Paul G. Ventura
Nonprofits' Form 990 information, given its public accessibility, will automatically be included in GuideStar's online database, which can be searched for free. Currently, PRI estimates that there are around 5,000 users a week and that number is growing. Nonprofits who wish to add additional details about their organizations, such as accomplishments or program strategies, can do so and will get a link to their site from the GuideStar page. PRI's current grant allows it to include this information at no cost to the nonprofit, although there may be a fee to add this data in the future.
In addition to its nonprofit database, GuideStar's web site features news on the nonprofit sector, using a connection with Lexis-Nexis. There is no charge to search and read these articles, many of which would be difficult to locate elsewhere.
Another web site, maintained by the National Charities Information Bureau at www.give.org, similarly provides information on nonprofit organizations, going further to rate them in terms of NCIB standards. Online information is comparable to that found in the Chronicle of Philanthropy, with the option of ordering more detailed reports on specific nonprofits. The first report, which can be ordered online, is free; each subsequent report costs $3.50.
Efforts like GuideStar and NCIB have the potential to increase the accountability of nonprofits through widespread public exposure. In turn, that could shape the nature of giving by compelling organizations to disclose more information about themselves. This could spur nonprofits of all shapes and sizes to increase their use of the Internet for education, advocacy, and communication.
Two other ways in which the Internet can support fundraising is through prospect research and promotion of special events.
Finding timely and accurate information on individual benefactors can be a painstaking endeavor, taking years of detailed research and an ever-expanding Rolodex. The Internet does not provide any shortcuts to this process, but what it does provide is useful. Among the resources available online is the Prospect Research Page, at weber.u.washington.edu/~dlamb/research.html, maintained by David Lamb of the Association of Professional Researchers for Advancement (APRA). The page does not include an alphabetical list of the wealthiest Americans, their assets, and their giving history -- that would be a fundraiser's dream, but a nightmare for privacy advocates. Rather, the site does offer some useful advice on how to conduct prospect research, including links to related resources like the APRA's own site, weber.u.washington.edu/~dlamb/apra/APRA.html.
Another resource for information on major donors is the online magazine, Slate, which provides quarterly updates on the 60 largest charitable contributions made by private citizens in the United States. According to an item in the August 1997 edition of the net, a magazine about the Internet, the private preparatory Lakeside School in Seattle recently acquired $30 million from just three donors: Bill Gates and Paul Allen of Microsoft, andthe McCaw family, whose fortune was made in the cellular communications industry. New England's own Stephen and Tabitha King are ranked at No. 29, with a three-year $4 million gift to the University of Maine.
If your organization's fundraising runs more to special events, even these are turning up on the world-wide web. In her book, The Nonprofit Guide to the Internet, Robbin Zeff cites the Jimmy V Celebrity Golf Classic, whose web site, www.jimmyv.org/golfclassic.html, promotes the event and solicits sponsors for its campaign against cancer. Zeff also reports on at least one fundraising event that actually took place online. The "Cyberspace Challenge" was a web-based competition among youngsters and raised $10,000 for Big Brothers/Big Sisters, with most contributions from corporate donors.
In this section, we have seen some of the ways in which the Internet or, more specifically, the world-wide web, can support fundraising: from direct solicitation of members or contributions, to online sales of products and services, to building communities of donors and members by providing timely and valuable information. Even special events can be supported through an online presence.
A question asked by nonprofit organizations is "How do I get a web site?" It is both an easy and a hard question. Aside from the modicum of technical expertise required, there are questions that only the nonprofit can answer. Among these are: "What do you want the web site to accomplish? What outcomes are you seeking? Do you have internal expertise or at least a staff person willing and able to update the site's information and to respond to inquiries generated by it?"
For many nonprofits, a significant obstacle is that of funds. I don't want to get into a "chicken-and-egg" dilemma here ("how can we get a web site to help raise funds if we don't have the funds to create a web site?"). Suffice it to say that many nonprofits start small and expand as they can. For example, the Leland & Gray Educational Foundation in Vermont, whose mission includes providing scholarships to graduates of the local schools, has a modest web page created by a high school student, one of their potential beneficiaries.
Both the Vermont Land Trust and the Appalachian Mountain Club had corporate sponsors or partners to get their sites up and running. In some cases, businesses will help support a site in exchange for some linked advertising (think church bulletin here). In an article in the June 12, 1997, issue of the Chronicle of Philanthropy (available online at philanthropy.com), Paul Demko cites several corporate initiatives to support nonprofits on the Internet. The article, entitled "Free Space in Cyberspace," describes the commitment of Yahoo!, a major web search directory, to contribute $2 million in free advertising for charitable organizations such as Youth Service America and the American Diabetes Association. Other corporate sponsors include Microsoft and America Online, whose commitment to cyberspace is self-evident.
In her book, Robbin Zeff describes the connection between the African Wildlife Foundation (AWF) and Rhino Chasers, a "boutique brewery" in California. Seeking a charity to sponsor as part of its corporate mission, Rhino Chasers found a likely affinity with an organization whose goal is protect wildlife, including the African rhino (which, by the way, is not the origin of the beer's name; that comes from the sport of surfing, the water-type). Along with giving a percentage of its profits to the Foundation, Rhino Chasers links its web site to that of AWF, www.awf.org, and uses its logo on its product packaging.
HOW IS THE INTERNET BEING USED IN PROFESSIONAL DEVELOPMENT & NETWORKING?
Sometimes the shortest path to a destination is NOT a straight line. As the experience of Habitat for Humanity and other organizations suggest, you don't get money just by asking outright. You must know how, who, and when to solicit. And getting funds one time is not enough for an organization with a long-term vision. For these reasons, fundraising can be thought of as creating and maintaining long-lasting relationships with donors. Even the most experienced fundraiser recognizes that this is harder and more complex than it sounds. It requires two things: (1) skills and (2) more skills.
To assist the fundraiser, several online resources exist to provide timely and practical information. This section reviews several of them, in two forms: (a) news and information resources and (b) networking and peer communication resources.
No individual has the time to read every newsletter, journal, or book or to attend every professional conference or training workshop. Fortunately, there are are some excellent resources which consolidate such information into easily digestible form, readily accessible from your desktop, or laptop, computer. Again fortunately, most of these resources are free of charge.[As online transactions get easier, especially for small amounts, expect to hear the ring of virtual cash registers in the near future].
Among these resources are:
There are dozens of informative web sites with which all nonprofits should familiar. Some of these are:
An excellent essay reviewing the current state of the nonprofit sector can be found at the web site for the Nathan Cummings Foundation, www.ncf.org/ncf. The article, by Lester Salamon, is entitled, "Holding the Center: America's Nonprofit Sector at a Crossroads." [www.ncf.org/ncf/hc_contents.html]
A form of professional development which is growing in popularity is that of distance learning. With computer technology and the Internet, distance education has come a long way from the correspondence courses of old. Today, web-based curricula allow students from all over the globe to obtain degrees online, without ever meeting their instructors or fellow students.Several institutions offer online courses, from Britain's Open University and the University of South Africa to Champlain College in Burlington, Vermont and St. Joseph's College in Standish, Maine.
In addition to these learning resources, there are specialized forums for helping fundraisers talk to one another. These resources allow you to bounce ideas off of colleagues, find out if an approach worked well for others, and so on. A popular form for this type of discussion is called a mailing list, or "listserv" (after the software that creates it). A listserv is a simple electronic bulletin board to which subscribers post messages by e-mail for all other subscribers to read. Unlike the e-mail newsletters mentioned above, these are truly interactive; anything sent to the list can be read by anyone on it. As such, it requires great care to ensure that you do not send a message intended for one person to everyone on the list. I have seen dozens of embarrassing situations resulting from an individual inadvertently posting private messages to an entire list. The key point: always check the "TO:" field before sending any e-mail message to anyone.
That precaution made, subscribing to and participating in a listserv is fairly painless. As you do for the aforementioned online newsletters, you simply send an e-mail message to a particular listserv address with a request to subscribe. Unsubscribing -- as for a temporary vacation -- is done the same way. Instructions are given for each of the mailing lists below.
Shortly after subscribing (it can be a day or more, but usually takes only a few minutes), you'll receive a message welcoming you to the list and giving the guidelines for posting and unsubscribing. Be sure to save that message for future reference--there are few things more annoying for other subscribers than to wade through "requests to unsubscribe" sent erroneously to the entire list and not just to the listmaster. In particular, take notice of the fact that the address to post messages to the entire list (your comments or questions on a topic, for example) is different from the address to which you send subscribe/unsubscribe requests.
Once you've subscribed, you'll start receiving e-mail messages sent to the list by other subscribers. In an active list, these may number a dozen or more a day and you'll receive them as they each come in, throughout the day (and night -- the Internet seems to be a panacea for insomniacs). If the listserv in which you are interested has what is called a "digest" option, you might consider using it. With this option, all incoming messages to the list are "bundled" and then forwarded to you in a single large message only once (or for very busy lists, twice) each day. I find this option indispensable. You can learn how to set this option, if it's available to you, in the instructions you receive after subscribing to a list.
Here are some mailing lists to consider joining:
Besides listservs, the Internet has over 20,000 specialized "newsgroups," which are electronic discussion groups, where individuals can post and read messages. Unlike listservs, however, you don't subscribe and receive messages by e-mail. Instead, you have to "go and get" those messages, by means of a software application called a "newsreader." The two most popular web browsers, Netscape Navigator and Internet Explorer have newsreaders built-in, as do online services like AOL and CompuServe. You configure the newsreader to locate those newsgroups in which you are especially interested; out of the thousands available, only a handful may be of specific interest to fundraisers. Once your newsreader has found the designated newsgroup, it will keep track of it, highlighting any new messages each time you log on and ignoring any old messages you've already read. An advantage of newsgroups is that you can download and read only those messages you want to. Another potential benefit, compared to listservs, is that you can control when you seek out those messages, while a listserv sends them automatically. For some, the convenience of the listserv outweighs the control of the newsgroup.
A newsgroup dedicated to issues of relevance to nonprofits is called "soc.org.nonprofit." Once connected to the Internet, open the menu of your newsreader and type in this name when prompted to add a newsgroup. The newsreader would then show you a long list of posted messages, organized by themes (or in netspeak, by "threads") and by date. You can then select any messages you wish to read. You can also mark those you don't wish to read, so that the newsreader doesn't show them again when you next log on.
The administrator of the soc.org.nonprofit newsgroup maintains a web site at www.nonprofit-info.org, with a large file of Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs), and their answers. Item #18 under the section, Small Donor Fundraising, for example, displays responses to the question, "What about using the Internet for Fundraising?"
Another illustration of the use of an online discussion can be found in the "Campfire" bulletin board on the Appalachian Mountain Club web site described earlier. Members and visitors can post questions and comments right on the web site for others to view. This feature is intended by the AMC to help build a community among its membership by fostering dialogue. A strong community is seen as essential to building loyalty and long-term support for the organization.
All of the previous forms of Internet communication, such as listservs, newsgroups, and e-mail correspondence, can be called "asynchronous." That means that a message can be sent, received, and responded to at different times, at the convenience of the user. But some types of dialogue can benefit from "real time" interaction, in which communicators are online simultaneously. A growing number of web sites are employing technology to allow same-time "chat" between visitors to a site.
If you've ever participated in a chat room discussion on one of the online proprietary services like AOL, CompuServe or Prodigy, you recognize how this works. You and others connect to an online site at the same time and type messages back and forth which are immediately visible on everyone's computer screens. After the initial novelty of the "tin-can-and-string-feeling" subsides, it can prove to be a practical way to "talk" with someone at a distance without incurring a toll charge. [Internet telephony and videoconferencing can accomplish the same thing using more familiar, but sophisticated, technology but those are beyond the scope of this paper].
Internet chat can be great if you're only a time zone or two away, but arranging an online discussion between folks in Boston, Zimbabwe and Australia means someone is going to be awfully grumpy. So, asynchronous forms, well-suited to early birds and night owls alike, will continue to be popular.
SUMMARY: "DON'T DO ANYTHING YOU WOULDN'T DO."
We have seen how the Internet is being used to cultivate members and donors, identify grant opportunities, and enhance professional development and networking. Hopefully, you can find yourself and your organization on this vast and dynamic map. There are hundreds of individual web sites, over a dozen listservs, and a few newsgroups worth visiting. This paper identifies several, and you are sure to find more on your net travels.
The most important lesson, though, is to integrate the Internet into your overall fundraising strategy. In other words, don't go back to your office and immediately start building a web site or joining every listserv you can. Instead, keep doing what you've been doing -- after all, you've been successful so far, haven't you?
But do it with one major difference. In planning your annual appeal, your capital campaign, your special events, ask how the Internet can support your effort. For instance, how might e-mail assist you in planning and publicizing your annual "Walkathon" or Duck Race? How might a web site support an annual campaign or an endowment drive?
Using the Internet effectively has less to do with technology and more to do with old-fashioned interpersonal communication. We're accustomed to regarding the Internet as a mass medium: a computer monitor does resemble a TV set, doesn't it? However, as a new technology, its promise is its ability to reach out to specialized audiences. Tailoring your web strategy to your organization and its target donors can be done. In fact, it's the web-wise thing to do.
Nick Allen, Mal Warwick, and Michael Stein, eds, Fundraising on the Internet: Recruiting and Renewing Donors Online. Strathmoor Press: Berkeley, CA 1996.
Paul Demko, "Free Space in Cyberspace." The Chronicle of Philanthropy, June 12, 1997.
Jeffrey Hallet, "Why the web will increase giving -- eventually." Philanthropy Journal Online, June 9, 1997. philanthropy-journal.org
Robbin Zeff, The Nonprofit Guide to the Internet.. John Wiley & Sons: New York, 1996.
Civil Society Advocates,
Copyright © 1997 Paul G. Ventura.
This article cannot be reprinted in whole or in part, in print or by electronic transmission, without prior written permission from the author.
Copyright © 1997-1998 Paul G. Ventura.
Copyright © 1997-1998 Paul G. Ventura.