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Virtually essential: why voluntary and community groups must embrace the internet

According to ‘ICT, Social Capital and Voluntary Action’, published recently by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), ignoring the internet is no longer an option for voluntary and community organisations.

It warns that organisations failing to embrace information and communications technology (ICT) risk having their work overshadowed by those who do use this new source of ‘social capital’, i.e. the reserve of goodwill generated when people interact. Although local ICT initiatives are taking place, the smaller online communities they create need ongoing technical and funding support to ensure survival.

The booklet was produced to accompany the second in a series of special seminars entitled ‘Engaging Citizens’, jointly organised by the ESRC and the National Council for Voluntary Organisations (NCVO). It summarises views from two experts in the field – Jayne Cravens, a leading researcher of online volunteering, and Dr Ben Anderson of the Institute for Socio-Technical Innovation and Research at the University of Essex.

Karl Wilding, Head of Research at NCVO, said: “There is a lot of interest today in encouraging community involvement and an important factor is the impact of ICT.

“Some people feel that online activity fails to build strong ties between people, yet it offers additional means of communication which are strengthening existing social networks and enabling new connections to be made.”

In the booklet, Jayne Cravens, who is also former director of the UN’s Online Volunteering Service, says that, rather than the exception, it has become the norm for voluntary and community organisations (VCOs) to undertake online activities.

Online communities and online volunteering provide excellent avenues for them to connect with current and potential donors, volunteers, clients and the general public.

She also argues that people do not substitute online volunteering nor online communities for traditional volunteering and community.

Jayne Cravens said: “Internet-based forms of service and sharing are usually extensions of off-line activities and groups. And most online volunteers are not geographically remote from the organisations they support; they are around the corner rather than around the world.”

Ben Anderson discusses how local ICT initiatives already support the development of social capital in communities. Nevertheless, he points out that some researchers still question whether social capital already needs to be in place for it to grow. “There is concern that ICT initiatives may lead to those communities already rich in social capital benefiting most. It is still an open question as to how to benefit less well-connected communities,” he said.

Ben Anderson also suggests that grassroots initiatives may be more sustainable “not least because they draw heavily on local social capital, but more crucially because they tend to be much more attuned to what the local people need and want from the services.”

However, he stresses that whilst generally highly motivated, the core support structure of local groups is prone to burn out and needs ongoing support through committed long term (5-10 years) low-level funding.

He continues: “Smaller communities will not have the technical expertise, nor the funds, to support community networks. Low bridging capital is a problem and there is a need to help develop links between individuals and communities to resolve ICT problems when resources are stretched.”

To read the ‘ICT, Social Capital and Voluntary Action’ booklet (pdf format), please follow this link.