management is a top-down endeavor, and technology use in working with and supporting volunteers is something to think about someday, when there's time. Two people even said that they would be providing my materials to their tech staff, implying that it was up to the tech staff to decide if these activities would be pursued.

At the second conference, even tiny nonprofit organizations with entirely volunteer staffs were using computer and networking technology to involve volunteers, donors, advocates and the general public in a variety of mission-based activities. These organizations were very much focused on giving their volunteers a bigger voice at the organization - and, in the end, actually giving these volunteers lots more to do, an increase in work load that the volunteers liked very much. These organizations also had a focus on engaging in activities that exude transparency and openness in all aspects of decision-making and management, and on being immediately responsive to volunteers' and other supporters' thoughts, suggestions and criticisms. Their volunteer involvement is focused on their staff always listening and acknowledging what they have heard from volunteers, by action as well as by words. They made their volunteers feel included and energized, not with pins or mugs or luncheons, but through greater and more-meaningful involvement, through ongoing, interactive support, through greater responsibility, and through actions that showed volunteer feedback had been heard.

Do these two different approaches to volunteer involvement have to do with lack of tech training and tech resources among staff, particularly those charged with managing volunteers, or, is the difference due to very different ways of thinking about the value and purpose of volunteer involvement to a nonprofit organization?

Earlier this year, I mentioned to a group of long-term volunteer managers that the nonprofit organization Blogher allowed members to manipulate its official logo on their own individual web sites and blogs to show their support for the organization's first-ever conference, and that Blogher engaged in a variety of online and onsite activities to allow supporters to set the agenda for the conference workshops. The veteran managers balked, going into a litany of how much work that would mean for them were they to follow suit, how "scary" it would be to give volunteers so much voice and control, and how it wasn't really their place, as mere volunteer managers, to engage in these kind of collaborative, interactive programming activities. These volunteer managers saw themselves as administrators, as people filling personnel shortages. They did not see themselves, nor volunteer management, as part their organization's community outreach efforts, fund-raising activities, or mission-based programming. They preferred to talk about the benefits of volunteerism in concrete terms of numbers and money saved.

The most innovative, exciting, productive things I'm learning about volunteer management and other community involvement -- online or onsite -- are not coming from traditional volunteer management workshops, fora, publications and conferences but, rather, from those hosted and lead by nonprofits who aren't even aware these traditional workshops, fora, publications and conferences exist.

So, is the source of this digital divide among nonprofits in the USA coming from a lack of resources and support, or is it from lack of will? I have to say that, for the most part, it's the latter. The more I talk to and hear from traditional volunteer managers, the more I suspect that they avoid technology beyond email and web sites out of a fear of giving volunteers a greater voice, and out of fear of other staff being more involved in the volunteer manager's work. These managers fear what more transparent practices might reveal about the organization and, perhaps, themselves as managers.

I should note that lack of will is not the only reason for this growing digital divide; there's also a language barrier. Those who want volunteer managers and other nonprofit staff to understand and adopt networking technology need to not just mention tech terms like blogs, podcasts, wikis and RSS feeds -- they need to define these terms and practices in human, non-technical terms, talking about these practices in relation to community, collaboration, and outreach, explaining in detail how they relate to traditional offline activities, and offering plenty of examples of how these practices are being used by nonprofits, particularly those organizations who are not focused on technology use as part of their mission statements.

But back to my original point: there is not only a growing digital divide among nonprofits in the USA, but there is also two different volunteer management styles emerging -- one traditional, hierarchical and tech-wary, the other progressive, inclusive and tech-savvy. Will these communities eventually merge, or will one eventually die out?

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