How Charity Newcomers are Revolutionizing the Non-Profit Sector

in Strategy & Trends | by Ethan Lyon

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By Ethan Lyon, Senior Writer

Social cause is not just about writing a check and mailing it to your favorite charity every year. No, not for the newest wave of non-profits. This up-and-coming generation of charities is developing innovative financial structures, embracing the power new social technologies to engage audiences, taking big risks and changing the face of entrepreneurship and social cause in the process.

“At first, we had all of these naysayers.” says Matt Flannery, founder of Kiva — a microlending non-profit. “Experts said, ‘That’s an interesting idea for advertising, but that can’t scale. How can thousands of people from Uganda, Cambodia and Tanzania–random places where the Internet doesn’t work so well–post their pictures and get people to lend to them?’ The idea did seem crazy,” Flannery noted. “But we weren’t thinking it was going to be a multimillion-dollar business.” Flannery’s entrepreneurial spirit and fresh perspective defines the next generation of non-profits impacting change.

Kiva (founded in 2005), Charity Water (2006), To Write Love on Her Arms (2006), One Campaign (2004) are leading this new generation of charities. From micro-lending to Twestivals to web applications, these charities are changing the game and in the process, revolutionizing the non-profit sector.

These neophytes are facing many of the challenges freshly minted college students face: little experience, but have an innovative, driven spirit to change the world. This new generation is getting their foot in the door by embracing social media and other web 2.0 technologies. Accordingly, they are the most socially influential non-profits based on our findings in the Digital Influence in Social Cause Report.

Placing #3 among over 50 charities, Kiva is the greenhorn superstar — surpassing YMCA, The Salvation Army, Greenpeace and many other well-known organizations. Though Kiva is alone at the top of the list, the one shared element among all new entrants is social influence — meaning Twitter, Tumblr, Facebook and links pointing to their .org site.

Kiva is a digital leader not only among non-profits but the web as a whole. This year, Kiva.org was named one of the 50 Best Websites of 2009 by TIME magazine. The microfinancing organization has created an API for web developers, developed blog badges and easily embedded banner ads in addition to Kiva donation groups and even an iPhone App. Forbes has called the microlending site “a cross between Google and Bono.”

To create transparency and develop a community-rich environment around entrepreneurship and micro-lending, Kiva embraces many social media tools. This dedication to social media and blogging paid off when the Daily Kos picked up Kiva. Then, Opra came knocking and the rest is history.

Kiva is not the only innovative web-based non-profit. Charity Water launched Twestivals — where Twitter users Tweet, meet and give. In Feb. 2009, the Twestival reportedly raised $250,000. “We came together at tweetups, we raised money, and together we funded 55 water projects. This means 17,000 people now have access to a new life with clean and disease-free water, and you can watch the impact this made here,” writes Austin Twestival organizer Michelle Greer. “We can make brilliant things happen if we put our hearts behind them.”

Newcomers like Charity Water and Kiva are changing the game by rallying online community support for their social cause. Kiva ranks #1 in social influence followed by Charity Water at #3. Charity Water dominates the Twitter list, placing #1 with 1 million followers; Kiva ranks #2 with 77,800 followers; and TWOLHA #7 with 46,900 followers.

This social movement engages new audiences while connecting like-minded people to impact change. This ahead-of-the-curve thinking is what makes these organizations have a leg to stand on. They are embracing the tectonic shifts in digital media and applying the most cutting edge concepts to charity and giving. If anything, the established leaders could learn something from the newcomers and embrace the changing tides by putting the social back into social cause.

Download the full PDF report

Image by Viktors Kozers from Stock.Xchng