Technology gives charities new way to reach out to potential donors

Launched only two months ago, CauseWorld is already raising about $200,000 per month for various community organizations with a mix of mobile phone applications, geo-location technology and social media.

Launched only two months ago, CauseWorld is already raising about $200,000 per month for various community organizations with a mix of mobile phone applications, geo-location technology and social media.

Meanwhile, BetterWorldBooks uses Facebook and Twitter to publicize book drives that fund about 80 literacy programs that help schools, libraries and other nonprofit organizations.

And Project Medishare for Haiti Inc., which helps bring medical services to that country, saw its donations from an annual year-end campaign increase dramatically in the first year of using social media for donor outreach.

These are just some examples of how technology is reshaping the way charitable causes and relief agencies reach out for donations and volunteers. Remember mass-mailing campaigns, phone banks and those cardboard packets with slots cut out to hold dimes? These days, there just might be an app for that.

“People have come to accept that this is the way to fundraise,” said Julio Vasconcellos, creator of TwitCause, a San Francisco organization that uses Twitter to gain attention for various community causes.

“With social media, you can reach out to hundreds of people within a couple of hours, whereas in the past, that would take days,” he said. “We’re reaching 3 million people every month with TwitCause. It’s to the point we can be a very large megaphone.”

A report published by the Giving USA Foundation and researched by the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University found that donations reached about $307 billion in 2008. Based on that information, an estimated 30 percent was donated online, said Mark Davis of Blackbaud Inc., a Charleston, S.C., firm that develops software for nonprofits.

Davis co-authored a study with a Texas consulting group, Charity Dynamics, that found organizations that adopted social-media tools could increase fundraising by up to 40 percent.

“Twenty years ago, the only method that was available to nonprofits was direct mail and phone calls,” said Davis, Blackbaud’s director of technical solutions.

The Jan. 12 quake that ravaged Haiti put the fundraising power of social media on display. In the first 48 hours, more than $21 million in donations toward Haitian quake relief poured in from a mobile phone text-messaging campaign.

Mainstream media outlets publicized the $5 or $10 donations, which are tacked onto monthly cell-phone bills. However, the plea also spread virally through millions of Twitter tweets and Facebook status updates.

The fact that donors could see how easy donations can be made, especially with a growing generation of young adults who regard their mobile phone like air and water, sent many nonprofits to seek help from the Mobile Giving Foundation, a Bellevue, Wash., organization that works with carriers to arrange text donations.

“Haiti has put us on the agenda of every major charity out there,” said vice president and co-founder Christian Zimmern.

The foundation now works with more than 400 organizations, including ones benefiting from a text-donation drive started after the Chilean earthquake. That drive hasn’t matched the one for Haiti because the situation in Chile has been regarded as less dire, Zimmern said.

However, while text donations work best in an emergency that draws major media coverage such as the recent quakes, they may not work with the small “cookie-and-coffee” fundraising drives, he said.

But incorporating social media in fundraising can keep a cause in front of potential donors even when traditional media aren’t looking.

Project Medishare, a nonprofit based in Miami, has brought health-care personnel, programs and resources to Haiti since 1994. But when it began using Facebook and Twitter in an annual year-end fundraising drive in 2008, the group’s profit jumped to $44,000 from less than $700 the year before, a significant portion of the $473,000 the group raised in donations during that year.

With Haiti already moving off the front pages, the challenge is going to be keeping people talking about helping the country down the road, said David Murphy, president and chief executive of BetterWorldBooks.

The for-profit online used-books seller, based in Mishawaka, Ind., pledges a portion of each sale to community literacy programs throughout the country and in six years has donated $7.6 million. After the Haiti quake, it launched a book drive to fund a nonprofit partner to rebuild educational programs in Haiti.

“Social media lets us do this in such a way so we can draw people into our community, and hopefully they’ll buy a book,” Murphy said.

On CauseWorld, the list of community causes changes every second, from disaster relief for Haiti or Chile to art for schools to treating autism to fighting cancer.

Started just two months ago by Palo Alto, Calif., startup Shopkick Inc., CauseWorld has attracted about 300,000 members.

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