Online Philanthropy

The Wall Street Journal has an article today titled, “A New Generation Reinvents Philanthropy”:

Young donors and volunteers, snubbing traditional appeals such as direct mail and phone calls, are satisfying their philanthropic urges on the Internet. They’re increasingly turning to blogs and social-networking Web sites, such as MySpace and Facebook, to spread the word about — and raise funds for — their favorite nonprofits and causes. They’re sending Web-based fund-raising pitches to their friends and families, encouraging them, in turn, to forward the appeals to their own contacts.

At the same time, a growing number of charities — ranging from start-ups to established names such as the Salvation Army — are launching profiles on popular social-networking sites, hoping that young people will link up to the pages. Some are also encouraging bloggers to mention the causes on their sites, raising thousands of dollars in small donations from readers.

Innovations in online philanthropy is often attributed to “young people”, but I think it is probably more useful to think of the “young people” as early adopters rather than the phenomenon being linked to youth. There once was a time not too long ago when you saw stories about how “young people are embracing email” or “young people are flocking to online banking” or “young people are spending more time online”. All of those were true statements, but today, while there is still a correlation between age and use of email, online banking or time spent on line, these technologies are moving up the age demographic as the “young people” age and the technologies move out of “early adopter” stage.

It is easy to dismiss online philanthropy as something that is only relevant to young people (ie. donors without much money or clout in philanthropy). I mean can you imagine a 60-year-old major donor adding a charity to her “friends” profile on MySpace? But the key is to recognize that as the phenomenon matures, secondary adopters (the traditional movers and shakers in philanthropy) will not start doing the same things with the technology that the young early adopters did, they will use the technology in ways that suite them. But one way or another they will start using the technology. Remember, many grandmothers have a cell phone, use email, and view online photo albums. Five years ago, that wasn’t true. Five years from now, might major donors be gravitating to nonprofits that have an effective web presence (and no, I don’t mean a static website)? I think so.


  1. Holden says:

    Also, young people today can be donors, and the way the world is going, that’s only going to be more the case. It is so much more common for young people to have extra dough today than it used to be, and I’m not sure fundraisers appreciate this (they’re always talking about how all past generations started giving once they hit retirement).

    This isn’t like past generations, it’s totally different. I had a huge pile of extra cash when I was 23, for crying out loud. And I hadn’t even started a business or struck it rich or done anything else crazy – I was just a finance dude. I had tons of friends in the same spot, and as information becomes more valuable relative to labor, and incomes become even more lopsided, this is going to become a bigger deal.

    The question is, who’s going to get those young kids from “pile of money” to “giving?” It’s not at all safe to assume that the set of techniques that works on other generations is what works on them.

  2. That’s a good point Holden. Note this quote from the article:

    “You can donate money to a charity, but it seems like it just goes into a pile and you never know what really goes on there,” says Mr. Alamo, the Kiva lender. “With Kiva, you just pick someone out and lend to them directly and watch what they do and how they succeed. That was the main appeal.”

    I would guess that Gen X & Y are both, as a group, relatively distrustful of large organizations’ ability to affect change. The direct connection that Kiva draws is compelling. There are pros and cons with direct gifting, but I think that social media tools allow for organizations to create a more direct relationship with their donors, regardless of whether their appeal is for a direct gift or for overhead.

  3. I think we will begin to see more people using online philanthropy for international giving (ex. as a way for donors to feel like they are closer to the work on the ground and to enhance nonprofit accountability. I think many traditional nonprofits see online giving as a gimmick rather than a new way to interact with the public and engage them in the work of the nonprofit, which is disappointing.

  4. Trista, I think it is disappointing, but not unexpected. Most organizations are not first movers (by definition really, if everyone was a first mover we’d have to call it something else).

    I think what is a gimmick is the idea that online tools can just be thrown up on the web and donations will pour in. As if the existence of a website or blog was all that was needed.

    Implementing online tools is really hard, just like all of the other work that nonprofits and foundations do. It is not some easy path to success, but I think these tools will be powerful competitive advantages to the organizations that implement them well.

  5. Emily Turner says:

    Sean, thanks for making that point of moving away from the “young people are all tech savvy” generalisation and noting that it’s just more likely that younger people are going to be early adopters.

    I find I’m increasingly frustrated lately by assumptions that youth = technological skill (and therefore age = inability to learn tech skills).

    The philanthropy sector is, I must say, on the older end of the scale in terms of the people in it. At times it feels like I’m constantly fighting a battle to convince the people in it that they *are* actually capable of using this ‘new’ technology; it’s just a matter of learning, and what you need to learn is no different no matter what age you are!

  6. Thanks Emily. But don’t be frustrated. If you had gotten frustrated when you were trying to get your grandmother to buy a cell phone and use email in 2001, it would have been a mistake. Technologically savvy people often don’t get why everyone isn’t an early adopter. Within the philanthropy community I’m considered someone who knows about technology. Both Council on Foundations and the Hewlett Foundation have recently asked me to speak at upcoming conferences about social media tools and philanthropy. But I’m not an early adopter. True early adopters are already saying that blogging is dead, that all communication is going to go through social networks. I’m way behind the times.

    But that’s OK. Keep trying to get the people around you to adopt newish tech. But don’t get frustrated, you can’t turn them into early adopters. They’ll get on board as time goes by.

  7. Mike Mitchell says:

    Trista, I appreciate your comments. Internet access and charity work is not all about sticking my hand in the donor’s pocket, but in social NETWORKING, helping each reader to interact with my charity in ways that are meaningful to them. The hoped-for end state is that they give both time and money to my cause before they give to yours. The Intenet helps us reach “friendship” staus faster than by sending direct mailings to their USPS box.

  8. Thanks for stopping by Mike. How are you using the internet to achieve “friendship status”?

  9. Emily Malloy says:

    Great post, Sean… I think online technology brings with it a new kind of thinking that may also intimidate nonprofits. As you mentioned, this is not just about publishing a static website or a few e-newsletters. This is about leveraging online technology as a central vehicle for deepening donor relationships and expanding the impact of donor dollars.

    As someone who is the same age as Mark Zuckerberg, I really don’t see the line anymore where traditional organizational activity ends and online activity begins. I think that’s where many nonprofits still hold themselves back… not only do they view tech savvy as a young person’s ability, but they continue to think that online communication happens in a separate place—one that they can choose to be inside or outside of.

    Google alone has proven that’s no longer the case. Everything, in a sense, is online and available in a flat, highly connected way. The internet is no longer the place you “go to” or “sign on” to access finite information. Young people simply understand this more intuitively, and therefore (to Trista’s point about the web seeming like a “gimmick” to nonprofits) they also engage with it more authentically.

    It will be difficult for nonprofits to benefit from online technology in the same ways until this new kind of thinking is reflected in their staff, boards, and volunteers. In my mind, that hurdle is bigger and probably more important than helping nonprofits understand the technical/”how-to” aspects of using online tools like blogs, social networking sites, etc.

  10. Emily, getting people to “understand” the web is far more important than getting them to understand the “how-to”. If you show me a nonprofit or foundation board that really understands what the web “means”, I’ll show you a board that has hired IT professionals and marketing people that know the “how-to”. We need board members to be power users so that they truly understand the web, but we don’t need them to be IT pros.