How Live Streaming Will Change the Face of Philanthropy

08/20/2015 12:50 pm ET Updated Aug 20, 2016

Mobile live streaming video has been thrust center stage into the tech limelight with the recent release of Periscope, Meerkat, YouNow, and Blab. The premise of these free apps is that it allows any user to live stream from wherever they are, doing whatever they want. The bonus here is that viewers can tune in and engage via comments. That one-on-one connectivity and intimacy that live video can provide is what social media users, especially millennials, have come to expect more and more. Big companies like Wendy's, T-Mobile, and Applebees, as well as entrepreneurs and brand ambassadors, are already using them to help them connect creatively with their social media-savvy customers and turn a profit. Essentially, the ease of use of these apps can make anyone a broadcaster without the burden of having to create and upload an edited, professional-looking video.

As live streaming becomes more mainstream, and brands and individuals race to understand how they can leverage these new tools for profit, we are also seeing a much more organic and productive use of it, as people capture real-time social injustices as well as breaking news events and emergencies.

As we've seen in Egypt and Tunisia, and in the Middle East's Arab Spring movement, mobile video is emerging as powerful tools for revolution; holding governments to account with video evidence that cannot be ignored.

A turning point in technology for social change came during the 2011 Egyptian uprisings, when Egypt's government shut down the Internet as a way to prevent information from daily protests around the country to leak out. The response: Google and Twitter launched a service to allow people in Egypt to send Twitter messages by leaving a voicemail on a specific number, after the last Internet service provider in the country saw its access cut off by the Egyptian government.
Volunteer banks were mobilized to allow those critical messages from protestors in the form of videos, photos and short messages, to be posted and continue to serve as powerful testaments to the human rights violations being witnessed. In the volatile darkness of those early nights, screen lights from mobile phones and laptops were lighting the way.

While millennials embrace live-streaming mobile apps and adopt them at record rates, and apps like Periscope report 10 million downloads as of August 2, what does that mean for the rapidly changing face of philanthropy in the digital age? How will global development organizations use them to bridge the geographic divide between the work that is being done in the field and their supporters, who want to feel closer to the work and beneficiaries they support? Ultimately, how do these new tools transform the way philanthropic organizations communicate with their audiences?

We know that strategic nonprofits will first look at a tool like mobile live streaming and ask if that's where their audience is, and if it will help move their programmatic goals and missions forward. As more and more millennials and social media-savvy supporters embrace live streaming as the next best thing in social media, many nonprofits will inevitably have to turn to live streaming as a way to help broadcast their work, and meet their younger audiences where they are, in an effort to educate, advocate, and build the next pipeline of donors and supporters.

The power of live streaming is that it also has great potential for increasing organizational transparency, something that is becoming of much greater interest to savvy donors, and that has become a greater issue for "fortress nonprofits" that struggle with being more agile, responsive and social.

Two great examples of organizations leading the way with live streaming, and bridging that geographical divide are VisionSpring and The Central Park Conservancy. VisionSpring is an international social enterprise that works to ensure affordable access to eyewear, everywhere. Last week, Kirsten Bunch, Senior Development Officer at VisionSpring, took to Periscope to live stream her field visit to one of VisionSpring's vision camps in Tangail, Bangladesh. Viewers were able to watch a woman get tested and receive reading glasses for the first time in her life. VisionSpring was founded on a very basic principle: "If you can't see, you can't work." That principle came to life for me in less than three minutes of watching its stream. It also felt very different than the traditional nonprofit video typically produced for annual fundraising events and galas. This video was raw, imperfect, blurry but it still made me feel like I was there. Life can be messy and spontaneous and these elements are present in these streams, making them relatable and highly watchable.

The Central Park Conservancy was an early adopter of Periscope and already has over 6,523 followers that keep up with their #WanderWednesdays -- a weekly morning series broadcast by the Conservancy's Social Media Senior Manager, Ann Rafalko Sublett. Central Park Conservancy raises 75 percent of the park's annual budget and is responsible for the work essential to keeping Central Park beautiful. Ann wanders through the park and talks to her viewers about what she's seeing, the park's happenings, and even some history along with it. Her scopes have become very popular and it's easy to see why. She answers viewers' questions along the way and makes you feel like you're strolling the park alongside her. The changing seasons, the tranquil landscapes, and the quirkiness and beauty that can be unique to New York City, are all captured in Ann's wanderings.

If live streaming continues on an upward trajectory and socially-savvy nonprofits adopt it, it has the power to make nonprofits communicate their work in a more engaging, frequent, and visual way. Nonprofit videos, often created less frequently due to lack of resources and budget constraints, will have new life as mobile live streaming opens the door to an affordable, engaging and powerful visual tool.

The barrier to widespread adoption is that many nonprofits, with reason, want to have very tight control and management over any visual content they produce. As we have seen in the past, nonprofit teams that are more comfortable with risk and social sharing will help pave the way for other organizations who will wait until these apps are less new and seemingly less risky.

Ultimately, lack of complete content control and the inability to quickly seed out inappropriate comments and users, will present the biggest barriers for a nonprofit's adoption of live streaming.
While highly-produced nonprofit video will not be going away any time soon (nor should it), we will be seeing much more frequent usage of live streaming video as a tool that nonprofits will use to communicate with supporters in real time; capturing important mission moments that would otherwise go unseen.

Lastly, from a human rights perspective, Periscope and other mobile live streaming apps will continue to shine a light on social injustices around the world -- giving us access and unprecedented leverage that will help put pressure on governments, who will have a much more difficult time turning a blind eye to the injustices around them.