26 March 2007
by Megan Griffith
People have always come together through membership of formal organisations and informal groups, whether for mutual support, to provide a service or to campaign for change. It is this coming together that is the lifeblood of civil society.
The rapid growth of the internet and its ability to connect people in new ways is impacting on the relationships that individuals have with each other and with organisations, and on the communities of which they are a part.
If the late 19th century was the golden age of mutual institutions, clubs and societies, the early 21st century is a new golden age of networks and online communities, a virtual replication of what went before. This presents new opportunities and challenges for voluntary organisations.
From the earliest email lists and bulletin boards, to the blogs and social networking sites such as MySpace which grew rapidly and gained wider coverage in 2006, the ease with which individuals can now be linked across electronic spaces mean that niche communities can be identified and their interests aggregated.
In particular, this has enabled marginalised groups to communicate, support each other and to mobilise more easily and effectively than was previously possible.
One example is Jooly's Joint, a community for people with multiple sclerosis. Founder Julie Howell says: "It all began when I was sitting in the bath one day in August 1995, pondering what to do with some free web space. I wondered if people with MS would enjoy the opportunity to meet others with MS through the internet."
For many voluntary organisations, online social networks such as these have the potential to be disruptive; that is, they have the power to change the model of organising upon which many voluntary organisations, and particularly membership bodies, are based.
The connections that ICT facilitates suggest that some organisations increasingly may be bypassed, and that power may shift away from top-down hierarchical organisations and towards more fluid and participative networks where there is less need for a centralised "bricks and mortar" coordinating organisation.
This is demonstrated by the astonishing growth of the US-based Genocide Intervention Network, which grew from a small student group to a national organisation in under two years by reaching out through social networks, and the emergence of the Open Rights Group, which was quickly established through the financial support of interested people using the site PledgeBank.
ICT has ushered in new modes of communication and changed individuals' expectations of their interactions with organisations. Whether they are members, customers or just casual supporters, individuals increasingly expect dissemination to be supplemented by opportunities for dialogue.
In response, increasing numbers of voluntary organisations are introducing blogs written by staff, volunteers or users, as in Breast Cancer Care's popular Kelly's blog.
The idea that it is the network that generates content - ideas, policies, advice - is in some ways what the voluntary sector has always done, and done well. But in other ways this represents a leap in the dark for organisations for whom being "on message" is seen as an important discipline.
Bertie Bosredon, head of new media at Breast Cancer Care, explains: "A charity's brand does not have the same protection as a commercial company because your supporters feel strongly about the charity they support and feel they have some ownership of the brand.
"You don't have 100% control over what they say and this can sometimes become an issue. So blogs can be powerful but they must be carefully managed and resourced."
Where organisations traditionally may have focused their communications on pushing information out from the centre, people now also expect organisations to pull in information from other sources. As such, cultures of engagement present more of a challenge than the technologies.
David Wilcox, a consultant who is addressing these issues at the ICT Hub national conference this week, says: "The main barriers to effective participation lie both in personal attitudes and institutions, and mainly revolve around desires for power and control.
"The institutional barriers are embedded in hierarchical systems, the personal ones in beliefs that we only succeed by competing. Changing these and getting things done is doubly challenging."
However, for voluntary organisations willing to embrace them and to integrate them into their ways of working, online communities present a range of opportunities to engage with new audiences and to build powerful new networks of their own.
The author leads NCVO Third Sector Foresight and is author of ICT Foresight: how online communities can make the net work for the VCS. · The ICT Hub is part of ChangeUp, the capacity building and infrastructure framework for the voluntary and community sector, created by the Home Office in June 2004.