Thinking of Others this Holiday Season

Stephen DeAngelis

December 24, 2007

Similar organizations often have similar objectives. Most governments are formed to “establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, [and] promote the general welfare.” Almost every organized religion has among its goals some way of taking care of the poor. The reason that people organize themselves is because they understand that they can accomplish more working together than they can working independently. The mega-wealthy have often established philanthropic foundations so that their accumulated wealth can be used wisely to benefit others. It is the accumulation of talent, time, money and so forth that makes a difference. Steve Case, founder of America Online, is trying to convince those who think that the small amount they might be able to donate to a good cause won’t make a difference that it truly can [“Foundation Testing Potential of Philanthropy via Internet,” by Stephanie Strom, New York Times, 13 December 2007].

“The Case Foundation is embarking on an effort to test the potential of citizen-led philanthropy via the Internet. … ‘Philanthropy shouldn’t be defined as a bunch of rich people writing big checks,’ said Jean Case, who founded the Case Foundation with her husband, Steve, founder of America Online. ‘Small amounts of money given by large numbers of individuals can be combined to do great things.'”

This, of course, is not the first time someone has tried to collect money using the Internet. What’s unique about this effort is the “contest” twist that has been used.

“Starting [13 December 2007], readers of Parade magazine and members of the Causes section of the Facebook Web site can enter a contest to win a total of $500,000 and $250,000, for their favorite charities, provided by Case. The prizes will go to the charities and causes that attract the greatest numbers of unique donors, rather than the one that raises the most money. … Randy Siegel, publisher of Parade, said he saw the program as ‘a wonderful way to give our 70 million readers a firsthand look at how the Internet and technology have revolutionized charitable giving.’ The contest is one of a string of efforts by Case to determine what role online technologies can have in the charity field. Parade and Causes are eager to learn from the information gleaned from the contest.”

The fact that the charity that attracts the greatest number of “unique” donors wins the money is a great idea. To use a biblical reference, it is making sure the “widow’s mite” receives as much credit for good as the wealthy person’s millions. To use an eastern religious reference, it’s all about creating good karma. Case has been very creative in his pursuit of philanthropic endeavors.

“Last summer, Case asked individuals and small nonprofit groups for ideas to improve their communities, promising to award a total of $300,000 to the proposals chosen by a panel of judges. The foundation has also put money into developing ThinkMTV.com, a networking site aimed at increasing youth activism. And on its own site, casefoundation.org, it offers holiday gift ideas with charitable components, as well as links to the Causes and Parade sites. ‘We’ve always asked how we can leverage our resources to engage a larger population, how can we get the most Americans involved in charitable giving and action,’ Ms. Case said.”

In my discussions of Development-in-a-Box™, I have talked about the importance of communities of practice and getting local groups involved in decision making. Case’s approaches to philanthropy apply some of those techniques. He is reaching out in novel ways. The results, to date, have been modest but so were the goals of those who started the effort.

“The amounts raised through new technologies and online networks have been modest. The top “cause” listed on Causes, support for breast cancer research, has attracted 2.8 million members, raising an average of 2 cents a member, or a total of $52,240, for Brigham and Women’s Hospital. Proponents say the Internet has been useful in attracting people to sign petitions and attend rallies and demonstrations, if not in generating big donations. ‘The tools and technologies are still evolving, and we’re still trying to figure out how it works,’ said Beth Kanter, an expert on nonprofits and technology. Sean Parker and Joe Green, founders of Project Agape, the start-up that created the Causes application, said their primary goal since Causes went live in May has simply been to prove it could attract millions of users. ‘Now the question is how do we take this social platform we’ve built and encourage more kinds of action using it,’ Mr. Green said.”

Philip Rucker, covering this same story for the Washington Post, underscored that this is not the first attempt at raising online philanthropic contributions [“Twin Efforts Aim to Popularize Online Giving,” 13 December 2007].

“These are not the first experiments with online philanthropy, but observers said they are the most sweeping. This year, actor Kevin Bacon and the nonprofit Network for Good launched the SixDegrees.org campaign to get people to donate online and solicit donations from friends. After natural disasters such as the Asian tsunami in 2004 and Hurricane Katrina in 2005, thousands of Americans donated to relief organizations through the Internet. This fall, when wildfires ravaged Southern California, the rock band Linkin Park helped raise money through musicforrelief.org.”

Rucker provides additional information about the programs being launched by the Case Foundation.

“In the efforts launching [13 December], two nonprofits, Network for Good and GlobalGiving, have partnered with the Case Foundation. Both groups have secure online databases with lists of organizations, including financial information, to help potential donors pick a charity. GlobalGiving, based in Washington and founded by two former World Bank executives, allows people to find charities by country, theme and cause. Donors will receive online updates ‘from the field,’ including videos and photos, to see how their money is being spent, said Dennis Whittle, the organization’s founder and chief executive. Traditionally, donors send money to charities by mailing a check, and charities bestow the most attention on the most generous givers. But, Whittle said, new technology has the potential to make ‘all donors equal in the eyes of philanthropy.'”

One of the things I like about the new Case initiative is that the donor gets to choose the cause and gets to feel good about his or her contribution regardless of the amount because it is the simple act of giving that is counted. Last week, NBC’s Today Show filled a side street near its New York City studios with a million dollars worth of pennies collected from school children across America for charitable causes. The point being made was that a pattern of giving should be developed in children so that it becomes a life-long habit. The holiday season is a traditional time to think about giving to others. I would like to add my voice in encouraging you contribute to the well-being of others. Recent studies have demonstrated that doing good can make you feel good — releasing the same chemicals that make other activities pleasurable. Like Steve Case and others, I’m not concerned about the amount you can afford to contribute but would like to encourage you to establish a pattern of giving. If you don’t have money, you can contribute time and tal
ent. You can regularly work in a soup kitchen, man a Salvation Army kettle, help care for an elderly neighbor, tutor a student, be a driver for Meals-on-Wheels, volunteer with the Red Cross, and so on. There are endless ways to help others during this holiday season and throughout the year.