First, Get a Worthwhile Cause; Then Get Wired
Feb. 24, 2009, The Chronicle of Philanthropy — The comedian Steve Martin used to do an amusing routine in the 1970s that ran something like this:
You can be a millionaire ... and never pay taxes! Yes, you can be a millionaire ... and never pay taxes! You say: "Steve ... how can I be a millionaire ... and never pay taxes?"
First ... get a million dollars. Now ...
Any discussion these days of online social activism and the promise of the super-wired millennial generation with nonprofit leaders tends to bring to mind a version of Martin's hilarious — and perfectly-timed — joke: "How can we do what Barack Obama did to attract millions of Americans to a cause and raise oceans of money in the bargain?"
First ... get Barack Obama. Now ...
While it's certain that the president's message of change and dynamic personal appeal inspired a virtual army of supporters, the overwhelming success of the Obama campaign on the Web also tends to eclipse how the nature of online communications is changing philanthropy.
In truth, Mr. Obama's online blockbuster didn't so much reinvent the nature of online fund raising as it did take advantage of long-standing trends in demographics and technology — trends that will ultimately change how nonprofit groups present their causes to a younger, wired public.
The Obama campaign's success should be viewed as both proof of the vast organizational possibilities of a mature wired network, and an impetus for further investment by nonprofit groups and social entrepreneurs in connecting people via the Internet. Even now, as the economy continues to falter, low-cost online campaigns can spur real results for organizations during hard times — and create a new pipeline to the donors of the future.
Imagine hundreds of thousands, or even millions of small groups. Some of those groups are two people. Some are many millions themselves. Some raise money. Some distribute video. Some build lists of activists and supporters. Some knock on doors, virtual and otherwise. All are connected, wired, and driven by the causes they are organized to support. That is not some imagined vision of a futuristic digital nirvana. That is now.
This is what I call the cause-wired phenomenon, and it includes online social activism, nonprofit fund raising, wired social entrepreneurship, and political organizing. It overlaps the larger worlds of organized charity and nonprofit groups, of politics and policy organizing, of consumer brands and marketing — even as it changes them. It rides the demographic trends of a younger, super-wired group of active citizens. So far millions of people and groups, big and small, have used social networks to raise money, to push for votes, or to bring attention to some cause that will make the world a better place.
Those new types of organizations and activists encourage an abandonment of the kind of top-down paternalism that has institutionalized much of mainstream philanthropy. They rely on full access to information, on the public's expectations of openness in transactions, and on the new activists' insistence on expansive public disclosures in political campaigns and government. Donors at even the smallest level of commitment are gaining access to information about the successes or failures of the projects they support, and, on occasion, direct access to the people they seek to help. This doesn't simply lower boundary walls, it destroys them. Groups that understand the new world of connected activism thrive on experimentation and risk; they encourage the flow of capital to projects that may carry the promise of world-changing success, as well as the possibility of failure.
In just the last few years, we've moved to a far more connected Internet. On any given day, I stay in touch with hundreds of people — real friends and Facebook "friends" — and they keep track of me through Facebook, via Twitter, by subscribing to blog feeds or Flickr feeds, or YouTube accounts.
That infrastructure of personal interaction allows for a kind of charitable involvement that is both personal and open to the world, what the microfinance pioneer Susan Davis terms "the philanthropy of you."
It is no accident that two of the poster children for changing how society engages in philanthropy are social-network friendly, highly viral organizations that operate primarily online: the microfinance site Kiva and DonorsChoose.org, the organization that mobilizes people to provide money teachers can use to buy equipment for their classrooms.
The ability to tap vast databases and provide a personal donor or lender experience is at the forefront of online social activism. Together they form what Ben Rattray, founder of Change.org, calls "the megapublic," a vast and interconnected army of people who, at least in part, want to change the world.
One of the newest of these social-change start-ups is the tiny Lend4Health, which raises money to provide small loans to families of children with autism spectrum disorders to pay for alternative biomedical treatment. Inspired by Kiva, Lend4Health was created from scratch using blogging software by Tori Tuncan, a consultant in the Washington metropolitan area and the mother of a toddler with sensory issues. The site has facilitated about $15,000 in loans so far and remains small in scale. Yet the stories of the children and their families are compelling.
On a much larger scale is the innovative Social Actions, brainchild of the microphilanthropy consultant Peter Deitz and one of the hottest online social-activism start-ups. Social Actions aggregates, well, social actions — "actionable opportunities" to give, volunteer, organize, or pledge through more than 40 online networks, including Kiva, DonorsChoose.org, Change.org, Care2, ChangingthePresent, Razoo, GlobalGiving, Idealist.org, The Point, VolunteerMatch, Zazengo, and others. You can search for ways to get involved — on efforts related to, say, "poverty" or "ecology" — and get a wide range of results to choose from.
But Social Actions doesn't rely on its Web site; its team is developing a range of applications and widgets that allow those opportunities to take action to pop up all over the Internet, so they turn up near any closely related content on Web pages. Social Actions has an open model that also allows other developers to create their own online tools using the project's database of 20,000 continuously updated actions. The basic idea is to help more people find and share opportunities to make a difference. And Social Actions has just announced Change the Web 2009, a large-scale contest to reward innovative uses of its database for doing good.
What Lend4Health and Social Actions have in common is simple — neither has tax status as a stand-alone charity. Their founders didn't have the time or inclination to wait for government approval to attack the ambitions they set for themselves.
And they understand that causes don't spread just because they are good; they spread because people spread them. This seems simple and rather obvious, but it's the basic secret sauce behind the rise of all the online social networks. In short, people like being asked nicely to do things by other people they know — that request validates the relationship.
Nonprofit groups should be paying attention because this is not just about raising money online, but about raising the next generation of donors. The young men and women now entering the work force for the first time have lived much of their lives online, and they bring with them in their introduction to the national economy — and our society — great expectations for lightning-fast communications, openness, and the ability to change the landscape quickly.
Since Netscape popularized the Web browser in the mid-1990s, nonprofit groups have looked to an online donor pool as a source of increased revenue, yet the growth of Internet philanthropy has been nothing like the explosive power of the commercial Web itself. The greatest growth for philanthropy has accompanied disastrous news stories: the 2001 terrorist attacks and natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina and the South Asian tsunamis. And those surges have often been about convenience and immediacy — donors' instincts tell them a fast online contribution may be the only way to "help now."
But as the Web experience grows ever more personal and less and less about big sites and well-known brands, so too does the giving experience, especially for young people who have grown up online. Will online social activism unleash a golden age for philanthropy, for activism, for citizen engagement? Perhaps. Some of it is still gimmickry and fast marketing. Yet the cause-wired movement is also changing lives and inspiring a generation of wired social entrepreneurs to reach for something better.
Tom Watson is the author of CauseWired: Plugging In, Getting Involved, Changing the World (Wiley, 2008) and managing partner of CauseWired Communications, a consulting company in New York.