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The growth of the Internet is one of the most exciting developments in the life of our culture today. But by and large, the nation's major philanthropic foundations have not been part of it.
The Net was built with federal funds, initially as a Defense Department project, and it now connects computer networks around the world. The federal government is withdrawing its financing, and private organizations are now taking over the Net's operations. Universities are probably more thoroughly wired than any other type of institution, corporations are commercializing the Net, and many government agencies are going online. Newt Gingrich, in fact, seems to be competing with Al Gore to lead the charge into cyberspace. Both the House and the White House now have "home pages" on the World Wide Web -- the mushrooming, "hyperlinked" part of the Internet that Bill Gates, Microsoft's founder, has recently put at the center of his plans for expansion.
Compared with universities, corporations, and government, foundations have been slow to respond to the new possibilities of the Internet. I am not referring primarily to the financing of Internet projects but to the absence of foundations from the Net. I recently called the 10 largest U.S. private foundations -- Ford, W. K. Kellogg, J. Paul Getty, Robert Wood Johnson, Pew, John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur, Lilly Endowment, Rockefeller, Andrew W. Mellon, and Robert W. Woodruff -- to ask them a series of questions:
Do they post their annual reports, guidelines for proposals, or any other documents on the Internet?
Do they have an Internet domain?
Do they have a site on the World Wide Web?
Many of the big foundations have supported worthwhile projects that make use of computer networks or analyze their implications for government or society. The foundations just don't much use the Net themselves.
And therein lies a problem -- or rather three problems. First, the foundations have a responsibility to make their guidelines and reports widely available and respond to legitimate inquiries. At modest cost, the Internet would help fulfill that responsibility. For much of the academic and business world, computer networks have become the central arteries of communication. If the foundations don't participate, they miss opportunities for dissemination, discussion, and intelligence-gathering.
Second, the foundations could use the Internet to communicate with grantees, encouraging them to master the new technology.
Third, people who do not use the new electronic communications methods generally do not have a strong grasp of their potential. Foundations need to adopt the new technologies of communication in part to educate themselves about developments that will deeply affect their own grant programs. In particular, the growth of the World Wide Web promises to transform whole areas of our culture, but thus far some of the major foundations seem almost entirely unaware of it.
The explanation for this lag in response cannot be the cost. For the 10 largest foundations in the United States, the expense of establishing Gopher and Web servers and posting reports and other publications would be trivial. (Doing the internal wiring of their offices and training their staff members are more expensive.) More likely, foundations have been slow to go on line because they do not have strong incentives to do so. Many businesses have adopted electronic communication when their suppliers or customers insisted on it; for example, virtually all pharmacies in the United States are wired because the big pharmaceutical distributors effectively required them to do it. Other businesses are now moving on to the Internet for fear of losing customers and market share.
But what grant applicant can require a foundation to receive proposals electronically? Foundations need not worry about losing customers or votes. If a foundation requires an applicant to submit 10 paper copies of a proposal, the applicant obliges.
I've been in exactly this position. Indeed, my little survey was born of a frustration -- the frustration of the wired with the unwired. I make constant use of the Internet to do research, communicate with colleagues, and edit a journal of public affairs, The American Prospect. As an editor, I receive manuscripts electronically almost every day from prospective authors and The American Prospect's main office in Cambridge. The entire editorial process is electronic.
But while most people I deal with use the Net, the foundations I count on for support (including some of the large foundations listed above) do not accept proposals or reports electronically. Few of the grant officers seem to understand the importance of the changes in communication, culture, and politics that the Internet is helping to bring about.
What, then, should foundations do? Many of them need to hire staff members who are in touch with the new technology and, perhaps more important, the emerging culture of the Net. They should register organizational domains on the Internet before other groups appropriate their names. They should establish Gophers and Web sites with annual reports, guidelines, and other publications and links to related organizations. Rather than requiring grant applicants and others to communicate with them on paper, they should open the door to electronic communication.
Some positive efforts are developing in the foundation world. The Foundation Center -- an organization financed by grant makers to provide information to the public -- has just started a Web site with information about its services and staff as well as its publication catalog. Since the 1970s, the center has offered its databases on grant giving through Dialog, a commercial service. Sherry Seward, who handles new information services for the center, says that it plans to bring both free and fee-based information services on line through its Web site. It also intends to offer foundations help in getting their publications up on the Net.
A few large foundations below the top 10 have gone on the Net. For example, the Carnegie Corporation of New York maintains a Gopher, and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation has a home page on the Web. According to Martin Schneiderman, the consultant who set up Carnegie's Gopher, its most frequently accessed files (not counting general information) have been "grant restrictions" and "the corporation's programs" -- which may explain why Carnegie has not been flooded with inappropriate applications.
The foundations now making the most significant and creative use of the Internet tend to be smaller, younger organizations, such as the Benton Foundation, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and the George E. Lucas Foundation. Not coincidentally, those three all operate their own programs, and have an interest in the new media. The same is true of Getty, which has started its Web site -- an extraordinary resource, which should serve as a model for other organizations -- as part of its Art History Information Program.
Several of my informants at the big grant-giving foundations told me that use of the Internet was "on the agenda" or was "being discussed." I hope so. I'll be calling them. Or maybe e-mailing. They can drop in on my home page any time.