The foundation world has been kind to HandsNet, the Silicon Valley-based pioneer in bringing cyberspace to the aid of human service groups dealing with issues such as health care, hunger, and youth and families. Since the late 1980s, HandsNet has used millions of dollars in grants and member fees to build a computer network and professional staff that it has touted as the organizing tool of tomorrow.
The Internet and World Wide Web, however, have not been so kind. In just a few years they have put HandsNet at risk of obsolescence. Now the pioneer is reinventing itself, still striving to become essential for human service providers and researchers.
The central purpose hasn't changed: use the Internet to funnel practical information to human service organizations, foster the sharing of ideas and experiences among them, and help them hunt for information.
But "HandsNet has its work cut out," says David Goldsmith, HandsNet's former development director, now vice president of strategic development for Interactive Applications Group, a D.C.-based Internet consultant. "There is more competition than ever out there for visibility on the web. My company works with many nonprofits, and they all want their websites to be where people go for their information.
"Everyone is trying to be the place."
HandsNet's struggle to be that place might provide an information bonanza to youth workers, or it might just show how easy it is to become Information Highway road kill.
The dreamers didn't foresee such dangers in 1987, when organizations involved in Hands Across America were discussing what to do with the money raised. It was a shame, organization representatives felt, that they only came together to discuss a crisis, Goldsmith recalls. "But there they were, discussing longer-term policy and other issues, and they thought how great it would be if they could find some way to continue that," he says.
Thus HandsNet began with several hundred thousand dollars of Hands Across America money, and computers and networking resources contributed by Apple Computer Inc. First it linked human services organizations throughout California via the Internet. Later, the links grew nationwide. HandsNet promised instant access to articles, research and other information.
Potential HandsNet users were at first suspicious about how effective the new-fangled technology would be, Goldsmith said; growth was slow. When he arrived in 1989, HandsNet had only 150 members.
Things started to pick up in the early 1990s. A multi-year, $675,000 grant from the Ford Foundation in 1992 provided the first big funding boost. With others such as the Annie E. Casey, Robert Wood Johnson and Charles Stewart Mott foundations following, HandsNet grew fast. By 1997 its annual budget was $1.8 million, with a staff of around 17. Around the same time, its membership rose above 5,000.
That turned out to be its peak.
As the World Wide Web grew, many users wondered why they should bother with HandsNet. Organizations that freely provided the information that HandsNet distributed to its members became dissatisfied with that limited exposure, according to Michael Saunders, who became executive director of HandsNet in 1997. They preferred a move to the web, he says, "where they had a potential audience of 75 million eyeballs." Members no longer wanted to pay for the information from HandsNet when they could often get it free from the web.
Over the next several years membership plummeted to around 2,000. Nevertheless, Saunders saw hope: people were getting frustrated by how long it could take to find web-based information, and by the poor quality of what they often found.
So HandsNet tried to adapt, first by putting its service on the web, then by launching in October 1998 the $99-a-year WebClipper. This, HandsNet hopes, will become a core information resource for human services professionals. (Advisors include Marjorie Kopp and Kathy Bryant of the Child Welfare League of America, and Patti Freeman and Jessica Reisch of Children Now.) WebClipper uses dozens of editorial advisors to regularly scan about 600 organization and academic websites for the information most relevant to human services.
Each day WebClipper delivers a compilation of this information to a user's e-mail address or through a personalized web page. Users can also search the web from HandsNet using preselected search terms geared toward human services. The service also has a professional directory of experts and allies, a job bank, action alerts, event calendars and funding opportunities.
The National Urban League (NUL), headquartered in New York, signed on for WebClipper in April. It's a "tremendous time saver," says B. Keith Fulton, director of technology programs and policy at the NUL. He says the "lifeblood" of any nonprofit is finding information such as tips on how to respond to requests for proposals and grant alerts.
The new HandsNet also provides fee-based training for nonprofits in how best to use the Internet. "The nonprofit world that HandsNet is involved with is generally about a year behind other technology users," says Rebecca Stone, senior research associate with the Chapin Hall Center for Children at the University of Chicago and one of the original developers of the old HandsNet Children, Youth & Families forum. "The services that HandsNet has tried to sell in the past assumed an ease with technology that, in my experience, nonprofits don't have."
HandsNet is also trying to revive online expert discussions. The first, in October, examined how nonprofits can more effectively help low-income working people. Funded through a $750,000, two-year grant from the Ford Foundation, the moderated roundtables will feature a rotating slate of topics, each lasting about eight weeks.
It's an example of what HandsNet can provide for nonprofits that the web does not. "Our strength in the future is that HandsNet and WebClipper will be a place for these professional-level policy discussions," according to Ken Goldstein, director of online community development.
Some question how effective these roundtables will be. NUL's Fulton thinks the discussion groups could be useful "over time," but that it would likely take the participation of a major policy figure to draw his executives into them. "For peer-to-peer discussions, people prefer to pick up the phone," he says.
Fine Juggling Act
With member subscriptions, training fees and support from foundations and other sources, HandsNet has maintained an operating budget of between $1.6 million and $1.8 million, Saunders says, although "it's been a fine juggling act."
It's about to get even finer, as traditional funding sources start closing. The old HandsNet ("HandsNet Classic"), a separate service with a starting subscription of $300 a year, will be folded into the $99 WebClipper subscription next month. HandsNet still makes up to $500,000 a year from member subscriptions, Saunders says, but this is just over 30 percent of the total budget, compared to 50 percent in the past.
A grant from the Annie E. Casey Foundation for Children, Youth & Families initiatives - which provided $300,000 each in 1997 and 1998, and $250,00 this year - will contribute just $100,000 in 2000, its final year.
The trick will be to substantially increase membership, Saunders says, hopefully to 10,000 by the end of next year. Andrew Hahn, a Brandeis University professor who works in the youth field and sits on the HandsNet board of directors, says HandsNet must convince nonprofits that they are in the information business, and that WebClipper is a service that can help. Getting the word out "will be a major job," he admits.
Other organizations are offering at least some of what HandsNet does, such as computer and web training, and often for free. Some are offering what looks like a HandsNet service for more targeted audiences. The National Assembly's National Collaboration for Youth, for example, recently launched the National Youth Development Information Center website (www.NYDIC.org), which tries to provide youth organizations with a "one-stop shopping" site for youth workers.
"The question," Saunders says, "will be if this new style of WebClipper information will be acceptable enough. If it's not, I guess we'll have to go and find something else to do."
Contact: HandsNet (408) 291-5111; www.handsnet.org.