Balancing Mission & Money: Building Sustainable Electronic Networks for Civil Society

It was a special time in history. Non-profits were still figuring out the fax machine. No one had heard of the Internet. A few brave souls using modems and activists to string computers together. Information — and a shifting political tide — were beginning to flow over international networks.

News and passion trickled from the ANC headquarters in London to the far corners of South Africa. Meetings were planned and new social movements were conceived over a few modems and a 286 in Toronto. Lobbying tactics, grand visions and messages home emanated from a little computer room as thousands of environmentalists converged on the Rio Earth Summit. At the center of all this was an energetic band of computer activists calling themselves the Association for Progressive Communications (APC).

Today the information and communication technology landscape has changed. The Internet, let alone the fax machine, are standard tools of activists around the globe. And in this new environment, APC networks struggle to balance the values rooted in their history with the need for sustainable services.

From the beginning, APC networks were driven by a clear mission — to help members of civil society get online and get their word out. They were also driven by the belief that creating self-sustaining non-profit organizations was the only way to make this happen. It is this mix of political vision and non-profit entrepreneurship that sets APC members apart from many other pioneers in the area of online activism. In approaching the most common conundrum of alternative media — balancing mission and money — most APC members have tried to take the best from social movements and the business world. This has required a complex dance between internal democracy and customer responsiveness, low budgets and top-notch technical services, political independence and private sector partnerships.

This article explores the mission / money dance by looking at how APC members have built largely self-sustaining electronic networks for use by civil society organizations and projects. This exploration includes:

  • The early days of APC networks, when providing basic services like e-mail and discussion forums offered an excellent way to strike this balance
  • The difficulties that most APC members faced as they responded to the “Internet explosion” of the mid-1990s
  • Experiences with partnerships between APC members and private sector Internet companies
  • The renewed focus on content, and on unique NGO Internet services, which has been emerging for many APC members during the late 1990s

While the journey of most APC networks has been bumpy at times, the path they have taken points to a model that at once supports civil society and provides a financial base. This is a rare combination, and one well worth reviewing.

The primary source of information for this article is a series of interviews conducted during May / June, 1999 with long time staff at eight current or former APC member organizations. These included IBASE (Alternex) in Brazil, Econnect in the Czech Republic, INTERCOM-Nodo Ecuanex in Ecuador, EDNA Internet in Senegal, GreenSpider in Hungary, Pegasus/C2O in Australia, SANGONeT in South Africa and Web Networks in Canada.

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