Funding story: AOL, Citizens Online and Sign

Broadband internet links help Sign communicate with its clients - deaf people with mental health problems.

Blogs, webcasting and online discussion groups are all becoming increasingly popular with third sector organisations, and new technology has made enormous differences to the lives of a lot of disabled people and other service users. At the same time, the 'internet divide' has become a cliche - although five-year-olds are learning about IT at school, National Statistics estimates that 43 per cent of UK households don't have internet access.

In this context, the definition of 'innovative' has to be very broad.

Is a project innovative because it provides a fancy new bit of kit, or because it enables people to do some really rather mainstream things - possibly in ways that aren't to do with the kit at all?

It is a question that AOL and Citizens Online tackle each year when awarding funding: since 2003 they have made 30 awards of £2,000 and a year's free subscription to broadband every year. "We actually started this after we were approached by a homework club that wanted money for a toaster to encourage children to attend," says Vicki Prior, head of corporate responsibility at AOL UK. "It wasn't for anything like software at all. There are different trends every year. Initially, a lot of people looked for funding for setting up websites. Now we're seeing people who do have websites, but need to expand them in some way. Essentially, we just need them to show that, first, their pro-ject is innovative and, second, it'll have a demonstrable impact on the users."

Sign, which enables deaf people with mental health problems to live independently, has won funding in successive years. Previous money has paid for a trainer to teach service users how to use technology such as mobile phone texting.

This year's award will pay for installing video phones and webcams in Sign centres and some clients' homes. "These are people who once would have been living in institutions," says Lauren Besant, corporate appeals manager at Sign. "The technology means staff can communicate with clients, in real time, using British Sign Language. That'll make a huge difference to our outreach services."

It's also interesting that this fund is relatively small, but open to organisations of any size. "As long as it's something to do with the internet, it's worth applying," Prior sums up. Emily Turberville-Tully of Citizens Online adds: "This is about giving people the chance to come up with new ideas, and giving them the funding to pilot it. We don't want to restrict people."

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