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.