By Todd Cohen
Foundations are creating Web sites to make working together easier.
In California, for example, foundations that focus on health care or make health-care grants have created an external Web site, or extranet, to improve communication and share information.
Nationally, foundation officers overseeing their organizations’ technology have built an extranet to help them learn from one another and share ideas and tools.
And in San Francisco, the James Irvine Foundation is creating an in internal Web site, or intranet, to help its staff members do their daily work better.
“It’s a way to lower the walls and exchange information among colleagues who really are focused on the same work,” says Katharine Miller, extranet manager for the California HealthCare Foundation in Oakland.
The foundation spearheaded the creation of the extranet, known as healthfunders @ work.
The password-protected site lets its 24 members post announcements every day about new initiatives, programs and trends.
Features include a directory of about 400 foundation officials in the state and a grants database that can be searched by a variety of categories, including grantee, subject area and geographic location.
In June, the site added a multimedia section for audio and video clips.
The extranet also distributes a weekly email newsletter to its 400 readers.
And a listserve, launched late in 1999 for program officers working on Medicaid and outreach to families, is generating little traffic – but prompted the group to begin holding face-to-face quarterly meetings.
“The list-serve gave them the tool to begin the process of building their community,” Miller says.
Like the California health funders, the Technology Affinity Group, or TAG, concluded that an extranet could speed communication and collaboration among foundation tech officers.
“If we come up with something good, we want all other foundations to have it, too,” says Matt Sharp, director of information technology at the David and Lucile Packard Foundation in Los Altos, Calif., and a member of TAG.
TAG’s site features three separate sections, each aimed at a different audience. Passwords are required for two sections – one for foundation tech officers, the other for nonprofit consultants, vendors specializing in philanthropic technology and groups providing tech support for nonprofits.
The third section does not require a password and provides resources, links and online discussions on general tech topics.
The site features threaded, or ongoing, discussions on a broad range of tech issues, with a weekly digest summarizing those discussions emailed to subscribers.
The Irvine Foundation, faced with growing assets and staff, and its focus spread among six broad program areas, also is turning to the Internet.
Since 1997, assets at the foundation have grown to $1.5 billion from $1.05 billion, while the staff has increased to 42 employees from 32.
“It’s hard for everyone here to know what everyone else is doing and to stay on the same page in our work,” says Mark Sedway, the foundation’s director of communications.
Possible uses of an internal web site include a staff calendar; distribution to program officers of budget reports and invoices paid to consultants; and processing forms such as consulting contracts and vacation requests.
Foundation officials also could post documents to share with other staff members.
In the future, officials hope the Web can support “organizational learning” among the staff by promoting the exchange of information, improving delivery of research and expertise, and building institutional memory on issues such as lessons learned from past programs and grants.
Those uses are at least a year away, says Sedway, adding that the Web also could be used to serve board members and grantees.
Board members, for example, might get access to grant requests before formal review. And grantees might join a network to share information and work together.
Growing interest in information-sharing and collaboration among foundations and nonprofits has prompted Interactive Applications Groups, or IAPPS, an ecommerce firm in Washington, D.C., to launch a Web-based product, says David Goldsmith, vice president for strategic development.
The new product, known as community [apps], lets customers create directories of partner organizations, which can post documents and links, hold online discussions, and create shared calendars and news.
IAPPS, which has worked with the California HealthCare Foundation, Technology Affinity Group and Irvine Foundation on their collaborative Web sites, already has signed up 10 customers for the community [apps], which costs $10,000 to set up and $400 a month to use.
The New York-based Ford Foundation, for example, is using the tool for its program officers throughout the world who work on reproductive issues.