Revised with new information as of July 7, 2009


 
Stages of Maturity in Nonprofit Organizations' Use of Online Technologies

 
What does a networking tech-savvy nonprofit organization look like?

Nonprofits are mission-driven; all of their activities need to be tied directly and obviously to their mission statements. That includes a nonprofit's use of networking/online technology. This need to make all activities mission-based, plus the constant shortage of resources at most nonprofits, the increasing scrutiny nonprofits are under regarding their activities (which discourages experimentation and risk), and the reluctance of supporters to provide financial support for technology, tech training, and dedicated tech staff, means that nonprofits are still quite tech shy. Put simply: they can't afford to experiment with networking tech, even though it's through support for such experimentation that networking tech becomes useful at an organization.

That doesn't mean, however, that nonprofit organizations are not embracing networking tech, and that many innovative practices aren't emerging from the third sector.

To help nonprofits think about networking tech standards they should pursue, and possible goals for the future, I've created an assessment of the states of maturity for a nonprofit organization's use of networking/online technologies. Ofcourse, please note that not all of the activities would be appropriate for every nonprofit organization, based on its mission. Also, just because the tools are present in an organization does not mean staff are actually using them. Feedback about these stages would be very welcomed.

This list is done with the understanding that nonprofits come in a variety of sizes, that some are entirely volunteer-staffed, that some have no physical offices, that some, particularly in developing countries, may not have reliable Internet access, etc.

Also, before you read these standards, please note that, in 1995, Dan Yurman of Idaho Falls, Idaho, USA, posted a document to various online discussion groups called "Stages of Maturity in Nonprofit Orgs Using Online Services." He updated this document in 1999, and with his permission, I've reposted it on this same page (see below). Much of this seven-year-old document's information is still quite valid, so I've kept it on my web site.

And now... my own assessment of the stages of maturity, and standards for each, for a nonprofit organization's use of network technologies, first published in May 2006 and continually updated:

BASIC

  • Key staff members (paid and volunteer) have regular, reliable access to individual email accounts.

  • email accounts are accessed regularly, and responses sent to all inquiries and comments within 72 hours of receipt.

  • Has an ad-free, fully-accessible web site, with its own URL, featuring basic, static-but-correct information about the organization.

    INTERMEDIATE

  • All paid staff, and key volunteer staff, each have an official organizational email address, based on the organization's web domain name.

  • Staff email accounts are accessed regularly, and responses sent to all inquiries and comments within 48 hours of receipt.

  • Regularly publishes a subscription-based, email-based newsletter/update, or a web-based newsletter/update, that is promoted via easy-to-use email subscription.

  • Key staff members (paid and volunteer) subscribe to online newsletters produced by other organizations/companies that are related to their work.

  • Key staff members (paid and volunteer) regularly read and at least occasionally post to online forums/discussion groups related to their work.

  • Posts volunteering opportunities to online services, such as VolunteerMatch.

  • All staff have input regarding what goes on the web site; all key departments have their own section of the web site to maintain, and their changes are made promptly when given to the web master.

  • Web site is updated with new information at least once a month, and information for updates comes from a variety of staff members.

  • Complete information about volunteering with the organization, including a downloadable-application, orientation schedule and agenda, and policies are available on the organization's web site.

  • All public documents are freely-available online (annual reports, volunteer policies, etc.).

  • Web site promotes information and activities that builds the reputation of the organization as transparent and credible.

  • Staff engages in online research, using free online resources, for information on grants, application deadlines, federal resources, statistics for grant proposals, etc.

  • Staff regularly send out announcements, agendas, reminders and minutes to meeting participants before and after the meeting.

  • At least some staff use instant messaging to interact with each other, volunteers, and colleagues.

  • The setting of technology strategies/goals involves the participation of most staff members, from different departments, and is lead by a staff person whose primary responsibility is NOT supporting/maintaining the organizations use of technology (instead, it's lead by the program director, for instance).

  • Has policies and procedures about the introduction of new networking technologies at the organization, and regarding the use of all networking technologies by staff.

    ADVANCED

  • Every paid staff member, and even some key volunteers, has his or her own computer desktop or laptop access onsite at the organization (headquarters and field offices) to the Internet.

  • Web site is updated with new information at least once a week, and information for updates comes from a variety of staff members.

  • allows at least some staff to telecommute/cloud commute at least part-time.

  • Provides an avenue for safe, secure financial donations online.

  • Allows users to subscribe to updates on the web site or blogs via RSS readers.

  • Regularly publishes blogs written by paid and volunteer staff, and even clients.

  • Online activism: sends messages to supporters regarding upcoming legislation on the local, state or federal level and how they can contact their representatives; or sends messages to supporters directing them to engage in various activist activities to influence decision-makers, the general public or other.

  • Has online meetings with board members, advisors, and/or volunteers, to reach consensus, propose new activities, debate internal issues, etc.

  • Has a private, secure intranet that allows remote staff (paid or volunteer) to communicate, to share documents, to work collaboratively on documents or projects, to view each other's calendars, and to use shared databases.

  • Allows staff (paid or volunteer) and clients to interact online in secure, private, one-on-one, web-based fora (for instance, an online mentoring program or online counseling service).

  • Sponsors a public electronic discussion list or online bulletin board with hundreds/thousands of subscribers/participants.

  • Allows volunteers to input their service hours and progress reports directly into a private online database.

  • More than one onsite staff person (paid or volunteer) involves online volunteers (people who provide their service primarily from their own home or work computers, offsite from the organization).

  • At least some staff view online webcasts, or download and listen to podcasts, relating to their work.

  • Talks with other people via live audio or video chat.

  • Sells products or services online.

  • Shares a short, video online, available via download or or online, that provides an overview of its services, highlights from a recent event, a video orientation for new volunteers, etc.

  • Allows volunteers, donors, members, or even the general public, to vote online regarding a particular issue or activity

  • At least one staff member regularly engages in online research as part of his or her primary responsibilities, using highly-advanced, fee-based sites (rather than free sites), such as LexisNexis.

  • Has an online shared work space, or wiki.

    TRAIL-BLAZING

  • has paid and volunteer staff who use handheld technologies as a structured, integral part of their work with the community and those served directly by the nonprofit. This includes using micro-blogging, such as Twitter, to send immediate, short, time-sensitive updates to subscribers via their cell phone or a particular online platform (email, instant messaging, etc.).

  • regularly holds online video meetings with remote/offsite staff/volunteers and collaborators (meetings, not just publicity events).

  • leverages online social networking platforms for client, donor and volunteer outreach.

  • hosts public, live, online audio or video-based events at least once a year.

  • more than one staff member uses Second Life for interactions with staff, volunteers, clients, or the general public.

  • For examples of advanced and trail-blazing nonprofits see NetSquared and the New Wave of Online Volunteering.

    For another take on this topic, see Technology Literacy Benchmarks for Nonprofit Organizations, a PDF file published by the Benton Foundation and NPower.

     
     
    Here is Dan Yurman's original document:

    -------------------------

    First posted 1995 *** Updated 1999
    
    Key concepts:
    
    * Organizational learning by nonprofits
    for use of the Internet
    
    * Self-assessment tool & checklist for nonprofits
    
    Originally posted in 1995 at:
    http://www.igc.apc.org/aalm/maturity.html and also on 
    Phil Agre's Red Rock Eater list
    
    Permission granted to post for non-profit purposes on any
    public data network.
    
    
    Dan Yurman
    djy@srv.net
    PO Box 1569
    Idaho Falls, ID 83403
    PAGER: 208-526-4444 #6880
    
    This is a response I wrote to the editor of a specialized
    environmental newsletter with a circulation of 13,000. It
    tries to answer his question of whether or how he should
    expand his nonprofit organization's use of the Internet.
    Some of this may be "old hat" to expert internet user, but
    based on recent estimates that tens of 1000s of nonprofit
    members are still "net shy," this brief essay may continue
    to be useful. Less than 3% of the world's population is
    online according to Vinton Cerf, one of the original
    founders of the Internet.
    
    
    Response to A Question
    
    
    In response to your inquiry as to whether your
    [environment] organization should be on the Internet in a
    more vigorous way, the answer depends on your priorities
    and organizational objectives. The masthead of the
    publication already lists an email address so this raises
    a question. What are you not getting out of the current
    online service which might be found elsewhere?
    
    A second question is what stage of maturity has your
    organization achieved in terms of learning to use the
    technology effectively to enhance productivity? To be
    frank, if you don't use it every day, or less than
    two-four times a week, it probably isn't giving you much
    help. Following is a brief description of the stages of
    organizational learning many nonprofits travel through in
    seeking to add value to their operations through the use
    of the Internet and online services.
    
    Organizational Learning & the Internet
    
    I'd like to suggest a perspective that deals with
    organizational learning and use of online services. In the
    11 years I've been using the Internet I've found, that is,
    my experience is, that activist environmental
    organizations go through three general stages of growth.
    These stages are characterized by their degree of maturity
    in achieving interactive, online dialog with others via
    the net. The growth path is from simple to complex
    processing involving increasing levels of abstractions and
    competence with tools. These stages are;
    
    
    1. Experimental retrieval
    
    2. Broadcast power
    
    3. Interactive dialog
    
    It is interesting that these stages of organizational
    learning also correspond in some broad ways to market
    segments met by various online services.
    
    
    Experimental Stage
    
    
    Experimental Retrieval
    
    The experimental retrieval stage is characterized by
    sporadic and idiosyncratic efforts to retrieve
    information, often as a result of serendipitous search.
    The organization is like a puppy which is still learning
    to bring back the ball to its master. Sometimes it gets
    it, sometimes it doesn't, and sometimes it runs around the
    yard saying in effect, "hey look what I got - what a neat
    game." It's more a matter of luck of the draw than focus
    and attention to the abstractions and tools necessary to
    be effective. This stage can take six weeks or six months
    depending on how frequently users get online. The group
    does not yet have a vision of how to enhance its
    productivity and effectiveness by using online services.
    The group's members retrieve data from other organiztion's
    web sites, but it doesn't have one of its own.
    
    Because the staff use the online service in a
    non-systematic way, opportunities are lost for quick,
    interactive responses to others outside the organization
    who have more experience with the technology and reply on
    it for priority communication to a greater degree than fax
    or paper correspondence. Also, many documents are not
    developed with an eye towards 'dual-use,' e.g., paper and
    well as online distribution.
    
    
    Broadcast Stage
    
    The broadcast power stage is strictly an outbound effort
    involving posting of masses of information at specific
    places. Corporate identity web sites which provide
    information, but no interaction, also fit in this
    category. However, the organization still processes
    inbound information by more conventional means such as
    telephone, paper mail, and fax. Internet services and
    tools are not integrated into the organization's
    communications matrix. If someone sends information to the
    organization via email, or fills out an online form, more
    likely than not, at this stage the reply will be by other
    means.
    
    The group has started to see how online services are
    useful in meeting its objectives, but the information flow
    is one-way. It is not interactive. Development of
    documents to meet 'dual-use' objectives, e.g., paper and
    online access, has been integrated into the organization's
    operations. This stage can develop over a period of a year
    or more, and it can be the terminal stage of development
    if the organization does not consider speed of interactive
    communications among virtual workgroups to be a priority.
    The group has its own web site, but except for a generic
    "mail to: link, e.g, info@this-org.net, there is little
    assurance that someone reaching the web site will use it
    to interact with the nonprofit.
    
    
    Interactive Stage
    
    The interactive dialog stage represents full and mature
    dialog with others via net services as part of daily work.
    The organization processes net information, inbound and
    outbound, seamlessly with information from other sources.
    The group can respond as effectively to online inputs to
    its work as it can from phone, fax, paper, or personal
    contact.  The group's web site has multiple points of
    contact including staff and board email addresses which
    are monitored directly or with forwarding to "home"
    accounts. Online forms are used to acquire data, and
    responses to inquiries and client groups takes place via
    online services.
    
    The group is as much a member of various distant and
    distributed "virtual workgroups or communities" as it is
    of local reference groups. This is the most mature stage
    of use of online services. This stage can take six months
    to a year to develop if the staff access the system every
    day, if they get value from the time spent online, and
    especially if there are valued collaborators at distant
    locations (time & space) who are most accessible online
    and least accessible by phone or in person. There are
    opportunities for productivity enhancements for people who
    travel frequently, work at locations which are two US time
    zones away, or who have demanding schedules that preclude
    immediate access by phone. Even the barriers presented by
    urban traffic congestion can be overcome by the creation
    of virtual workgroups or between offices and
    tele-commuters.
    
    What has changed in the past five years is that robust web
    sites now fill this market segment. The lack of robust
    online storage, personal and networked, has been overcome
    and other tools such as access to user-defined database /
    mailing list services integrated with email offer new
    speed of entry into this area.  Also, tools for managing
    email and other services via graphical user interface are
    in almost universal use.  In 1994 nonprofits had to cope
    with MS-DOS, Unix shell commands, cranky telnet
    connections, and the arcana of ftp syntax.
    
    
    Impact on Service Selection
    
    Your decision to select an online service depends on your
    needs and the degree to which network communications are a
    part of your operations. I'd like to suggest that you
    evaluate your current or future plans for use of net
    services not from the point of view of what the services
    offer now, but how you want to use them over the next
    one-to-three years.
    
    For the non-profit sector, the challenges of organizing
    foundation and other forms of financial assistance related
    to providing Internet services will likely be focused on
    at least two objectives.  Readers may know of others.
    These are brief examples.
    
    1st - expected results.  Foundations will want to know
    exactly how their money functioned as a change agent by
    using the Internet, who was changed, how, and with what
    impacts on society.  Many organizations are now linking
    their membership databases to Internet technologies to
    focus campaigns more effectively.
    
    2nd - as a "can opener."  Some foundations see their
    mission is to use the Internet to release trapped
    creativity "bottled up" due to lack of funds. Many efforts
    involving the use of Internet technologies to enhance
    democratic processes fall in this category.
    
    These two sets of objectives are not necessarily mutually
    exclusive, but they do tend to polarize funders one way or
    the other. Few appear so far to have mastered both models.
    
    In both instances, funding agencies will want to know what
    a WEB site's "reach" is.  That's an advertising term for
    defining who got your message, whether the "right who" got
    your message, and whether your message stimulated a
    response.  In the commercial world, it means a purchase
    decision.  In the non-profit world, it could be defined as
    a decision to engage in activism or community action of
    some kind, or to "reach" a particular defined client
    group. That's a broad and generalized distinction, but I
    hope it offers some food for thought.
    
    To this end, non-profits, especially the liberal or
    activist variety, need to consider feedback mechanisms to
    find out what its users are doing with all that
    "progressive content."  Just counting WEB site "hits"
    isn't going to be any more effective with foundations than
    it is with advertisers.  The online presence will have to
    be linked to offline actions or programs which are
    substantially enhanced in ways otherwise not possible by
    the Internet activity.
    
    
    Examples include
    
    * By providing grassroots activists a PC, an email
    account, and a WEB browser, a foundation may advance the
    cause of environmental justice and prevent the siting of a
    hazardous waste dump in a minority community thought to be
    too poor to protest.
    
    *A community economic development corporation may set up a
    WEB site to attract industry and use Internet search
    engines to identify new prospects for relocation.
    
    * A child advocacy organization may log into a state
    government WEB site open to the public to track
    legislation.  Once it downloads bill language it may use
    email and its own WEB site to organize its members to
    influence the pending legislation.
    
    The challenge facing non-profits will be to develop
    effective models of Internet use while staying focused on
    their organizational objectives. In short, like other
    management functions, a brief business plan for
    acquisition, staff training, integration into operations,
    and evaluation of costs v. value makes sense for a
    business planning to acquire an online service.
    
    I don't know of any particular approach which works better
    than others so the emphasis usually is on expected results
    and costs v. benefits.
    
    Following is a checklist which may be helpful in
    evaluating your stage of online maturity
    
    That's all I can offer right now. Questions or followups
    to my contact information in the header.
    
    Comments to this essay and checklist are welcome.
    
    
    ATTACHMENT
    
    Assessing Your Organization's On-Line Maturity or
    Evolution and Organizations on the Internet
    
    With thanks to Andy Alm, Aracata, CA, for assistance in
    formating and posting at IGC in 1995.
    
    Fill out this checklist and use it as a self-assessment of
    where your organization is at in its on-line evolutionary
    process.
    
    
    Experimental Retrieval Stage
    
    ____ Nobody in my organization has an on-line account,
    except from home.
    
    
    Experimental Stage
    
    ____ My organization has an on-line account.
    
    ____ My organization attempts to retrieve information
    irregularly, often as a result of serendipitous search.
    
    
    Broadcast Stage
    
    ____ If someone sends information to my organization via
    email, more likely than not, the reply will be by other
    means (fax, paper or phone).
    
    ____ Some people in my organization have email accounts,
    and use them to communicate with people outside my
    organization.
    
    ____ Development of documents to meet 'dual-use'
    objectives, e.g., paper and on-line access, has been
    integrated into my organization's operations.
    
    ____ My organization uses web sites, Usenet conferences
    and/or Internet mailing lists, etc., to post online
    material it also distributes in paper form.
    
    
    Interactive Stage
    
    ____ My organization has elaborated a vision of how to
    enhance its productivity and effectiveness by using
    on-line services.
    
    ____ Somebody in my organization is responsible for
    communication planning that integrates on-line and other
    communication methods.
    
    ____ Everyone in my organization has an email address.
    
    ____ My organization processes net information, inbound
    and outbound, seamlessly with information from other
    sources.
    
    ____ My organization can respond as effectively to on-line
    inputs to its work as it can from phone, fax, paper, or
    personal contact.
    
    ____ My organization does a lot of internal work on-line,
    via email and electronic mailing lists or on-line
    conferences.
    
    ____ My organization is as much a member of various
    distant and distributed "virtual workgroups or
    communities" as it is of local reference groups.
    
    ____ Everyone in my organization has a World Wide Web home
    page, and they reveal things about themselves you never
    would have guessed!
    
    
    --------------------------------------------
    */n43w112@hotmail.com  Eagle Rock, Idaho /*
    */ A Time Traveler from the Age of Steam! /*
    

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