Virtually essential: Why voluntary and community groups must embrace the Internet

Ignoring the Internet is no longer an option for voluntary and community organizations, 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.

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FOR FURTHER INFORMATION CONTACT: Dr Ben Anderson, on 07710 187806 or email: benander@essex.ac.uk

Or Alexandra Saxon/Annika Howard at ESRC, on 01793 413032/413119 Email: alexandra.saxon@esrc.ac.uk / annika.howard@esrc.ac.uk

FOR A COPY OF THE BOOKLET ONLY CONTACT: Amanda Williams at the ESRC on 01793 413126 or email: amanda.williams@esrc.ac.uk

NOTES FOR EDITORS

  1. A Web page has been created by Jayne Cravens specifically for readers of the booklet. It includes guidance on best practice for online communities and volunteering, recruitment tips, and a review of new jargon and tools such as online social networking, blogging, and podcasts. http://www.esrcsocietytoday.ac.uk/ESRCInfoCentre/about/CI/events/esrcseminar/

  2. 'ICT, Social Capital and Voluntary Action' is published by the ESRC to accompany a seminar organised in collaboration with the National Council for Voluntary Organisations (NCVO) on October 5 at NCVO, London. Speakers are 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. Karl Wilding, Head of research at NCVO will respond to the booklet's findings. The event is part of the seminar series 'Engaging Citizens' jointly organised by the ESRC and NCVO. Future seminars will cover the following themes: individual pathways into participation; localism and local governance; from local to global, and human rights- a tool for change.

  3. NCVO is the umbrella body for the voluntary sector in England. It works to support the voluntary sector and to create an environment in which voluntary organisations can flourish. It represents the views of the voluntary sector to policy makers and government and consults with the sector to inform our policy positions on issues generic to the sector. It also carries out in-depth research to promote a better understanding of the sector and its activities. NCVO has a growing membership of more than 4,500 voluntary organisations, ranging from large national charities to small local community groups.

  4. The ESRC is the UK's largest funding agency for research and postgraduate training relating to social and economic issues. It provides independent, high quality, relevant research to business, the public sector and Government. The ESRC total expenditure in 2005-06 was 135million. At any one time the ESRC supports more than 4,000 researchers and postgraduate students in academic institutions and research policy institutes. More at http://www.esrcsocietytoday.ac.uk

  5. ESRC Society Today offers free access to a broad range of social science research and presents it in a way that makes it easy to navigate and saves users valuable time. As well as bringing together all ESRC-funded research (formerly accessible via the Regard website) and key online resources such as the Social Science Information Gateway and the UK Data Archive, non-ESRC resources are included, for example the Office for National Statistics. The portal provides access to early findings and research summaries, as well as full texts and original datasets through integrated search facilities. More at http://www.esrcsocietytoday.ac.uk


Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 21 Feb 2009
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