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A Giving Challenge Story: Leadership Matters

By Tom Watson on March 15, 20083 Comments

In December, 2007 the foundation created by America Online founder Steve Case and his wife Jean launched an online program aimed at inspiring everyday people to adopt wired causes, and to motivate nonprofit organizations to begin to take advantage of the burgeoning social Internet. Through the first-ever America’s Giving Challenge and Causes Giving Challenge, the Case Foundation staked $750,000 in a series of fundraising contests that ran from mid-December through the following January. The foundation’s leading partners were Facebook and its Causes application created by Project Agape, and Parade, the glossy Sunday newspaper supplement with its massive circulation of 32 million people weekly.

The rules were pretty simple. More than 2,500 organizations were represented by causes created during the Challenge. The Causes Giving Challenge awarded $50,000 to the cause with the most unique donors, $25,000 to the second and third place causes, and $10,000 to the next ten causes. Throughout the Challenge, Causes on Facebook awarded daily winners $1,000 for having the most unique donations in a single day. Any Facebook user could participate by using the Causes application to promote their cause through direct user-to-user messages, and feature it on their profile. In the end, a total of 32,886 donations accounted for $571,686 in donations supporting 747 different organizations – an average gift of $17.38. The Parade portion, which brought in contributions via the magazine’s website, accounted for another $1.2 million from 48,711 donors – for an average donation of about $24, slightly higher. These online fundraisers used widgets – bits of code users could pass around and put on their blogs to urge donations and involvemenet – and relied on charity donation sites Network for Good and GlobalGiving to process gifts. [An important disclosure is necessary: the Case Foundation is a client of Changing Our World, Inc., the consulting firm where I work, and the company has been involved in some of the online causes work of the foundation, although none of the information in this book comes from that relationship.]

As Jean Case, the foundation’s chief executive, observed: ““Thousands of people embraced new technologies, built new online communities, and proved that simple daily actions and small donations can inspire others and tap into their energy and passion to make a difference.” I’d argue that the manner in which the causes were supported on Facebook and through blog-based widgets and other tools on the Parade side of the ledger may count for more in the end than the money that was raised – because getting those contributions involved creating and activating a social network, a group of people who in the process probably learned a bit more about the causes they were supporting – and a group that may well be more open to real activism in the future than names on an email list. Further, I’d suggest that the online social activism portion of the program best-served one of the key goals of the Case commitment – priming the pump of activism with leadership.

And raising that money online took real leadership indeed.

Let’s take one of the top eight finishers in the challenge as an example. Route Out of Poverty for Cambodian Children, a grassroots project of the Sharing Foundation, garnered 1,650 donations totaling $41,673 – and won a $50,000 grant from the Case Foundation for finishing in the top four among international causes. I know a little more about the foundation’s work in Cambodia, and the Route Out of Poverty program, which teaches Khmer to 100 children of illiterate farmers, and English to over 500 students seeking to move beyond subsistence farming. I know that thousands of Cambodian children grow up illiterate, with very few educational options. I also know that the Sharing Foundation’s Khmer literacy school helps farm children learn their native alphabet and numbers well enough to attend elementary school. I know that its English Language Program offers village students from eight to 18 the opportunity to learn Cambodia’s language of commerce, allowing them to obtain jobs in tourism and word processing. But I don’t know this because of a website, or a Facebook profile, or a cool blog widget, or a well-publicized giving challenge.

I know all of this because of Beth Kanter.

GlobalGiving tracked 1,650 donations to Route Out of Poverty for Cambodian Children – and one of them was mine. And I made the list because of Beth, a Boston-based consultant who is one of the Web’s most ardent champions of online social activism. In addition to her blogging, coaching work and consulting, Beth is passionate about the southeast Asian nation of Cambodia. A few years ago, sheadopted two Khmer children, and is quite passionate about helping them to know about their homeland and celebrate their culture. Beth writes about Khmer culture and technology at Cambodia4kids blog and maintains a web site with the same name that provides information for U.S. teachers and parents. Her Typing To Learn Khmer blog is where she practices her very basic Khmer language skills using Khmer Unicode. She has covered the Cambodian Blogosphere as an author for Global Voices Online, a project of the Berkman Center for Internet and Law at Harvard University.

In addition to her many accomplishments, Beth is something of a noodge – which in the kinder version of the Yiddish translation means “someone who pushes you, sometimes to the point of annoyance.” When I asked Beth for some information related to this book, she very kindly held her hand out, digital palm up. A member of the board of the Sharing Foundation, she was passionately committed to ensuring that its Cambodian cause made the top four finishers in the Case Foundation contest – and an inquiring journalist who is an only an online acquaintance simply didn’t qualify for a free pass. Every time I asked a question, Beth would shoot back some version of: “the deadline’s coming, did you make your gift yet?”

Beth bugged a lot of people, posted to her blog, and urged others to post the widget – a small graphic showing Cambodian children with the current giving levels of the campaign. I finally made a small gift, and posted the widget to my own blog. Other people asked me about and I told them what I knew. And some them went on to make donations. Now we’re all savvy about the small foundation changing the lives of poor Cambodian children. Beth’s leadership brought in needed funds, but it also created real awareness and a network of potential supporters for the future.

And there was a small reward, in addition to Beth’s hearty thanks. In March, two months after the Case challenges ended, Dr. Nancy Hendrie, the president of the Sharing Foundation, sent Beth a video that she posted to her blog and sent around the donors. Only ten seconds long, it nonetheless connected a frenzied online giving contest with real-world recipients. It shows dozens of small children sitting on the porch of the Roteang Orphanage. Prompted by an adult voice off camera, the smiling children shout a few words as loud as their voices would allow them – Thankyou! American! Challenge! Yaaaay!

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