Finding our Place in Cyberspace

Putnam Barber, / President, The Evergreen State Society./

Do nonprofit organizations have a place in cyberspace? Of course they do! But cyberspace is not so much one thing as a rapidly expanding, already sprawling, universe of possibilities! So the subject of how nonprofits fit in is one that has to be explored, not defined; tested and developed, not explained.

Academic observers prefer the stodgy phrase "computer-mediated communication" (CMC) to the zippy slogans of prognosticators and pundits who go on and on about the infobahn and cyberia. Since communications are a large part of what every nonprofit organization does, there's something to be said for being stodgy here. We need to be asking ourselves the question "How can access to computer-mediated communications help us to do our job better?" Will CMC cut our costs, let us reach and help new people, improve the quality of our services, protect us from external risks and internal mistakes? For most nonprofits, the opening of new frontiers in cyberspace does not mean there's any sort of new work to be done, just that there are new tools for doing the old tasks.

When Norbert Wiener coined the term cybernetics, he chose the Greek word for steersman to suggest that the remarkable thing about these new techniques was their self-governing character. There's a critical contrast between an on-line mailing list that is created and maintained by the subscribers themselves and the familiar process of selling memberships to people who are then on the rolls to receive a newsletter for a year or so. It's true that so far no-one has figured out a reliable way of extracting money from folks who sign up for on-line lists. More important, though, is the subtle but far-reaching shift from a list which an organization creates and owns to a group that maintains itself -- growing if the traffic is interesting and the readers enthusiastic, fading away when it fails to be useful or stimulating.

It is the self-directed quality of on-line activities that gives them new and unfamiliar power. And it is the differences that come from self-directedness that make it hard to imagine what cyberspace is like until you've been there, experienced it first hand, and tried to imagine how doing things in this unfamiliar new environment is going to affect your work.

The exploding availability of tools for computer-mediated communication means that nonprofit organizations have unforeseen opportunities to adapt these tools to meeting their long-standing goals. The challenge of how to do that is not, though, technical; the answers will not be found in cyberspace, but in the creativity of nonprofit leaders who implement ways for on-line services and resources to support increased effectiveness.

Some organizations -- especially those whose primary mission is to work with other organizations who are themselves already getting on-line -- need to be creative in this way today (if not yesterday)! Others can probably afford to wait, unless they're just plain curious, until household access becomes more widespread, more routine. But the wait may not be very long. Someday -- not tomorrow, but soon -- connections to cyberspace will be as ubiquitous as TV sets and telephones are today. Nonprofits whose use of computer-mediated communication has grown in importance along with the growth of this new medium will find themselves doing their work in wholly new ways, largely unimaginable today.

Here are some starting points for exploring cyberspace and beginning to use computer-mediated communications in ways that are relevant to the work of many nonprofits. Each will point further. Everyone says that one danger of 'net surfing is that it's very hard to stop!

First of all, if your only access to the Internet is through e- mail, you'll want to get a copy of "Dr Bob" Rankin's handy guide to using e-mail to take advantage of other sorts of resources (and to all sorts of other interesting things about the 'net). To request a copy: Send e-mail to with the message (type carefully!) GET INTERNET BY-EMAIL NETTRAIN F=MAIL .

If you're not already on the list, you might want to subscribe to usnonprofit-l. (The name is misleading, many npo people from outside the US participate actively.) To do this: Send e-mail to with the message subscribe usnonprofit-l < Your-first-name> < Your-last-name> .

The last character of the name is a lower case "L" (not the number one); it stands for "list". Be sure to save the message that MajorDomo will send back to you confirming your subscription. It's a frequent problem that readers want to unsubscribe from a mailing list and can't remember how!

There is a frequently-asked-questions file (FAQ) that has been developed by several people who are subscribers to usnonprofit-l. Changes and new information in the FAQ are announced to readers of the list about once every six weeks.

There are other very useful reference files of online resources for nonprofit organizations. I try to keep an up-to-date set of pointers to them on my WWW page. I'm always please, of course, to have new resources brought to my attention. Just click on my email address if you want to send me a suggestion....

There are some nonprofit organizations that are heavily involved in programming in and for cyberspace already. The Electronic Frontier Foundation, The Institute for Global Communication, The Morino Foundation and Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility are four that are already having a real impact on public policy while blazing trails others are sure to follow.

Many cities and towns, too, are served by community networks -- dial-up services focussed on local interests. Most of these are run by newly formed nonprofits; often they are members of the National Public Telecomputing Network that has grown out of the Cleveland FreeNet. Many mundane activities linked to the national information infrastructure have sprung up as well. My dentist's Indian Guides group, for example, coordinates father- daughter activities with e-mail between CompuServe, a local BBS, and several other access providers. They use a simple mailing list so automatic "carbon copies" of each message go to the whole group.

One attractive idea about cyberspace is that it contains rich lodes of information about almost every imaginable subject. It's true. Whether it's Census Bureau data, the text of the Federal Register, addresses of Foundation Center Cooperating Libraries, or the forms to register as a fundraiser under Washington state's charitable solicitations law, they're all there.... someplace! The problem is finding them.

Luckily, there are both automated helpers and generous pathbreakers in cyberspace, so the task isn't quite as daunting as it might first appear. (I still like, though, the quip that describes the internet as a huge library where the customers have shelved the books and someone has turned out the lights!) Many of the special interest networks have well-organized data-banks available through straightforward menus. If you venture beyond the boundaries of systems like these, though, you'll want to learn how to use "gopher" -- a program developed at the University of Michigan and now widespread around the world -- and how to locate "FAQ" files. FAQ stands for frequently-asked- questions, but many of these publicly accessible files are mini- handbooks broadly covering their announced subject.

Some nonprofit organizations have assumed the role of cyber-publisher as an early use of the 'net. Of course many college and university libraries are major suppliers of materials for gopher retrieval. HandsNet broadly distributes a weekly Digest of key developments for human services providers and human rights advocates, drawing on the more detailed information available in its files. The National Center for Nonprofit Boards has it's own gopher server to distribute useful information and describe its books and membership services. Community networks often offer information on arts programming, recreation and other activities that can be useful to residents and visitors alike, and make their facilities available for outreach and education by nonprofits serving every sort of human and community need. Many museums are experimenting with "virtual" exhibits you can visit over the 'net -- especially if you have access to recently developed software for displaying graphics, even playing audio tracks through speakers attached to your computer.

Plain old e-mail, though, is probably the most widely used facility today. With e-mail you can quickly and inexpensively send a text-message to anyone who has a mail address on the Internet. You can build lists of dozens, even hundreds, of e-mail addresses of people who share your interests. There are widely available programs (MajorDomo and Listserv are two) which support sponsoring a mailing list on a specific subject which people can sign up for themselves, just by sending e-mail to the host computer. (It's important that no clerical staff has to spend time making labels, updating addresses, deleting nonrenewals, etc.) Often the correspondence on such mailing lists (usnonprofit-l is a good example) is created by the subscribers themselves, but it is also possible to have a list which circulates only carefully edited and approved material. Whichever approach is used, a publisher with such a mailing list can focus on the content and doesn't need to calculate postage budgets, sort into 3- and 5-digit ZIP-code bundles, worry about change-of-address notices, or cut down any trees.

Newsgroups offer a more free-for-all form of communication among like-minded people. In contrast to the mailing list approach, there aren't any lists of subscribers to newsgroups. You simply find the ones you like and use a newsreader (common newsreading programs are named RN, TRN, TIN and NN) to drop by to see what's new every now and again. If you have something you want to say to the group, you post it yourself as a message which can be read by everyone who cares -- potentially, for some of the more popular newsgroups, tens of thousands of people worldwide.

You probably shouldn't do these explorations without a guidebook of some sort. The one I've used extensively is Ed Krol, The Whole Internet User's Guide and Catalog, (O'Reily and Associates, 1994). Any bookstore with a computer department will have several similar titles; ask them to steer you to Krol's book and then take a look at the nearby volumes to see if there's one that suits you better.

NOTE: A slightly different version of this article appeared in print in the NCNA News, January 1995.