Arun Mehta -- email@example.com
NGOs come in a variety of sizes and flavours from 2-person
outfits tucked into a small mountain village, to a million or
more strong, with budgets and influence to match. Their
organisational structures range from none, to quasi-democratic
membership organisations to highly hierarchical ones. Clearly
then, if looked at from the point of view of a specific NGO, some
of what is written below will not apply. However, if you strongly
disagree with any of it , I hope you will get in touch, so that I
can update this piece.
The benefits could approximately be classified under the
The effort of an NGO is always to maximize the percentage of
its budget that is spent on its ultimate objective, and to cut
down on overheads such as administration, internal training, etc.
E-mail cuts down on mail costs as compared to fax, courier or
even regular mail. The cost argument is effective with
tight-fisted finance people, however there are several better
reasons for using the net.
- Information processing
Much of what an NGO does is to gather, process and
disseminate information. The combination of computers and
telecommunications has been named Information technology, because
of its major impact on all the these activities. The myriad ways
in which computers can be used in an NGO lie beyond the scope of
this paper. What concerns us here is the communications aspect.
Not only is the Internet a great source of information, but
because all the information you access from it lands up in your
computer, it is immediately suited for further processing,
forwarding and archival. For instance spread-sheets or accounts
databases from different offices can quickly and automatically be
consolidated and redistributed to all concerned.
NGOs often send identical information to a long list of
people: calls for action, situation reports, etc. There is no
easier way to do this than the Internet, where mailing to a
single person is as easy as mailing to thousands. Each recipient
can herself decide whether to continue receiving such as
fund-raising, organising, keeping accounts, filing, besides al
the specialized areas the NGO is involved with that kind of
information, or, based on the subject line or keywords, that
specific message. If the organisation wishes to permit it, new
people can join and leave the list at will-compare this with the
complexity of maintaining traditional mailing lists, and the cost
of sending unwanted information.
A lot of the work in many NGOs is done by volunteers. The
disadvantage, of course, is the high turnover: people stay only
as long as they have interest and time. New people must
constantly be trained in a variety of complex tasks, smaller set
ups have fewer training resources, yet the range and complexity
of tasks each person performs is often greater. This can be quite
intimidating for a new comer. Organisations are usually reluctant
to send people to far-away training workshops who may disappear
the next day. While in some ways less effective, long-distance
training via the Internet may be the only alternative to no
training at all.
In typical fashion the Internet tends to dispense with much
of formal training structure: a faq helps the novice get started,
after which he may join the appropriate functional mailing list
where the experts all participate. General interest problem
solving and decision takes place between the entire list other
problems are handled in short e-mail asides.
The "clients: of an NGO, the beings it works for, are
often poor, locked up in jail, not of the human race, or
otherwise unable to fund the NGO's activities. Clearly then, the
NGO must find other ways to support itself. To put it crudely the
only "saleable commodity" that the NGO has is
information. Particularly for a small organisation, it is not
easy to locate the people or organizations interested in its
information, particularly if they are going remote.
Anyone seriously seeking information is increasingly likely
to be on the Internet with thousands of newsgroups and mailing
lists, it should not be hard for the NGO to reach the right
people anywhere in the world. However, the Internet frowns on
overt commercialism in most areas, so the right approach may be
to put out some information free. Those wanting more detailed
information will get in touch, whom the NGO might subsequently
discreetly solicit funds from.
A consistently reliable and accurate source of information
will soon build aid its fund-raising efforts.
Many companies have used electronic communications to become
flatter. A crude model may divide the people in an organisation
into "doers" on the periphery and the
"deciders" at the head office. The head office people
have the job of collecting information from all parts of the
organisation and collecting it. This role, and their proximity to
other information gives them access to more information than
people have at the periphery, which makes them better suited to
take policy decisions. Information once again becomes power.
Via e-mail, however, information collection and
redistribution can be automated, thus eliminating the need for
much head office staff. With people on the periphery as well
informed as those at the center, policy making can be
decentralized by taking over by an appropriate mailing list that
does not favour some time zones over others. Rather than global
decisions being implemented locally, decisions can be taken
locally in line with global policy guidelines. Examples: Potato
chip companies find that the local distributor is better able to
predict how much interest (and increase in chip consumption) an
impending football game will trigger, airline stewardesses are
better able to decide on-board menus based on passenger contact,
knowledge of local tastes, festivals and season.
The same logic applies to NGOs, with one addition: often, the
people at the center are paid staff, those on the periphery
volunteers. IN many NGOs, there is almost chronic tension between
the paid staff and the board, which represents the membership.
Organisational re-engineering could help make the organisation
more responsive to changing situations; cut down the number of
paid staff engaged in administration increase decentralized
decision-making and importantly, motivate the members by being
responsive to their suggestions and complaints.
NGOs are hard on the people working for them. For instance it
might place them for long durations in remote areas, away from
family or friends. Or, the work may be frustrating and
unrewarding for long periods of time contact with friends and
like minded persons all over the world who appreciate the work
you do and support when needed can made a lot of difference.
Electronic mail cannot entirely replace travel, however, it
can make it less frequently necessary, and more productive. In
decision making relating to policy matters, for instance, the
positions of the different sides on an issue can be circulated to
all the decision makers perhaps even the entire membership), who
can then discuss it via a mailing list. If consensus can be
reached, a meeting becomes unnecessary. If not, a meeting is not
avoided, but those who travel are much better informed: they will
have all the relevant papers, and the benefit of an active
discussion and consensus-building process before they even leave
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Comments and suggestions:
Hari Srinivas - firstname.lastname@example.org