THE BLOG
01/19/2007 10:21 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Consumer Philanthropy: You, Me and George Clooney?

Time magazine ignored Warren Buffett when it came to naming its ballyhooed 'Person of the Year' last month. His biggest-in-history divestiture of personal wealth - and related comments about inheritance and the growing gap between rich and poor- didn't make the cut. In a year of big philanthropy headlines, the big gifts came up short in the eyes of the newsmagazine editors.

I thought this was a huge mistake on Time's part, a missed opportunity to call attention to what is clearly a growing national phenomenon. The "mirror" cover highlighting so-called "users" of information - empowered consumers in control of media and distribution in a networked world - seemed a lesser choice in comparison, especially in the world of philanthropy. After all, won't the bigshots gather at davos07 next week to really change the world?

But what if I'm wrong?

What if super-wired, distributed retail philanthropy begins to live up to its long decade of promises and hype in the next few years?

What if the cover-story giving of Buffett and Gates and Bono and Oprah serves as the televised motivation to a huge network of donors - if their high-profile isn't an end, but a means to greater, wider philanthropy?

For anyone who's been watching philanthropy over the last 10 years, it's easy to dismiss the impact of distributed networks and social computing on giving. We've all lived through the hype of platform after platform and system after system. How're you going to touch Buffett's billions with some widgets, blogs, and podcasts? So YouTube and Myspace and Facebook are gonna change the world, eh? Go away son, you bother me.

Yet if you look beyond the headlines, there are signs. And there are two trendlines heading for a collision - on one hand, people are ever more conscious of philanthropy and its role in commerce and society; on the other, these people are talking to each other more so than ever before.

Allan Benamer, the IT Director at Coalition for the Homeless in New York and the blogger behind the aptly-named Confession of a Nonprofit IT Director , argues that the notion of consumer philanthropy has a small, point-of-sale, small consumer quotient as well:

Let's take that whole notion of 'consumer philanthropy' and put that back in the Economy 2.0 space. Wouldn't it be possible to move the hardest social services cases in the nonprofit sector over to the Web? And wouldn't it take just a little more thinking to get people to donate to those cases, in effect, becoming a consumer philanthropist? We're basically applying the network effect to donations and ending up with another shading on the notion of consumer philanthropy. It's not so much big-money philanthropy but online retail philanthropy.

He's got a point, of course. As the web experience grows ever more personal and less and less about big portals and media brands, so too does the giving experience - especially for the net native demographic. Even as consumers are inspired by the big names and big cause marketing campaigns, their day-to-day world online may well expand to include philanthropy. But is this a tipping point? Inflection point? You pick the economic cliche. I'm going to go look at some Websites.

Modest Needs is typical of the new Web 2.0 micro-charity sites. A registered nonprofit, Modest Needs works at what I'd call the pre-organizational level. The site aims "to stop the cycle of poverty before it starts for low-income workers struggling to afford emergency expenses like those we've all encountered before: the unexpected auto repair, the unanticipated trip to the doctor, the unusually large winter heating bill." It makes direct grants to needy people in three main buckets: Self-Sufficiency Grants, Back-to-Work grants, and Independent Living Grants. The website serves as a matching service - you can view applications with headings like "Help with my electric bill" and "Medical bill for son's operation" and decide where to make grants.

DonationPixel plays on the notion of user's images being an important part of their online experience; on this site, you choose an international aid project, make a donation, and add your own picture. The Swiss project has the support of Dr. Gabriele Inaara Begum Aga Khan. Similarly, DonorsChoose.org matches teachers with donors who want to support their educational project. And the popularity of direct microlending sites is also growing, Kiva and GlobalGiving being two of the more prominent examples. Older efforts like Care2 (which raises money and attention for mainly enviromental causes) and JustGive.org and the large-scale Network for Good have long-standing followings in the millions.

But the totals are still small, and the metrics very thin. There are many competing sites and schemes and standards. There isn't anything - yet - in philanthropy to match the simplicity and rate of adoption of the RSS feed in media distribution. But I'm guessing there will be, and soon. Again, the signs are there.

RockForDarfur is entirely housed within MySpace, the largest youth-oriented network online. It's a project of Oxfam America, with the backing of movie star George Clooney and a wide range of musical artists. As of today, the MySpace site would be the envy of any 14-year-old - it lists 90,610 "friends," some of whom have downloaded a special guide designed to teach them how to discuss genocide with their friends.

Wrote one teen: "Wow, and I thought I was the only one who cared. This is amazing."

He had a point. Hope they're listening in Davos.