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Have Charities Bridged the Digital Divide?

Women use the Internet differently from men. African-Americans, English-speaking Hispanics, and white Americans use cyberspace differently from each other. And white Americans are more likely to be connected to the Net than African-Americans and Hispanics.1

If the charities represented in a recent GuideStar/Network for Good survey are any indication, nonprofits have crossed the digital divide ahead of the rest of the country. Sponsored by the Kellogg Foundation, the survey found that gender, race, and ethnicity have little to no impact on whether charities are on-line and on how connected nonprofits use the Net.

The method in which the survey was conducted—the invitation to participate was sent via e-mail and participants took the survey on-line—probably caused the results to skew toward e-engagement. Even taking these factors into account, however, many of the numbers are impressive.

Most charities are connected

Nearly three-quarters (74 percent) of the 4,804 public charity participants reported that their organizations use cyberspace to engage with supporters and potential supporters. Another 13 percent said that their nonprofits planned to add this capability this year. Gender, race, and ethnicity had no clear impact on these results.

Barriers to e-engagement

Participants whose organizations are not on-line cited "Lack of staff resources" and "Have other, more important priorities" as the main barriers to e-engagement. The only exception was charities staffed 70 percent-80 percent by minorities; participants from those nonprofits listed "Lack of staff resources" and "Do not see a need" as the main reasons their organizations were not connected.

What charities do on-line

Respondents from charities that are on-line overwhelmingly (97 percent) said their organizations use the Internet to provide information through a Web site or e-newsletter. The vast majority (91 percent) said their nonprofits offer three types of information on-line: (1) general information about their respective causes, (2) specific information about their respective organizations, and (3) contact information for their respective nonprofits. Although the specific ranking of the three types of information varied based on gender, race, and ethnicity, they remained the top three offered.

Donation capability is the most common traditional philanthropic activity offered on-line, and "Donor and/or volunteer solicitations" is the primary newer means of engagement provided through cyberspace. Gender and race/ethnicity had no effect on these results.

Assessment of the Internet

A majority (55 percent) of participants agreed completely with the statement "The Internet provides a cheaper way to conduct transactions (donations, volunteer matching, etc.) than traditional off-line methods." A slightly smaller proportion (49 percent) agreed completely that "Current and potential donors will be more likely to stay involved with our organization if we have an Internet presence." Some 42 percent agreed completely that "Current and potential donors will be more likely to take action off-line (make a donation, volunteer, advocate, etc.) if we have an Internet presence."

The only deviation from this order occurred among respondents from charities staffed 70 percent-100 percent by men and 90 percent-100 percent by people of color. These participants reversed the order of the first two statements, giving "Current and potential donors will be more likely to stay involved with our organization if we have an Internet presence" precedence over "The Internet provides a cheaper way to conduct transactions (donations, volunteer matching, etc.) than traditional off-line methods."


The Internet may be a genderless and colorless environment for public charities. Staff diversity, as defined by gender and race or ethnicity, appears to have little to no impact on the barriers that prevent charities from engaging on-line, the ways connected charities use the Internet, and the goals they have defined for their involvement in cyberspace. It would be interesting to compare this survey to one conducted through the mail, which has the potential to solicit participation from less "cyber-friendly" organizations.

About the survey

An e-mail inviting individuals associated with charitable organizations to participate in the survey was sent to 91,799 GuideStar Newsletter subscribers on February 23, 2004. Some 6,434 individuals, a 7 percent response rate, took the survey on-line. Of that number, 5,641 identified themselves as associated with a nonprofit charitable organization, 88 percent with a public charity and 12 percent with a private foundation/grantmaker. Public charity participants were asked to respond to questions about how their organizations use the Internet, and both public charity and private foundation/grantmaker respondents were asked to complete the organization profile section of the survey.

Sources Cited

  • 1"America's Online Pursuits: The Changing Picture of Who's Online and What They Do," Pew Internet Project, December 22, 2003,; "The Ever-Shifting Internet Population: A New Look at Internet Access and the Digital Divide," Pew Internet Project, April 16, 2003,
Suzanne E. Coffman, 2004
Philanthropic Research, Inc.

Suzanne Coffman is GuideStar's director of communications.
Topics: Communications