Monday, December 29, 2008

Is Your Cause Wired for 2009?

It probably happens to you once or twice a year.

A well known charity knocks at your door during its annual fund raising appeal. You make a donation and in return get a receipt. This brief encounter speeds your money off somewhere to help someone somehow. Or you might donate regularly to an aid agency that sends out an annual letter about a sponsored child in the third world.

This remote control philanthropy – where your donation helps someone but you’re unsure who or how - is set to change according to US author Tom Watson. In his book Cause Wired he argues that Web2.0 technology is arming not for profit organizations with “weapons of mass collaboration” and transforming how people support good causes.

Watson believes that social networking applications like Facebook, MySpace, Linkedin etc are evolving from personal promotion into important fund raising, activist and political tools. And it seems Internet users across generations are welcoming the change. Members of Generation Y find that digitally supporting the issues they believe in is a natural extension of living their lives online in public. And Baby Boomers are attracted because the new ways of giving allow them to be personally involved and see results for themselves.

Pioneer charities are beginning to use the power of Web 2.0 to gather, sort and distribute information to donors in a way once reserved for only their very wealthiest supporters. is probably Cause Wired’s best example of online fund raising. This digital not for profit allows small scale donors to use their credit cards and laptops to help struggling entrepreneurs in developing countries.

For a $25 upwards you can join with others to loan money to specific individuals in specific countries such as a group of women needing sewing machines for their garment start-up or impoverished taxi drivers urgently after car repairs. Kiva works through established non government organizations (NGOs) and the web to provide the loans, monitor repayments and continually report back to donors through reports and images from the field.

Watson cites other cases where digital philanthropy is achieving equally impressive results but he tempers his enthusiasm. While a campaign on a social networking site like Facebook may raise awareness of an important environmental, human rights or other issue, the actual fund raising figures for many charities still remain modest.

Cause Wired also explores how Web2.0 can empower political organizations and community movements to connect with citizens and consumers. Perhaps Barack Obama’s Presidential election campaign is among the most powerful example of new media technologies helping to win a cause.

While Watson’s 236 page book is enthusiastic about the new possibilities it acknowledges its limits. Online causes can get tens of thousands even millions of people talking. But they still need online leaders. Just like the bricks and mortar world committed individuals who can organize, coordinate, administer and generally keep things moving are still at a premium. And transitioning this digital attention to real world results is still the acid test. Once you have raised awareness you still need to motivate people to take out their cheque books and man the barricades.

Cause Wired is a very good, easy to read book. It is a must for marketers in not for profit and community organizations who want their fund raising efforts to remain competitive in the coming year.

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