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Making Waves

Using word of mouth online to speak up—and cash in.

Contribute • September/October 2006

In 1989, South African advertising executive Trevor Field wasn’t looking to start a charity. He just couldn’t help himself. One day, during a visit to an agricultural fair outside of Johannesburg, he stumbled across a curious invention — an irrigation system powered by a merry-go-round. As children ran to spin it, they powered a pump that pulled gallon after gallon of water from the ground.

It didn’t take long for Field to realize that he was on to something big. He already knew that about as many people die from bad water in South Africa as from HIV or malaria, and most who do are under the age of five. So why not attach the same kinds of pumps to freshwater storage tanks and bring clean drinking water to sub- Saharan Africa? Paying for it would be a snap, he figured; convince a company to slap an ad on the side of the tank.

Today, some 18 years later, Field’s accidental advocacy campaign, called PlayPumps, has swelled into an international aid organization with offices on both sides of the Atlantic. It’s built more than 900 such water systems at a cost of $14,000 each, serving roughly 2 million people in four countries. It’s also been able to woo AOL founder Steve Case as a donor and recently got a $10 million grant from the U.S. government, with the blessing of First Lady Laura Bush. “I keep pinching myself,” Field says.

But Field is just getting started. His new goal is to get 4,000 more pumps in the ground by 2010 at a cost of $60 million. Can he do it? To be sure, severe water shortages will continue to keep his “play pumps” in demand and donors interested.
But to get from 900 pumps to 4,000 more, Field knows, he’s got to exploit another precious resource — the Web’s new social networking communities — not only to battle global thirst, but to help unearth a new stream of donor dollars. “In Africa, the water pump is a natural gathering point for the women of the village,” Field says. In much that same spirit, PlayPumps wants to use the Cause Web to gather new donors.

PlayPumps is not alone. Other charities, from the American Cancer Society to new issues advocacy groups, such as the Save Darfur Coalition, are also feeling hard-pressed to go beyond using the Net the old-fashioned way — to simply distribute information. Now, as the Web morphs from an information hub into a social one, the most strategic charities are targeting social networks — and their potential to raise sizeable sums from a multitude of small, individual donations — to beat the competition for new dollars on today’s charity-flooded landscape.

Just ask GlobalKids, a New York City-based charity to help inner- city youth. Using cutting-edge technologies to turn its ordinary youth development programs into video games and experiential forays into the virtual world of Second Life, it has been able to more effectively tout itself to new donors for a twofold increase in donations. In addition, says development director Jonah Kokodyniak, having cutting-edge tech programs helps GlobalKids compete for new funding: “There’s a lot of foundation money being invested in nonprofits that use technology, so the fact we have leading tech programs helps us a lot,” he says.

But not everyone is getting it right. Indeed, for many groups, just making sense of the basic Internet is still a challenge — and some nonprofits still don’t use it to its full fundraising potential. “With technology, nonprofits tend to be pretty late adopters,” says Benjamin Stokes, a Web expert with the MacArthur Foundation, a leading grantmaker to nonprofits seeking to get to the next level of techno-literacy. Even cheap and effective options, like Google’s Ad Sense — an inexpensive way for nonprofits to put relevant ads on their Web sites to earn extra income — have yet to catch on among many nonprofits, Stokes says.

Web 2.0, with its odd virtual worlds, burgeoning blogs, and oh-so-hip social networking sites, can be even more baffling to build. “Before, people said, ‘I’ll put up a Web site and people will come,’ but then found out it wasn’t that simple,” Stokes says. “This next phase of Net development isn’t simple, either.” For example, says Stokes, “When people design things in the physical world, they know the ecology. I would never, therefore, build my office out in the middle of a corn field. People don’t have the same sense of the ecology when they’re designing within virtual communities.” The future is here, experts say, and nonprofit strategists will need to start using these new tools just to keep up.

So how did PlayPumps get ahead of the game? Its journey from a South African social enterprise to a virtual, global fundraiser has had no hidden twists and turns. For years, the organization’s web site had simply done the minimum. It explained the group’s mission, posted a few photos, and gave Net-surfing donors and potential ones a phone number to call for more information. Contributions would come in from companies wanting to put their ads on the pumps; staff members would host fundraising dinners and donor meet-and-greets. Occasionally, the group was able to woo high-profile guests to a pump opening: In 1999, Nelson Mandela attended a new pump ceremony; the next year, the organization received the World Bank’s Development Marketplace Award, given to acknowledge innovative efforts to boost the local economies of countries around the world. Buzz was building for PlayPumps internationally, but the group was not yet seeing a flood of donations.

PlayPumps’ turning point came in 2005, when AOL founder Steve Case and his wife, Jean, visited a PlayPlump project during a trip to South Africa. During that trip, the group asked Case for a donation; Case responded with an offer of $5 million — but with a catch: Build 4,000 more pumps by 2010, put Jean on the board, and open a Washington office. And one more thing? Getting up to Web speed would no longer be an option.

PlayPumps went into hyperdrive. It moved its Web site from a South African host to one in the U.S. and immediately hired Net strategist Garth Moore to help it go global and craft an “everyman” approach to raising new dollars.

Moore’s first task was to give the site a more modern feel and a marketer’s touch — a big switch from before, “when everything was about stuffing as much content as possible onto the site,” he says. The next step was to make the site a robust hub for fundraising. A link to donations was added to the home page that let donors choose whether to make one-time, monthly, or honorary contributions. That addition has, so far, brought in some $200,000 in online donations. Charity “badges” also were added, so that supporters and sponsors could tout their support on their own Web sites and link back to the nonprofit’s site.

To test the new site, PlayPumps issued a challenge to supporters: raise money for 100 pumps — $1.4 million — in 100 days. To the surprise of PlayPumps’ Washington director Nancy Murphy, the drive raised $1.6 million. Donations didn’t always top out at $10, as expected. “We had our share of $6 donations online, but we also had two donations for $14,000,” Moore said.

But PlayPumps didn’t stop there. Partly due to Jean Case’s vision of “everyman” fundraising, Moore also got busy identifying ways to make the most of social networks like MySpace and Facebook, and put profiles of the group’s pump-building drive on both sites. PlayPumps also was among the first this year to take advantage of new fundraising features like ChipIn on MySpace and Causes on Facebook, which let PlayPumps organize vast groups of people around its cause from across the Web.

That’s working, too. As of late July, PlayPumps had drummed up 670 members on Facebook and raised $2,000 in small, dollar donations; another $500 came in via MySpace. PlayPumps also has started working with Razoo, a new social networking site focused on good works and giving. “Before, there was overseas interest in PlayPumps,” says Sandra Hayes, who has led the group’s donor relations since 2004, “but most of our donors were still local to Africa. The new use of the Web has made a huge difference.”

To be sure, not every gain is about new technology. The organization still makes use of traditional funding channels, even as it explores the new possibilities just now opening up to it online. “Are some of these new technology initiatives going to help us secure a grant from the Ford Foundation? Probably not,” says Murphy. “But will they help to raise awareness of the clean water crisis and raise funds for PlayPumps? Absolutely.”

Still not convinced of the power of digital networking? Nothing But Nets, a malaria-prevention group, launched a Web-based fundraising campaign in 2006 with a Web site that incorporated mainstream 2.0 technologies — including links to online donations and a Net-O-Meter clocking, in real-time, the number of mosquito nets donors were purchasing.

The benefits were almost immediate. In the first month, the group raised $700,000 online, and online donations haven’t dipped below the $600,000 mark in any month since. Today, roughly 40 percent of the nonprofit’s donations come in via the Web. Says Shannon Raybold, Internet director for the nonprofit: “Our overhead is significantly lower than a traditional nonprofit, and we are able to put more money into this campaign instead of direct mail. I really don’t see a downside to using the next generation of the Web.”

Facebook’s Causes cofounder Joe Green couldn’t agree more. The way most nonprofits raise money for a cause today makes it too expensive to reach out to the little guy, he says. “It’s hard for most nonprofits to solicit smaller donors because it costs so much for too-little return,” says Green. But that barrier goes out the window on a social network, he says. Fundraising on Facebook’s Causes application, he says, can cost 4 percent of transaction costs versus up to 40 percent using direct mail and other common methods.

Green predicts a philanthropy revolution as Web-based social networks bring more small-change donors to the party. Charities will begin to succeed, he says, “based not on how strong their fundraising is, but how interesting their programs are.”

All of which stands PlayPumps in good stead. In late July, the organization officially launched a fundraising campaign on Facebook, aiming to raise enough money for one pump. If it succeeds, says Murphy, the pump, when built, will bear a metal plaque identifying it as “The Facebook PlayPump” and Murphy and crew will post its picture on Facebook for all to see.

Not a bad way to keep making waves.

 

 

Republished on MSNBC.com, December 2007

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