Nonprofits embracing social change to promote their missions isn’t exactly new, but some groups are using the social Web to recruit, educate, and help people in novel ways. The payoff? Donors get to see the direct results of what they contribute, rather than just collecting another tax writeoff.
DonorsChoose.org, a nonprofit pioneered by Bronx, N.Y., high school teachers, is using the Internet in an innovative way to address a chronic shortage of learning materials. If you're a teacher, you can use their site to describe your class projects and the funding you need for them.
If you're a contributor, you can fund projects in full or in part. Once a project is completed, you'll get a full report from the classroom, with photos, showing what's happened. You can also set up a competition, where people select a group of projects to represent them. Contributors "vote" for the competitors by funding their projects.
In some respects, DonorsChoose illustrates the democratizing effects of the Internet. Most people want to make a difference, to help out others. However, conventional philanthropy is indirect, and you rarely see the effects of your contribution. With DonorsChoose, the middleman is minimal, and the help you provide is direct, with real feedback.
The Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA) effectively uses Web 2.0 tools to educate the public and raise money to help improve the lives of veterans and their families. For example, IAVA is promoting the new GI Bill, which provides reasonable educational benefits to returning veterans. Part of their efforts involves reaching out to bloggers (including myself). IAVA also uses the Net to promote other related efforts, including adequate medical treatment for veterans, and immigration of translators from Iraq into the U.S.
VotoLatino.org, which promotes the voting rights of Hispanic voters, is combining Latino pop culture with Web 2.0 technologies to motivate people to register to vote. For example, they're using online video (in "telenovela" melodrama soap opera style) to entertain people and remove the intimidation implicit in any City Hall experience. Recently the nonprofit transmitted a PSA telenovela with the message: "No love for you until you register to vote." (I actually had a starring role in it, if by "cameo" they meant starring.)
Sunlight Foundation addresses the problem of transparency and accountability in Washington. For the most part, Sunlight funds other groups who are building online databases that make it easy for people to see how the money flows in Washington. The idea is that if you bring the actions of insiders into the sunlight, you get to see what happens. Ultimately, it might be relatively easy to track lobbyists' contributions, and what they get in return -- say, no-bid contracts or special privilege legislation.
For example, Sunlight's newest project is "Fortune 535: Running the Numbers on Congressional Wealth." Check out what's the deal with Senator Ted Stevens or Senator Mitch McConnell. Sunlight's work might have major implications for American governance, particularly since Barack Obama's platform includes major work on accountability and transparency via the Net.
Finally, Kiva.org, a person-to-person micro-lending Website, has created an online process for people to get together and make very small loans to entrepreneurs in developing countries. The site lets you browse entrepreneurs' files on the site, choose someone to lend to, and then make a loan. In many cases, a loan of a thousand dollars, or even a hundred, can get a business going for small business owners throughout the world.
Kiva works with those local aid groups in developing countries who know what's going on and can nominate businesses for loans, with a good chance of repayment. On Kiva's site, you can look at projects throughout the world that might need a few dollars from you, and help someone out directly. It's not quite as direct as DonorsChoose, but it works.
These innovative online efforts allow nonprofits to help others in ways that actually mean something, simply by using the Net in far more effective ways than previous media allowed. When you contribute via DonorsChoose or Kiva, you can see the effects fairly directly. That ain't bad.
— Craig Newmark, Customer Service Rep and founder of craigslist.org