As the Chase Community Giving contest on Facebook drew to a close, two nonprofit organizations duked it out for the $1 million grand prize. As The Huffington Post reported last week, things got a little dicey in the final hours, as several of the top organizations were accused of malfeasance.
The contest came down to the final minutes, with The Isha Foundation close on the heels of Invisible Children. Both organizations have been lauded in recent years for their contributions to young people in impoverished regions of the world. Some of Isha's many projects include public reforestation, free medical care, and computer-based education, primarily to rural areas of India. Had Isha won Chase's $1 million prize, the money would have gone to building a school in India and a health care clinic in Tennessee.
Invisible Children works to end the long-running civil war in the Congo and Uganda, and free the hundreds of child soldiers forced to fight for the Lord's Resistance Army.
As the race tightened on the final day of voting, supporters of Invisible Children accused the Isha Foundation of producing fake accounts to garner votes.
The majority of Isha's 123,000 votes came in the last three days of the contest, mostly from new Facebook profiles with no other activity. This led fans of competing nonprofits to believe that the profiles were fake.
Though Invisible Children ended up with the grand prize (winning by just over 1,200 votes), The Isha Foundation maintains that its support came from passionate, dedicated individuals, not from dubious profiles.
"[The votes] came from our volunteers -- we ran ads in a major metropolitan magazine -- worldwide we sent many many e-mails to our volunteers friends and their families," said Senthil Kumar, Isha's U.S. Director. He told me that many of these votes were cast by individuals in rural India who did not normally have access to the Internet, and signed up for Facebook specifically to vote in the contest.
"I personally came [to India] a couple of weeks ago -- doing the camps, seeing the enthusiasm in people. I don't think the rules really prohibit anyone opening a new account."
The strategy of encouraging those who didn't have Facebook profiles to create them for the purposes of voting may still be controversial, though Kumar is correct that the contest stated no rule that would prevent such a strategy from succeeding. Had Isha garnered 1,300 more votes, their victory would almost assuredly have been upheld as legitimate.
The Isha Foundation's public "Thank You" letter, posted to its site after the results had been announced, gave thanks to all participating nonprofits and arguing that all contestants supported worthy causes.
Our heartfelt congratulations to Invisible Children Inc. It is gratifying to know the important humanitarian work in Uganda will receive such great financial support. Congratulations as well to fellow runners-up, Twloha Inc, Friendship Circle, Bridge to Turkiye, and the Gwendolyn Strong Foundation. We would also like to recognize the worthy causes taken up by all the other organizations in this contest; it has been heartening for us to see the wonderful work being done.
Does the brief animosity levied against The Isha Foundation in the latter stages of the contest detract credibility from contests such as Chase Community Giving in the future? Perhaps the more immediate question to Kumar is, will actions in the contest damage public perception, in spite of the organization's widespread philanthropic work?
The foundation, after all, planned on using the money to build schools in rural India, providing education for children and free mobile health care in the surrounding regions.
"I feel the whole campaign was very spirited and I think for almost all of the organizations, it was really about revving up their volunteers and supporters," Kumar said.
Michele Kelly, an Isha Foundation public relations representative, was adamant that the votes were fair and justified.
"It goes back to freedom of speech," she said. "Even if you're poor and live in a rural area that doesn't have a computer, and you want to vote -- nobody was forced to vote. These people wanted this school. So, I think it would be wrong to deny anyone the right to vote."
Despite the temporary controversy, both groups will receive a significant boost for their current projects, Invisible Children for their campaigns in Africa, and The Isha Foundation for the Isha Vidhya rural education program.