The Association for Progressive Communications (APC) is a global organisation and network made up of different civil society organisations. Our mission is to challenge discrimination, structural inequality and power structures by working to decolonise the internet and digital technologies and spaces to create a more just and sustainable world. We do this by harnessing the collective power of activists, organisations, excluded groups, communities and social movements; embodying a feminist and rights-based approach in shaping and co-creating digital technology and spaces; and ensuring that the internet is governed as a global public resource.
APC is a legal entity registered in California in the United States, but our staff are located all over the world. Our staff (of around 40 people) work day to day with each other and with APC members and partners from computers in their homes. The APC network has almost 60 organisational members and more than 30 individual members active in more than 70 countries, mostly from the global South.
APC has worked as a completely virtual and remotely connected network from its inception in 1990, evolving and adapting throughout the organisation's 30 years of working for social change, which we are commemorating in 2020.
We are relaunching this guide as one response to the crisis that the COVID-19 pandemic has generated worldwide and which is affecting each and every one of us, wherever we live, wherever we work.
Many organisations have found their usual work culture and routines totally disrupted and need advice and support in reorienting and reconfiguring their mission and work to continue their activities online, safely and securely.
In this guide, APC shares knowledge harvested through three decades of remote working in the hopes that other non-profit organisations will find it useful for putting systems and practices in place that maximise the benefits of working remotely and mitigate the challenges of working remotely – particularly in the context of this current crisis. We also hope that the experience gained will allow organisations to adopt practices and tools that will benefit them in the longer term.
The guide draws on the views and experiences of APC members, partners (people and groups we work with), consultants and staff who work online for social change. Their perspectives are the basis for this guide, which is organised sequentially following the level of importance that those interviewed placed on each issue. Our starting point is people.
Although nine years have passed between the first and second editions of this guide, we continue to believe that the key to sustainable and effective online working lies in building a foundation of strong relationships based on trust and solidarity.
We hope that this revised material provides you with some of the information you need to encourage and assist your organisation to harness the potential of online work for your causes and that it helps you develop and implement efficient ways to work online for social change — helping us to come closer than ever in times of global crises.
The revision has been done quickly in order to share something we hope will be useful as soon as possible. We will be revising and updating this guide continually over the coming weeks to ensure the content is as accurate, helpful and comprehensive as possible.
The first chapter focuses on people, the importance of the relationships between and among people who work together online, and how you can sustain and strengthen those relationships in an online environment.
The second chapter focuses on the policies, processes and systems you need to consider when working online.
The third chapter focuses on the tools and applications that make working online possible, and what you and your organisation need to consider before making choices about what technology you will adopt.
The fourth chapter shares case studies of how APC has implemented APC-wide activities online.
We welcome your thoughts, feedback and suggestions for improvement, which you can share with us by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
THE PEOPLE top
Why are people's relationships important in online work?
A network is only as strong as the people that are part of it. Working for social change requires passion and commitment to a cause. This becomes even more crucial if the work we do is mostly online, because the support of our co-workers is distant and it is easy to lose motivation or the sense of urgency when we interact through a phone, pad, tablet or computer screen instead of face to face.
In this sense, it is important for your organisation to make explicit what you believe in and build common ground among the people in your network, which includes your shared ideas, practices and politics. This is very helpful when new people come into your organisation, so that they can know what everyone expects from them. It can also be a criterion when you build new relationships and collaborate with other people and organisations.
APC has very well-developed processes for hiring and orienting new staff, interns and volunteers and incorporating new organisations that have applied to become members of our network. All aspects of these processes are implemented through policies and procedures that assume a totally online working environment. This brings a particular perspective to the way you write and present processes, and the way you deliver them.
The APC organisational membership process has also been designed assuming this perspective of an online working environment. Interested organisations apply using an online form, which is submitted to our membership development coordinator who facilitates a membership working group that follows up on the application and assessment process.
This working group, made up of organisational member representatives from different geographical regions and a few staff members, review the application form and if necessary, ask the applicant for additional information about their activities related to our core work and the impact of their work. We also ask for references and consult them. We talk to other people in the same geographical region that we know and trust, to find out if they know the applicant and to get a local perspective on their work. After we have done all this, our governing bodies (the council and board) discuss and determine carefully whether or not APC membership is the best form of relationship for the applicant organisation.
When we are not sure about applicants (e.g. if we are not really certain the applicant’s work is well enough aligned with APC’s core mission and therefore a membership relationship might not be the best option), we may ask them if there are other ways we can work with them. For example, we might put them in contact with our members and partners doing similar work so that we can get some first-hand experience of working and interacting together.
We've had several experiences where this has happened and the organisation may become a member, but it could be a few years down the line, by which time we find that we know one another better, our missions are more closely aligned and membership is a more mutually beneficial option. The membership review process can take several months and some people have questioned why we have such a detailed membership process, but we feel our process helps bring together like-minded organisations, which makes it easier for us to work online together in the future. It assures current members of our network that the direction and political perspective that we have created together will not become weakened as new members arrive; on the contrary, they will become stronger.
How do you establish trusting relationships in online work?
When a network like ours carries out a significant part of its work online, it is very important to make sure there are healthy and strong relationships between and among its staff and members. In our experience, this means being able to trust the people with whom you work at a distance. Trust requires closeness and being able to rely on the network.
Think about your office for a moment. It is 9:00 a.m. Monday, you arrive, you greet everyone, you ask them how their weekend was and they tell you about their activities with family and loved ones. Every day as you see them, talk to them and listen to what they have to say, you start forming an opinion about your co-workers, you learn how to interact best with each one of them, you feel closer to them.
This process of getting to know your co-workers that happens so naturally in face-to-face environments needs to be helped a little in online environments, because you will not be seeing or hearing your colleagues every day – you will probably be reading them. Most of the communication and interaction in our network is through text: an email, a document, an instant message. This does not mean that you can't have online informal interactions like the ones you would have over a cup of coffee, but it does mean that you might need to plan ways or create spaces where you and your colleagues feel comfortable doing so.
Tips to promote interaction and closeness
“Be there” for your fellow networkers: When you work for a social justice cause you need to be able to count on your colleagues, because they are more than just co-workers: they are your companions in the struggle, the ones who will help you when there is trouble.
“Being there” can be different depending on your role in the organisation, but at APC, this principle has proven to be one of the most valuable aspects of belonging to the network.
It can mean making sure your colleagues know when they can and can’t expect to find you online. If you’re working in an international context, it can mean being aware of the time zones your colleagues live and work in, and trying to time meetings or conversations that are respectful of one another’s “normal” working days. It means being flexible and accommodating, but also respecting boundaries that you, as colleagues, need to determine together. It means knowing that your colleagues are there, if you are in need or in crisis, and finding ways of supporting one another.
Being part of a network of organisations who you know will “be there”, and are willing to support responses to local crises and conflicts and make them visible at an international level, has been key for APC members to be able to do their work.
It is not easy to work and be online and it will take time to develop your own ways of working.
Extend precious face-to-face opportunities: At the moment, this feels like a luxury, which is not possible for most of us – and it is impossible to replace the preciousness of face-to-face time with an online equivalent, so we won’t pretend that it can be done.
There is no doubt that hearing the voices of your colleagues or seeing their faces, through audio and video meeting tools and applications, is very important and can bring some comfort in the absence of physical contact. In response to the current crisis, we are adjusting our meeting schedules and practice to ensure that:
- Every staff person checks in with one other colleague, by video if possible, once per day.
- We have smaller team meetings once per week, and so as to conserve bandwidth, use videos at the beginning of the meeting to greet one another and briefly check in, but then turn videos off for the duration of the meeting, turning them back on at the end of the meeting to say goodbye and share best wishes.
When it is possible to travel again, be sure of course to make the most of spending time together face to face. If you have the chance to spend time with your colleagues at a meeting or conference, plan to spend an extra day together after the meeting ends so that you can do follow-up together. Face-to-face contact is good for strategic thinking and planning. Once you go back to your desk it will be so much more difficult alone. When you do have a chance to meet face to face, if it is possible, create opportunities for remote participation as well. Feeling left out of these interactions can be alienating for those people who did not have the chance to be present.
Explore the use of social networks to open a space for informal social interaction among the members of the team. Organise playful activities such as contests, poetry, surveys and brain teasers.
Take advantage of the possibilities the technology offers and welcome posting of personal pictures, stories, links to audio and videos, etc. Having fun together can contribute a lot towards working well together. Mark these emails in the subject line so that people can filter them to read later, e.g. “Off topic: Willie's recipe for Abgusht-e bademjan soup”.
In this sense, it is always important to remember that networking is a two-way street: it is not only about receiving, it is also about giving. If you want your co-workers or members to be there for you, you have to be there for them:
- Make sure that you have the full contact information of your closest co-workers and members and make sure they have yours, including an additional contact number for emergencies. Very often we only have an email address as a means of contact. It is a good idea to also share at least a telephone number for emergencies. APC asks all staff and members to keep this information in a private area of each person's personal profile on APC.org, viewable to members and staff only.
- Ask your colleagues and members about the challenges they are facing and, according to your possibilities, use the resources you have to help them overcome these challenges. APC members have been able to use chat and voice over IP (VoIP) to contact other members and help them with specific issues.
- When major natural disasters or political events occur in the place your colleagues live, contact them and make sure they and their loved ones are well and give them an opportunity to air their experiences.
- Get to know the campaigns and issues that your colleagues or members promote and support them on your website, through personal emails or in your social networks. For example, each year the APC Women's Rights Programme (APC WRP) carries out the Take Back the Tech! campaign on using information and communications technologies (ICTs) to end violence against women. The campaign receives support and dissemination by members who are not necessarily involved in specific APC WRP projects.
What type of people work best in online networked environments?
Not everyone feels comfortable working online. Of course, people can adapt to different working environments if they need to, but there are some characteristics that can certainly help a person feel more comfortable with and better suited to this type of work.
As a good online worker you need to be...
As an online worker you need to be able to adapt to different work styles, communication styles and leadership styles in order to work well with your colleagues and achieve the desired goals. If you are working for an international network, then you will also be dealing with issues related to different time zones, languages and cultures.
When working as part of a global team, your schedules and those of your colleagues will be different. So flexibility is also useful to deal with delays, connectivity problems or other stressful moments.
- A clear communicator
As a good online worker you need to be able to process and organise a lot of information, share ideas in a clear and concise manner, and prepare dissemination materials in formats appropriate for different audiences. Explicit communication can also help you to maintain good work relations and avoid misunderstandings.
In this sense, you need to be assertive and direct, without being aggressive. Written communication lends itself to more interpretation than regular oral communication, so you need to choose carefully which medium to use, based on the context and specific needs, and be prepared to switch media. For example, if a situation is tense, switch from email to voice communication.
To work well online you need to be able to establish priorities, manage your time very efficiently and establish clear boundaries between your personal life and your work. Although this is true of any type of work, it is especially important for online work, since supervisors will not be physically present to provide close guidance.
If you do not manage your time adequately, you might find yourself feeling overwhelmed with more work than you can handle and having difficulties with deadlines, or overburdened by excessive dedication to your work, eventually leading to stress and burnout.
Nobody will know if you're having problems when you're sitting alone at your computer unless you share them. Be prepared to open up to your colleagues about any personal or work issues you're having so that others can help you. If you don't tell your online colleagues, they will never know.
When you are part of an online network, you are expected to make your knowledge resources available to others, for example, sharing your opinions, relevant documents, links or personal contacts that you have and your colleagues might need regarding a specific topic where you have expertise.
THE PROCESSES top
Why are processes important for organisations that work online?
As organisations that work for social change, it is as important to be clear on what our objectives and dreams are as it is to know how we are going to reach them.
Policies and procedures
In 2020 APC turns 30, and we believe that a significant contributing factor to our longevity as an online network is having institutional and organisational policies and procedures that are designed specifically for working online, which are well documented, peer-reviewed and tested, regularly updated and available, and understood by our members, staff and partners.
In our experience it has been important to think carefully about the different types of stakeholders that are part of our organisation. We have staff, members and partners (groups and individuals we work with) and we have taken the time to establish processes to work together with all of them, and to do so primarily online.
One aspect we have learned that is extremely important in online working is to be crystal clear about how we are going clarity around consultation and decision making, which can become extremely complex in a totally online environment.
As an employer, having a well-structured set of human resource policies and procedures that accompany the whole employment cycle of a staff member has been key to maintaining a highly committed and knowledgeable team of professionals working together as staff. This includes everything from the job call, hiring and assessment process, contracting, remuneration and benefits, leave policies, orientation, probation, performance assessment, professional development, and leaving, grievance and disciplinary procedures.
As a membership association, having well-structured decision-making mechanisms, documented in an APC governance manual has led to the consolidation of an involved membership that truly feels like part of the network.
Most organisations have a strategic plan that guides their work over a period of time. For an online organisation and network, designing and implementing an inclusive strategic plan is critical to having a plan that enjoys as much collective ownership as possible.
APC’s 2020-2023 strategic plan is the result of parallel and iterative evaluation and strategic direction visioning processes that began in May 2018. Our goal with the overall strategic planning process was to provide multiple opportunities for APC community members to provide insight and feedback and shape our new strategic plan. Although several face-to-face meetings were held during the 18-month process, many of the iterative consultative steps were done using online interviews, surveys and focus groups.
It is also important to remember that working online together takes more time – for almost anything that you want to do – so build in an “online time overhead”.
Although we have never tried to calculate this scientifically, as an estimate, it can take between 30% and 50% longer to do many things online, compared to offline. So give yourself time. You need to take this into account when you plan your meetings, projects and activities so that the different partners can share their experiences and ideas and create together, and you have realistic expectations of one another.
If your organisation wants to start doing more of its work online, it will probably face some of the challenges related to working at a distance. However, you can also transform these challenges into strengths.
Some of the points that APC staff have mentioned as key elements of an online organisation are:
- Clear human resource, administrative, governance and operational policies and procedures.
- Training and development for team leaders and team members.
- Standardised organisational procedures.
- A strong organisational culture.
- Clear decision-making and participation mechanisms.
- High levels of autonomy for people to do their jobs.
- Standardised orientation, probation and assessment processes for new staff and members.
- Structured communication plans.
- Appropriate electronic communication and collaboration technologies.
What types of processes does an organisation need to work online?
Many people believe that an organisation that works online is “lighter”, in the sense that it does not require as much of an administrative framework and paperwork as an organisation that has a physical headquarters. Nothing could be further from the truth.
On the contrary, organisations like APC that work online need very detailed, explicit and documented work processes, human resource policies, communication guidelines, etc.
Structure is the anchor that lets our organisation fly freely without losing our bearings.
Organisations with physical headquarters have many mechanisms to coordinate their actions, such as team meetings, community visits and interviews. The need for these mechanisms does not go away when you decide to work online; in fact, they probably become more necessary.
In our experience as a network that carries out a lot of its work online, we have seen that when you speak to organisations about processes, they usually only think about the ones related to projects. We have learned that it is good practice to establish clear human resource processes as well as mechanisms to work together in general.
What about human resources?
Developing human resource procedures and policies takes time and effort and is often regarded as unnecessary bureaucracy. However, if your organisation wants to work online it is very important to have documentation that makes these processes explicit because, fairly often, staff will have to make decisions that in a face-to-face environment would usually be consulted with the human resources department or the director, who are not necessarily connected when we have an online working environment.
If your network has been working face to face for some time and is now starting to work online, it is important to adjust your existing policies to this new environment. If your network is just starting, this is the perfect moment to agree on the conditions and expectations of your working environment.
- Step 1: Review existing policies
Review all of the administrative procedures that you have and make the necessary adjustments to incorporate the specific needs of those who will be working online. Go through each procedure and describe how it will work for people who are not physically present in the office. If you are a new network, you need to define procedures that take into account working hours/schedules, remuneration policies, different types of contracts, benefits/vacations, etc.
- Step 2: Develop new policies to complement existing policies
Think about the new procedures that might need to be put in place for needs that are specific to online work. Ask the people who will be working online what type of support they might need administratively. Also establish whether expectations from both sides are clear and explicit.
- Step 3: Review and update the policies
During the first years, have periodic reviews of how this is working for online workers. Always maintain a learning attitude towards the process, incorporating suggestions and feedback. This will most likely be a process of trial and error until you find the right combination for your organisation, so be patient.
To avoid starting from scratch we recommend approaching a friendly organisation that has a similar structure to your own organisation and asking them to share some of their administrative procedures.
Over its 30 years, APC has created a number of standards based on good practices and functionality. We provide several baseline references and also help people accommodate to the organisation’s activities. APC has various documents available for members on our website that show how some of our processes work.
Some of APC’s manuals and policies are listed below. These comprise some of the policies and procedures we feel are essential to an organisation’s day-to-day organisational activities and include areas on human resources, administration and operations, governance and financial management.
- Human Resources Manual
- Hiring procedure
- Orientation guide
- Sexual harassment policy and code of conduct
- Environment and social responsibility policy
- Editorial policy and language guidelines
- Free/libre and open source software policy
- APC Governance Manual
- Articles and Bylaws
You can read APC’s policies on all these matters here.
Note: Please see Chapter 3 for a full overview of tools and applications we recommend for creating your online working environment.
Tip: Keep an online repository of all documents related to internal processes and policies. Build a wiki as an index to your file repository – here’s an example of part of APC’s:
It will serve as a strong guideline for staff. APC is using the self-hosted platform NextCloud for storing and sharing all files and MediaWiki for its index.
If your network does not have an intranet or server space to store and share documents, there are a few options you can consider, and make a choice after doing your own assessment:
- There are commercial online services that give you a certain amount of online space for free, such as box.net and dropbox.com, but you need to do a careful review of the terms and conditions, particularly in relation to privacy and data ownership and control.
- There are tech civic groups that provide online cloud services – both subscription and in some cases free – but as they are generally not-for-profit services the space and support they can offer might be limited.
- There are FLOSS solutions such as Cloud, which we recommend based on their privacy protection, but have not used.
Tip: Many procedures associated with policies have a workflow aspect to them. APC is moving many of its procedures from email plus attachment and/or direct messaging as the main means of communication, to online platforms that incorporate a step-by-step workflow that then triggers responses needed or can generate documents required. Currently we are shifting our hiring, leave, procurement and decision-making processes to online, web-based platforms. APC’s entire finance system has been online for almost 10 years. If you have resources to use on tech projects, you might want to think about online workflows for some aspects of your organisational processes.
How do you manage your projects online?
If your organisation wants to work more online, the role of your project coordinators must incorporate project planning, monitoring, evaluation and follow-up, backed up with project management tools and human support, because they become the ones who make sure that the members of a team are moving in the same direction, at the same pace.
These are some suggestions that have strengthened our coordination when we develop projects together among members located in different parts of the world.
Assign a project coordinator
This may seem obvious, but small teams very frequently feel that there is no need for someone to coordinate, that the team will “coordinate itself”. When working online it is critical to have a person who leads the process and makes sure that the team is working together. This does not have to be a permanent role; it can be assigned to different people in different projects, but it is important to always designate someone explicitly as the person who will ultimately be responsible for the process.
Make the working process explicit
Just like in a face-to-face scenario, the project coordinator needs to define and/or agree with the project team the scope of the project (size, goals, requirements), how the resources will be managed (people, equipment, materials), the time frame (task durations, dependencies, critical path), the budget (costs and contingencies) and the online environment or communication infrastructure that will hold and host the different parts (email, mailing lists, shared cloud folders, text and video platforms).
In an online environment it’s even more important that everyone understands how the online environment works and the role of the different tools/platforms, and to have documentation that explains how these areas will be handled so that all members can consult them.
We recommend starting the project with a synchronous “inception” meeting (using chat or VoIP) to review both the online environment and documents and make sure that everyone understands how the work will be carried out.
Decide what project management tools/systems you will use
Once you have determined the working process details, discuss and decide on what project management tools or system you will use. While it is a responsibility of the project coordinator to initiate and suggest tools, it is important that the process remains open and flexible and everyone in the team and your partners feel comfortable to suggest tools, review them and, if they find the tools aren’t working well, change them.
Maybe you can start with a shared calendar and document, or maybe you will need more sophisticated tools like those that enable you to assign tasks to others and to visualise the overall project status.
The best advice is to start simply and add complexity as the team gains confidence in working online. Plan time to provide support one-to-one or in groups. Include in your plan periodic reviews of the tools. Make sure tools work on the devices you and your partners use and that everyone can access and use them. Remember technology is meant to help you, not to create stress.
Establish formal and informal communication channels
Communication is the lifeline of any project. Make sure your project offers both formal and informal communication channels as well as synchronous/asynchronous communication between all project partners.
Informal communication (e.g. Mattermost, Signal, Telegram, WhatsApp) will strengthen relationships, while more formal channels like email or mailing lists will ensure transparency and accountability of any agreement and decision.
Work time and boundaries
If you want to encourage self and mutual collective care when working online, set boundaries on working times. Agree that all email responses as well as other online engagement are limited to the agreed/formal working times, such as 9:00 am to 5:00 pm. If you work in different time zones, plan to work in local time equivalents.
Make it clear to your team that there are no expectations for team members to be available (logged in/online) or to reply to email/respond to questions and requests beyond agreed working times and project commitment.
Communication in case of urgency and emergency
Be mindful of the power of instant messaging. When you are working online make sure you distinguish between ordinary communication and questions of urgency and emergency. Do not make every communication urgent!
The use of messaging tools such as Signal, Telegram, Wire and similar should only be used for occasional and urgent communications, and are not intended or expected to become a regular means of communication that invade people’s personal and off-work time.
Messaging tools such as Telegram, WhatsApp, Wire and Signal should be limited to exceptions and quick check-ins. For example, an unexpected delay/being late for a meeting, check-in to verify everything is okay, checking on prolonged silence and/or an extended break in communication.
Partners can provide their username/phone number as well as their most preferred communication tools with the respective project coordinator for quick check-ins and follow-up.
Occasionally during events, a group chat can be created to ease communication. At the end of the event, group chats should be deleted.
Establish process benchmarks
In order for the project coordinator to provide adequate follow-up, the team should agree on some benchmarks and incorporate them in a timeline. It is also good practice to have spaces where the team can see the progress of the contributions of each member. This can be a public web page or site, a private document repository, or even something as simple as a shared spreadsheet.
Repetition and reminders
It is a good idea for the project manager to remind the team members periodically of upcoming deadlines and repeat the project objectives and/or prior agreements. When people work online they have to handle a lot of information and it is easy to overlook an email or miss an important piece of information. The role of the project manager is key in keeping everyone informed and clear on what they should each be doing as well as the overall progress of the project.
Use platforms and tools to facilitate update and monitoring
When you work online, it is important for your team to meet regularly for updating and information sharing. Depending on the duration of your project, agree on regular audio or video calls (e.g. weekly, bi-weekly, monthly). Keep meetings to no longer than 60 minutes and always prepare an online agenda and agree on note-taking. It is important your agenda is accessible to the entire team and that actions and decisions are recorded. You can use a simple online text editor (e.g. etherpad) to take notes and share at the end of the meeting.
During and after the project it is very important to take time to establish rapid peer assessments among the members of the team. This will help your organisation to improve mechanisms that are not working correctly or strengthen good practices for the future. This can be done online using email; for example, the project manager can send a written instruction to receive feedback from other members of the project. It can also be done by having a short chat meeting where there can be a group review (e.g. What was planned? What was achieved? How can we explain the differences?).
What are some of the challenges associated with working online?
A different communication style
To work well online you may need to adopt a different way of communicating. As an international network, APC members and staff have to be sensitive to cultural, political and geographical contexts that have an impact on the way a message is read by their colleagues in another part of the world.
A lot of communication is done through email message and so it’s very important that email messages are clear, both in terms of their content and their subject line, and that time is taken to review them with care, in particular communications to third parties.
Here are some tips about email and online communication.
Note: Chapter 3 looks at how direct messaging, mailing lists and other common tools are used by APC.
Don’t type in capital letters. In email this is usually considered shouting. Use *asterisks* when you want to emphasise something.
In face-to-face conversations, there are many subtle cues provided by body language and intonation that let us know how what we are saying is affecting the other person. When you are working online, strive to be concise, clear and polite in your writing, and flexible in your interpretation of other people’s messages. This follows an old network axiom: be precise in what you send, and forgiving in what you receive.
When you reply to an email message, double-check the recipients to make sure the message is sent only to those who should receive it. Using the “reply all” option sometimes causes information to be received by more people than you intend. For example, if you received a message through an email list and you have a question or comment for the person who sent the message, it is a good idea to write directly to that person, instead of replying to the whole list.
Before you send out a message, if you are replying or forwarding information, clean up your message by erasing the previous headings and text that are not necessary or relevant for your message.
Be sure to include a descriptive title in the subject line so the reader will know what the message is about. For example, if you started out discussing organic farming and are now starting a conversation about online marketing tools, an example of an unhelpful heading in the subject line would be: “Re (Fwd): Fwd (Re): organic tomatoes”.
What would be appropriate is to erase those “Re” and “Fwd” notations from previous messages and start a fresh subject line: “Online marketing tools” – or sometimes people use the protocol “Online marketing tools (was ‘organic tomatoes’)”.
This is also helpful when you need to look for a message within your email, because if you remember that the message was about online marketing tools, you are unlikely to look for it under the heading “organic tomatoes”.
APC uses a set of subject lines for certain types of email communications. Although it has to be said these are not used uniformly at all times and by all staff, we do try to encourage and remind staff to do so. The following are a subset, the most commonly needed and useful ones to remember:
- TS = Time sensitive. You can also then put a date or time in parenthesis following TS. For example, TS (Wed 16 March, end of day).
- PR = Please read. This can be used when you want to make sure people read something, but don’t necessarily need to reply.
- RR = Read and reply. This can be used when you expect a response from the reader.
- FYI = For your information. This can be used for something interesting, where neither reading nor a response is expected.
Avoid sending attachments unless absolutely necessary. Some people will delete email messages with attachments unread because attachments can carry viruses. If you are communicating with someone who shares an online storage/repository with you, reference the file using a URL to that file.
Never send large, unsolicited attachments (this varies, but certainly avoid sending attachments over 2 MB in size). If you must send a large file, forewarn your recipients. Always introduce what is in your attachment in your message, so that the recipient has an idea what the attachment contains. If you use a self-hosted storage platform, you can probably upload your file there and share access to the file via a URL.
Be careful with formatting, keeping in mind that just because your email programme supports pictures, sound files or stationery doesn’t mean everyone else’s does or that they want or can receive multimedia.
When writing an email or posting messages, be brief. If you are going to deal with more than one topic, write separate messages for each topic and label them appropriately in the subject line. Aim to fit everything you need to communicate in one screen of text and use blank spaces between paragraphs or other logical units of text to break up the text for the eye.
If you are sending a message that needs to be longer, begin the email with a summary of what it is you are communicating, what information or action you are requiring from the intended recipient or recipients, and by when you need their response – with a clear date.
Before sending off your email message, look over what you have written. Make sure you have said everything you needed to say and you haven’t said things you didn’t need to say. And, perhaps most importantly, never forget that the person to whom you are sending the email is another human being, with feelings and beliefs that may be very different from yours.
Another key challenge we have faced when working at a distance has to do with managing information overflow.
The regular interaction that happens in a face-to-face environment becomes email messages, direct messaging, chat messages and forwarded information in an online setting.
It is important for your organisation to provide information in ways that don’t contribute to overload, and to develop mechanisms to organise the relevant information, as well as criteria to avoid treating all information with the same amount of attention.
This is particularly critical in dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic, as there is so much information being exchanged, with people checking in with one another more regularly, sharing information about their local contexts, sharing ideas for coping/supporting one another and local grassroots initiatives, and just a general need to be more in touch. To avoid contributing to the generation of information overflow you can:
Send out weekly summaries instead of daily messages.
Avoid writing messages that are longer than one or two screens, because it makes it harder for the reader to process them.
Combine email messaging with regular voice meetings, to avoid the need for lengthy reports.
You will also receive information from others outside your network. Here are some useful tips to handle that information better and avoid feeling you have more than you can process:
Before you join an email list or subscribe to an information source, take a few moments to read the FAQs and make sure the topics under discussion are ones you are interested in talking or learning about. Also, find out how you can unsubscribe, so that if the information traffic becomes too heavy and you need to leave, you can do so easily.
If you have large amounts of email, scan your messages and prioritise urgent ones by tagging them so that you can easily return to them later.
Use browser features such as Firefox’s Bookmarks and sync it across devices to organise your links into areas of interest, to reduce repeated web searches.
Organise your time so that you receive information in the way that works best for you. For example, if receiving email messages every few minutes is disruptive for you, configure your email client so that it downloads email once every hour.
Over-sophistication of tools
In online work it is very common for organisations to make the mistake of using ICT tools in ways that complicate their work instead of making it easier. To avoid this we recommend asking yourself the following questions before you implement a new tool:
Can the task that I want this tool for be done through email? If the answer is yes, define a good process through email rather than trying to deploy a new tool that your colleagues may or may not want to learn to use.
Do the benefits of the tool considerably outweigh the learning curve required to use it comfortably? If the new software takes your colleagues several days to learn and it will only be used for a one-hour meeting, there are probably other simpler tools (or a combination of tools) that you can use.
How well does the new tool communicate with other spaces of interaction the organisation already has? For this point you need to consider if the software needs everyone to create an account in order to participate and if it can be viewed or accessed from other spaces you might have, such as a blog or a social network. When there are too many spaces, people tend to feel lost or forget about them if there is not a central entry point.
How adaptable is the tool to different conditions? Does it have an interface in several languages? Can it be used from a Windows, Mac or Linux operating system? The fewer barriers that your colleagues face to use the tool, the more likely it is that they will use it.
Relationships with partners
If your network starts working more online you will have to develop strategies to strengthen relationships with partners with whom you will now start working at a distance. In our experience, having a network of friendly organisations has helped build the credibility and impact of APC’s work.
This is compounded by the current pandemic crisis whereby we are all needing to find better ways of working online. In some instances this is a completely new experience and partners will need a lot of support and advice orienting their work to this new reality.
In the past, we have fostered this network by using the following mechanisms:
- Make the most of face-to-face opportunities. Although at APC most of the work is online, there is an important part that is also face-to-face, for example, workshops, conferences and meetings. Our organisation takes advantage of these spaces to promote interaction among our staff, members and partners. For example, we frequently book large tables in a restaurant at events where several APC members and partners are participating. Everyone pays their own way at an “APC dinner” and everyone agrees that it’s an excellent mechanism to strengthen bonds and create better conditions for our future work.
- Establish permanent communication channels. Often there are people who want to collaborate with APC or have information about our work, so we have enabled several online spaces, such as the APC Forum email list. For the general public, it is a good idea to have a mailing address on your website that you can constantly monitor. Social media accounts can also serve this purpose.
- Work with your partners. Since we have a presence in different parts of the world, we often develop projects together with regional or local partners, which strengthens our relationships with them.
When considering the current COVID-19 crisis, it is important to think about the following in your work with partners and members:
- How can we most usefully support them?
- What kind of advice and support do they need and if your organisation can’t provide it, can you source it externally?
- Many donors are providing a lot of sensitivity, flexibility and support to non-profit organisations during times of crisis. Are you able to repurpose some of your resources to support the needs of your partners? Can an existing project grant that included funds for travel be repurposed to help an organisation build the first elements of an online working environment?
- Are there other organisations you work with to whom you can turn to discuss how you can collaboratively support one another? During this time of uncertainty, everyone is looking for solutions and proposals for how to work and exist differently. Our sector has a huge amount of experience and expertise to offer during times of crisis.
THE TOOLS top
If your organisation is interested in working more online you will need tools that can provide a channel, or a series of channels, for interacting at a distance among the people who make up your network.
ICTs can be strong allies for your organisation if you define a strategic approach to their use and place them at the service of your organisation's objectives. They can help your organisation improve communication, by opening up channels among the different members and stakeholders of your network. ICTs can lower your costs, by using online communications solutions instead of regular telephone, or by using web conferencing tools for project follow-up and coordination. You can also use ICTs to increase your public profile, by using blogs and social media to disseminate your work.
APC has for some time been reflecting on reducing our environmental footprint through greater and more strategic use of ICTS, particularly when it comes to the need for travel. The current situation, which is forcing many organisations to consider far greater use of technology and online tools for their work, does provide an opportunity to change our ways of working to be more sustainable and less damaging to our environment.
Which ICT tools are the most useful for working online?
There are a myriad of web-based, self-installable and/or downloadable tools that your organisation can use to work online. The availability of tools changes continually, and of course you will want to keep on top of technological developments and the availability of new tools.
However, when choosing which tools you want to use, it is very important that you define your needs first, that is, the objective you want to achieve by using a specific tool. It is also important to consider the characteristics and conditions of your organisation in order to choose the tool that fits best.
One of the lessons we have learned at APC through 30 years of working online for social change is the importance of steering away from technological fads and concentrating on the functionality of the tools.
Even though our network has some members that are very technologically skilled, most agree that the application that has given them the best results is still email. This does not mean it is the only tool APC uses to communicate and interact; we do use a combination of tools, but the main application 30 years on continues to be email.
The other lesson that has proven useful for us is to use a combination of tools that is appropriate for the colleagues you are working with and their conditions.
The best online tools are the ones that fits the needs and conditions of your organisation. Most organisations that work online use a combination of ICT tools to take advantage of the strengths each one has and to provide people with more than one channel to work together.
What is free/libre and open source software (FLOSS)?
When choosing ICT tools, an important consideration for APC is the promotion and support of FLOSS tools, which have licences that give users the freedom to run, copy, distribute, study, change and improve the software as well as share copies of either the original or the modified software. “Free” refers to free use. Some examples of FLOSS are the operating systems of the Linux family, the office packages OpenOffice and LibreOffice, and the internet browser Mozilla Firefox.
FLOSS is the progressive answer to proprietary software, which has restrictions on using, copying and modifying as enforced by the proprietor. Some examples of proprietary software are the operating system Windows, the office package Microsoft Office and the web browser Internet Explorer.
We have an organisational FLOSS policy which outlines our policy position on FLOSS, why we promote it, the principles we incorporate in our work when we can, and the limitations of FLOSS.
We strongly endorse FLOSS and created a prize called the Chris Nicol FLOSS Prize to encourage the use of FLOSS by non-profit organisations and other general non-techie types.
FLOSS (more commonly referred to at the time as FOSS) is included in the fourth theme of our Internet Rights Charter, which states:
Working with FOSS is empowering, it builds skills, is more sustainable and it encourages local innovation. We encourage governments to make policies that encourage the use of FOSS, particularly in the public sector.
We encourage your organisation to adopt FLOSS and endorse FLOSS initiatives too. Start by installing easy-to-use programmes like OpenOffice for creating documents and presentations, Firefox for browsing the web and Thunderbird for email, to replace any commercial software on your machine. You won't regret it!
A listing the FLOSS tools that the APC community uses in its work can be found in APC FLOSS Policy.
Here are some useful links to learn more about FLOSS and how it can benefit your network:
- Feminist Principles of the Internet
The Feminist Principles of the Internet are a series of statements that offer a gender and sexual rights lens on critical internet-related rights. They were drafted at the first Imagine a Feminist Internet meeting that took place in Malaysia in April 2014. The meeting was organised by APC and brought together 50 activists and advocates working in sexual rights, women’s rights, violence against women, and internet rights. The meeting was designed as an adapted open space where topics were identified, prioritised and discussed collectively. One of the principles is specifically about open source technology.
- Global Information Society Watch 2010: ICTS and environmental sustainability
APC’s Global Information Society Watch (GISWatch) 2010 report investigates the impact that information and communications technologies (ICTs) have on the environment – both good and bad. Written from a civil society perspective, GISWatch 2010 covers some 50 countries and six regions, with the key issues of ICTs and environmental sustainability, including climate change response and electronic waste (e‑waste), explored in seven expert thematic reports. Many of the articles explore the promotion of FLOSS in working more sustainably and reducing the impact of ICTs on the environment.
- A Practical Guide to Sustainable IT
This text by Paul Mobbs introduces the reader to the main concepts behind the openness philosophy and how it relates to sustainable development.
- Free Software Foundation (Resources)
Here you will find a searchable directory of over 5,000 free software packages, community reports of successful free software usage from all areas of computing, a directory of people offering their free software services for hire, mailing lists to discuss FLOSS, a list of people who can speak about FLOSS at your events, materials to support your presentations about FLOSS to others, and many other related links.
- How to start contributing to or using Open Source Software
This article explains how to move progressively from proprietary software to FLOSS and provides links to helpful resources such as mentors for this process.
How should my organisation start using ICTs to work online?
Progressively. Using new tools to work will probably bring important cultural changes for your organisation. It is better to incorporate these changes progressively so that your organisation and its members can adjust to the new ways of working and handling the organisation's relations with others.
If your organisation is starting to work online, the best advice is to take some time to think about which processes you want to use these tools for. Then, according to your objectives, choose the tools that are better suited for your organisation. We have found it useful to ask ourselves the following questions:
Step 1: Why are you doing this?
It may seem overly simplistic, but it is very important to have a clear idea of why your organisation wants to start or increase its online work. Is it because you want to save money? Is it because you think it will help you involve younger people? It is very important to make explicit the expectations everyone has regarding what you hope to solve or do better by working online.
The COVID-19 pandemic has created conditions that have generated an imperative for many organisations to work online.
Step 2: What changes do you need to make?
Once your organisation has established clearly in which direction you want to move and why, then you have to draw a map of how you plan to move from point A to point B. It is important to map out all of the changes your organisation will need to make in order to start or strengthen your online work. Then your organisation can prioritise these changes and organise them in a sequence that takes advantage of the resources you already have. For example, if training is needed, are there people within your organisation who can teach others about the new tools?
Step 3 - Which ICT tools can you use to achieve these changes?
Although the same ICT tool can be used for very different purposes, we would like to share our experience with seven commonly used tools to work online: email, direct messaging (chat), wikis, blogs, websites, web conference systems and social media. We trust these examples will serve as inspiration for you to define how you want to use these tools.
In the previous section about frequent online challenges we gave some tips for everyday email use and online communication. Let's look at using mailing lists and the other common tools.
Email requires low bandwidth and is easy to use. However, it is important to note that in APC we use email in a very structured and strategic way.
A mailing list is an automatic message-sending programme that stores a list of the email addresses of all the people interested in a particular discussion. Each discussion has its own email address (e.g. email@example.com), and when a message is sent to the list address, everyone subscribed to the mailing list receives it.
In APC we use email lists to create separate spaces for different working groups. As an international network we handle a high volume of information traffic, so it becomes very important to make sure we deliver the information to the people for whom it is relevant. For example, we have regional email lists, because for an organisation in Asia it is not relevant to receive a call for papers for a conference in Latin America. Your organisation should define how it will filter and organise the information it produces and receives, because if you do not, there is a high risk of feeling overwhelmed.
We have identified the different audiences we interact with and have set up separate spaces for each one. Below are examples of some of the lists we have and what they are used for.
Forum: This is our broadest list. We use it as an information exchange place for staff, members, partners, former staff and other APC friends. It's a mechanism to stay in touch and share information about campaigns, events and activities among people and organisations who are close to APC.
Council: This is a space for council members plus APC staff. Each APC member organisation nominates two representatives to participate in this list. Hence it is also the space where we make official announcements and hold council meetings.
Regional mailing lists: There are separate spaces for APC members and staff based in Africa, Asia-Pacific, Europe, North America and Latin America, so that we can network at a regional level.
Team mailing list: This list is for information exchange for our staff. We’re starting to move some of the discussions that are going on here to our social networking space (such as check-ins, as we frequently post images too, since it brings a sense of “being there”, and lots of images in an email message would eat up bandwidth).
- APC techies: Technicians from APC member organisations use this list to ask for advice, troubleshoot and sometimes plan. It is open to the APC network past and present, so techie “old timers” from the founding of APC are still with us in some cases. And of course they are not even old!
Project lists: Lists are set up each time a new project goes into planning or is being implemented.
To set up an email list you will need to follow these basic steps:
A. Define the purpose of your list
The first step is to decide the objective you have for the list and accordingly choose the list settings.
A list can be open (anyone can subscribe) or restricted (people have to request access); it can be moderated (all messages sent to the list are approved before they are distributed) or non-moderated (messages from members are distributed automatically); it can be an announcement list (only selected people can post) or a discussion list (everyone subscribed can post).
For example, our lists are private working spaces, hence they are all restricted, and since they are networking spaces they are also unmoderated, though periodically we may nominate a facilitator, e.g. for a meeting.
B. Define two basic roles: list owner and facilitator
- List owner
This person will administrate the list technically; they will be in charge of subscribing and unsubscribing addresses and solving technical problems, such as messages that don't arrive correctly. If you decide to make the list moderated, sometimes the list owner is also in charge of moderation. This depends on the level of activity of your list. Some email lists are so active they have moderation as a separate role.
This person is in charge of making sure that the email list meets the objective it was created for. If the email list is for a project, then the facilitator coordinates, reminds people of deadlines and organises the work. If the email list is for interaction and discussion on a specific topic, then the facilitator starts up new discussion threads, summarises inputs from the group and in general creates a good environment for dialogue.
C. Choose the software for your mailing list
As we mentioned above, a mailing list is an automated message-sending programme. You can purchase a mailing list service from an internet service provider or you can use a free commercial service, commonly known as an online group. Here are some pros and cons for both options:
- Private mailing service
- There is a service fee.
- People can participate with any email address they choose.
- No publicity is displayed to users.
- Although messages are stored, there usually is no web interface to store and share documents.
- Free online group
- There is no service fee involved.
- People usually have to create or use an email account from the provider (e.g. a Yahoo! Mail account if you are using Yahoo! Groups).
- Publicity is used in headers, footers and web interface.
- There is usually also a document and message repository that users can view online.
For our discussion lists, APC uses the self-hosted mailing service Mailman. This means we not only decide about how we use the software, but also manage the data that is shared.
For our announcement lists, such as our press statements and newsletters, we use CiviCRM.
Many APC members provide secure mailing lists and other related services. Check the APC website to find out if there is a member providing hosting services in your country.
D. Invite the list members
The last step to start interaction is to invite the people who will be participating in the email list. When you invite people to join the list it is important to explain clearly the purpose of the list, how it will work, how they can unsubscribe and who to ask for help in case they need it.Using email lists for online meetings
One of the most strategic practices we have at APC is using email lists for asynchronous online meetings. When the email lists are used for meetings, we always establish a clear procedure so that everyone involved in the meeting knows how long we will be discussing the topics addressed, what topics will be discussed each day or each week, and how subject lines will be handled.
A typical online meeting can take place over three weeks:
- Week 1: signing in and posting of discussion topics
- Week 2: discussion of topics
- Week 3: voting.
These are the basic steps that we follow for our online council meetings:
Two weeks prior to the meeting, the meeting facilitators will post the proposed meeting agenda and motions to the Board of Directors for approval.
One week prior to the meeting, the executive director will post the meeting agenda, including the full slate of proposed motions, to the council email list. This is an example of how an agenda looks:
Then we start the discussion by sending out one message for each point of the agenda, so that members may reply accordingly to each subject line. The first messages are for checking in: each member that will participate in the meeting sends a short message stating their name and organisation, so that we all know who is participating. Then we continue by replying to messages according to the subject headings of the agenda. Example:
Subject: [APC.council] OLM1110 5: APC 2018 annual report
This topic is for the presentation and discussion of APC's 2018 annual report.
The report is available in English at this page: https://2018report.apc.org/
Once the meeting is finished there is an official message closing the meeting and thanking everyone for their participation. All council members will then receive a summary of the points discussed and the agreements reached.
During the meeting the facilitator has a key role in making sure everyone is participating, clarifying any doubts in the procedures, and asking relevant questions to those members who have been silent (sometimes off list, encouraging them to participate).
Direct messaging platforms have become the norm for online working today. APC uses Mattermost, an open source, self-hosted messaging platform, and it has become an integral part of how we work and communicate. It is here where staff check in on a daily basis in their teams and where most iterative and continual conversations take place.
Whereas we use direct messaging channels for more “continual” and “iterative” conversations, mailing lists are used for information sharing that is intended to have a longer “shelf life”.
Establish some basic rules of how direct messaging will be used for office communications, for example:
- Ask your staff to log into their direct messaging software as part of their daily routine. APC team members log into our Mattermost platform as the first task of the day so that we can instantly see who else is “in the office”. It's a staff commitment and responsibility that if a person is online working, they should be visibly working online, unless they have negotiated to work “offline” for a particular task.
- Ask your staff to maintain a regular daily schedule that includes a check-in or series of check-ins as appropriate
- Ask staff to note their working hours in a profile or status line. As an international network, APC uses UTC (or GMT) as its clock so that we can all reference our time relative to others on the team.
- If you are busy and don't want to be disturbed, set your status accordingly, and be mindful of the status reported by others. You might be bothering your colleague during a meeting or presentation (or while they are sleeping!).
- Identify team members who can provide “gentle facilitation” and curation of your channels, i.e. reminding people of appropriate spaces for sharing content, using agreed naming conventions and protocols, etc.
Protocols, conventions, tips:
- Develop a naming convention that can be used for channels and tags that mirror other naming conventions your organisation already uses, e.g. if you have a naming convention for documents and folders, try to use something similar, or logical, that complements this when creating channels in a messaging platform. If you don’t have a naming convention for your files, folders and other information resources, think about creating one.
- Always have a clear purpose for a channel.
- Include a useful link in the header of a channel, i.e. a link to a folder where you store information most relevant to that channel.
- Make sure that you are posting your message in the correct channel according to the topic, theme and people involved.
- “Quote” or “reply” to an existing comment when answering a question. This keeps conversations “together”.
- For every channel you create, see if you identify one you no longer need or can archive. Messaging platforms have a habit of proliferating channels at great speed ;) so always think carefully about whether you need a new channel, or can use an existing one.
- Use the “flag” and “pin” options available (most platforms will have something similar) to remind you of important messages or messages you want to return to later.
- Don’t use direct messaging if your message is about something that you or a team member might want to refer to in future; an email message might be more appropriate.
Shared document repositories
Where to store the wealth of documents that a team creates is a big issue. Instead of storing in local computers or email, it is better if you can have a document server that the team can share.
A document storage solution should offer ways for you to organise documents in folders, control access to documents (who can read, edit, delete, etc. each file), do simultaneous editing (change the documents online), and share calendars, among other features.
Preferably you should opt for a solution where the data is stored in your own server (a server that you fully manage). At APC we use Nextcloud.
It is key that for shared storage you have a standard folder and subfolder structure, use a file naming convention, and define a set of keywords. All this can help in locating files and maintaining an organised shared space.
A wiki is a web space that allows people to edit and add new content very easily. It is based on simplified mark-up language and creates a series of web pages linked to each other. Pages can be public or private.
A wiki can have public and private areas, requires continuous connectivity, and for most services, you need to have your own hosting.
- It can have public and private areas.
- By creating pages and links, it allows you to organise information.
- Several people can edit a document directly and the wiki stores and compiles the versions automatically.
- It requires continuous connectivity.
- Most services require you to have your own hosting and install the wiki software.
- It is less intuitive than most Web 2.0 tools, so there is more learning involved in how to use it.
APC started using wikis in the early 2000s during our online and offline meetings and for projects.
We like them for projects, as a way to have all the materials and inputs collected in one space. They are also useful for different people to write articles or create materials together and to co-write the final report of an event. If you are new to wikis, you can find tutorials, information and software reviews online.
Using a wiki to write a document together
- Designate someone to create the general structure, including the main headings, the index on the first page and the links to the pages listed on the index.
- Once the general structure is ready, give clear instructions on where each person should contribute. To start, it is best if you assign a subsection to each person.
- Define a working procedure and schedule. For example, you can agree that in week 1 each person will work on their subsections, in week 2 each person will provide feedback on the subsections written by others, and in week 3 each person will integrate all the feedback received and write a final version.
- Wiki systems store all versions of the edited pages, so you can always go back to prior versions and compare.
- Designate a wiki “gardener” who tidies up the wiki if the pages become messy or unstructured.
This tool is used mostly to disseminate content, with the advantage that you can authorise more than one author to write in the same blog. If your organisation does not have a website, a blog can showcase what you do.
Think of a blog as the noticeboard in your office: a place where all co-workers and/or members can post their stories, opinions and events.
If you allow people to comment on your blog posts it is a good idea to moderate the content, so that you can avoid spam and also hateful or disrespectful comments.
In APC our blogspace is “APC with attitude”. We don't change or edit the content (other than occasionally blog titles because they appear on our homepage – edits are usually confined to making the title more relevant to an international audience or fixing typos). It is a great space to hear voices and perspectives from different people around the globe and promote causes and campaigns.
There are many blogging systems: some offer free hosting, others you can download and use from your own server. If you are relatively new to blogs, you can find useful resources on how to get started through these links:
- See APC Talk for examples of diverse blogs (and check our “10 tips to blog for APC”).
- WordPress.org is open source software for creating websites, blogs and apps.
- Drupal.org is an open source solution for the .org community.
- Nonprofit Tech for Good's 10 Blog Content Ideas for Nonprofits
- The Global Voices Guide to Blog Advocacy
- Tor Guide to Blogging Anonymously
- Reporters Without Borders Defence Handbook for Journalists and Bloggers
- How to start a WordPress blog
- Visit the Body and Data blog for more great examples.
A website is a good tool to document and organise content on mid-term and long-term initiatives. It also allows you to integrate several of the tools mentioned above as well as social networking applications.
At APC we have eight active public websites in addition to our main website, APC.org. There are pros and cons to having separate websites for different activities.
Have a separate site if...
- The objective is clearly different from an organisational/network space, e.g. Take Back the Tech!, a campaign site that has contributions by APC and by autonomous campaigners in different parts of the world.
- The site has evolved to have its own identity/community/readership, e.g. GenderIT.org is an APC portal that has evolved to become a key reference site, with its own audience.
- It is a complex site with a navigational structure that retains its own logic, e.g. although it's possible to have a GenderIT.org subsite on APC.org, it would complicate navigation, making it pointless to have it within APC.org.
Use the same site if...
- The areas of work overlap, because the aggregation, monitoring and tracking of information and content on different sites can be difficult and result in double work.
- There is danger of the network identity becoming diluted. Since each site will have its own look and feel, and different people leading it, the network's identity could become diluted or confused.
- It becomes hard to keep the site active and the community engaged. Project budgets do not include sustaining an online space afterwards, animating it with conversations, actions and follow-up.
The official face of an organisation or project
A website can be used as the official presentation of an organisation or programme.
APC.org contains news and information about the use of the internet for social justice and sustainable development from and about APC and the network for the general public. Full versions are available in English, Spanish and French. There is also an associated multilingual newsletter (APCNews) to which anyone can subscribe.
To keep this site updated at least weekly with new content, APC employs language editors and works with a number of translators. We invest significantly in the site as the public face of our work and as a place that tells stories of real uses of ICT for development in the world that otherwise may not be told.
A thematic website can be used to position a topic of special interest for the organisation or network. For example, GenderIT.org hosts APC's gender and ICT policy content. Most of the content is original and produced by commissioned writers. There is a coordinator and editor working in English and Spanish. The site was originally expected to be a space where many different organisations would contribute, so it was not given APC branding. There is an associated newsletter in English and Spanish.
Training and capacity building
A website can also be used as a repository for training resources and products that strengthen the capacities of the network and of others.
How do you develop a website?
What we usually refer to as a website is the combination of three elements: a web hosting service, a domain name and an application that manages the content.
A web hosting service: The information that you are publishing needs to be stored somewhere. There are are companies that provide space on a server they own or lease for use by their clients as well as providing internet connectivity, typically in a data centre; they are called web hosts.
Here are some helpful resources to help you choose your web host:
- How to Choose a Web Host
- Choose a Web Host That’s On Your Side: The Ethics of Green Web Hosting
- Wikipedia: Web hosting service
Remember: Many APC members provide secure hosting services. Check the APC website to see if there is a member providing hosting services in your country.
A domain name: In order for people to find your website you need to give them an “address” in the form of www.mywebsite.com – called a domain name –which you need to purchase. Buying and registering a domain name is a simple procedure and most service providers can set this up for you. Costs vary but can start at between USD 10-25 per year for a domain.
Here are some guidelines:
- Wordpress guide to register a new domain name
- GoDaddy guide to domains
- .org list of domain registrars
- Wikipedia: Domain name registration.
You will also need an application that manages the content (text, images, audio, etc.) that you want to publish. Currently, most people use a content management system (CMS) to develop their website. There are applications you need to pay a licence for and there are free applications. You need to have more technical knowledge to manage a CMS than to use the other tools we have talked about in this guide, but in case you are interested:
- Drupal provides a multitude of out-of-the-box functionalities that help your non-profit manage, collect and disseminate content from the get-go.
- An Absolute Beginner's Guide to Joomla also takes you step by step, and even includes video tutorials to learn how to install and use this application.
- If you are new to WordPress, here is a step-by-step plan for getting started.
Online conferencing systems
One of the greatest hopes we have placed on ICTs is that they will enable us to bridge distances by allowing us to meet and interact online in conditions that are increasingly similar to that of face-to-face interaction. Web conferencing systems have brought us closer to that objective, combining audio, video, chat, screen-sharing, whiteboard and desktop sharing in one single web application.
At APC we use an online meeting/conferencing system in combination with email and direct messaging. For us, using these tools is very important to contribute to reducing the environmental impact of international face-to-face meetings that involve air travel and conference venues. In the section on good practices we talk about how we used the online meeting/conferencing system to hold a project meeting, so we would like to share the basic steps here.
Step 1: Choose an online meeting/conferencing system
There are different types of systems. For some of them, in order to participate in a meeting, you need to download and install software; for others you just need a web browser and a password. Most have a basic set of features that include a shared whiteboard, a chat window, audio (either through VoIP or using a telephone conference call) and video.
Here are some reviews comparing different systems so that you can choose the one that fits your needs and budget. As you will see, many systems involve a fee, although some (such as Jitsi) can be used for free. If you would like further information about Zoom, which APC does use for some situations, and which has become a very popular online meeting option for organisations, we have developed an overview of the pros and cons.
- Online Meeting Tools Review
- 7 open source alternatives to Skype
- Top 20 Best Linux Video Conferencing Software in 2020
- Wikipedia: Comparison of web conferencing software
Step 2: Plan the meeting
As you would do for a face-to-face meeting, you need to plan your virtual encounter.
- Define a date and time that is convenient for most participants. Remember to take into account differences in time zones.
- Define a purpose, objectives and a process for the meeting, and share it with the participants in advance.
- Prior to the meeting, send the participants instructions on technical requirements they will need to connect to the meeting, explaining any adjustments they might need to make on their computers or programmes they might need to download or update. It is very important to offer technical support prior to and during the meeting, as it is very frustrating for participants to be blocked from a meeting due to technical reasons.
Step 3: Facilitate the meeting
- Designate one person as the facilitator of the meeting and one person to provide technical support in case it is needed during the meeting.
- Define a procedure of how the meeting will be carried out and explain it to the participants.
- Have a training meeting for people who are using an online conferencing tool for the first time.
- Also, allocate some time at the beginning of the meeting (30 minutes) for participants to become familiar with the platform and make any technical adjustments necessary to participate. As a facilitator, walk them through the main functions they need to handle to participate in the meeting, such as how to raise their hand, or how to send a public chat message to everyone or a private message for technical support.
Step 4: Send a report to participants
- Once the meeting has finished, it is important to send an email to participants with a summary of the main meeting points and agreements.
- Remember that most online conferencing systems allow you to record the session, which can help you have all the information necessary for the report.
APC developed a guide titled Online Conferencing Tools for Development Practitioners in 2011, which was written at the time to help organisations choose the right tool for their needs.
Although references to some tools may be obsolete, the guide addresses key issues such as privacy, security, interoperability, bandwidth and integration with other tools, and it also provides a glossary of terms associated with these types of tools, which are all issues of great concern when choosing an online conference/meeting platform.
We will be updating this guide to reflect more recent tools and will release it as soon as possible, but still recommend reviewing this guide for its focus on these important concerns which remain relevant, irrespective of the platform you end up choosing.
What is commonly referred to as a social network is really a social networking service or platform:
(…) an online service, platform, or site that focuses on building and reflecting of social networks or social relations among people, e.g., who share interests and/or activities. A social network service essentially consists of a representation of each user (often a profile), his/her social links, and a variety of additional services. Most social network services are web based and provide means for users to interact over the internet, such as email and instant messaging.
There are public social network services (e.g. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Mastodon) where each person signs up for an account and starts building their network. These types of networks were originally used mainly for personal social interaction, but since the number of people who have a profile on them has grown exponentially, they are also being used as spaces to connect professionally, to engage with like-minded people and organisations, to market an organisation's services or to promote specific causes. With a broad range of platforms available, it is important to make thoughtful decisions about which options work best for your organisation’s needs. For example, consider the following: Where do most of your partners, members, communities and networks tend to connect? What type of content will you be sharing? Do you wish to prioritise open source platforms over privately owned/corporate platforms?
The popularity of social network services varies in different countries and continents.
Facebook, the most popular site at the time of writing, has two main networking tools for organisations: Pages and Groups. Pages are used for broader dissemination, since they are indexed and visible to users who are not registered. On the other hand, to receive information from a Group you need to be a member of the Group, so it is considered more geared to interaction. For ongoing dissemination, Pages have generally gained more popularity. More information can be found on Facebook.
At APC we've set up a multilingual Facebook page, which we use mainly to disseminate news from APC to our different audiences. We also maintain a Twitter account where we connect with staff, members and various communities.
If your organisation wants to set up a Facebook Page or a Facebook Group, you will need to set up a personal account and from there create a Page or a Group. Here are some useful resources to make the most of your Page or Group:
What is Creative Commons?
All of these tools and online interaction produce a great amount of content (text, images, audio, video). It is important for you to decide how all of this content will be used, now and in the future. We are living in a time when information can easily be shared, but this also means that it is easier for others to use our documents, video tutorials and radio training programmes, among other materials, in ways that we don't agree with.
One of the ways we have dealt with this challenge at APC is using Creative Commons licences. Creative Commons is an organisation that has developed and supports:
(…) a set of copyright licenses and tools that create a balance inside the traditional 'all rights reserved' setting that copyright law creates. These licenses provide everyone a simple, standardised way to keep their copyright while allowing certain uses of their work – a “some rights reserved” approach to copyright – which makes their creative, educational, and scientific content instantly more compatible with the full potential of the internet.
There are currently six licences, combining one or more of the following aspects:
- Attribution: recognising you as the author of the work – if that is what you want.
- Share-alike: protecting how the work will be shared – if that is what you want.
- No-derivatives: prohibiting others from creating new content based on your work – if that is what you want.
- Non-commercial: forbidding others to use your work commercially – if that is what you want.
If your organisation wants to use a Creative Commons licence for your work, you can use the licence chooser tool. After you select the options that best fit your organisation, the chooser tool will indicate the corresponding licence, as well as the text that you will place on the content you want to protect (document, website, etc.). There is also a FAQ with information about when and how to use Creative Commons licences.
GOOD PRACTICES top
For the past 30 years, APC has developed online processes that accompany almost every aspect of its organisational work. Here we would like to highlight how we put all of that experience together in the implementation of some of our projects and activities. We hope these examples provide some inspiration if you’re considering implementing some of your work online, and welcome feedback and contributions from others who would like to share similar case studies of their work. We will be adding additional APC case studies as they are completed.
GISWatch: Writing a book together online
The Global Information Society Watch (GISWatch) report focuses on ICTs and how they are being implemented in different countries across the world. The purpose of the report is to stimulate a collaborative approach to policy advocacy, and to create a common platform where disparate experiences can be shared. Ultimately, GISWatch hopes to impact on policy development processes in countries, regions and at a global level.
GISWatch takes a different thematic focus each year. Some of the authors who wrote for the first edition (2007) have kept participating every year. Once the topic of focus is decided, a call for proposals is issued for country reports, outlining a report structure that includes the subtitles of each section and indications regarding the desired length and aspects to be touched upon. In addition, the coordination team invites different member organisations to write reports on specific areas pertinent to the theme and follows up with them via email. A style guide and resource links are provided to authors, and an informative webinar takes place.
The coordinator communicates regularly with authors, the editor, the coordination team and the production team. Once the authors send their papers, a back and forth feedback process takes place through email between each author and the editor. When this process has concluded, the authors send in their final drafts.
The main role of the editor is not only to provide this feedback, but also to make sure all contributions are ready in time for the publication. After 13 editions (and growing), GISWatch has become an excellent example of how ICTs can enable us to produce a valuable publication based on country reports from local organisations, a process that in the absence of this technology would become more expensive and difficult to achieve.
Main tools and applications used: email, mailing list, website
FTX: Planning an international workshop together online*
In 2008, the APC Women’s Rights Programme (APC WRP) and the Association for Women’s Rights in Development (AWID) organised the first Feminist Tech Exchange (FTX). The FTX was a three-day gathering of 100 women and men from Asia-Pacific, Africa, Latin America, Europe and North America. It was held in Cape Town, South Africa on 10-12 November, preceding the AWID Forum on 14-17 November.
The FTX gathered activists interested in using ICTs to foster gender equity who represented different regions, types of organisations and thematic issues. As if this wasn't a large enough challenge, the FTX also put together an international team of 16 women trainers from different parts of the world. There was an important preparation process that relied on ICTs, since the members of the coordination team and the trainers were geographically dispersed. During the months prior to the event, the coordination team met online regularly using chat to have synchronous communication, email for follow-up and to exchange documents, and a wiki where each person would contribute to the proposals. There were two face-to-face meetings in preparation for the event, but most of the preparatory process was conducted online, in order to be able to organise five parallel capacity-building tracks and a space for open exchange sessions. This event was a great success in itself, and it inspired the development of other FTX events in different regions and countries worldwide.
Main tools and applications used: email, chat, wiki
*Based on email correspondence with Jac sm Kee (formerly of APC WRP).
GreeningIT: Running an international project workshop online
From 28 October to 5 November 2009, representatives from APC member organisations that were part of the GreeningIT initiative participated in an online research capacity-building workshop. Participants shared their GreeningIT research plans and ICT and climate change policy scan findings, clarified key terms used, and brainstormed for a future GreeningIT global campaign.
Karel Novotný was the organiser and moderator. He announced the workshop on the GreeningIT mailing list, including the schedule, the goals of the activity, and the technical requirements. Participants were asked to test the web conferencing programme to prevent any foreseeable problems. No special equipment was needed, just a regular computer and the software. The activity was carried out over five days, and scheduled during the afternoons based on Central European Time (CET) to handle time zone differences.
This example shows how ICTs can have an important role in helping to reduce the environmental impact that is produced when we have regular face-to-face meetings, by enabling virtual environments that maximise the interaction experience by involving audio and video, as well as other working tools such as a virtual blackboard and shared documents.
Main tools and applications used: email, mailing list, webex (conferencing platform)
Local access and community networks newsletter: A collaborative effort that brings collective knowledge into your email inbox
“Connecting the Unconnected: Supporting community networks and other community-based connectivity initiatives” is a project implemented by APC in partnership with Rhizomatica that contributes to an enabling ecosystem for the emergence and growth of community networks and other community-based connectivity initiatives in developing countries. Peer learning and exchange, awareness raising and capacity building are fundamental pillars in supporting the development of scalable, innovative and sustainable community networks.
To contribute to these objectives, the team identified the need to have a space where all the information circulating on local access and community networks could be shared in a simple way. As a result, in 2018, the team started producing the Local Access and Community Networks Newsletter as a way for relevant news to be shared among community networks.
The Connecting the Connected project team is comprised of 10 community network activists involved in a wide range of fields, from gender to regulation, from tech to community engagement, from research to capacity building. This means that the team as a whole has vast experience that covers extremely wide ground.
The monthly production of the newsletter is a collective effort that requires a collaborative approach among different people playing different roles, including data gathering, curation and editorial decision making, and technical interventions.
Initially, the team started gathering most of the information in a shared collaborative document that was mainly edited by one person, and copy edited by whoever in the team could play that role at the time. Over time, the amount of information gathered started to grow, and the team involved grew with it. This led to the need for changes in two aspects: the editorial approach, and the process of putting together the newsletter.
Editorial approach, content curation and automatic work flows
The team in charge started to have more clarity on which topics to feature in the newsletter, while the content edition approach to the newsletter started shifting from news filtering to a more comprehensive curation of the topics of interest.
In this sense, one of the key decisions made by the team was to highlight the work done in this area by partners and members, deliberately ensuring organisational, gender and geographical balance in their inclusion in the newsletter. This led the team to begin thinking of ways of systematising the authoring process, so they would not miss any pieces of news that were defined as a priority.
As a result, the team set up a system for content curation – self-hosting an instance of tt-rss: https://tt-rss.org/ – that allows regular tracking of diverse sources of information, distributes the workload across the team, has clear paths for information flow, and reduces the repetitive tasks to a minimum. This is used in combination with a templating mechanism developed in CiviCRM which transforms the information collected into a template-designed email.
The system regularly checks sources of information for updates and reports back on what news is coming from each source. It organises the curation work in stages: a) selection that is quick and b) curation that puts the curator in the authoring mindset. The system has also automated most of the publishing work flow, using templates for the authoring of the different pieces that were produced, so only small changes are required every month for the outgoing newsletter and to be distributed to the subscribers database.
Clear roles and responsibilities
With this new automated work flow there are two clearly identified roles: the content curators, and the newsletter editor and publisher.
The content curators are several members of the project team, with at least one curator allocated to each section addressed in the newsletter. Their responsibility is to be on top of their topic, adding sources of information and curating the sources by selecting the news items that are relevant and describing them for the newsletter. This process allows each of the curators to become more acquainted with the topic they curate, to learn from each other's selection criteria in terms of what is a priority and what is not, and to split up responsibilities in clearly defined areas.
The newsletter editor and publisher come in at the end of the process to make editorial corrections to the descriptions written by the curators, and to send out the newsletter via email after notifying the curators that the content will be published.
The automation of news tracking improved the process in the following ways:
- Collaborative approach to the process: The newsletter is produced by the local access project team, in coordination with the APC communications team, involving the tech team in specific stages. There is a clear agreement on the roles to be played, the systems to be used, and the production schedule, with moments for feedback and mutual learning.
- Collecting large amounts of issue-related information: The system now in place gathers relevant information from a number of predefined sources, which reduces the number of websites and spaces that the curators need to check. This achieves more in less time and in a less stressful way. The tool used also allows indexing and caching of sources of information and allows for future text search. So if the curators want to know about a certain topic, they can go back in time and see if something was published about it.
- Specialised curation roles: The curators have an informed eye when it comes to categorising what content is relevant for featuring, understanding that the time it takes to read relevant information is precious, and readers of the newsletter should be able to get the most out of it. That is why the newsletter is concise, including only a few relevant links per month, providing the option of reading more if the readers want to.
- Stable “send-out” schedule: With this system in place, the team will be able to send out an edition of the newsletter on a monthly basis, but in principle it could eventually be done at any time in the process, since the news gathering happens on an ongoing basis. This ensures that relevant and time-sensitive information gets to the readers when they most need it, as in the case, for example, of funding opportunities.
APC would like to thank all the members, staff and partners in the APC network that made possible the first edition of this guide, contributing their time for interviews, consultations and feedback, as well as Margarita Salas and Sulá Batsú who put together this indispensable material.
A first version of this guide was published in 2011, authored by Margarita Salas and Sulá Batsú, with support from the International Development Research Centre (IDRC). The changes made in this second version of the guide reflect the availability of new tools and the new learnings we have made in the nine years that have passed since the first edition was published.
Published by APC
2020 (first edition in 2011)
Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)
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