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Michael Hoffman quoted in today’s Chicago Tribune

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Charities see potential in tapping young Web users to promote their causes online

By Wailin Wong

Tribune reporter

April 30, 2008

Online social networks used to be just gathering places for friends and long-lost acquaintances. Then the marketers arrived, followed by politicians and job recruiters, all looking to tap into a growing mass of young people who are spending much of their time on the Web. Now, non-profit organizations are testing ways to raise money through these networks, betting that the Internet’s viral nature will open fresh avenues for fundraising and marketing.

It’s a big change for non-profits as they shift from direct-mail campaigns and relying on the checkbooks of older givers to the unpredictable whims of Web popularity. Though the transition is nascent, charities see potential in recruiting young activists who already use online networks to broadcast their identities and make connections.

Actress Cynthia Osuji of New York is a case in point. She became interested in a women’s health non-profit when she received a mass e-mail about auditions for a Circle of Health International-sponsored benefit production of Eve Ensler’s “A Memory, A Monologue, A Rant and A Prayer.” The group also was seeking board members to plan the show.

After Osuji, 26, won a spot in the cast and joined the board, she added a copy of the show poster to her MySpace profile. Out-of-town friends who couldn’t attend the show ended up making donations and two “Facebook friends,” casual acquaintances who learned of the benefit through the site, came to the March performance.

Osuji said the show brought her back into community service, an activity she hadn’t pursued since high school. “Violence against women and women in conflict [areas] is something that’s very personal to me,” she said.

Circle of Health International has its own Facebook page, and 26-year-old Matt Bieber clicked on an application called Causes that allowed him to invite more than 100 of his 200-plus contacts to publicize the non-profit on their profile pages. His recruitment effort was akin to distributing virtual bumper stickers with the option to donate through the site. Eleven of his friends added the non-profit to their profiles.

Sean Parker, who helped create Causes, said, “If you can activate a group of people and get some of those people to replicate the process … you’ve got the basis for a movement.”

Outside of general communities like Facebook and MySpace, there are also social networking sites dedicated to philanthropy such as YourCause.com, HopeEquity .org and actor Kevin Bacon’s SixDegrees.org.

Now established institutions like the MacArthur Foundation and the Case Foundation want to know more about the tie between digital life and philanthropy. They are funding studies of online social networks, civic engagement in the Millennial Generation and philanthropy in virtual worlds like Second Life.

“We’re not claiming [online networks are] the panacea for philanthropies,” said Ben Binswanger, the Case Foundation’s chief operating officer. “[But] we think it’s way too early to dismiss it as an Internet fad. … We’re going to keep pushing down this path because we see enough spark here to make it interesting.”

Power to engage

For non-profits, the power of social networks is engagement, not necessarily sheer dollar numbers.

“If you send out a direct-mail piece, you never know if people open it up or not, unless they mail a check back to you,” said Steve Byers, director of development and communications at Kansas-City based WaterPartners International, which promotes safe drinking water. “With the online community, we know which pages they’re clicking on. … They want to provide feedback and interact with the organization in ways that are very exciting and challenging.”

WaterPartners created three fictional characters from Ethiopia, India and Honduras and placed them in a virtual village on Second Life to illustrate the challenges of accessing potable water. The avatars also have profiles on MySpace and Facebook, and shots of their Second Life village are posted on photo-sharing site Flickr. While the amount of money raised so far is tiny, Byers said he could see online marketing and fundraising slowly displacing direct mail.

“I’ve been in fundraising for over 20 years, so this is really kind of a brave new world for me,” he said. “I’ve really had to rethink my whole approach to fundraising through the Internet.”

Clearly, online fundraising is in its infancy. A survey by The Chronicle of Philanthropy showed that online giving for 187 large charities totaled $1.2 billion in 2006, up from $881 million in 2005. But of 147 organizations, 103 said online donations accounted for less than 1 percent of total contributions in 2006.

“There is no really large, significant fundraising happening on social networks, but there’s a sense in the non-profit community that that’s where the prospects come from,” said Michael Hoffman, chief executive of Chicago non-profit consulting firm See3 Communications.

Building relationships

Some non-profits that have a presence on social networking sites have discovered a new relationship with users.

Carie Lewis, the Humane Society’s Internet marketing manager, said she finds herself responding to lots of mundane questions on pet care as a result of maintaining a presence on Facebook, MySpace, YouTube and Flickr. More important, Lewis said she’s discovered supporters outside the organization’s traditional demographic of women in their 50s.

“It was a lot of work, but it really paid off for us,” Lewis said. The Humane Society has raised more than $33,000 on Facebook from users who have set up pages to protest everything from puppy mills to seal clubbing in Namibia. The amount of money raised is small, but convinced Lewis’ bosses that the online efforts have merit.

“Traditionally, I think non-profits focus on high-value donors, and what MySpace provides is an enormous network of people who are able to get involved through volunteering, offline events and donating in smaller amounts,” said Lee Brenner, who oversees activism-related content on MySpace.

Link [Chicago Tribune]

Copyright © 2008, Chicago Tribune

4 Comments

I have a number of patients whom I have been assisting personally out of pitty who do not have even transport back to their homes and no money to come back for medication. This has really prompted me to ask for money to help these desperate women and children in my area Masaka Uganda. The need is endless yet the funds are limited. Everyday I have to carry some money to meet the needs of these women.

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