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Facebook Generation: Will Social Networks Change the Nature of Philanthropy?

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A few weeks ago, my daughter and I started a bank and now we make loans to businesses all over the world. Now, before you speculate on my family wealth or means -- and my place among the banking titans -- consider that we started this little lending institution of ours with $250. And keep in mind that our "bank" is really one of thousands, that we meet with other owners online, and that they don't appear to be captains of finance (from what I can tell by their snapshots).

The lending mechanism behind this is, one of the hottest startup organizations in the fast-growing and bustling public commons that exists between social networks and social causes. In this particular case, Kiva (Swahili for "unity") is a registered 501c3 in California and a microfinance organization that connects small entrepreneurs in developing countries with a network of connected, online lenders.

But Kiva is also something of a social network not only do you "meet" the storekeepers and business owners of Ghana and Mexico (where I've lent my money) and other places, you can also read the profiles of your co-lenders. Participation is transparent, and some degree of virtual partnership is encouraged. Needless to say, Kiva also has a Facebook group and this is where it gets interesting.

Because sites like Kiva and Facebook -- well, let's call them networks, not sites -- hold the promise of connecting social entrepreneurship with mass markets of consumers: of linking the motivation behind philanthropy with the aspiration to bring about change. And the result may change how developed societies come to view charity and causes.

For the uninitiated, Facebook is a vast social networking platform that began among college students and alumni and is now spreading rapidly through the wired world. Members maintain "profiles" that include interests, links to blog posts and articles, photos, message boards and the like. The site recently opened its platform to outside software developers, who quickly added a bunch of services to entertain and connect members. Even in the super-hot market for so-called Web 2.0 companies, Facebook remains stubbornly independent and iconoclastic. Technology entrepreneur Marc Andreessen explains the Facebook advantage on his blog:

"Facebook is providing a highly viral distribution engine for applications that plug into its platform. As a user, you get notified when your friends start using an application; you can then start using that same application with one click. At which point, all of your friends become aware that you have started using that application, and the cycle continues. The result is that a successful application on Facebook can grow to a million users or more within a couple of weeks of creation."

Replace "application" with "cause" and you get a sense of what a social network with the power of Facebook can mean to organizations and why I believe social entrepreneurs should seriously consider building social networking applications even while they fund and build world-changing organizations.

A few are doing just that. Kiva may score highest on the cool meter it did with my 15-year-old when I gave her an account for her birthday -- but other organizations "get the network" as well.

Take PlayPumps International. [Disclosure: PlayPumps is a client of the interactive services group of Changing Our World, Inc., where I work as chief strategy officer.] PlayPumps International will install 4,000 water systems (which employ children-powered playground equipment) throughout Sub-Saharan Africa and bring clean water to 10 million people by 2010. More than 900 PlayPump systems have already been installed in four countries.

Great story, but building support for the mission is tricky in a media landscape where stories about African poverty are many. Enter the social network. Starting from zero, PlayPumps has built a following of more than 500 Facebook members, many of them at colleges around the U.S. Practical goals are modest: support for small-scale fundraising operations. One Facebook group member sums it up:

"I have to say that they are truly here to make a difference! Every member that attends a local school here in Burlington Vermont can help aid in this fundraising effort by seeing us in the Champlain College Bookstore starting April 18th. Be ready to bring your dollar to donate!"

But the overall aim is quite large and vital to PlayPumps' future -- sustainability through a network of linked supporters. In my view, more organizations -- particularly those who rely on real-world members and startups trying to gain a foothold -- will turn to digital social networks to help solve the sustainability question.

I did a quick check on Facebook by running a query on all the groups that my "friends" -- a very loose descriptor on social networks -- belong to. Results were interesting. The fastest-growing groups in my network are political or linked to the blogosphere (or both). Then there are the fun and goofy groups (a la "Bryan and Matt's Excellent Alaska Roadtrip"). But there were also some small, grassroots causes that could easily pass for social ventures -- and some larger causes that are taking advantage of the power of social networking:

  • Dreams Across America was started by a group of Bay Area immigrants to promote immigration reform and highlight the plight of undocumented workers. It has 120 members.
  • I'm Going Green is a group backed by the environment cause marketing of Starbucks, who partnered with the nonprofit Global Green USA. Its Facebook group features a "Planet Green Game" that spreads the message of ecology. It has 9,155 members.
  • And then there's Future Leaders in Philanthropy - or FLiP as we call it around onPhilanthropy, where I'm the publisher. It's our own Facebook group, populated (mainly) by young people making the nonprofit and philanthropy sector their career. It has 255 members.

Still, I looked further -- searching for the social entrepreneurs. I found 'em in the development of a new application for Facebook. Causes is the name of an applet written by an organization called Project Agape, a for-profit startup backed by venture capitalists in California. The company was co-founded by Sean Parker, a managing partner at The Founders Fund and a co-founder of Napster, Plaxo, and Facebook, and Joe Green, who comes from a background of grassroots organizing, having worked on the ground in political campaigns on the city, state, and presidential level. Causes allows organizations to raise money and gather supporters within Facebook. Say the founders:

"This is a natural evolution of social networking. Leveraging real world social networks is an important part of activism, fundraising, and political campaigning. This is especially true of grassroots activism, local-chapter style nonprofit organizations, and the walks/runs used by many charities to raise money. Given all this, it's a bit surprising that online social networks haven't been more aggressively leveraged until now."

They're right -- it is a bit surprising. In March, I'd attended the fourth annual Skoll World Forum in Oxford, and I wanted to see how much of that vocal, outward-looking, innovative and energetic crowd could be found on Facebook. But there isn't a Skoll group on Facebook that I could find. Nor did I find many of the organizations who presented there. The Acumen Fund, one of the best-known social venture funds, has started a small group but you have to ask to be admitted and it has 18 members at present -- but not Jacqueline Novogratz, the Fund's outspoken public face. Ashoka (a partner in the Causes launch) has an open group of 184 members, but it does not include Bill Drayton, one of the original leaders in the social venture movement. College Summit has a group for its students. Surdna has a small group for its college scholars program. But no principals.

To be sure, Skoll has its own network and information-sharing site, SocialEdge, which is a terrific resource. And it's still early days in the development of the Facebook platform, which may or may not grow dominant over time. Organizations still have plenty of opportunity to explore social networks.

Still, Facebook's tremendous growth to 24 million active users and the still-nascent organizing around causes is a vital development and one that may well change how the next generation deals with philanthropy. I believe that social entrepreneurs have a huge stake in being part of this development -- and that they can and should experiment aggressively with the form.

For their part, networks like Facebook also have a stake in being part of philanthropy -- creating the plumbing, to pick a metaphor. Commitment and the desire to change the world run deep in our culture, just as deep as the more superficial social pursuits. These services must remain open and welcoming to causes of all kinds. Further, I do believe that the "walled garden" concept -- think America Online in the 90s -- is not as potent as the open network. In his review of the new Facebook platform, media veteran John Borthwick addresses the question of open access:

The semantic web needs to be distributed at its core, another walled garden is too low a bar for a really powerful and interesting social network to aim for. I hope Facebook [will] actually step beyond the marketing hype and deliver a social platform for the web.

I think John's right indeed -- I know he's right, if Facebook and its brethren are trying to make loyal customers of young people like my daughter. The banker.