Internet initiatives make everyone a philanthropist

AOL founder launches two efforts to encourage online giving

The old thinking goes that to change the world, you have to give millions. But young tech-savvy philanthropists are trying to prove otherwise.

Leveraging new technologies and the growth of social-networking websites, several online-giving pioneers are trying to expand the pool of potential donors by democratizing philanthropy and making it more transparent.

America Online founder Steve Case's private foundation Thursday launched America's Giving Challenge, one of the nation's most ambitious efforts to draw the masses to philanthropy through the Internet. The initiative seeks to draw regular folks who do not consider themselves philanthropists to go online, find a cause, and give money – as little as $10 – to charities around the world.

The Washington-based Case Foundation will also introduce a sister challenge at Facebook, a social-networking site. Facebook users, through the "causes" application, will be able to donate to any of 1.5 million charities, and the donations and causes will be displayed on their profiles. The goal is to get young people to identify with charitable efforts and inspire their friends to join them.

Joe Green, whose Harvard University roommate, Mark Zuckerberg, founded Facebook, designed the causes application and said it is modeled after the lessons of grassroots politics.

"There's a lot of evidence that this generation, my generation, is incredibly interested in changing the world around them and being civically engaged," Mr. Green said. "People have this latent power locked up in their social network, but they don't really know about it. People have the power to change the world just by influencing 10 friends."

These are not the first experiments with online philanthropy, but observers said they are the most sweeping.

Two nonprofits, Network for Good and GlobalGiving, have partnered with the Case Foundation. 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, Mr. Whittle said, new technology has the potential to make "all donors equal in the eyes of philanthropy."

"This is pretty revolutionary, that technology allows us to do this," Mr. Whittle said. "It used to be that if you wanted to give and have an impact, people thought you had to be Bill Gates or Oprah Winfrey. But because of the way the technology works, you can be an 'ordinary Oprah.' If you've got $10 or $100 or $1,000, you can come and find a school in Africa to support, and you can get updates from the field to get responses to your support."

The Case Foundation is giving away a total of $750,000 in the two online efforts, which end Jan. 31. The people who attract the most friends from their social networks to donate to their cause will get $50,000 to give to charity. The top 100 charities attracting the most online donations will each receive $1,000.

In the Facebook challenge, the foundation will award $1,000 to a charity each day on behalf of the person who solicits the most friends to participate in a 24-hour period.

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