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Measuring the Impact of the Internet on Civil Society Organizations in Central America
Fundación Acceso
Publication date:
Executive summary
Problem statement
Current research
The study population
Aggregating the findings: organizational, sectoral, cross-sectoral, and societal impacts
Research goals and outcomes
Goal #1: Understand the experiences of Central American CSOs in adopting the Internet
Goal #2: Assess the impact of the Internet on an organization's mission performance
Goal #3: Assess the impact of the Internet on internal organizational capacities
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Executive summary

Although use of the Internet is spreading rapidly through Central American civil society, it is difficult for organizations to measure specific impacts of the Internet on their operations. Recent research has concentrated on documenting the use and diffusion of the Internet and has tended to consider only narrow technical variables rather than developing a broader understanding of organizational development.

This project proposes to address three applied research goals: (1) to examine and understand the experiences of Central American CSOs in adopting the Internet; (2) to assess the impact of the Internet on an organization's mission performance; and (3) to assess the impact of the Internet on organizational capacities. The project will document organizations' experiences for research purposes, with results aggregated to the sectoral, cross-sectoral, and societal levels, and will produce impact assessment methodologies and technology adoption manuals in Spanish to help CSOs improve their effectiveness. As well, the project will establish a panel of academic and CSO representatives from all Central American countries to promote dissemination of the results of the project and to develop regional research capacity.

The project will use survey and case study methodologies and will carry out activities in all six Central American countries over a planned duration of 26 months. This research is envisioned as the beginning of a long-term area of work which will form an integral component of Fundación Acceso's future operations.

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Problem statement

The Internet offers civil society organizations (CSOs) in Central America access to a new set of powerful tools for communication and for the gathering and dissemination of information. Although a recent innovation (the first Internet node in Central America was established in 1993 in Costa Rica), Internet use has spread very quickly. It is difficult, however, for organizations to measure the extent to which the adoption of various Internet services has produced useful results. Because the Internet is very new, it has not yet been extensively studied and no generally-applicable organizational impact assessment methodology has yet been widely accepted. Current impact assessment strategies require the development of methodologies and indicators on a case-by-case basis, which is a complex task requiring specialized capacities and resources. Furthermore, the ways in which the Internet can affect society as a whole, through its adoption by CSOs, is not well understood.

In order for CSOs and other stakeholders in Central American development (including target populations, governments, and donors) to make more effective use of the Internet, make better policy and management decisions regarding its use, and allocate resources more effectively, it is important for them to be able to assess and predict its impacts on the ability of organizations to carry out their missions and on the development of their internal organizational capacities. Furthermore, once the impacts of the Internet on CSOs are better understood, the aggregation of these impacts will allow a better understanding of the impacts of the Internet on society as a whole. Developing an understanding of the broad social benefits of investments in Internet services and infrastructure is essential in order to make good decisions about such investments.

This paper describes a research project which aims to enable CSOs in Central America to understand how they can use the Internet to their greatest advantage, how the Internet can be expected to affect and change the organizations adopting it, and how the adoption of the Internet in the region can be expected to affect society as a whole.

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Current research

Many studies have characterized Internet diffusion and Internet use in different parts of the world, although Central America appears to be less studied than other regions. Most of these studies, however, concentrate on tracking the growth of Internet infrastructure through parameters such as the number of computers connected to the Internet and the types of services available, or on monitoring the quantity of use of the Internet through statistics such as the number of people using the Internet, the amount of time spent online, and the quantity of data transmitted. These studies have not addressed the question of how the spread of Internet infrastructure and its increasing use have proven to be useful to civil society organizations. Instead, they make the unproven assumption that the Internet is inherently beneficial and that the more an organization uses the Internet, the more value the organization has found in it and the more benefit the organization will experience. Lanfranco (1997), for example, calls the evidence "seldom adequate" for the premise that organizations' use of the Internet has affected project outputs, results, and impacts, and Press (1997) calls for additional dimensions of inquiry to supplement the "narrow technical factors" which have previously been examined. The U.S. National Research Council (1998, p. 42) states that it is "the pattern of Internet use in an organization, not merely the quantity of use" which is important. Furthermore, few studies have gone beyond the question of organizational performance in delivering programs and services to the deeper issues of changes in an organization's capacities in areas such as adaptive capacity, human resources management, coordination with other organizations, financial sustainability, and knowledge management.

Finally, there is little information available about the how impacts on individual organizations combine at the sectoral level and at the societal level. Gómez (1998, p.218, 231) calls for research to bridge the gap between organizational, sectoral, and societal impacts by saying, "although there is much debate and speculation about its possibilities, there is extremely little literature describing or analyzing concrete uses and meaning of CMC [computer-mediated communication] in virtual communities as part of civil society. We cannot assume that advances in communication infrastructures alone necessarily constitute a strengthening of civil society... More research is needed if we are to put the role of NGOs into perspective, and to understand more of the possibilities offered by CMC to civil society at large."

This project will produce results which are different from those currently available in five ways: (1) they will be specifically focused on Central America, a region where experiences in the adoption of the Internet are not well documented; (2) the primary focus at the organizational level will not be on the process of diffusion of Internet infrastructure or on sheer quantity of use, but on the effects that the adoption of the Internet has on organizational performance and capabilities; (3) the project will produce specific impact evaluation methodologies and tools which can be used by organizations and stakeholders to evaluate the effects of the Internet on the organizations themselves or on groups or sectors of organizations, (4) the project will produce manuals for implementing Internet services, to enable organizations to make better use of the Internet to optimize its impacts; and (5) the results will be aggregated beyond the organizational level to the sectoral, cross-sectoral, and societal levels.

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The study population

This project will examine civil society organizations (CSOs) working towards equitable, participatory, and sustainable development practices in Latin America. For the purposes of this project, CSOs will be defined as including private, non-profit development organizations such as non-governmental organizations (NGOs), community-based organizations, non-profit think tanks, schools and universities, co-operatives, and grant-making foundations.

The initial stages of the project will focus on organizations in Costa Rica, which has the oldest and best developed Internet infrastructure in Central America. In later stages, the methodologies developed in Costa Rica will be expanded to other countries in the region.

Participating organizations will be selected and classified in two ways. They will be classified both according to the thematic sectors in which they operate (such as human rights, gender issues, health, environment, and others), and according to their function or mandate (such as training, technical assistance, research, public awareness, and others). Organizations which operate in the same thematic sector, or which perform similar functions, tend to have missions, structures, and practices which are related, making it easier to recognize patterns of experiences.

Organizations will also be selected which are at various stages of adoption of the Internet, such as those which only use e-mail, those which have simple web sites, and those which use a wide variety of Internet services. As well, organizations which do not use the Internet will be examined to discover their reasons for non-adoption of the Internet, and to discover how non-adoption has influenced organizational performance and behaviour relative to their Internet-using colleagues.

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Aggregating the findings: organizational, sectoral, cross-sectoral, and societal impacts

The project will begin by examining the experiences of individual organizations, and the impact which the Internet has had on the organizations. These findings will be aggregated with organizations in the same thematic sector and with organizations carrying out the same types of activities in order to establish patterns in the impact of the Internet. This will enable the study team to draw conclusions which will be generally applicable to other CSOs in the same sector or performing similar functions.

In addition to the sectoral impacts, one cross-sectoral study will be undertaken to examine the use of the Internet in facilitating interactions between organizations in sectors which do not ordinarily work together. A good current case study exists in examining the recent impacts of Hurricane Mitch: organizations from across Central America, working in all sectors, faced the crisis together and used the Internet to facilitate communication and co-ordination of activities. The situation also presents an opportunity to examine differences between organizations which were able to participate in both live and electronic meetings, and those which participated in only one or the other.

Finally, the impacts which are observed at the sectoral levels will be aggregated to obtain an insight into how the Internet can affect society as a whole when used by civil society organizations.

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Research goals and outcomes

The project has three major goals: (1) to understand organizations' experiences in adopting the Internet; (2) to assess the Internet's impact on the ability of organizations to carry out their missions; and (3) to assess the Internet's impact on organizations' internal capacities. Within each of these goals, individual organizations' experiences will be aggregated to the sectoral, cross-sectoral, and societal levels, so that conclusions can be drawn which are relevant to other organizations. The research team will pay particular attention to the role of gender issues and their impact on the adoption of technology in the organizations studied.

The primary audience for the results of this research will be Central American CSOs and their stakeholders, including donor agencies and target populations. The reports, methodologies, and manuals produced will be published in Spanish. The outcomes will be applicable not only to the individual organizations studied, but also to other organizations and stakeholders within the various sectors of civil society. In the later stages of the project, results at the societal level will be produced, which will be useful to high-level social policy makers.

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Goal #1: Understand the experiences of Central American CSOs in adopting the Internet

This stage of the project is an exploratory or background stage, the results of which will be used to identify patterns of experiences as inputs to the remaining goals. The organizations selected for study will be examined in detail through site visits and in-depth interviews with staff, in order to understand the organizations' experiences in adopting various Internet services. The following specific themes will be investigated:

  • Internet services the organization uses and the quantity of use of each service
  • Internet services the organization does not use, and the reasons why not
  • How Internet services are used, including investigation of the content of the information transmitted and received
  • The organization's original goals in adopting the Internet and the extent to which these have been met
  • Benefits which the organization perceives deriving from its Internet services
  • The process by which the organization adopted its Internet services
  • Usage policies, if any, within the organization
  • Identification of the people within the organization who use the Internet, and examination of differences in use according to position, responsibilities, gender, and other factors
  • Cultural and technological barriers the organization found and still finds to adoption and use of the Internet
  • Financing of Internet projects, whether funds come from specific grants, as a component of other projects, or are part of regular operating overhead
  • Changes which have occurred in the organization's structure, processes, or capacities as a result of its adoption of the Internet.

In addition, general background information about each organization will be collected in order to classify organizations and their experiences according to organizational size, type, mandate, functions, activities, location, and other basic characteristics.

Outcome #1: The experiences, opinions, and ideas of the individual organizations studied will be documented for use as an input to the remaining two goals, and aggregated to the sectoral, cross-sectoral, and societal levels in order to establish broader patterns in Internet use.

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Goal #2: Assess the impact of the Internet on an organization's mission performance

It is of the utmost importance to CSOs and their stakeholders that they carry out their missions effectively and efficiently. This project will assess the Internet's effects on organizational performance by considering the following five major classifications of Internet activity:

  • Internal interpersonal communication (one-to-one communication within the organization)
  • External interpersonal communication (one-to-one communication between organizations)
  • Gathering of information (one-to-many or broadcast communication, as a consumer)
  • Dissemination of information (one-to-many or broadcast communication, as a producer)
  • Groupwork (many-to-many communication among individuals collaborating in a group)

Specific indicators of organizational performance will be developed within the following general areas:

  • Quantity of products or services delivered
  • Quality of products or services delivered
  • Ways in which pre-existing products or services are delivered
  • Changes in the products or services themselves
  • New products or services
  • Impacts on the organization's target population
  • Characteristics (e.g. gender, socioeconomic status, organizational affiliation, location, etc.) of the people using the products or services
  • Entirely new areas of activity made possible
  • Marketing of products or services.
Outcome #2a: Analysis of sectoral and societal impacts. The research team will analyse patterns in the impacts of the Internet on the organizations studied, and aggregate these observations to the sectoral level and societal levels. The latter level of analysis will be strengthened as each new sector is studied.

Outcome #2b: Impact assessment methodology. The research team will produce a methodology and a set of assessment tools which can be used to evaluate the impact of Internet services on an organization's effectiveness in carrying out its mission and can be easily and quickly applied by individual organizations.

Outcome #2c: Manual for the adoption of the Internet for enhancing mission performance. The research team will produce a manual instructing organizations in the adoption of the Internet to improve their performance in delivering on their missions. The manual will be based on the sectoral analysis and the impact assessment methodology, but will be designed specifically as a "how-to" manual to aid organizations in developing policies and practices for the effective adoption and use of the Internet, and to guide them in selecting technologies appropriate to their missions.

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Goal #3: Assess the impact of the Internet on internal organizational capacities

Although mission performance remains the primary concern for most organizations and their stakeholders, many organizations are coming to realize that the development of internal organizational capacities is also important in order for organizations to be effective and sustainable in the long term. The Internet's facilitation of communication and information management has the potential to impact on all areas of organizational capacity. Specific indicators of organizational capacity will be developed to assess the Internet's impact on organizational capacity in the following general areas:

Adaptive capacity

  • Strategic planning and vision
  • Learning and knowledge management
  • Innovativeness in program development
  • Flexibility and responsiveness to the target population's needs
  • Flexibility and responsiveness to changes in the environment
  • Institutional capacity to use and develop new technologies

Human resources: staff and board of directors

  • Empowerment and participation
  • Leadership development
  • Training and skill development
  • Management of volunteer resources


  • Organizational structure and decision-making processes
  • Policies regarding Internet use in the organization

External co-ordination

  • Organizational partnerships within a sector of activity
  • Cross-sectoral organizational partnerships
  • Promotion of the organization's image

Financial sustainability

  • Financial resource management
  • Financial accountability
  • Marketing of products and services

Outcome #3a: Analysis of sectoral impacts on organizational capacity. The research team will analyse sectoral patterns in the ways that the Internet develops organizational capacities, in order to establish the overall impacts of the Internet on organizational capacity and structure for the CSO sector being studied.

Outcome #3b: Impact assessment methodology. The project will produce a methodology and a set of assessment tools which can be used to evaluate the impact of the Internet on the development of organizational capacity.

Outcome #3c: Guide to organizational capacity development and the Internet. The research team will produce a report for use by CSOs which (a) describes the ways in which the Internet can be used to develop organizational capacity, and (b) describes the ways in which organizations can develop their capacities and change their structures in order to make the most effective use of the Internet.

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Gómez, Ricardo. "The nostalgia of virtual community: A study of computer-mediated communications use in Colombian non-governmental organizations." Information Technology & People, v.11, n.3, 1998.

Lanfranco, Sam. A Meta-Level Conceptual Framework for Evaluating Projects Involving Information and Communication Technology (ICT). 1997. Online: http://www.bellanet.org/partners/ldia/lessons/evalfram.htm.

National Research Council, USA. Internet Counts: Measuring the Impacts of the Internet. Offices of International Affairs. National Academy Press, 1998.

Press, Larry. A Framework to Characterize the Global Diffusion of the Internet. Notes for presentation at INFO '97, Havana, October, 1997. Online: http://som.csudh.edu/cis/lpress/articles/fmwkpres.htm

Robson, Colin. Real World Research: a resource for social scientists and practitioner-researchers. Blackwell Publishers, 1993.

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