While Internet technologies have driven radical change in a vast array of industries and sectors, until recently the not-for-profit sector was still mired in the past.
A 2011 report by analysts nfpSynergy found that just 3.7% of donations to charities in the UK came from online sources, barely half the money raised from major donors (7%). But a new breed of not-for-profits are using all the tools the Internet affords, in particular social media, to deliver far greater returns.
One example is Watsi, a San Francisco not-for-profit organization that helps provide healthcare to patients in developing nations. However founder Chase Adams, a speaker at the Slush conference in Helsinki, says the real power of the Internet lies not in its fund-raising potential but in the bridges it can form.
“I think the greatest benefit that technology is providing is for the first time in history it is giving us the opportunity to really connect everyone on the planet,” he says. “We’re not there yet, but it is unprecedented that a 23-year-old software engineer in San Francisco can connect in a real and meaningful way with a farmer in rural far west Nepal who needs $1,000 for heart surgery.”
First Not-For-Profit To Go Through Y Combinator
“That really was not possible 10 or 15 years ago and I think that is what has fundamentally changed,” says Adams. “The Internet creates a lot of business opportunities, but it also creates a lot of philanthropic and not-for-profit opportunities, one of which is running health care directly for people who need it. That is the opportunity we are trying to seize at Watsi.”
Watsi, which was the first not-for-profit company to go through the Y Combinator accelerator program, directly connects donors in wealthy developed nations with patients needing medical treatments in hospitals in 19 countries.
At heart, says Adams, it is a paradox. Too often technology is decried for dehumanizing people, so that, for example, social media replaces real human interaction with an online simulacrum. The reality, says Adams, is entirely the reverse. Watsi provides a detailed profile of the patients for whom it is seeking support. Rather than anonymous aid recipients they are Grace, the seven-year-old girl from Tanzania who needs $780 to treat the burns on the back of her legs; or Pheng, a 67-year-old grandfather from Cambodia who needs $150 to have cataract surgery.
“What technology has done is made it possible to humanize these people.” If it can do that, then it will destroy Stalin’s infamous dictum, “One death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic.”
Harder To Ignore The Gross Inequalities That Exist Today
“There have been multiple studies that show people are far more likely to contribute to something if they can see and understand the impact of their donation,” he says. “The more people your donation is going to support, the less likely you are to make that donation in the first place.”
“I think that the Internet is giving us the opportunity to connect with people all over the world,” says Adams. “It’s a lot harder to ignore the gross inequalities that exist today because of what the Internet is making possible.
“That is the way that we as humans think. We care about other humans, we care about other people’s well-being. The Internet is making it possible for compassion to expand across borders, outside of our family members and neighborhoods and really connect people.”
Providing that intimate connection between donor and recipient is something that charity:water, a campaigning group set up by former nightclub promoter Scott Harrison to bring clean drinking water to the world’s poor, has tapped into.
“When I started … there was a real disengagement with charities,” said Harrison in an earlier interview with Informilo. “I continued to hear about the black hole problem: ‘I give money to charity and I don’t know where it’s going, they are inefficient and the CEOs get paid too much.’ I thought a good way to get around this was to separate charity:water’s finances between operations and projects in the field.”
GPS Coordinates, Photographs And Community Information
“Charity:water is able to show donors their specific impact at a level of detail that simply wasn’t possible 10 years ago,” he said in an earlier interview. “We provide GPS coordinates, photographs and community information of every project; and for those supporters fund-raising and donating on mycharitywater.org we tie every donated dollar to an actual project with our Dollars to Projects product.”
It isn’t just new and digitally-powered not-for-profit start-ups like charity:water and Watsi that are using social media to link up donors and recipients; one of the world’s oldest, and largest, charitable bodies, The Red Cross, is also trying to use technology to bridge the gap.
“What we have done is that we allow donors to contribute to a vaccination program happening within a village,” says Abi Weaver, Director, International Services, at the American Red Cross. “We share data about the village itself and although that’s not an individual family, it does help connect the donor to the problem and the geographic location.”
“We find our donors become really interested in that country and other issues going on in that country and we are able to share back some photos and other things from people who participated in the campaign and benefited from the vaccine, while still respecting their privacy,” she says.
The Red Cross has been thinking about adding drones and other high-tech tools to its arsenal, but it has found that it is disruptive to introduce new technologies in a crisis.
“It is more familiar and simple if you just use those [technologies] that are available before the crisis,” says Weaver. “Technology, whether it is mobile phones or social media, or just online forums, has allowed people to build their own resilience to a disaster.”
Technology Has To Have Daily Relevance
Working in 189 countries, and according to Weaver, with one in five people on the planet a Red Cross volunteer, the organization taps into whatever it can use when its services are needed.
“The most interesting applications [of technology] are in the recovery phase of a disaster, or in longer-term sustained issues,” she says. “One of the reasons they are so interesting is that they have to have daily relevance. In order for a technology to be effective in an emergency it has to have multiple purposes.”
“Social media is a great example. People use it to post about life milestones, and share photos and things like that. In a disaster it can be repurposed to ways that help reconnect families and help share resources.
“We look at what the community is using. We just apply our information through it, we support the networks that have been established and we feed our resources through that channel.”