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Megan 's picture


Third Sector Foresight

The most significant change in the use of the internet in recent years has been the shift from a ‘broadcast’ medium (one organisation or person pushing lots of content out to a large audience), to a ‘conversational’ medium (many different organisations and people talking to each other and engaging in debate). This is the key implication of most discussions about ‘web2.0’, ‘social media’ or ‘social networking’ (for more, see our drivers on online communities and interactive websites).

This has clear implications for infrastructure. A core part of infrastructure’s mission is to support other organisations with information, advice, tools and ideas to help them to be more effective. The old-fashioned ‘broadcasting’ method of disseminating information still has a place (as does face to face support and picking up the phone!). But the web now presents opportunities to tap into the power and expertise of our networks, to allow those we support to talk to and advise each other, and share their own information and ideas. Indeed the expectations of our audience are increasingly that we will enable and facilitate this.

And infrastructure organisations are acting. This month, Navca (the membership body for local infrastructure) launched navcaboodle, a website for their members and others to share and discuss. NCVO will shortly be launching it’s own online communities. And many infrastructure organisation use twitter, a slightly less public but equally conversational way of talking with peers (for example [@BVSC], @bassac_ org _ukand @OCVYS). There are already non-infrastructure players in this area, as you’d expect, including Third Sector Forums.

Is taking advantage of the opportunities of peer to peer online support simple? No it is not! But the challenges for organisations are largely cultural rather than technological (after all, increasing numbers of your staff and volunteers use the internet to gather a range of range of recommendations, information and advice from other ‘ordinary’ people). Implications include:

  • being as responsive to online contributions as you would to people picking up the phone and calling you
  • the need to ‘listen’ to what others are saying about you online (see Louise’s excellent post on this topic)
  • the requirement to think through the question of who the real experts are in this new networked online world, is it you or is it really your members?
  • the question of quality and which information can be trusted, particularly in areas of advice where there are right and wrong answers (eg legal issues)

Are you facilitating peer to peer conversations between your members? What other challenges (or opportunities) are you finding in this new way of working?

Rob's picture


Outside of work I set up an email networking group for volunteer managers over ten years ago. The group, UKVPMs ( now have nearly 1200 members and we've had more than 6600 messages posted to the group.

The biggest challenge during the time I've been running the group has been getting people to go online when they want to ask a question, share some learning or engage with colleagues and peers. I think this is an even bigger issue these days with the sheer volume of information and opportunities to engage available to us all. When I started UKVPMs there was no such thing as Twitter, Facebook or LinkedIn - email was a relatively new concept for many people!

I'd be interested to hear how others are managing this avalanche of opportunity.

Your group sounds really impressive Rob - great work! We've taken a number of approaches here at NAVCA, or which I'll just mention a few:

Discussion groups/forums - navcaboodle
We launched NAVCA's very own social network - navcaboodle - a few months back and already have more than 600 members. It is aimed at people working in local infrastructure organisations, but is also open to anyone that works in partnerships with or is interested in the third sector.

The challenge we face on navcaboodle (along with community managers everywhere) is the same one that you mention Rob - getting people to go online to ask their questions. I think that the main response we have to that is simply that the proof should be in the pudding. I work hard (along with many of my excellent colleagues and some fantastic members of the navcaboodle community) to respond to questions posted asap with useful, relevent answers. Hopefully, people will remember reading a great response to someone else's question and think about posting their query on navcaboodle next time they are at a bit of a loss or want to pick people's brains on a burning issue or technical problem.

Email networks
We have traditionally had a number of email networks along the lines of the one that you mention Rob. Again we have mixed success as many people are worried about the volume of emails that they might receive etc. Some of our email networks are, however, very successful (for example VCANet and COIN) so we have no plans to replace them - if it ain't broke etc! Others simply received no traffic and we have therefore closed them down and moved activity to navcaboodle.

We have a number of NAVCA Twitter accounts supporting different strands of our work. Our belief is that Twitter shouldn't just be about broadcasting updates on our work, though we do of course use it in that way as well. We believe it should be about conversations, debate, pooling our resources and promoting good work. I'm a great personal believer in the power of Twitter, particularly the HUGE advantages it offers when you need assistance - sending a question out into the ether and receiving responses from willing experts - a fantastic resource.

All in all, we're very open at NAVCA to developing new strands of communication and discussion. It's essential that we know as much as possible about the experiences of organisations in the sector, and social media has definitely proven to be an "avalanche of opportunity" as Rob so aptly put it!

Our work began in 1996 with a call for an alternative economic paradigm which could propagate with the opportunity provided by the dawning information age.

In 2004 we introduced this cause driven business model to the UK as a software development business. This funded our subsequent work which led in 2006 to a strategy paper for microeconomic development in Ukraine. In that paper we re-iterate the point about the web offering opportunity for social change.

"Ukraine is in urgent need of nationwide high-speed Internet at an affordable cost. This does not exist in Ukraine at this time. Availability of affordable, modern day Internet access is crucial to any nation’s economic development. This is by now a truism and does not need much elaboration. It is enough to understand that nothing whatsoever can happen in terms of social, economic, civic, and political development without communication. To the extent that communication is limited or completely absent, development is equally limited. If demonstration of this is needed, each reader is invited to do the following. For the next week, do not speak, do not write, do not read, do not listen to or access any form of communication in any way. With those restrictions, it might still be possible to survive for a week. Extend the same restrictions indefinitely, and basic survival will be at risk. It is almost impossible to imagine life without communications of any kind.

"In most of Ukraine, citizens have about the same degree of connection to the modern world. Information is usually one-way, receive only, by way of television, radio, and newspapers.

"The needs for drastically improved communication infrastructure in Ukraine are manifold. We see a democratic political movement in its infancy that will have difficulty in advancing without the same basic and affordable communication infrastructure available in each and every democratic nation in the world. Ukraine does not have this.

"We see a nation staggering under the crushing burden of widespread poverty, the extent of which no one is sure but which most people assessing the situation realistically is at least twenty five percent of the population. We understand that communication – particularly high-speed Internet communication at a cost that is affordable to half the population and all businesses – is essential for economic growth and development so that poverty can be reduced.

"We see a staggering array of social problems arising directly from poverty, including but not limited to tens of thousands of children in orphanages or other state care; crime; disrespect for civil government because government cannot be felt or seen as civil for anyone left to suffer in poverty; young people prostituting themselves on the street; drug abuse to alleviate the aches and pains of the suffering that arises from poverty and misery; HIV/AIDS spreading like a plague amidst prostitution, unprotected sex, and drug abuse; more children being born into this mix and ending up in state care at further cost to the state; criminals coming from poverty backgrounds, ending up as bandits, returning to communities after prison, with few options except further criminal activity. These are all part and parcel of the vicious negative cycle of poverty, and this threatens to destroy Ukraine, if Ukraine is defined in terms of people rather than mere geographic boundaries. Overall, population is steadily declining; families have not sufficient confidence in tomorrow to reproduce more than 1.2 children on average per couple."

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