(Re)organizing NGOs: An Open Information System

On: March 7, 2010
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About ellen sluis
I am currently enrolled in the MA New Media. After graduating in Communication and Information Sciences from the Utrecht University I worked during one year in Brazil (São Paulo) as a web designer and, after that, at a NGO, developing the website and PR.


Projeto Alavanca is one of the many NGOs in Brazil that aim at social and digital inclusion of underprivileged people. What distinguishes them from other organizations is their current project; the development of a set of web-based applications that enables NGOs to administer, distribute and share information and knowledge with each other.

Projeto Alavanca, where I have worked for several months, is an organization based in São Paulo, a in low-income community (favela) called São Remo. The organization strives to community development and social inclusion by offering several (free) educational activities, thus reducing the illiteracy level within the community.

What I particularly liked about the organization is their focus on (new) media activities, by offering courses in graphic design, arts, journalism and communication theories. They stress the importance of using ICT for educational purposes to make the children familiar with new technologies, aiming to bridge this digital gap, and argue that nowadays a person cannot be considered as literate unless he is digitally literate as well. A person who doesn’t know the basics of ICT will have difficulties to function in today’s society.

The collaborators within the organization are encouraged to actively participate in the organizational processes (many of the employees are members of the community, but also foreign volunteers), as since 2006 they started to use diverse open source applications in the daily project work, as wikis, groupware, trac, content management system, moodle and php-list.

Although this is a very interesting step forward – many NGOs still maintain a very traditional, vertical structure, not willing to adapt to new technologies, the implementation of these alternative applications also made them face the deficits and restrictions of the existing solutions. They argue that there is a lack of software or web-based applications (online platforms, social networks, etc.) that seriously allow or promote online collaboration, information sharing or distribution among NGOs. Also, commercial software is very expensive and many organizations admit the lack of competences to adopt existing open source solutions. Open source software is not always very user-friendly. Furthermore, NGOs often lack ICTs of good quality. On average, NGOs suffer data loss due to computer breakdowns five times a year[1]!

Such problems are mainly an effect of inefficiency within the organizational structures of NGOs; they fail to recognize new possibilities, or lack a proper working space, financial resources, employees/volunteers and technologies. According to some research they conducted among local NGOs, they usually don’t have a space (online) to share information or present their results, establish partnerships and get volunteers and donors involved. Moreover, the rare use of ICTs in the non-profit sector creates a lot of inefficiency.

Projeto Alavanca recognizes the need of better alternatives that enhance internal organizational structures of NGOs. As NGOs usually depend and involve diverse interest groups, a highly efficient information architecture is essential. Existing alternatives, such as Ammado, Better Place or Blackbaud are either paid (very expensive) or lack an extensive diverity of system functions.

Therefore, they are now developing open source software (NPOffice) that offers a basic information architecture that fits such organizations; supporting the whole third sector from fundraising to project implementation and evaluation in an efficient manner. It is a web-based software, which offers multi-platforms and integrates several other applications. For instance, it allows them to compare results with other organizations in order to encourage mutual learning and they can share and distribute information and knowledge available at the project; such as educating materials and course descriptions, but also business plans. This allows other organizations to easily access and use this information for their own (educational and organizational) purposes.

Eventually they want to donate NPOffice to all their assisted NGOs to set the software as a standard for all the organizations and foundations, and thus generate a basis for quality, exchange and comparison.

The software can also be used for instituations of development and donors; it facilitates finding NGOs they would like to support and/or evaluate their efficiency. They argue that these institutions play a role to establish the software at the market. Furthermore, donors can find NGOs they would like to support as they can easily compare several NGOs, and thus make sure that an organization is very efficient. Finally, volunteers (local or foreign) can find NGOs that fit their interests and they can easily contact the organizations. Also, they not necessarily have to work at the organization’s office, but can easily work from their homes.

They are aware of sceptics, people that don’t see the advantages or stick to familiar software and applications. Furthermore, we might argue whether NGOs would be willig to openly share their information, knowledge and administration. Allthough they don’t have commerical/competitive purposes, they might be afraid of abuse. However promising, I think, is their initiative to set up a website that helps the São Paulo NGOs to discuss software needs and vote upon priorities. They provide questionnaires for organizations to describe their current use of ICTs and the possible deficits. Parallel to the website development they will approach other NGOs via mail, forums and on-site-visits in order to encourage them to take part in the discussion. Finally, the website will show investors the importance of financing the future software development. A huge number of organizations that discusses their ICT needs gives a strong argument to invest in NPOffice.

Their intention to serve the whole non-profit sector, first in São Paulo and on a broader scale eventually, with an informational system that allows NGOs to enhance their organizational structures, to me sounds like a very interesting initiative. As they say, they want to improve non-profit results with business intelligence, and I think such a horizontal and networked, open structure can be very fruitful. Read their business plan presentation for a more extensive description of their ideas.

[1] See report within their business plan

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