Virtual Society?

the social science of electronic technologies


Re-shaping the voluntary and community sectors in the information age

Principal Researcher

Dr Eleanor Burt
Department of Management
University of St Andrews
The Scores
St Andrews
Fife KY16 9AL
+44 (0)1334 462804


Professor John Taylor
Glasgow Caledonian University

Research Period
1 October 1997 to
30 September 1999
Aims and Objectives
Project Design


The voluntary sector's embeddedness within the economy, society and polity means that it is strategically located to impact on the political health and direction of the nation; on the nation's economic performance; and on the quality of life of the nation's citizenry. It means, too, that voluntary organisations are enmeshed within a complex network of institutional relationships. Information and communication technologies (ICTs) mark out opportunities for voluntary organisations actively to re-define relationships, allowing them to re-shape strategic relationships and information capabilities. Consequently, ICTs provide the project with its core subject of enquiry. To what extent are voluntary organisations transforming their activities, and are themselves being transformed as organisations, as a consequence of ICTs?

Aims and Objectives

The research examines the extent to which ICTs are used within the business relationships of voluntary organisations to achieve key economic, social and political objectives, that is to re-shape key economic, social and political relationships both internally and externally. These relationships include those between the governing board, senior managers, and grassroots members. The research also examines relationships between the organisations and statutory departments, other voluntary organisations, and individual citizens.

The specific research objectives are to:

  • examine the uptake and application of ICTs within a sample of voluntary organisations, and to establish the reasons for different patterns of uptake
  • examine the ways in which ICTs are used by these organisations to re-shape strategic relationships and information flows
  • examine the extent to which the organisations use ICTs as a means of interactive communication and representation
  • examine the extent to which ICTs contribute to the organisations' economic, social and political objectives.

Project Design

A postal questionnaire is used to collect data from voluntary organisations throughout Britain. The sample comprises organisations drawn from three key voluntary sector 'industries', that is, 'disability', 'women', and 'overseas'. The research also examines the impact of other key characteristics such as size, whether the organisations are single-site or multi-site, and the extent to which other organisations use electronic technologies to communicate with voluntary sector 'partners'. The information collected from the postal questionnaires serves as the basis for interviews with senior managers in selected organisations, from which more detailed insights will be gathered.


The research has significant implications for theories of the impact of ICTs on institutional relationships within voluntary organisations, and between voluntary organisations and those other organisations, sectors and communities with which they interact. Voluntary sector organisations are using ICTs to support, sustain, develop and achieve economic, social and political objectives. But there is a dearth of research which examines the extent to which ICTs re-shape strategic relationships and information flows within and around the voluntary sector.

The research also has significant implications for managers of voluntary organisations seeking to develop their organisations' information and communications capabilities. The study will disseminate knowledge and insights which will enable managers to make informed decisions regarding the effective use of ICTs. Rather than producing 'off-the-peg' solutions and rigid 'best practice' models, the project provides rich data which will in effect become an 'organised market place of experiences and ideas'. Managers can buy into this on a selective basis, enabling strategies to be tailored to the unique requirements of particular organisations.

Visit the project web site



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Contents current at 31st August 2000