Monday, October 1, 2001

.NGO Concept Paper

The Nonprofit Web Application Platform


1.1. The Problem
Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) face significant barriers to using Internet technologies to improve their ability to fulfill their mission. In a technology environment dominated by Fortune 500 corporations and .COMs, NGOs lack access to technology that is affordable, meets their unique business processes, and evolves as nonprofits adapt their processes to interact with their constituencies using technology.

Without access, NGOs will never discover how to deploy state-of-the-art, mission-focused, Internet technologies. Mission-driven NGO technology is at risk of forever being relegated to being generations behind the for-profit sector, consisting of outdated, obsolete, inefficient tools.

1.2. The Opportunity
In spite of the barriers to mission-driven NGO technology, a number of leading NGOs are building mission-driven web applications today, often forced by limited resources into using inferior technologies originally designed for the needs of corporations with vast armies of technical staff. By bringing these organizations together to create the .NGO platform under an open source development model, the partners can transcend their resource constraints to create state-of-the-art, mission-driven, NGO web applications. Applications built to meet the needs of NGOs.

The Open Source software movement has created a model of software development that can vault to mission-driven NGO technology to standing shoulder-to-shoulder with its for-profit sector counterparts. The open source technology development model -- where anyone can improve technology because it is liberated from the legal constraints of intellectual property, as long as improvements are subsequently contributed to the community for others to improve upon -- represents an unrealized opportunity for the nonprofit sector to develop and disseminate technology that is mission driven. As technology development environments become more accessible, nonprofits can mould technology in their own image.

1.3. The Plan
The .NGO project will bring together organizations that are already funded and building web applications. Through self-selection, a subset of these organizations will be supported in creating a state-of-the-art, open source web application platform common to all participants. Their diverse applications will ride on top of the application platform, much the same way that MS Word rides atop MS Windows.

Compared with autonomous efforts, such a platform reduces total software development costs to all participating organizations, increases the functionality available to end users in each of the applications, and expands the number of organizations capable of using mission driven information technology.

The .NGO initiative has three goals:

  • Bring nonprofit leaders currently developing web applications into a forum to explore how open-source application development can improve their current and future applications projects. (Phase One)
  • Explore the possibility of standardizing on a single technology platform, allowing the partners to share resources and radically reduce the cost of application development.
  • Develop a concrete action plan to enable participating partners to build a joint, open-source platform for their web applications. (Phase Two)

To achieve these goals, .NGO will conduct four national meetings. The first, sponsored by Stanford University and web cast nationally, will present an unbiased assessment of major open source technologies relevant to mission-driven NGO web applications. This essentially provides the menu of technologies that can be chosen to form the core of the .NGO platform.

Two additional regional meetings will facilitate the process of evaluating and agreeing upon a single technology platform.

The last meeting, sponsored by the Alliance for Community Technology/ University of Michigan, will bring together committed participants to develop a concrete work plan to map out the creation of the .NGO platform.

David Geilhufe and Vlad Wielbut will staff the project. A steering committee composed of 12 leaders in community technology will provide governance.

The project requires $50,000 to complete, with in-kind commitments already received from Stanford University and the Alliance for Community Technology. Potential funders are asked to consider contributions of $50,000 or $25,000.

A platform provides the shared building blocks for web applications. Almost every web application needs some of the same functionality- security, permissions, content management, authentication, etc. Rather than reinvent the wheel each time a new application is built, starting from a platform enables faster development times, cheaper projects, and more extensive functionality.

Commercial solutions are costly. A Fortune 500 firm make the large investment because they can deploy the software across the entire corporation. Sharing a web application across a network of human rights organizations, for example, would cost tens of thousands of dollars to each organization.

Friday, August 10, 2001

.COMM Concept Paper

Community technology organizations suffer from the paradox that they help communities take advantage of technology, yet are challenged by the lack of access to technology that is affordable, meets their unique business processes, and evolves as these organizations discover new ways for mission-driven technology to serve their communities.

The open source technology development model—where users can directly improve technology because it is liberated from the legal constraints of intellectual property, as long as improvements are subsequently contributed back into the community for others to improve upon—represents an unrealized opportunity for the nonprofit sector to develop and disseminate state-of-the-art technology that is mission driven. As technology development environments become more accessible, community technology organizations can deliver technology that creates a positive impact.

The Children’s Partnership and the Blacksburg Electronic Village have taken the lead in documenting two critical areas where community technology can have a significant positive impact on local communities: the creation of on-line content[1] and community networking[2]. PolicyLink, a national advocacy, research, capacity building, and communications organization, recognizes the opportunity to develop an inventory of community building applications that can become tools for community problem solving[3].

Even with well-documented need, community technology organizations must continuously re-invent the wheel by building web-based applications designed to support content and community networking. Often, they lack the resources for even the most rudimentary web applications available in the commercial sector.

The .COMM initiative delivers a toolbox for community problem solving on the web by having the needs and requirements of local communities define the functionality of an open-source web application toolbox. It focuses on serving community technology organizations with a basic technology capacity as “neighborhood technology experts,” and a history of community involvement. The membership of organizations like CTCNet[4] and the grantees of programs like TOP[5] provide a target list of these institutions already existing in U.S. under-served communities.

The project will address the most significant barriers to widespread adoption by community technology organizations by tackling the hard questions as an integral part of the initiative:
How do you support adoption by organizations with limited financial and technical resource, but a track record of community technology successes? (Initial Answer: Use free open source software packaged on a CD-ROM—two hours from CD-ROM to a useful, non-customized installation)

How do you support daily technology use by individuals in communities with limited technology access and knowledge? (Initial Answer: Over 600 community technology centers have been answering this question over the past five years)

Since software needs vary across communities, the .COMM initiative does not seek to deliver a pre-built solution, but rather a toolkit that reduces the cost of web application development and increases the impact of content and community networking applications. Out of the box, the .COMM platform will deliver value. Customized to the needs of a local community, it will provide reduce the barriers that prevent communities from realizing the benefits of creating on-line content and community networking.

The .COMM platform will be deployed in two California urban communities for a BETA test. Project FSS-TECH serves will serve the neighborhoods of the Pico and West Adams in mid-city Los Angeles. An additional site in the San Francisco Bay Area will be selected.

Lessons from the BETA deployment will inform the final distributions of the toolkit. After release, communities will be able to download the free, open-source software and deploy it in a meaningful way in less than a day with a minor investment and minimal technical skills.

The total cost of the .COMM initiative will be approximately $500,000, forty percent devoted to software development and sixty percent to supporting local communities in developing, deploying and supporting the technology (training, technical support, etc). Sustainability can be achieved since targeted community technology organizations will not hire new staff and already have the basic technology skills to maintain a community network.

We are currently seeking partners for the .COMM initiative. Please contact David Geilhufe at if you are interested.

[1] Online Content for Underserved Americans (//
[2] BEV Research Summary (//
[3] Online Community Content and Applications (//
[4] CTCs as local technology experts (//
[5] TOP Evaluations (//