The Monitor's View

Next-Gen donors

The Internet can help turn a generation of volunteers into a generation of donors to charity.

Charities know that young people volunteer. Over 90 percent of college-bound high school seniors have done community service – partly to be attractive to colleges, but partly out of goodwill. How to turn that goodwill into donations and foster a habit of financial giving? Technology can help.

Young people are connected to each other in ways that their parents weren't. The same bonds are there, but they are facilitated and widened by the Internet and cell- phones. Combine that with awareness of events, such as hurricane Katrina and the Pakistan earthquake in 2005, and the potential for financial support is significant.

Politicians discovered the intersection of technology and youth in the last presidential election cycle, and now they turn to it in fundraising. Campaigns attract small donations over the Internet from many people – especially from enthused, Web-savvy 20- and 30-somethings. In the end, that adds up to big bucks.

Now nonprofits are starting to catch on. They're not only providing a link on their Web pages for click-on donations, they're beginning to join with social-networking sites such as Facebook. There, friends can tell friends about their special causes and inspire support.

One charity experimenting with Facebook and other Internet fundraising facilitators is the Case Foundation, the private foundation of AOL founder Steve Case. In mid-December, it launched a fundraising drive to encourage people who may never have thought of themselves as donors to use the Internet to give at least $10 to their favorite charity – and to encourage friends and family to do the same.

Case is making $750,000 available in grants to the charities. It will give up to $50,000 to the charities with the most donors who encourage the most people to give to their cause – that is, it's rewarding the building of the giving network itself, not just the amount donated.

The technology outreach is even touching elementary school kids. Over the holidays, 2.5 million children who play on the popular Club Penguin site (owned by Walt Disney), donated virtual coins earned by their virtual penguins. Club Penguin turned the play donations into a real gift of $1 million, dividing it among three major charities based on the children's preferences.

Parents, too, are using technology to instill the giving spirit in their offspring. They can now purchase "give cards," sold by such nonprofits as globalgiving.com, that allow people to visit their website, select charities around the world, and donate.

The intersection of technology with young donors, however, is not without concern in the philanthropy world.

Some question whether the ease and fashion of electronic donating can produce habitual, focused giving. The explosion of new organizations and personal causes made easier by the Internet also competes for donation dollars. And will the Internet increase the challenges with fraud and accountability – longtime issues for charities?

Some charities also worry that they will lose control of their message if they turn to an army of online individuals who personalize it.

But nonprofits have always had to search for – and adapt to – new fundraising methods. The Internet and young givers are a natural match.

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