Posted February 19, 2009
Updated March 25, 2009

 
A Brief Review of the Early History of Nonprofits and the Internet
(before 1996)
If you have corrections or additions to this page, please let me know. All information received should relate to 1995 or before 1995 regarding nonprofits and the Internet and be at least marginally verifiable (for example, reference a web page or even an old URL that's no longer valid or an old USENET posting, etc.). Please don't write me and just say, "You should talk to so-and-so! He was doing something." or "We were doing things in 1995 but I can't remember what" or "Buy my book and read these 100 pages!" Instead, send even just two sentences about what trainings, materials and other resources the organization or project undertook to help nonprofit organizations use the Internet in 1995 or earlier.

Given how many indignant emails I've gotten from organizations who don't make the cut because they didn't get started until 1996, perhaps someone wants to write a sequel focused specifically on nonprofits and the Internet in 1996?

 
The Internet was built to allow people and organizations to network with each other - to share ideas and comments, and to collaborate. It was built to be interactive and dynamic. There's nothing new about "online social networking" or "online professional networking" -- such is as old as the Internet itself (and the Internet is more than 25 years old).

What nonprofits are doing now with the Internet is, in fact, not much different from what they were doing in the 1980s and early 1990s. In the 1980s, there were already several nonprofit organizations and many dedicated volunteers who were helping to promote nonprofit use of the Internet. So many nonprofits were far ahead of their time regarding use of the Internet by nonprofits, and there were more than a few people donating their time and expertise in their spare time, outside of their full-time job responsibilities, trying to help more nonprofits get real value out of Internet technologies. This page attempts to list the efforts of these early supporters in the 1980s, through 1995.

Given its emphasis on collaboration and sharing, it's no wonder that at least a few nonprofit efforts were using the Internet from the very beginning. And the primary credit for nonprofits using the Internet in the 1980s -- when many people were using bulletin board services (BBS) rather than the World Wide Web -- has to go to nonprofits themselves:

There was a growing number of nonprofit organizations using the Internet in the 1990s, particularly in the USA, through the efforts of the aforementioned nonprofit efforts and several universities, as well as more widespread availability of Internet access through commercial providers, such as through Compuserve, the first major commercial online service in the USA, and America Online. Still, nonprofits continued to lead their own: How were nonprofits, primarily in the USA and Canada, using the Internet in the early days? I referenced an older version of my own document, "What use is the Internet to mission-based organizations? (nonprofits, NGOs, civil society and public sector agencies)", and found that participants of various nonprofit-related Internet discussion groups I was involved in the early 1990s said they were using email to: They were also using the Internet for research relating to their work. Some research topics they reported back in the 1990s: Chesapeake Area Recovery Communities, a nonprofit provider of housing for alcoholics and addicts, had a particularly interesting benefit to relate regarding its use of the Internet in 1996:
"Last fall by chance we stumbled over information on Attention Deficit Disorder and that this disorder is linked to the presence of particular gene.

The gene identified happens to be the same gene other medical researchers have identified as being present in hereditary alcoholism. Accessing the Internet through a local university, we researched the Cork database at Dartmouth on alcoholism, found information on ADD at a web page at MIT and checked out the Web page from the Genome project.

"Were it not for the access to the free flow of information provided by the Internet we would not have been able to make this correlation. Nor would we have been able to learn of medical professionals interested in this subject.

Thus at least for us, the Internet has had a significant impact if only for the availability to information which we would never have known about."

Ofcourse, nonprofits were also using the Internet in the mid 1990s to promote their work, via the then relatively new World Wide Web and via various online communities, to recruit volunteers, via Impact Online and the many similar volunteer matching web sites that quickly followed its launch, to involve clients in online self-help groups or online communities, and to mobilize activists. Nonprofits also reported to me, via soc.org.nonprofit, that they were using cyberspace to: The momentum from all these interactive online activities and the buzz they created, as well as the real value generated to nonprofits through 1995, lead to an explosion in 1996 of web sites, online discussion groups dedicated to issues relating to nonprofit issues, and efforts relating to nonprofits and the Internet. New online communities appeared for specific topics and for specific nonprofit audiences, and web sites for nonprofit organizations were suddenly the norm, something a potential donor, volunteer or client to any nonprofit expected to find. 1995 and earlier years laid the groundwork for not only what happened in the immediate years to follow, but what is happening now regarding nonprofits and the Internet.

Look up the people listed on this page; most are still active regarding nonprofit organizations. The people and organizations listed on this page all deserve a pat on the back for their early vision and support.

What about online volunteering/virtual volunteering? Certainly the Internet itself, particularly USENET, could be categorized as a form of online volunteering -- users helping users. But the earliest example I have been able to find of formal online volunteering, where volunteers were mobilized specifically to contribute to a specific not-for-profit project meant to help others (other people, the environment, animals, etc.) via their home, work or school computer, is Project Gutenberg, which began in the 1970s and which mobilized online volunteers to create electronic versions of public domain books. More about the history of online volunteering/virtual volunteering is detailed on this page on Wikipedia regarding online volunteering.

Also see this terrific early article about nonprofits and the Internet from 1996 is this article by Putnam Barber.

And where do I, Jayne Cravens, fit in to all this? My experience with the Internet started with a colleague printing out Munn Heydorn's guide in 1994 and giving it to me and suggesting I explore some of the resources recommended, as she was too busy to do such. Somehow, soc.org.nonprofit jumped out at me most, and I joined as soon as I could figure out how to do so, some time in 1994. The World Wide Web seemed so boring to me then -- it was just online brochures -- whereas USENET was interactive, and its newsgroups felt like communities. I soon became involved helping to maintain the nonprofit FAQs sometime in 1994.

This was one of my early posts to the Internet, via both soc.org.nonprofit and comp.sys.mac.databases (still can't find my first post, however, which came at least a few months earlier):

Newsgroups: comp.sys.mac.databases
From: Jayne_A._Crav...@livewire.com (Jayne A. Cravens)
Date: 26 Oct 1994 00:15:16 -0800
Local: Wed, Oct 26 1994 9:15 am
Subject: database principles

I helped the non-profit organization I work for develop a list of database
principles -- basic guidelines for setting up membership databases -- using
our own experiences and lots of input from people on the usnonprofitl
list-server.

If any of you would like a copy of this list, please e-mail me at either of
the addresses below, and I will happily pass them along.

|||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||
Jayne Cravens
Communications Manager
Community Partnership of Santa Clara County
San JosŽ, California
e-mail: jcrav...@aol.com
or
jayne_crav...@vval.com
|||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||
***************************************************************************
** Transmitted via LiveWire, a Virtual Valley/Metro Newspapers service **
** San Jose, Calif. USA voice: 408.298.8174 e-mail: onl...@livewire.com **
** modem: 408.298.8646 (FirstClass, VT-100, TTY) fax: 408.271-3520 **
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This list of database principles became a part of my first web site, launched in January 1996. The "database principles" was probably my first big "claim to fame", at least as far as nonprofits and technology went. I also compiled one of the first articles about how nonprofits were using, and could use, online technologies (probably in 1996), which I've tried to update every year since.

I loved soc.org.nonprofit so much that I volunteered to served as the facilitator of the community for three years. On Jan 19 1999, after receiving a quick answer to his question on the group, a soc.org.nonprofit user wrote, "Man - this is one helpful and responsive newsgroup!" And it was! Most of the active volunteer participants were interested in helping others and in networking their own efforts, as well as learning as much as they could about communicating successfully online. But, unfortunately, junk emailers got the better of soc.org.nonprofit, as did one self-proclaimed "human rights activist" whose frequent daily posts drove most of the regular contributors away and killed much of the usefulness of soc.org.nonprofit by the early part of the new century.

I met Cindy Shove of Impact Online through soc.org.nonprofit, among many other people I have listed on this page. Our online meetings lead to offline meetings with Steve Glikbarg, and these lead to my being hired to run the Virtual Volunteering Project, first for Impact Online, and then for the University of Texas at Austin. And I even babysat Cindy's twins one day - nothing virtual about THAT experience...

One last note: The WHOIS database, archive.org and the archive of USENET newsgroups at GoogleGroups proved invaluable for researching dates for this article (although the GoogleGroup USENET archives aren't very reliable before 1996), as did the "about us" and "history" pages on many organizations' web sites. A blanket "thank you" to everyone who has contributed information to this page.

If you have corrections or additions to this page, please let me know. All information received should relate to 1995 or before 1995 regarding nonprofits and the Internet and be at least marginally verifiable (for example, reference a web page or even an old URL that's no longer valid or an old USENET posting, etc.). Please don't write me and just say, "You should talk to so-and-so! He was doing something." or "We were doing things in 1995 but I can't remember what" or "Buy my book and read these 100 pages!" Instead, send even just two sentences about what trainings, materials and other resources the organization or project undertook to help nonprofit organizations use the Internet in 1995 or earlier.

Given how many indignant emails I've gotten from organizations who don't make the cut because they didn't get started until 1996, perhaps someone wants to write a sequel focused specifcally on nonprofits and the Internet in 1996?

 

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