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Modem Operandi 

For Vermont nonprofits, the revolution will be e-mailed

click to enlarge Illustration by Paula Myrick
  • Illustration by Paula Myrick

Vermont nonprofits have joined the cyber-revolution, making it a lot easier to put your money, and your mouth, to work. That is, Web sites around the state are increasingly offering ways to help you be an e-activist, by sending contributions and comments online.

You can sign up online to volunteer for the United Way, charge a donation to your credit card or download a pledge form.

You can find all the major charities, as well as lesser-known Vermont agencies such as the Law Enforcement Bicycle Association of Richmond, at

With just a few mouse clicks you can get a bushel basket of planting information from the National Gardening Association in South Burlington, or make a secure, online contribution to the group’s highly praised Youth Gardening Program.

University of Vermont alums can get e-mail updates about campus goings-on or the next fundraising mixer in their town.

On the Vermont Public Interest Research Group Web site, environmental and health-care enthusiasts can log on to view videotapes of corporate lobbyists testifying before legislative committees; you can even e-mail members of the committee.

This is all part of the cyber strategy that Vermont nonprofit organizations are adopting to educate their members, solicit funds and accomplish their respective missions. It makes perfect sense: The number of Chittenden County households with an Internet connection has surpassed the 50 percent mark.

National Gardening Program Director Joan White says her organization is getting more serious about the Internet and recently added secure-donation software to She attended a week-long conference in California where the “pitch” was online fundraising. “One of the things we heard was that the most powerful tool is probably e-mail,” White notes. “Universities have been the most successful with it, because of their captive audience of alumni. Princeton seems to be one of the front-runners.”

E-mail also allows an organization to thank donors quickly and keep them posted about news and events.

National Gardening hopes to build an e-mail list of donors and key supporters of its national effort to get kids gardening. But sending out unsolicited e-mail “spam” is a no-no, suggests White. “E-mail ethics is very important” in building an electronic mailing list, she insists. “You need to get permission first.”

White adds that people can become educated about a range of ethical questions about e-mail marketing by visiting — what else? — a Web site:

White predicts that more groups will turn to online fundraising in the near future. The costs are usually lower than traditional methods, and the results can be better. Reports from the nonprofit front lines show that, while a direct-mail contribution might average $25, online gifts average $125.

Still, White recommends nonprofits use electronic efforts to supplement, not replace, proven fundraising efforts. “The Internet is just another tool, but a very different one,” she says. “You’ve got to keep doing the other fundraising things as well — they’re important.”

The Vermont Public Interest Research Group is trying to blend new, rapid-response Internet efforts with its proven door-to-door summer membership drives led by young, idealistic field workers. Outreach Director Peter Sterling is positioning the group’s Web site — at — as “the gateway to activism” in Vermont. “We hope people will be able to come to the site, pick something they’re interested in, and get involved,” he says.

The VPIRG Web site is well-stocked with issue reports, including the group’s current top targets of campaign-finance reform, health care, Act 250 and clean-water legislation. You can sign up for e-mail bulletins about your favorite hot-button issues, join the organization or make a donation.

What’s really noteworthy about the site, though, is its video links, produced by staffer Matt Holland, who previously worked at Microsoft and Real Networks. He joined the Vermont organization in January.

A VPIRG videographer spends time at the Statehouse each week, taping committee meetings, testimony, floor debates and interviews. “He brings it back to the office and then we convert it to RealVideo and post it on our video server,” explains Holland. “We then have a Webmaster who puts all the pages together. A person can go to the Web site and click on a link to a video clip.” To view all this coverage, you need a 56k modem and RealPlayer software — a free download.

Holland is now working on a system that will enable VPIRG to insert its own message right next to a video of committee testimony from, say, a corporate lobbyist.

“We really want the Web site to be more than just an online newsletter,” Sterling notes. “We want people to get information, to get involved and to take action. Quite bluntly, this is the future.”

Sterling cites the impressive power of electronic messages via e-mail. “We can send 2000 e-mails at a click,” he notes. Given the tendency of the Legislature to take up amendments or schedule testimony at a moment’s notice, e-mail far surpasses the ability of “snail mail” to prod people into contacting a legislator.

“E-mail is a great way to activate people, to get results,” he says. “We can have people take action within an hour, and that’s really valuable. Door-knocking is a great recruiting tool, but this is the way activism is going.”

You can donate to VPIRG online now, but that is hardly prominent on the Web site. Sterling says the canvassing troops will be visiting Vermont neighborhoods once again this summer to sign up members and raise some of the organization’s $900,000 budget.

Not every nonprofit is sold on cyber, though. The Essex Town PTO — which, along with hundreds of other Vermont tax-exempt organizations, can be found at — is still waiting for its first online contribution. For the time being, says PTO secretary Karen Nakos, the group will concentrate on its traditional fall gift-wrap sales program, which last year cleared more than $20,000. “We support the performing arts, help purchase sports equipment and library materials,” she explains of the parent-teacher organization. “The gift wrap project is very successful.”

So much for a paperless revolution.

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