You can probably find someone who will tell you, with great authority, that almost any guess you have heard is completely correct. Or completely bogus.
On the related — but much simpler — question of how nonprofits started using the Internet, a pioneer of that movement has done some online research. Jayne Craven’s “Brief Review” of developments before 1996 in online work by NPOs is posted online at her website.
It’s interesting to trace the beginnings of such familiar names as Volunteer Match, Handsnet, and yes, Idealist. Frankly, we’re proud that both Idealist and the Nonprofit FAQ have roots that go back more than a decade, to the early days of exploration about how this now familiar resource might help to build better communities and enrich people’s lives.
If you know of someone who was actively working on developing Internet connections for a nonprofit organization (or for nonprofit organizations in general) in 1995 or earlier you might want to take up the invitation toward the end of the review and give Jayne Cravens the details. After all, most of the resources she writes about were started, and continue to this day, as collaborations among public spirited people who wanted to share their enthusiasm for something new, for something utterly useful, for something that offered seemingly limitless possibilities for creative new forms of action and of service.
PS: DARPA is not a character in Star Trek but an acronym for Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (part of the US Department of Defense), which actually did provide some of the funding for the initial networks and related research that have grown into the Internet. Norbert Wiener was an MIT professor who invented the World Wide Web (sort of) before there was any computer anywhere that could possibly have supported it.
[This blog entry appeared on an older version of Idealist; any broken links are a result of having re-launched our site in Fall 2010.]