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

05.10.2006
Ignoring the Internet is no longer an option for voluntary and community organisations, according to a new booklet ‘ICT, Social Capital and Voluntary Action’ published today by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC).

It warns that failing to embrace information and communications technology (ICT) risks having their work overshadowed by those who do draw on this new source of ‘social capital’ – the reserve of goodwill generated when people interact. And though local ICT initiatives are taking place, the booklet says that the smaller online communities they create need ongoing technical and funding support if they are to survive.

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

They will lead the seminar, to be held at NCVO in London on October 5, when Karl Wilding, Head of Research at NCVO, will respond to the publication's findings.

Karl Wilding 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, former director of the UN's Online Volunteering service, says that it has become the norm, rather than the exception, for voluntary and community organisations (VCOs) to engage in 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.

And she argues that people do not substitute online volunteering nor online communities for onsite, 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. But he points out that some researchers still question whether social capital needs to be in place already 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.

And Ben Anderson 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.”

But he points out that whilst generally highly motivated, local groups’ core support structure is prone to burn out and needs ongoing support through committed long term (five-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.

Annika Howard | alfa
Further information:
http://www.esrc.ac.uk

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