I was not around in the old days. But it is my impression that TFN lost its way back around the year 2000. Prior to that, TFN was about providing Internet access free-of-charge. Then, TFN was forced to change its business model: from government grants to user fees. But we aren't doing a very good job of articulating TFN's value within the new reality. TFN continues to ask for money, yet it can no longer explain adequately why it is worthy of charity. Our website was full of apologies and defensive explanations. Last May, I moved some of that material to less prominent pages.
I think that this loss of mission is a partial cause of TFN's lack of advertising. In all the advertising materials that I have seen, the old "free Internet" message and our cost-recovery reality are either clashing or one of the two is completely excluded. This isn't just a philosophical problem, it has serious consequences:
We receive virtually no corporate or private donations. The loss of our charitable status, by our own fault long ago, didn't help. We do still get some government grants.
Many of the people receiving hiSpeed Internet service from TFN were solicited as customers and never registered as members at all. They have no voting rights; they think of TFN as just a discount ISP.
People in the TFN office tend to refer to members as "customers". Sometimes, that is just an innocuous slip of the tongue. But sometimes it may also truly represent our attitude. How else would we have ended up with our non-voting users?
Also, members calling for support or coming in to pay the dues for their access level are sometimes treated as consumers to be served (i.e. a necessary chore) rather than as stakeholders who could be engaged to help others, in return, once they have been helped.
It's a slippery slope. When surrounded by commercial entities, it is easy to become jaded or to unconsciously fall into using the thinking and operating modes of the dominant culture.
My understanding of TFN's mission, is that TFN serves communities which are under-serviced by mainstream ISPs. It doesn't just provide connectivity; it helps members learn about the Internet. It recovers its costs, as all organizations must if they are to survive. Unlike a commercial entity, TFN empowers those it serves, enabling them to engage in TFN's decisionmaking and in its operations. On top of that, TFN's service is affordable! Even free, if your needs are very small!
Some of this reflects current reality; on other parts we fall terribly short. As a start, I want us to do a better job of communicating clearly what we are all about. Both to current and to potential members. Through the website, in our email messages, at the office. A vision cannot become a reality if it isn't internalized by the members. A clear understanding of our raison d'être would also dramatically help our advertising.
You may have noticed that I did not mention the "is a central point of reference" mission. We are too far from such a reality to speak of it meaningfully or even with a straight face. But if any people volunteer their time to pursue that goal, I certainly will support them fully.
Copyright (C) 2009 Iain Calder. All rights reserved.