|Published by NetAction||Issue No. 68||March 21, 2001|
Earlier this month, a diverse group of progressive activists and computer technicians gathered at Yale University for the second annual "Grassroots Use of the Internet" conference. Hosted by the Cambridge-based Organizers' Collaborative, the Yale Workers Rights project, and the Yale Campaign for a Legal Election, the event drew more than 100 individuals.
The participants ranged from longtime activists with graying hair to college students with term paper deadlines. Nearly a third of the presenters were founders or co-founders of organizations. Many were computer professionals interested in creating and distributing free technology tools to facilitate online collaboration.
Unlike some of the Internet activism conferences I've attended, this one didn't include an exhibit area where application service providers (ASPs) could pitch their products and services. ASPs are businesses that provide a range of technology services for nonprofit organizations, such as hosting web sites and email lists, collecting online donations, and managing membership databases. Mostly for-profit ventures, ASPs have become increasingly popular with nonprofit organizations interested in online organizing and advocacy.
But there wasn't much talk about ASPs at the Yale conference. For the most part, the people who participated were advocates for freeware and open source software -- technology developed by activists, for activists. I believe that in the long run, their efforts are going to be of far more value to Internet activists than the services offered by ASPs.
That's because ASPs are new businesses, financed largely by the same venture capitalists who funded the now-faltering "dot-com" economy. Like the rest of the "dot-com" businesses, ASPs won't survive long without a sustainable revenue model, a goal that has so far eluded the Internet industry.
One ASP has already given up on that effort. Earlier this month, the Charitableway online donation site announced it was shutting down. This is just the beginning, according to Josh Knauer, founder and CEO of Green Marketplace, Inc. , and a colleague on the Advisory Board of the Institute for Global Communication (IGC).
"The word going around is that the majority of companies that have set out to provide donation services, as well as ASP tech services to nonprofits are all running out of money either in the second or third quarter of this year," Josh warned in a message to the IGC board.
The potential demise of ASPs could have a significant impact on Internet activism that relies on commercial technology for outreach to members, donors, and activists. Fortunately, it isn't necessary to rely on ASPs. Some non-commercial alternatives are already available, and more are on the way.
The Organizers' Collaborative (http://www.organizenow.net/) maintains a comprehensive list of links to available technology tools and is currently developing database software tailored to the needs of grassroots activists.
TechRocks (http://www.techrocks.org/) offers Ebase, a free web-based database program that integrates with commercial software and makes it possible for organizations to send mass emailings to their membership.
OMB Watch (http://www.ombwatch.org/npt/nptalk/index.html) maintains an active discussion list on the use of technology for activism and is developing a comprehensive nonprofit portal that will provide a range of activist tools for US-based nonprofit organizations.
The Association for Progressive Communication (APC) recently completed work on an "Activist Toolkit" (http://www.apc.org/english/about/projects/toolkit/index.htm) for its member organizations around the world.
Open source advocates have even set up a Nonprofit Open Source Initiative (http://nosi.net/) to promote the collaborative development of Internet advocacy tools.
Projects like these will help to ensure that the Internet remains an effective tool for organizing and outreach, regardless of what happens to the "dot-com" industry. But there is still more to be done. The goal should be self-reliance in all aspects of Internet activism, from non-commercial Internet access, list service and web-hosting, to interactive web tools, membership management and donor portals. To achieve this, Internet activists need to enlist the help of software developers, web site designers, and other computer professionals.
The activists who participated in the Yale conference were primarily from the eastern states, and NetAction is assessing whether a similar conference would be of interest to activists and organizations in western states. If you are interested in attending, or helping to organize a West Coast gathering for grassroots Internet activists, please or phone: 415-775-8674.
A new study has confirmed what NetAction has known all along -- sending email to elected officials is not effective.
According to a recent report prepared by the Congress Online Project, our representatives in Congress get so much email they can't cope with it and consequently ignore it. Last year, some 80 million email messages were sent to Congress. The report is at: http://www.congressonlineproject.org/email.html.
Email is a powerful tool for activism, but not for communicating with elected officials. In our Virtual Activist training, we recommend using email to communicate with other activists and organizations, with your organization's members and supporters, and with the media. But if you need to communicate with Congress, it is much more effective to do so by phone, fax, or written letter.
However, if you insist on using email to communicate with elected officials, or advising others to do so, here are some ways to increase its effectiveness:
Only communicate with the senators from your state and the representative from your district. Email that doesn't come from constituents will be ignored.
Include your home or business address in your message, to make it clear that you are a constituent.
Be brief and limit your comments to one issue per message.
Identify the subject of your message in the "Subject" line of your email message form.
Ask your members to "cc" you when they send messages, print the copies and use them to document the communication.
For more tips on email activism, see the Virtual Activist 2.0.
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