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nonprofit advocacy use of computer telecommunications

Computer telecommunications as used by nonprofit advocacy organizations

Paul E. Hyland
Management Science 290
January 5, 1993
Prof. Darleen Fisher

Case Studies: Computer Telecommunications

As Used by Non-Profit Advocacy Organizations

(*File 1 -- Body of Paper)

(File 2 -- Appendicies)

Computer and telecommunication technologies have recently been advancing and becoming intertwined at an ever increasing rate. Organizations of varying sizes and resources have taken different approaches in exploiting these new technologies to enhance their effectiveness. Non-profit organizations in particular are often more hesitant to move into the use of new information technologies in their operations. Either there is little money to spend on technology or on new projects, or nobody on staff has the knowledge, the time, or the vision to see what can be done and act on it.

This study will first give an overview of the new technological environment. Then it will examine three non-profit public interest organizations, each with a different size and structure. It will examine how they have integrated such technologies into their structures and how easily they have adapted to the changes that such tools have wrought in the way they conduct business. Finally, it briefly treats a few other notable efforts.

Part I - Computer Telecommunications Tools and Resources

The technologies that I will describe can be roughly divided between online systems and networks, although there is significant overlap between the two. Here I will briefly describe the capabilities offered by these resources; Appendix A contains more detailed definitions of terms and technologies.

Online systems are usually single computers on which a user would have an account providing access to a variety of services, such as information files, discussion groups, real-time conversations with other users, or electronic mail (e-mail). Examples of systems useful to activists include Econet/Peacenet, Compuserve, CapAccess, or local Bulletin Board Systems (BBSs). Many of these systems are also connected to networks, and provide the access point to network services described below.

Networks are interconnections of computers, from a small Local Area Network (LAN) in an office to the global Internet, with its millions of users. Other networks that are of interest include BITNET, which is a network of university mainframe (large multi- user) computers, and Fidonet, which is a global network of BBS's that exchange messages via dial-up lines between 12 and 1 AM, PST. Usenet is a special case. It behaves very much like a global online system, but is really a network of systems exchanging news and discussion in over 1000 conferences, called newsgroups.

Part II - Case Studies

Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility

In 1981, a group of computer scientists at Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) established an electronic mailing list to discuss the threat of nuclear war. Eventually, the participants in this discussion group decided to form an organization to connect their work as computer professionals to their social concerns; Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility (CPSR) was founded in 1982. It continues to be propelled by the concerns of computer scientists at Xerox PARC, Stanford, MIT, and other elite institutions in the field of computer science, but has broadened its base to include anyone who is interested in exploring the impact of computer technology on society and in trying to steer this effect in a responsible direction.

CPSR is a membership organization, with about 3000 members. It is headquartered in Palo Alto, California, and has offices in Washington, DC and Cambridge, Massachusetts. There are four full- time and four part-time staff members; at the same time, it is a grassroots organization with an elected leadership and board of directors that takes an active role in its operation. The geographical distribution of the staff, and even more so of the board, make electronic media such as telephones and e-mail critical for its efficient operation.

CPSR has long utilized electronic mail to streamline internal communication among its leadership, staff, and other activists close to the organization. From the initial anti-nuclear mailing list, the number of lists used for internal communication has swelled to approximately fifty, maintained manually as aliases on a computer at Stanford University. The main e-mail address for CPSR is, which is used for information requests, changes of address, and the like; there are other lists for the board of directors, board committees, chapters, and working groups that deal with specific issues. Much of the business of the organization is conducted via these channels, and to operate effectively in the leadership of CPSR, one essentially needs to have a computer account with Internet e-mail access.

It would be logical for an organization such as CPSR, with its distinguished background in computing, to take full advantage of computer networking for its communication needs. (After all, much network technology that is in widespread use today, like Ethernet local area networking, traces its origin to Xerox PARC.) However, CPSR did not immediately embrace such technology for all of its communications. In the early 1980's, computer telecommunications were readily available only to people at institutions performing advanced computer science research, often for the military; this included major universities and other research laboratories. CPSR did not want to exclude from its public dialogue people who were interested in its issues but who lacked access to these technologies.

There have thus been limited attempts over the years to use electronic mail more as an outreach mechanism, as well as for membership communications. These projects have been undertaken mostly by local chapters, at the grassroots level. Most chapters have distribution lists for local and national announcements. The Portland chapter has been distributing an electronic newsletter to its members and to other chapters for years; two or three other chapters have recently begun doing the same. The Washington office has done something similar with an electronic publication called CPSR Alert, which is intended to provide news about CPSR work in Washington and upcoming policy issues of note. Many chapters also maintain electronic mailing lists of their own, to inform members and friends of events and issues.

Several chapters have used other mechanisms for electronic outreach as well. On the online system called the Well, there is a conference area dedicated to CPSR discussions. This area contains much of the information CPSR distributes electronically through other means, and several discussions on issues related to CPSR work. Other chapter-based efforts include anonymous ftp archives and local Usenet newsgroups.

In the Fall of 1991, CPSR set up an automated mailing list on a computer at the George Washington University (GWU), using BITNET Revised Listserv software. This technology allows anyone with e- mail access to the Internet or BITNET computer networks to add themselves up to the CPSR mailing list, to change details of their registration, or to request files stored in an archive, all without manual intervention. Appendix B contains the announcement notice for this service, which includes instructions for signing up.

After about six months of testing and refining the settings, it was decided to use the list as a moderated mechanism for distributing CPSR announcements and other news of interest to members. Postings are limited to five items per week, in order not to drive away subscribers by overwhelming them with e-mail. The Listserv system also allows automated file retrieval, and this is used to provide access to longer items or items that appeal to a limited audience; it also used to store and make available archives of items posted to the mailing list. Appendix C contains the file CPSR ARCHIVE, which is a listing of files currently available on the server.

This fall, the public mailing list effort was expanded by the installation of Unix Listserv software on a commercial computer in California which is connected to the Internet. This system contains copies of the files stored on the GWU computer; it also has several mailing lists for interest groups involved with a variety of CPSR issues, such as privacy, the workplace, and CPSR's use of electronic communications. The files on the Unix Listserv are available via e-mail, just as on the other system, but they are also available via several Internet interactive mechanisms, such as anonymous ftp, Gopher, and WAIS. These facilities are still being tested, but when they are generally available, files and other information will be easier to access using a variety of methods.

In order to solve the problem of access to computer telecommunications, several initiatives are underway to make these information resources more widely available. CPSR will publicize various free or inexpensive systems on which users can gain access to the Internet, and may negotiate discounts for its members based upon group rates or in exchange for CPSR information provided to the system.

In addition, several CPSR chapters (particularly those in Seattle, WA and Washington, DC) are working on free public access online information systems which will provide Internet access. The DC effort is called CapAccess; it is discussed in more detail in Part III. The Portland chapter is experimenting with fax-back systems as well, to provide access to those lacking computers with modems. Such access efforts are expanding very rapidly, as cost barriers to entry are falling and it is becoming feasible to share the benefits of these systems beyond the technological elite.

Center for the Study of Responsive Law/Essential Information

The Center for the Study of Responsive Law (CSRL) and Essential Information are two organizations founded by Ralph Nader over the last twenty-five years. They are non-profit research and education organizations, funded primarily by grants, donations, and publication sales. They share office space in Washington, DC, but they perform distinct projects with separate budgets. Together they employ about twenty people, plus interns and volunteers. I will refer to them collectively as the Center.

The Center operates on a shoestring budget, and relies on many office machines that other operations would discard as outdated. Several of the personal computers around the office are quite old, and Nader eschews computers himself, preferring to write on a manual typewriter. However John Richard, the Center's chief of staff, is very comfortable with computers and is a major advocate of new technology, as long as funds can be found to support it.

Recently, Essential Information acquired a Sun Microsystems workstation. This was accomplished through a partnership with the company that developed Arc/Info, a popular geographic information system (GIS) package. The GIS workstation is used to examine relationships between demographic information, like race and income, with such data as crime statistics and mortgage lending rates. An attempt is then made to demonstrate the power of this technology to advocacy groups, who might be able to use it to strengthen their analyses.

A Sun workstation is a powerful piece of equipment, particularly compared with much of the equipment at the Center. Naturally, such a resource would best be shared, to make it available to as many as possible, and to keep it busy during otherwise idle time. Such a system is also ideally suited to inter-networking (that is, networking via the Internet). The system administrator of the Sun has a background in implementing such networking, having worked at a commercial Internet service provider; he is also interested in pursuing networking solutions for wider communication and resource sharing at the Center. Thus, a dial-up connection to the Internet was established via UUNet Technologies, through which electronic mail and Usenet news are routed. Interested staff members at the Center are provided Unix accounts on the Sun. They can exchange e-mail with one another and with other Internet users, read Usenet news, and basically have an electronic point of presence on the Internet.

At about the same time as the Sun was being brought online at Essential Information, a project under CSRL was starting to investigate possible ways to use the Internet for outreach purposes. The Taxpayer Assets Project (TAP) was created to ensure equitable access to government resources that are funded by tax dollars. (Examples include public mineral and timber resources, patents rights for drugs developed at government expense, and government electronic information.) Successful attempts were made to enlist supporters via Internet electronic mail for several TAP initiatives. These projects seek to broaden public access to online government information at a reasonable price, in addition to another project which advocates citizen involvement in cable regulation. Messages were sent to several electronic mailing lists, and posted to Usenet newsgroups and to several online services; these messages sought signatures to letters to political leaders, and offered further information. Each appeal garnered in excess of 200 responses, at very low cost. The appeals were initially sent from an assortment of e-mail addresses, but this process has since become centralized on the Essential Information Sun workstation. Appendix D shows the different electronic media outlets that one such announcement was sent to, along with partial results. Once such an announcement is publicly made, it is impossible to determine exactly how many people received or read the message; it effectively takes on a life of its own.

The Center is currently pursuing funding for additional projects in the area of utilizing computer telecommunications for outreach by and communications among activists. The current focus of such requests is a project of Essential Information called the Multinationals and Development Clearinghouse, which is a project to provide community and environmental activists in the third world with a way to share information on activities of multinational corporations in their countries and the means to communicate with colleagues around the world. The use of computer telecommunications technologies could be a real help to such activists in their work, allowing timely communication of important information and providing a cheap alternative to travel.


Greenpeace is a very large international environmental organization, which was founded in Canada in 1971. It has over four million members worldwide, from 158 countries. Greenpeace has 38 offices in 23 countries, with a staff numbering nearly one thousand. It is one non-profit organization that has used computer telecommunication technology effectively for a long time.

Central to Greenpeace's electronic communications is a system called Greenlink, their internal electronic mail and messaging system. Employees dial into Greenlink like any other online system. U.S. users can access the system via Sprintnet (formerly Telenet), at the rate of $15 an hour (or $.25 per minute). Besides sending and receiving e-mail, users can also read or download Greenpeace press releases, news headlines, and longer research reports, as well as search a list of addresses and phone numbers of all Greenpeace offices in the U.S. and abroad. Bulletin board conferencing is included as well, so that users can participate in online discussions open to anyone in the organization. A gateway to Econet, and therefore to the Internet, is being contemplated to allow Greenlink users to exchange e-mail messages with a larger group of people.

In a move to cut costs by reducing wasted time online, Greenpeace developed a program called OTTO. Based upon Procomm scripts, OTTO allows off-line composition and reading of e-mail, and automates the process of signing on, uploading, and downloading mail. This program was recently distributed to offices around the world, and has gained wide acceptance from users over time. Even though users were already familiar with the old way of doing things, the command structure on the Greenlink system is cumbersome and not particularly intuitive, particularly in the area of preparing and sending mail. The resulting ease of use, in combination with the fact that OTTO would let users specify whether they wanted to immediately log off after handling mail or to remain on Greenlink to read press releases and the like, eased the way for acceptance.

Greenpeace telecommunications capabilities need to reach beyond the offices that employees work in. An integral part of the operation of Greenpeace consists of non-violent protest actions, the oldest of which were carried out on ships such as the Rainbow Warrior. Greenpeace maintains a fleet of eight ships, along with two helicopters, a bus, and a hot-air balloon. In order to maintain constant contact with the ships, they are equipped with satellite telephones. In addition to providing voice communications, computers on board can dial into Greenlink just like those in offices. A special version of OTTO was developed for this purpose, optimized to minimize time online; this was needed because the satellite telephone time is very expensive, costing $10 per minute.

Greenpeace does extensive online news tracking and database searching in support of its activists and researchers. One ongoing operation scan's online wire services and selected databases daily for stories of an environmental nature. This information is then distributed via Greenlink in a daily file containing the introductions to these stories. The same staff has access to over 2000 online databases, and has developed an expertise in searching these efficiently and cost-effectively. They will perform searches on request for researchers around the world, charging the requestor for the more costly searches.

Greenpeace keeps copies of these stories, press releases, and other items in its own database. If any staff member wants the text of a story in the daily press summary, it can be requested and will be sent via Greenlink. Likewise, whenever a user wants a more extensive search, this database is searched first, before incurring additional online searching expense. There are now over 500 megabytes of information in this database. It uses a program called IZE, which is an intuitive full-text database program that users can learn quickly.

In the late 1980's Greenpeace started distributing environmental information electronically to the public, via Econet. On Econet, it maintains three conferences,,, and share. contains all of the press releases generated by Greenpeace. contains the daily news summaries. Both of these provide the same information available on Greenlink. share contains information on Greenpeace's database efforts, and allows users to contribute items to Greenpeace or to alert other users to related information.

Compuserve in 1990 started a conference called the Earth Forum, and Greenpeace uses this mechanism to distribute public information. to a much larger audience. There is a file area in the Earth Forum dedicated to Greenpeace information, which consists mostly of the press releases, but also has documents describing Greenpeace and its various programs, and several longer documents such as fact sheets and reports. There are plans to offer a similar service via America Online in early 1993.

Greenpeace also operates a computer bulletin board system (BBS) called Environet. This system operates on a Intel 286-based PC, with six incoming phone lines, running TBBS software. Environet contains copies of all Greenpeace press releases and news summaries, longer articles from Greenpeace and allied organizations, and information on Greenpeace ship movements, addresses and phone numbers. There are also six conferences in which people can participate in discussions, on issues ranging from disarmament to toxics. It is open to the public and free for anyone in San Francisco, and a toll-free 800 number is provided to qualifying organizations that are not local to San Francisco. Environet is also looking into adding Fidonet capability, enabling its users to send e-mail to other Fidonet and Internet systems, and making its information available to many other BBS users worldwide. Appendix E shows the primary menus on Environet.

Other avenues being explored for Greenpeace electronic information dissemination are the creation and use of Usenet newsgroups; a BBS system (Galacticomm) that allows users to search online text databases; connection to the Internet to facilitate these and other services such as anonymous ftp of Greenpeace documents; and a fax-back system for retrieving documents without a computer.

Part III - Other Electronic Initiatives


A group of activists in 1989 decided to use the network to raise support for a project to push for reduced military aid to El Salvador. Money was raised to purchase copies of an Amnesty International report and to send them to every U.S. Senator, along with a letter urging cessation of the aid; copies of the letter were also sent to the press. The letter was drafted, through many revisions. Dozens of signatories were recruited. All of these things were accomplished electronically, without the group ever talking on the telephone or meeting face-to-face.

As an outgrowth of the El Salvador project described above, several of the participants decided to start a more long-term project called the Progressive Alliance Clearinghouse (PACH). The first PACH project was an electronic mailing list, the Activists Mailing List. Initially this was managed by a person and called AML, but as it became too large, it was moved to Revised Listserv and called ACTIV-L; there are now over 1000 subscribers to this list. In order to reach a broader audience, it was decided to expand this list into Usenet; after a somewhat contentious approval process, the newsgroup was created, with a readership estimated at 19,000 and growing.

ACTIV-L and carry the same materials, which number approximately 20-30 postings per day. The bulk of these materials come from Peacenet and Econet, and some of the others are reprints of articles in magazines, lists of resources, and items submitted by subscribers. An upcoming project would add to this list several progressive student newspapers.

Electronic Frontier Foundation

The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) was formed by a group of network users outraged by the abuse of power displayed by the government in the investigation and prosecution of alleged computer criminals, commonly referred to as hackers (though there is considerable debate regarding the proper terminology to use when referring to various sectors of the computer underground). This organization concerns itself with the murky area of laws in the new frontier being created by the new medium of computer telecommunications, including civil liberties and the proper role of government in fostering the technology and promoting goals like universal access.

EFF is remarkable in that it is an organization that grew up on networks. In the beginning there were a series of discussions on the online system The Well and an electronic newsletter emanating from a user-id on that system. Now its office has several Unix machines, including one that is dedicated to being a public information server. They also have a dedicated T-1 link to the Internet, to handle the load for anonymous ftp services; they have rapidly become one of the busiest ftp sites on the entire Internet. Recently, they began offering access to their archives via the Gopher and WAIS protocols as well. Included in these archives are the EFF electronic newsletter, papers and testimony produced by EFF, archives of electronic discussions, and various other electronic publications and material from other organizations, including CPSR. Appendix F contains an electronic announcement from EFF concerning Internet access to its resources.


Several of these organizations, along with many others around the country (or the world) are involved in projects to provide free or inexpensive public access to the telecommunications technologies being discussed here. Examples of relatively established systems include Cleveland Free-net, a project of the Case Western Reserve University; the Santa Monica Public Electronic Network (PEN) run by the city of Santa Monica, CA, and the independent Community Memory Project in Berkeley, CA. Each of these offers a different model for a free, community based information and communication service. Two CPSR meetings in 1992, a Local Civic Networks Roundtable in Washington, DC, and the Directions and Implications of Advanced Computing conference in Berkeley, CA, have engendered a national discussion and information sharing network of people involved in organizing such systems.

Last spring, a committee representing a broad cross section of community interests and services in Washington, DC, started planning the National Capital Area Public Access Network (CapAccess), a free, non-profit information service for the DC metro area. It has been in testing and development since the fall, and will be ready to go online this spring. It will be housed on a powerful workstation, a Sun SparcStation 10, accessible via 20 dial-up ports and an Internet connection. The initial software will be Freeport, which is the same system that Cleveland Free-net developed, and that is used by a network of Free-net and other systems known as the National Public Telecomputing Network (NPTN). It offers news and information file areas, conferencing, and electronic mail, and uses Usenet for communication between sites and for its conferencing capabilities. It also enables the establishment of gateways to other systems and services directly from it's menu structure.

The goal of CapAccess is to provide a sophisticated information system and numerous useful information resources to the community at no charge. Even those without computers and modems will be able to use the system, through a network of public terminals that will be set up in libraries, government buildings, schools, and the like. It will provide information on educational opportunities, jobs, government services, social service agencies, and events, along with library catalogs, electronic classrooms, and discussions on a wide range of topics.

Systems such as these will be important for activists to use for their public information campaigns, where they are available. They provide a low cost entry point into the world of computer telecommunications. If an organization is already using computer telecommunications tools for outreach, then these systems should be fairly easy to incorporate into its strategy. Public access networks provide access to these communication technologies to many first time users, and the focus of the information contained on them is toward public service or the public interest, so they should be an ideal fit for the information that public interest groups have to offer.


There are many examples of innovative ways in which computer telecommunications are being applied by public interest organizations. However, the ones presented here are generally the more technologically savvy organizations, or served causes or constituencies that fit naturally with these methods. Even then, these groups have often moved slower than might have been expected to take advantage of online systems, electronic mail, and other forms of networking. Many other organizations lag well behind those presented here.

However, with more of society moving into the information age, non-profit organizations would be well advised to investigate what these technologies could do for them. Access barriers, both technical and cost, are falling every day; and more effect might be gained from the effort than would be imagined. Of course, use of this technology is likely to have a significant impact on the way an organization operates, often in unforseen ways. It would be wise for any organization, particularly one with a tight budget, to plan for such change as much as possible, and to be prepared to deal with the unexpected, as it enters this largely uncharted territory.

Copyright (C) 1993, Paul Hyland.

(Appendicies A-G follow in File 2)

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