Revisting “Democracy at Work: Nonprofit Use of Internet Technology for Public Policy Purposes” 25 Years Later

In December 1998, I had the honor of serving as the lead author on a report titled Democracy at Work: Nonprofit Use of Technology for Public Policy Purposes during my tenure as the coordinator the Nonprofit Policy and Technology Project housed at OMB Watch.

So much has changed in the 25 years since that report. Many of the technologies and organizations that inspired the initial report have either shifted or ended. But I was heartened to learn recently from a far-off corner of the world that the report is still being used and cited by nonprofits and NGOs, philanthropy professionals, policymakers, and academics to this day.


Background

OMB Watch was founded in 1983 as U.S.-based nonprofit research, educational, and advocacy organization that focused on budget issues, regulatory policy, nonprofit advocacy, access to government information, and the effects of technology on nonprofit organizations.

Core to OMB Watch’s mission was the belief in a vibrant nonprofit sector as essential to America’s communities. It was founded in 1983, at a time when distrust in American institutions ran high, belief in democratic systems and processes ran low, and understanding of how and why people connect towards common goals and shared needs underwent huge change.

OMB Watch started with the belief that nonprofits and non-governmental organizations play a critical role in revitalizing democratic principles. From the local to national level, America’s civil society requires improved access to government; active citizen participation in public policy processes; and communities that are informed and engaged towards a just, fair, equitable, healthy, sustainable, and inclusive society and economy.

Public awareness of nonprofit organizations was often scattered along political or ideological divides. Understanding of the broad diversity of nonprofits and non-governmental organizations was often lacking across the government and businesses. Moreover, leaders in the public sector, private sector, philanthropy sector and academia had valuable perspectives to offer regarding the social impact and economic importance of nonprofits, charities, and associations — but those perspectives would never often find voice in public dialogue, political discourse, or media coverage.

Thinking back to the late 1990s. The Internet and World Wide Web were already established as transformative catalysts for information and communication with yet so much rapid growth and change to come.

In 1996, OMB Watch undertook a planning initiative, called NonProfit America, to improve communications linkages within the nonprofit sector. In that context, the Nonprofits’ Policy & Technology was launched in towards the end of 1997 to address several items that were widely supported through the NonProfit America research. This included:

(1) providing opportunities for nonprofits and NGOs to learn about and utilize newer technologies for public policy activities;

(2) improving communication and coordination between technology and public policy professionals in the nonprofit sector; and

(3) finding ways to increase the accessibility to and comfort level with existing and emerging technology tools.

The Nonprofits’ Policy & Technology Project was created with the support of the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation and Surdna Foundation. It was overseen by an incredible advisory working group of experts drawn from the nonprofit sector, philanthropic community, and public policy arena. These local, state, and national experts contributed their knowledge and expertise with policy analysis and engagement, technology training, and consulting.


Context

The concept of organizations formed for voluntary and charitable purposes in America actually predates the establishment of the United States itself. The parallel development of member-focused associations, clubs, and other organizations arose in the early part of the nation’s history as a means for individuals with shared interests and values to connect. Philanthropic institutions and other vehicles for channeling individual wealth and community resources also have their roots in early American history.

The formal recognition of an actual sector distinct from the spheres of government and business is reflected in some 75 years of law and policy between 1894 and 1969. During the continuing decades, Congress established the federal parameters of tax-exempt organizations as states marked the frameworks under which non-governmental and non-profit entities operate.

Compare the 400+ years of American nonprofit sector development to the 60+ year history of the Internet and 30+ year history of the World Wide Web. The sheer volume and velocity of change is too much to capture in words.

Today, the U.S. nonprofit sector consists of approximately 1.5 million nonprofit organizations of different types and sizes employing an estimated 10% of the U.S. workforce, generating some 5.7% of the GDP, and engaging approximately 25% of the population through some form of volunteer activity.

At a time when fear, uncertain, doubt and distrust are most tangible, nonprofits continue to grow hope, create opportunity, and achieve success. Technology has always been essential for nonprofits to survive. Today, it is vital for nonprofits to thrive.


Content

If the title Democracy at Work: Nonprofit Use of Technology for Public Policy Purposes evokes memories of Alexis de Tocqueville’s seminal work on America’s politics and society, it was not a coincidence. Through his extensive travel, exploration, and conversations across America, Tocqueville observed that the “great democratic revolution” was inevitable and irresistible.

At the end of 1998, our team— like many Americans— recognized that the great technological revolution was also inevitable and irresistible. We set out to provide a snapshot of nonprofit technology and a starting point for further inquiry and research.

Instead of predictions or recommendations, the goal was to outline

  1. information and communication technology tools that were used/needed by nonprofits and NGOs for effective and efficient online public policy participation;
  2. effective uses of specific tools identified by nonprofits / NGOs in particular advocacy and public policy activities; and
  3. emerging issues with regard to nonprofit/NGO use of technology for advocacy and public policy purposes.

The range of public policy activities (federal, state, and local) was defined to include Public Outreach; Research; Access to Data/Information; Administrative Advocacy (e.g. attempts to understand and intercede in the rulemaking process); Judicial Advocacy (e.g. promotion of more responsible and accountable judicial and correctional systems and law enforcement practices); Legislative Advocacy and Lobbying; Organizing and Mobilizing; Public-Private Collaborations; and Voter Education and Participation.

Our findings in December 1998 captured nonprofit technology at an interesting point in time.

  1. The Internet was not yet a major policy tool widely used to involve stakeholders.
  2. There was not a large number of replicable examples of or strategies for nonprofit technology in public policy activities.
  3. Websites and online content were often after thoughts.
  4. Listservs and discussion groups were considered more active communication channels than the web.
  5. Nonprofits were using a very narrow set of technologies and applications.
  6. Interactivity was very narrowly defined by nonprofits in terms of their practical everyday operations, not by their larger scale stakeholder relationships.
  7. Creating a strong identity on the Internet was important for nonprofits, but there was wide disparity among organizations in terms of asserting, promoting, and reinforcing their online identities.
  8. Barriers to Internet use were widespread, not least because of the cost and quality of available tools at the time, but also how nonprofit leaders viewed technology in terms of their organizational capacity.
  9. Disconnect between nonprofits interest in using technology for public policy purposes and funders who were interested in supporting such activities was significant.

With nearly 10 years of the Web as a reality, our report at the time found that nonprofits were still attempting to navigate its possibilities for enhancing their work and amplifying their voices. Yet they were always considering technology’s effects on their core audiences and how technology tools might change their relationships and interactions with stakeholders.

Depending on the type of public policy activities, technology was already making its mark on nonprofit organizations. The ability to adapt those tools, if not to influence their use and development in policy contexts, depended on organizational willingness to experiment as much as the availability of and access to those tools themselves.


Coda

The technology landscape of 2023 is leaps and bounds beyond that of 1998. Social media, video and podcasting, online fundraising, cloud-based software, advanced CRM and productivity tools, and improved data and analytics resources— not to mention the capabilties of mobile phones, desktops, and laptops— are no comparison for the tools we used 25 years ago.

The U.S. nonprofit sector of 2023 is markedly different than that of 1998. More than just its collective size and impact, the sector’s recognition as a catalyst for— and reflection of— political, economic, social, and cultural changes in America has grown. Cross-sector collaboration and partnerships are more widespread and effective nonprofit solutions are increasing in terms of scale and innovation.

The nonprofit sector is more diverse, more inclusive, and more reflective of the nation’s people and communities. More organizations are started by people who seek and demand solutions more responsive to their communities. Leaders and teams increasingly are using their advocacy voice in more creative and innovative ways to solve root causes while ameliorating ongoing needs and gaps.

The range and breadth of those who depend on nonprofit services and nonprofit advocacy have grown. The technology options available today offer more options for meeting this increased demand.

Political, legal, and ethical concerns regarding technology now involve nonprofit stakeholder perspectives more— especially in the areas of data, privacy, and now AI. The boundaries around what’s possible and permissible continue to shift as do the zones of partisanship, rhetoric, and discontent (if not outright discord). And still, technology remains critical for every aspect of nonprofit operations and success.

From 1998 to 2004, I was fortunate to witness the creation of so many incredible technology tools and experiment with so many innovative platforms and services alongside companies and entrepreneurs attempting to learn what might stick and what might fail.

I gained numerous opportunities to train and coach amazing nonprofit executives and NGO leaders who were both enthusiastic of, and intimidated by, the new and uncertain landscape technology tools and services presented for advocacy and social change. I also learned so much from a wide and diverse range of civil society professionals and researches across the United States and internationally at a time when the political, legal, regulatory, and ethical considerations around technology were increasing in prominence and intensity.

While I reflect with great pride on the achievements of my Nonprofits’ Policy & Technology Project colleagues and partners, I also acknowledge the loss that came with the project’s end. In January 2013, OMB Watch became the Center for Effective Government. The latter entity ceased its operations in 2016. The work and legacy archives were eventually folded into the Project On Government Oversight, which continues to do vital work for the nonprofit sector and public to this day.

Nonprofits and NGOs now operate in a much larger global context, with a much greater degree of technology challenges and concerns. The tools, services, and platforms have changed and continue to evolve rapidly. Yet the same fundamental issues faced 25 years ago continue to linger, albeit with much higher stakes.

But we also have a world of greater connection that makes knowledge sharing, co-creation, and active influence into technology more real, more tangible, and more desired among users of all skills and abilities. Beyond developers and beyond users, technology is about people, communities, and connections. It is about the relationships we can and do build to achieve the world we want for today, and hope to leave for others to prosper and flourish in a sustainable future.

Nothing is more humbling and valued than to learn that one’s work continues to offer value for others in even some small way, long after you have moved on to other things. For that, I am eternally grateful for that recent reminder from far way, as much as the opportunity to contribute my small part to a much bigger picture that continues to take shape even now.

Ryan Turner, Business English for Social Impact

Additional Reading


Empowering NGOs and social enterprises through development communication for stability, development, and growth in Central and Eastern Europe (and beyond).

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