The 2010 Global Philanthropy Forum: Harnessing Technology for Change

Just a few weeks ago, the 2010 Global Philanthropy Forum convened in San Francisco. The three-day forum highlighted a number of key international challenges and opportunities facing investors and grant makers, NGOs and civil society, and multi-sector partnerships both public and private, as the industry of giving and receiving enters the second decade of the 21st century. While the overarching themes of the conference were not explicitly related to technological advancements or solutions to the world's most pressing problems, having attended a variety of sessions over the course of the conference, one of the most prominent threads was exactly that: harnessing mobile and internet technology for change, social impact, and accountability.

Catalista, for example, has developed a mobile platform to connect individuals interested in timely volunteer work for local non-profits in need, whereas The Extraordinaries pioneered the field of micro-volunteering, which helps organizations and supporters turn spare time into social value from a bus stop, cubicle, or couch. To-date, micro-volunteers have completed over 300,000 tasks for more than 200 organizations. Similarly, but in a reversal of roles and in the space of economic development across the developing world, Samasource enables marginalized people, from refugees in Kenya to women in rural Pakistan, to receive life-changing work opportunities via the Internet. The core of this concept is microwork -- little bits of labor that can be performed anytime and anywhere that add up to a real livelihood for their partners. Another example of mobile and social innovation in action is the work of FrontlineSMS, designed specifically to address a widespread communications problem facing grassroots NGOs working in developing countries. By leveraging basic tools already available to most NGOs -- computers and mobile phones -- FrontlineSMS enables instantaneous two-way communication on a large scale. The uses for such technology spans monitoring human rights violations, disaster relief coordination, election monitoring, emergency alerts, health care information requests, mobile education, and more.

Moreover, at the Global Philanthropy Forum, the Vodafone Americas Foundation and mHealth Alliance announced the winners of the second annual Wireless Innovation Project™ and the first mHealth Alliance Award for innovation in mobile health (mHealth). The winning projects, which together were awarded $650,000 in cash and prizes, were selected for their ability to leverage wireless technology to help meet challenges faced in developing countries, including access to clean air, medical care, and financial services for the rural poor. The 2010 winners can be found here.

With such ingenuity accelerating the pace of the convergence between technology and impact, we are on the verge of shifting the development landscape entirely through the lens of mobile devices. With roughly 4.6 billion mobile phones in use around the world today, the developing world is accounting for a significant portion of recent and continued growth. For example, mobile phones represent roughly 90% of all telephone lines in Africa, where 75 million new subscribers joined the revolution in 2009, bringing the total number of users to nearly 450 million, or nearly half the entire continent.

Start-ups focusing on mobile technology are not the only new kids on the block redefining the industry of social change and social impact, for heavy-hitting philanthropic organizations are also investing in the power of technology to amplify voices in the field, hoping to shift long-standing perceptions on critical issues of our time such as public opinion on U.S. foreign aid and global development. Funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Link TV recently launched -- a digital media hub that highlights progress in reducing hunger, poverty, and disease in developing nations. It combines powerful video stories with the latest Web technology to make videos, articles, blogs, and actions readily available to key audiences working in global development. The Gates Foundation has also spearheaded the use of storytelling to shift industry and public attitude towards global health via the Living Proof Project, a multimedia initiative intended to highlight successes of U.S.-funded global health initiatives. By reporting success stories back to the people who funded them - American taxpayers and their representatives - the Project hopes to reframe the current global health conversation.

Indeed, new online platforms are continuously emerging, as the Foundation Center just launched, which is designed to inspire greater openness among private foundations. With regard to receiving tax exemptions for serving the public good, Foundation Center President Bradford K. Smith explained that, "To preserve this freedom, foundations must tell the story of what they do, why they do it, and what difference they make. Glasspockets will serve as a central source of knowledge that can fuel this movement toward greater transparency in philanthropy."

Switching gears to the democratization of information, and harnessing technology to educate the world, the Khan Academy has revolutionized the idea of education and the spread of knowledge. A graduate of MIT and Harvard Business School, Salman Khan has been videotaping his own teaching and tutoring sessions on topics spanning basic arithmetic, banking, economics, physics, and dozens of other subjects, and putting them online for the world to watch, and learn. His goal: high quality education for anyone, anywhere. With over 1,200 videos available on YouTube, 8 million video views and counting, and 70,000 students a month watching 35,000 videos a day, Khan is pushing the boundaries of access to education in the 21st century.

It doesn't stop there. Recognizing that transparency and accountability are essential to development, the World Bank Group is now providing free, open, and easy access to its comprehensive set of data on living standards around the globe -- some 2,000 indicators, including hundreds that go back 50 years. The data will be available in Arabic, French and Spanish in addition to English. Moreover, in the coming months, the World Bank will also launch an "Apps for Development" competition, challenging the developer community to create tools, applications, and "mash-ups" using World Bank data with the goal of producing better tools for understanding development.

And last but not least, has also been extensively involved in technological solutions to both immediate and long-term dilemmas facing the world, including developing a Person Finder application with the U.S. State Department in the wake of the earthquake in Haiti, and standardizing the process to avoid missteps following the proliferation of multiple databases after Hurricane Katrina. More ambitious projects include analyzing flu trends and predicting outbreaks around the world by cross-referencing their "flu symptoms" data against information from the Center for Disease Control (CDC), and accurately estimating the extent of disease up to two weeks quicker than each of the CDC's nine surveillance areas.

Philanthropy, technology, and social change are intertwining at incredible speeds across continents, platforms, and devices. Indeed, we are only beginning to understand the potential of mobile phones to change lives, and to save lives. It's clear from the examples above that when you unleash philanthropic dollars towards aiding tech-savvy minds seeking to execute a social mission, you inch the world towards the way it ought to be, and that should be our collective aim, and our collective drive.

To learn more about the 2010 Global Philanthropy Forum click here.

To read a recent piece I wrote on the new Philanthropy Secretariat in Liberia, please click here.

For more articles by Rahim Kanani, click here.