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Social Networks, Blank Canvases, and the Long Tail: The Future of Online Philanthropy?

November 20, 2007

(Philippe Bradley, 21, is currently completing an MSc in Molecular Biochemistry at Oxford University. He spends his hours in the lab dreaming of Silicon Valley and a peer-driven revolution in philanthropy. An avid reader and snowboarder, he is currently looking to get his startup, CivSpark.com, off the ground. This is his first post to PhilanTopic.)

One of the most striking online developments of the last few years has been the emergence of the so-called Long Tail effect -- the thesis, made popular by Wired editor Chris Anderson, that individuals are offered greater choice in systems and networks, like the Internet, where the cost of storage and distribution is low.

Little wonder, then, that sites at the cutting edge of online philanthropy are bringing the concept to giving and social activism. This, in turn, is bringing revolutionary change to an industry that has remained largely unchanged for the better part of a century.

Users of Kiva.org, for example, found and united around Olajumoke Adeoye's appeal, an archetypal microfinance project, on the Kiva site. Users of the site pooled their resources to provide Adeoye with a loan of $1,175 (to be spent on her new business), repayable over eight months. What's especially interesting is the role played by the site and its field partner and how it compares to traditional philanthropy. Other than providing just enough details to reassure donors/lenders that their money will be used for legitimate purposes, the field partner -- in this case LAPO, part of the Grameen network -- is largely invisible. Kiva itself plays the role of silent mediator, letting donors find the projects they're interested in and managing the financial transaction.

This largely "agnostic" role stands in stark contrast to traditional charities, which typically launch appeals and reach out to potential donors as actively as time and resources allow. But because its audience is so large and diverse, Kiva can display a huge range of projects, then sit back and let groups form organically around each one. As users recommend the project to their friends via e-mail or newer platforms like Facebook and MySpace, the cause spreads virally across social networks, rapidly increasing in power and impact.

The link between the Long Tail and Web 2.0 is well established (elegantly described by Anderson himself). As noted above, one result has been the creation of online "mission-driven intermediaries" which, in effect, offer a "blank canvas" to individual groups with similar missions and/or causes. This highly tractable approach can be seen on Change.org or within the Facebook Causes application -- both of which are even more agnostic than Kiva.

The movement toward blank canvas approaches, influenced by the wider embrace of Web 2.0 tools and platforms, is becoming more pronounced. Even so, intermediaries are still necessary, if for no other reason than to vet possible recipients of the funds raised by crowds.

The really interesting question is whether these trends will eventually result in even the vetting being left to the crowd, much like Wikipedia users add and vet content on that site. We're already seeing that sort of feature on Donorschoose.org. But what would a truly blank canvas approach to philanthropy look like? And what would be the consequences of a world where peer-driven, "niche" philanthropy is king?

From where I sit, it sure looks like we're moving toward a brave new world of philanthropy. What about you? As always, I'd love to hear your thoughts.

-- Phil Bradley

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Posted by Philippe Bradley  |   November 23, 2007 at 12:37 PM

Dr. Dan McQuillan views this issue from a slightly different slant over at http://www.internetartizans.co.uk/seedcamps_for_social_innovation

Posted by Drew McManus  |   November 23, 2007 at 03:24 PM

This is exactly the idea behind Bring Light (www.bringlight.com). People can help fund specific charitable projects -- no matter how small their donation.

Donors can also form Giving Groups to make a bigger difference. Some donors may only have $20 to give, but they probably also have 20 friends...

Drew McManus
Bring Light

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