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How charities harness social media for a social impact

Networkers shift from sharing info to linking up to effect change.

By Jina MooreCorrespondent for The Christian Science Monitor / September 8, 2009

Ushahidi, an online service, brings attention to underreported events such as rural polling in Afghanistan, election protests in Kenya, voting in India, and water shortages in the Democratic Republic of Congo (pictured).

Mary Knox Merrill/Staff

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Scott Harrison’s new media revolution started by accident.

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Mr. Harrison is the founder of Charity: Water, a nonprofit dedicated to bringing clean water to impoverished villages in Africa. In January, he got an e-mail from a British woman who wanted to test Twitter as a fundraising tool. Amanda Rose thought the microblogging site, with its 30 million users, might have some cash power, and if it did, she wanted to put the cash in Harrison’s wells.

Ms. Rose organized the first-ever “Twestival,” an event whose name blends “Twitter” and “festival.” Using this instant-messaging power, Rose organized a series of 200 off-line charity events around the globe, from concerts in New York to knitting groups in Brussels, that raised a combined $250,000 from 10,000 new donors. The Twestival became a media meme, but what Harrison did next launched Charity: Water’s reputation as a social-media colossus in its own right.

“We orchestrated a live drill for them in Ethiopia. We drilled the first Twestival well live, broadcast it via satellite to the 202 cities,” Harrison says. “We actually allowed people to tweet in questions” for the well drillers.

Harrison’s nonprofit is one of many using social media in surprising new ways. As the Internet comes of age, social media has changed the way nonprofits do business. They’ve advanced beyond getting the word out on Facebook and raising money with Twitter to find a unique overlap between the mission of nonprofits and the methods of new media.

“People talk about Web 1.0 and Web 2.0 – older and newer. The key difference is that Web 1.0 was automating transactions. You buy a book online, or you send an e-mail. Web 2.0 explicitly creates new ways to collaborate and participate,” says Sean Stannard-Stockton, a social-media blogger and founder of Tactical Philanthropy Advisers. “In nonprofits in particular, collaboration and participation is the mission of the organization.... Web 2.0 tools are custom-made for social change, as opposed to just being a new way to do old stuff.”

Across a spectrum of issues, nonprofits have taken to those tools. Kiva.org, a microlending organization that matches up lenders and recipients through the Web, sends fellows to villages around the world to blog about loan recipients and about poverty-related issues. The ENOUGH project, an antigenocide organization, started its own YouTube online video channel for users to post videos about the links between ubiquitous electronic devices and mineral-fueled conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The Extraordinaires, a new-media nonprofit, uses mobile-phone applications to create microvolunteering opportunities in the United States.