Where technology is taking us: Lessons from the ‘new’ charities

The press is full of intriguing bits and pieces that suggest the ‘new charities’ may have something to teach traditional charities.

Written by
Richard C McPherson
June 02, 2012
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‘The number of new charities invited to speak, or who even attend, is strikingly small.’ - Richard C McPherson.

By ‘new’ I mean organisations formed since 2000 and driven largely by new technology. Just consider three examples that offer several powerful lessons.

  • A US computer programmer and anti-poverty activist created a website called FreeRice.com, challenging visitors to select correctly the definition of a tricky word. If they’re right, a small amount of grain is donated (by advertisers) to the UN World Food Programme. It’s not a big deal – except that within three months the site was drawing half a million visitors every day and as of last month has donated enough rice to feed 700,000 people. The game is so popular there are over 300 FreeRice groups on famous social network mega-site Facebook, with up to 127,000 members.

Have donors begun to abandon traditional charities?

  • Kiva.org, an international micro-finance NGO started in 2005 is drawing media attention for three reasons: in its first two years it raised almost US$20 million; it attracted 220,000 new donors (online); and, perhaps most striking, Kiva posted a notice on its site recently that said ‘Stop Giving’. Why? By turning its back on ‘general operating’ funds and requesting support only for specific projects, donors swarmed to the site – and literally funded every single project. Kiva of course raced to find more needy projects and when they did so was rewarded by another wave of financial support.
  • Two ‘charity aggregators’ in the US barely attracted any attention when they started a few years ago. After all, people don’t really go online to shop for charity – do they? But the two ‘online charity malls’, Network for Good and JustGive.org, have hit their stride, together increasing from US$ 52 million in 2006 to almost US$ 80 million in 2007, a growth rate of about 50 per cent annually.

Have donors begun to abandon traditional charities such as CARE, UNICEF, Oxfam and The Red Cross? Certainly not. The familiar charity brands continue to grow and enjoy widespread support, although none has reported the startling growth of the new charities. I would modestly propose that well-established conferences in all parts of the world pay more attention to these newcomers, both to learn from them and to teach them what we have learned over the years. (The number of new charities invited to speak, or who even attend, many traditional fundraising conferences, is strikingly small.) Meanwhile it seems wise to ponder a few lessons from the examples you’ve just read about.

  • Are we making it truly easy to donate? The FreeRice example is just one of many similar efforts to gather significant amounts of unrestricted, steady support using technology without having to make a big ‘philanthropic’ decision. It may be a modest amount, but for that reason doesn’t compete with other, thought-out gifts. It is add-on giving, and with mounting demands for help from a hungry world, why should we turn our back on this help even if it doesn’t fit a traditional fundraising practice?

Donors are enormously proud – and motivated – when told the results of their gift.

  • Donors seem to place a huge premium on supporting very specific initiatives – and are enormously proud – and motivated – when told the results of their gift. I often hear that this is not the way ‘we raise money’, or ‘the financial office would not or could not accommodate this kind of giving’. I say, in a famous American expression, ‘Nuts’. People now have the tools to be more involved with their charities at a time when we need every pound, euro and dollar we can get. So our job is to meet the needs of a new generation of donors, not try to convince them to give like their parents and grandparents. New charities, with their emphasis on experimenting not planning, can help us learn how.
  • Finally, speaking of planning versus experimenting, should we reconsider how much of our budget, staff time and organisational attention should be on experimentation? The culture of charity management has necessarily been one of planning, not experimenting. After all, we’re accountable for using donations responsibly. Yet these new charities have risen from a culture of experimentation, trial and error. The very low cost of many new technologies makes experimenting possible, and with donors themselves experimenting with Facebook, YouTube and hundreds of new charities, we should be experimenting with them. I’m a fundraiser, not a management guru, so I can’t give you a quick answer. But it would be grand if our management consulting colleagues helped us tackle the planning-versus-experimenting challenge - it is driving the tech revolution.

Here’s a final thought for those of you who also worry about the acquisition of high value, or major, gifts, especially from successful young entrepreneurs. In an article entitled ‘The Age of Ambition in the January 27 New York Times, columnist Nicholas Kristof described a variety of successful 20-somethings who

It’s the twenty-first century equivalent of the American Civil Rights movement of the 1960s

began groups including OrphansAgainstAIDS.org and UnitedForSight.org in the US, a young Mexican man who started Cinepop in his country, and a 37-year-old Jordanian woman who started injaz.org.jo to teach entrepreneurism in 12 Arab countries. Kristof points out that creating technology-powered NGOs for justice, education and social change is becoming the most popular way for young (affluent) professionals to participate in philanthropy and social activism. The process is, according to Kristof, the twenty-first century equivalent of the American Civil Rights movement of the 1960s.

Perhaps, instead of presenting our case statements to successful young tech-savvy entrepreneurs and hoping for a gift, a more productive strategy might be to visit with them in their businesses and challenge them to create their new charities in partnership with established NGOs that can bring added wisdom, direction and eager donors to their effort. There’s nothing at all wrong with creating more and more charities – except that traditional and new charities may be able to do more together rather than working in isolation.

© Richard C McPherson 2008

About the author: Richard C McPherson

Richard C McPherson

Richard McPherson pioneered fundraising campaigns in both the civil rights and conservation movements, and served with Earthwatch before founding Philadelphia-based McPherson Associates Inc. The agency represents leading PBS and NPR stations, higher education institutions, conservation organisations, women’s health and advocacy groups, and international organisations. 

Long known for innovation with traditional media, Richard has emerged as a leader among internet strategists and is the author of the acclaimed book Digital Giving: How Technology is Changing Charity (2007, iUniverse, a Barnes & Noble Company).

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