How charities harness social media for a social impact

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

Mary Knox Merrill/Staff
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).
Courtesy of Scott Harrison/Charity: Water
A village in Ethiopia uses clean well water provided through Charity: Water, an organization that was one of the first to benefit from microblogging fundraising.

Scott Harrison’s new media revolution started by accident.

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., 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.

Even retrofitting new-media tools to old-media practices bears fruit for some groups. The Echoing Green Foundation, which gives seed money to entrepreneurs that tackle social, environmental, or economic problems, turned its press release about its newest crop of fellows into a video this year.

“We really wanted to make the fellows and their words come alive, and the best way to do that is to hear them and see them,” says Lara Galinsky, senior vice president of Echoing Green.

It also found a way around a major mainstream-media stumbling block: A press release, Galinsky concedes, “isn’t an evergreen story for the media.” A video, on the other hand, has staying power for other audiences. The video announcement was passed along through Twitter several hundred times.

That breakdown is one strength of the tandem revolutions in social media and social change.

“There was once a clear information arbiter, [and] nonprofits broadcast their message to a whole bunch of people and hoped it got to enough that they could do what they needed, whether that was raising money or getting volunteers,” says Nathaniel Whittemore, founder of the Center for Global Engagement at Northwestern University. “What you have now is a much more symmetrical relationship in which people who are recipients of the message can also become part of the conversation.”

But the best blend of Web 2.0 and social activism may come from innovators who set out to exploit the collaborative potential of media tools. It’s just that potential that Ory Okolloh wanted to tap last year, during the election crisis and communal violence in Kenya. A Harvard University law graduate and a well-known Kenyan blogger, Ms. Okolloh asked readers to use her blog to report on the violence in real time, subverting a government ban on live reporting. “I got overwhelmed by the amount of information coming in,” she remembers. So with the help of some tech-savvy readers who volunteered their time, she set up Ushahidi, an open-source mapping software.

Ushahidi changed the reporting on Kenyan violence. Ordinary Kenyans sent text messages about attacks, which were then mapped online. A Harvard study found that Ushahidi reported on a significant number of incidents the mainstream media missed. Okolloh and her team have been refining the code since then, and the tool has been adapted to crowd-source reports of violence in Congo, medical supply shortages in five East African countries, and election monitoring for national votes this year in Afghanistan and India.

But even the 2.0-iest initiatives have roots in the past. WITNESS is a nonprofit that teaches advocacy organizations how to use video effectively. The idea came not from the ease of YouTube or the ubiquity of cellphone cameras, but from the visceral power of video images that helped define a decade: the videotaped beating of Rodney King by Los Angeles police officers in 1991.

“In some sense, it was an incredible demonstration of the power of video to really crystallize an issue in a way people ... can understand,” says Sam Gregory, WITNESS’s program director.

In the 1990s, the group’s major work was giving out equipment and training nonprofit staff to use it. Today, with video cameras so common, WITNESS focuses on the finer points of video strategy, one that employs social media’s greatest strength: tailoring a message to a specific, even narrow, audience.

“The idea behind video advocacy is, how do you speak most specifically to your audience?” he says. “It’s not about speaking to everyone; it’s about speaking to someone and giving them a way to act – persuading them, shaming them, whatever you do to them to get them to act. Often we use one video to try and speak to ... [many] people, when in fact a video for each of them, which spoke to each of their needs, would be stronger ... and more persuasive.”

A case in point is the group’s work in eastern Congo, where WITNESS partnered with a local human rights organization to produce advocacy videos for three different audiences. They made a film for parents of children who want to join militia groups, composed predominantly of testimony from young boys who’d made the choice and regretted it. Their second film, intended for the international community, highlighted underreported crimes in eastern Congo, especially sexual violence against female recruits. Their third production, a summary of International Criminal Court proceedings so far against an accused Congolese war criminal, was just broadcast in Goma, the region’s biggest town, in July.

What’s true in Congo is true virtually everywhere else: Technology has eased the production burden enough that three very different “advocacy asks” are still within reach, Mr. Gregory says.

If nonprofits have figured that out quickly, there’s one group that’s still a little late to the party: the philanthropies that support them. Across the board, foundations and other funding organizations haven’t picked up these new tools as quickly as their nonprofit dependents, or even as quickly as the private sector. That, says Mr. Stannard-Stockton of Tactical Philanthropy Advisers, is for the same reason that makes new media so useful for the world of social change. Unlike foundations, he says, “nonprofits are in the business of connecting with external people.” Which is precisely why all that twittering seems worth it.

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