Arun Mehta --

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 following heads:

  1. Cost

    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.

  2. 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.

  3. Mailing

    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.

  4. Training

    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.

  5. Fund-raising

    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.

  6. Organisation

    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.

  7. Personal

    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.

  8. Travel

    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 home.

Return to the NGO Page

Comments and suggestions:
Hari Srinivas -