The Cause Web / Innovators


By Tracie McMillan

Contribute • September/October 2007

Contribute’s Tech 10 is not a hot list. It’s a selection not of the most powerful or the most glamorous or the most famous. There aren’t presidents of established foundations, nor celebrities. They’re not even the most vocal. Rather, they are a handful of some of the most influential new leaders at the very front lines of advocacy today, all using the power of The Cause Web to reshape the reach, impact, and experience of what it means to make a difference. They are innovators like Suzanne Seggerman, who founded Games for Change, to use video games to raise funds and awareness for those caught in the crossfire of global strife. Or Ailin Graef, a Chinese-born entrepreneur who is the first philanthropist in the maturing new world of Second Life. Or Charles Best, whose simple online auction model matches specific individuals on both sides of the give-get divide — a Manhattan banker, say, with an impoverished public school teacher in South Central Los Angeles — and completely removes the middleman to more quickly help those in need. But the real magic of our Tech 10 is the array of new technologies they represent. Herewith, our Tech 10:

Q&A: Sean Parker(L) & Joe Green

Sean McCabe

FACEBOOK, the popular social networking site spawned on college campuses several years ago, is growing up — and getting a social conscience. Some 11.5 million individual visitors to the Facebook site are now 35 or older, more than twice the number from the previous year: according to market researcher ComScore Media Metrix, the 35-and-up crowd now accounts for more than 41 percent of all Facebook visitors.

So how does Facebook grow without alienating its college core? Think altruism, says Joe Green and Sean Parker, the forces behind Facebook’s new Causes application — a bit of code you can easily add to your online profile to create a cause (or tout an existing one), raise money for it, and get others to sign on.

Launched early this past summer by Project Agape, a for-profit start-up funded by venture capitalists in California and cofounded by Parker and Green, Causes has attracted more than three million members so far; these millions, in turn, are combining to support tens of thousands of nonprofits and political causes. “This is a natural evolution of social networking,” says Parker, 27, also a cofounder of Napster, Plaxo, and Facebook. Adds Green, 24, a grassroots organizer: “Nonprofits tend to focus their fundraising efforts just on the wealthy. But cause networking unleashes the power of a multitude of younger, mainstream donors and gives what they care about a way to be heard.”

CONTRIBUTE’s Marcia Stepanek and Tracie McMillan caught up with the pair in August. What follows is an edited version of that interview:

How did this start?

SEAN: I cofounded Napster. I was 19 with my friend Sean Fanning; I was running around Washington, D.C., raising money from investors, and he was based up in Boston. It was the catalyst for a lot of the thinking I was doing around how you could use viral marketing to propagate messages and empower activists and try to do something interesting. I went on to cofound Facebook. There’s a perception that Facebook is for college kids but there’s nothing about Facebook which isn’t incredibly useful to an older population, and older people are starting to use it. Most of the growth is happening in the 25 to 34 demographic. We’ve reached 35 or so million users, 50 percent of whom come back to the site every day. There’s no site with a registered user base besides Facebook that has that level of activity of engagement. As people share things through the network, their friends find out about it, it sparks little conversations, and then they pass along the things which they find of interest. So Facebook is this sort of decentralized system for filtering information which is useful to everyone. There’s nothing age-limited about it whatsoever.

So why Causes?

SEAN: I think it’s a pretty natural evolution.The perception that social networking has been frivolous, I think, has existed amongst non-core Facebook users for a while, and certainly most of the applications up until now have been pretty frivolous. They’ve been about socializing, not socializing for a cause.

JOE: When you look at Facebook and social networking in general, it sort of heralds a fundamental change in how community works online. Before social networking, before Friendster, community online was very niche and very disconnected. You had Star Wars fans, and they got online and found other Star Wars fans, and their identity was sort of a handle. They were Hans Solo, or whomever. But it wasn’t them and there was no real connection to their real life. Then Facebook came along, and it’s about real people and real lives. A person’s profile contains his or her real photo and a real name. To convince your friends that I’m you would be pretty much impossible. Facebook creates this very trusted identity. And so what you’ve got now with Facebook is what (cofounder) Mark Zuckerberg likes to call the social graph — people connected to other people’s friends. It’s a map of social connections. What that allows you to do is to take things that are real-world and put them on this space and have them work far, far more efficiently.

What do you mean?

JOE: My background is as a political organizer. I grew up in Santa Monica and worked on wage campaigns and various things around students’ rights, and then got to college and worked on a local L.A. campaign, and then went and worked on the [John] Kerry campaign. Most well-done grassroots organizing uses some version of a house meeting to convince people they have power in numbers. Cesar Chavez, when he was organizing migrant farmworkers, knew they were the most powerless groups in the country at the time. He would go and form a relationship with one person and then get them to host a meeting at his home and invite his friends and family, so he’d tap into existing social connections. And then he would get, at that meeting, two or three of those people to agree to host their own meetings.

Our core guiding principle, if you will, is similar — all about leveraging social connections for social change. We believe that every individual has power in his or her social connections, but most people don’t really know it and they don’t really know how — or even if — they can turn that into the ability to impact change. And so our goal is to show people, hey, by inviting 20 friends, you can have a huge impact because you’re going to invite 20 friends and they may donate some money, they may take other action, they may volunteer.

This is a for-profit business, right?

JOE: Both of us have come to this primarily for social reasons. We did consider being a nonprofit but to do this at the scale we wanted to do it, it had to be for-profit. But our primary motive is to empower individuals and to make the nonprofit process a lot more efficient. So our business model right now is that we can raise money very cheaply. Nonprofits are spending a lot of money hiring firms to do direct mail and phone. It’s costing them 30 to 40 percent of what they take in — and it’s locking out smaller nonprofits who don’t have the institutional machinery to raise money in that way — and then it also locks out smaller donors, especially young people who can afford to write a $50 check once a year, but nobody ever asks. We, though, take a very small percentage of the transaction. The entire transaction cost on Facebook Causes is 4 percent, which, compared to what nonprofits pay now, is a pretty good bargain.

So how does it work?

JOE: Anybody can create what we call a cause. We tie into the Guidestar database of the 1.5 million nonprofits, so the cause creator gets to pick an organization that we call the beneficiary of the cause. So you could have a hundred different breast cancer related causes and 25 of them might benefit Susan G. Komen and 15 of them might benefit the American Cancer Society and they might benefit different hospitals. They can benefit anything that’s a registered 501(c)3. So the idea is that there is this thing we call the marketplace of causes where, because it’s really easy and cost-free to create a cause, you can experiment and try lots of different things, and many causes will get created on a given topic, and a small number of them will get very large and many of them will just stay small, which is fine, or it could just be among friends. But the idea is to create a very simple, fluid system, and a system where it’s really centered on the issues people care about and their networks of friends — not the individual nonprofits as the middlemen.

How many causes are there so far?

JOE: Somewhere over 10,000. We’ve got 2.5 million people so far donating $10, $20. Over 500 of the largest nonprofits have signed up as partners. Our attitude has been that we have a lot to learn in the nonprofit world, and so we’ve tried to open as many lines of communication as possible.

Why do you think traditional nonprofits are so eager to embrace you?

JOE: They see that millions of people are using it; they see the Internet taking off and they’re not exactly sure what to do about it. I’m a big fan of the book, Bowling Alone. When you look at how nonprofits were after World War II, they were really very chapter based and very social capital rich. Today, the chapter system has really sort of gone away, and the distinction between being a donor and a member has kind of disappeared.

SEAN: Part of the problem with the nonprofit industry, from our kind of pedestrian perspective, is that it’s so difficult to justify going after, as donors, the younger demographic because young people are not high-value donors. And so the economic incentive to pursue young people as donors just doesn’t exist; there’s not a lot of social capital between members of these large scale, direct marketing-oriented nonprofits. In that world, it’s hard to include everybody.

And so if you can restore social capital and bring it back into the process and ultimately make it much more efficient to raise money from young people or people who maybe aren’t super-wealthy who are not yet in that giving stage in their life, then you can actually engage them in the process.

Facebook is not a dating application, it’s not a way of specifically staying in touch with college kids. It’s a multi-purpose social map, a general purpose communication network. What we’ve been looking for is a way to grow this network large enough to reach a critical mass that would allow us to begin moving into other demographic segments. Causes is it. We have this phrase that we come back to a lot, which is “unlocking the power of your social network.”

Facebook Causes is a way of leveraging the power of your social network to raise money or ultimately achieve a social goal. We’re very much trying to take social dynamics that exist in the real world and represent them online, which wasn’t really possible a few years ago.

So where do you both see this going?

JOE: We’ve been very focused on growth right now — just getting the application used by as many people as possible. We’re also going to be working on building out a lot more types of actions people can take and various ways to raise money around cause. One of the real powers of the Internet, though, is rich media. You have the power to make a cause real for someone. Instead of saying, ‘end malaria,” you can show someone what it means to give a bednet to a child. You can say, after watching a video, ‘Give us ten bucks, and you’ll save the life of one child by buying one bed net.’ You’re much more likely to get someone to give that way.

SEAN: What’s interesting about Facebook, and what distinguishes it even from My Space, is that it’s so incredibly real. Causes is all about sort of broadening that concept of identity to include one’s higher calling, if you will — what you think about, your values, your beliefs, your sense of social purpose and mission. Second Life is about virtual identities. Facebook is about real identity, real relationships. There’s a much deeper social capital on Facebook than, say, something like Second Life.

JOE: When I was a student at Harvard, we did a study twice a year about college student civic involvement and what we consistently found was that this generation of college students cares incredibly deeply about changing the world, and probably has expressed more interest, in fact, in that of any generation since the 60s but doesn’t understand how to do it and feels that the existing institutions really are not responding to them.

We think we can show people that young people can make a difference. I mean you look at this one breast cancer cause now on Facebook. It amassed more than a million members in its first seven or eight weeks. I mean, it’s pretty hard to argue that this young guy who started it hasn’t made some kind of impact. He’s not the Susan G. Komen foundation. He’s one guy trying to get a breast cancer study funded at Brigham and Women’s Hospital up in Boston. He’s already raised more than $1 million or so for that cause. It’s not big, big money — yet. But by exposing people to the power of their social networks, it can be.

Anybody can create what we call a cause; a cause can be about anything —Save The Whales, Pave My Street, Elect John Edwards, whatever. People are donating $10, $20, and there are some who have given thousands of dollars so far.

My grandfather grew up very poor in Minnesota. He was Jewish, and he sold Christian bibles door-to-door to pay for night law school. Later, he got to be friends with Hubert Humphrey when [Humphrey] was mayor of Minneapolis. Minneapolis was very anti-semitic back then, and Humphrey worked to change that. When he got elected to the Senate, he didn’t have a lot of money. The only luggage he had was cardboard, so my grandfather and his law partners bought him his first real set of luggage and sent him off to Washington. I like that image of politicians without a lot of money, motivated by possibility.


Colleen Macklin

Colleen Macklin, 37, the chair of the communications design and technology lab at Parsons, is at ground zero in the assault on old thinking around social change. Her new PET Lab — an incubator for Prototyping, Evaluation, Teaching, and Learning around the use of multimedia for social change — will work with interested nonprofits and community groups to create rapid prototypes of video games and other media for use in encouraging philanthropy. Macklin’s goal: to engage new generations, globally, around social problem-solving that matters. “There’s a need for philanthropy to engage a younger audience,” says Macklin, an interactive designer who has collaborated globally with such clients as Citibank, France Telecom, and Moët. Game design — which involves discovering which emotional triggers can evolve altruism — has traditionally been an undertaking too costly and complex or most nonprofits. Creating the average video game, for example, can be nearly as complicated as creating a blockbuster film. “You need to understand programming, visual design, animation, and sound,” she says. With her Manhattan-based, student-populated PET Lab, Macklin, in cooperation with the nonprofit, Games for Change, is establishing the first affordable space for nonprofits worldwide to experiment. “Can we design video games and other forms of persuasive media to achieve real impact in the world? It’s already happening,” says Macklin, who has led collaborative projects for UNESCO, the UN, and George Soros’ Open Society Institute. “All designers are optimists who hope their work will represent change for the better.” PET Lab, says Macklin, will prove it. — MARCIA STEPANEKVIRAL


COMMUNITIES: Michael Furdyk


Sean McCabe


Michael Furdyk’s computer talents came early: At age two, he was already fiddling with a Commodore 64 computer, brought home by his father, who worked at the local phone company. By age 16, he’d already sold his first Internet start-up for $1 million and was consulting for Microsoft. Today, Furdyk, 25, leads Toronto-based TakingITGlobal, an international online community to ignite social change. The social networking site hosts more than 2,000 projects from over 50 countries, in 12 languages, ranging from youth voter mobilization efforts in Togo to a Canadian hip hop summer camp focused on boosting youth media literacy. Though the group doesn’t hit up any of its 150,000 global affluentials for donations, it does provide a closely vetted list of more than 1,000 funding opportunities. When Muhammed Abdul Wahed Tomal, a Bangladeshi college activist, joined TIG in 2003, he wanted to use his computer skills to alleviate poverty. Through TIG’s site, he organized a campaign with more than 100 members to push Bangladesh to take on technology access as a way to fight poverty and mobilize his efforts. It’s a surprisingly substantative take on social networks—but that’s precisely the point, says author and digital media expert Don Tapscott, an early mentor to Furdyk. Says Tapscott: “TakingITGlobal is one of the world’s best examples of how Net-Geners are using digital technologies to transform the world around them.” — TRACIE MCMILLAN




Sean McCabe matches donors directly to need — no nonprofit middlemen or experts required. Teachers post their wish lists for supplies, projects, and field trips; donors troll the listings, and when they find something inspiring, they donate a sum of their choosing with a few quick clicks of a mouse. Best, 29, dreamt it up seven years ago, while teaching at a public school in the Bronx, where he shared his colleagues’ frustration over chronic underfunding for even basic learning tools. Since then, DonorsChoose has grown exponentially, raising $13.5 million to fund more than 29,000 projects in eight states [plus four additional cities]. In September 2007, every public school in the country became eligible for support through DonorsChoose. While some compare DonorsChoose to a kind of philanthropic eBay — matching, say, a Manhattan millionaire with a public school teacher in South Central LA — Best says Wikipedia is an equally apt comparison. “In the same way that nobody thought an encyclopedia could be produced by laymen,” he says, “we’ve had a democratizing effect. Donors become their own program officers.” This rise of the “citizen philanthropist” hasn’t made everyone happy. “Some foundation executives have reacted a bit territorially,” says Best, and at least one big-city principal threatened to fire a teacher who posted a request for money to buy dictionaries because he was embarrassed that kids in his school didn’t have them already. Best, though, is forging ahead. He’s already planning to apply the same model to other causes — and other countries. — MATTHEW MCCANN FENTON



Susan Tenby, 36, is the first nonprofit organizer in the virtual, 3-D world of Second Life. Her avatar, or digital “self,” is a svelte pink cat with pointy ears and whiskers named Glitteractica Cookie (top right) — reminiscent of the Japanese anime and manga comic books that Tenby read as a child growing up in Hawaii. But “Glitter” isn’t Tenby’s first creative foray into the rapidly expanding virtual world. A few years after she helped to launch in 2000 as a one-stop online technology resource for traditional nonprofits, Second Life’s parent company asked Tenby to join a focus group to help it build the virtual community. “I immediately saw the potential of it,” Tenby recalls. “It was more of a platform than a game.” A cancer survivor, Tenby wanted to focus her life on making a difference, so she dispatched her avatar to organize nonprofits in the virtual world — and then sought out a virtual philanthropist to donate virtual office space to keep the momentum going. Enter “in-world” real estate tycoon Anshe Chung (below left), an avatar and Second Life’s wealthiest entrepreneur. Earlier this year, Chung’s creator, Chinese-born Ailin Graef (below, right), donated 16 acres of pricey virtual space worth roughly $5,000 in the real world to the effort. Tenby’s Nonprofit Commons is now “home” to 32 charities, from CARE USA to America’s Second Harvest. — JANET RAE-DUPREE




Susan Tenby (top, center) and her avatar, Glitteractica (top right) and Ailin Graef (bottom right) and her avatar, Anshe Chung (bottom left).
Susan Tenby (top, center) and her avatar, Glitteractica (top right) and Ailin Graef (bottom right) and her avatar, Anshe Chung (bottom left).


Ailin Graef (below, right) is a provocative, 34-year-old Chinese business entrepeneur whose famous digital self, avatar Anshe Chung (below, left), is the first real estate tycoon in Second Life — and its first virtual philanthropist. Some two years ago, Graef parlayed $10 into a virtual real estate empire now worth more than $1 million in real money, an accomplishment that landed her virtual doppelganger on the cover of BusinessWeek in 2006. Graef’s Second Life holdings are the equivalent of 40 square kilometers of land, supported by 550 servers or land “simulators”. Graef also owns a handful of shopping malls, store chains, and brands —all of them virtual — along with significant virtual stock market investments in Second Life companies. Graef buys “land” wholesale from Second Life’s operator, San Francisco-based Linden Lab, and then sells or rents it to real-world companies and organizations who want to establish a virtual toehold. Earlier this year, Anshe Chung donated 16 acres of “land” to support the creation of a nonprofit office park in Second Life. The Nonprofit Commons, officially announced in August, provides a virtual meeting space to 32 charities, along with a courtyard where advocates meet every Friday morning. “I hope businesses will get more involved in helping NGOs and nonprofits to collaborate in the metaverse,” Graef says. She has a reason to be optimistic: Graef runs Anshe Chung Studios in Hubei, China, which stands to profit even further when China unveils its own version of Second Life later this year. — MARCIA STEPANEK


VIDEO GAMES: Susan Seggerman


Sean McCabe


Suzanne Seggerman, 44, has made a game of controversies such as genocide in Darfur and the Israeli-Palestinian struggle. As cofounder of Games For Change, a partnership that helps create video games to educate people about serious issues, Seggerman hopes to deepen the public’s understanding of social need —beyond and behind the day’s headlines. A former PBS documentarian, Seggerman was inspired when a colleague gave her a copy of Hidden Agenda, a1990s video game about the challenges of governing an unstable Central American country in the wake of a revolution. Intrigued, she began attending developer conferences to find others interested in creating games to enable people to “play” in simulated environments to help boost comprehension of the complexities feeding various social ills. Today, G4C brings together charities with for-profits, then partners them with media behemoths like MTV and Microsoft to create cause games such as Darfur is Dying, which was played more than 2 million times after its April 2006 debut. New games, like A Force More Powerful, teach people how to fight tyranny—Gandhi-style, using passive resistance—in oppressive countries like Iran, North Korea, and Myanmar. “G4C does what the Sundance Festival did for independent film,” Seggerman says. — MATTHEW MCCANN FENTON


BRIDGE BLOGS: Ethan Zuckerman


Sean McCabe


Ethan Zuckerman, 34, runs Global Voices Online. With 1.2 million visitors a month, it stands as one of the Web’s hottest sites — and the only one among them to function as a “bridge blog,” a daily, edited, and often translated scan of developing-world blogs aiming to bring long-hidden stories — and social problems —into mainstream social consciousness.  Founded by Zuckerman in 2004 with former CNN journalist Rebecca McKinnon, the site is “glocal” — it’s global coverage of local events — and it highlights the day’s best blog postings from around the world in nine languages, from the Japanese launch of YouTube to child sex abuse in the Maldives. “It covers news overlooked by the mainstream media,” says Jan Schaeffer of J-Lab, a news group that awarded GV a prestigious Knight-Batten Grand Prize for Innovations in Journalism in 2006. It also finds itself a powerful advocate for free speech: When GV editor Hao Wu was detained by Chinese authorities in early 2006, the site ran coverage for seven months and organized a letter-writing campaign and online petition seeking his release. The ruckus led The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post to run stories that coincided with a U.S. visit by Chinese President Hu Jintao. Wu was released the following week. “Initially, we meant GV as a resource for journalists,” says Zuckerman, who is also a research fellow at the Berkman Centerfor the Internet and Society at Harvard Law School. “We had no idea we’d end up being a vast community project.” — TRACIE MCMILLAN


DYNAMIC DATA: Hans Rosling


Sean McCabe


“There are three kinds of lies,” Mark Twain once wrote. “Lies, damned lies, and statistics.” But if Twain had lived to see Swedish global health professor Hans Rosling demonstrate Trendalyzer, his software program that brings dry-as-dirt statistics to life, he might have reconsidered. Rosling’s goal: to give today’s policymakers—and tomorrow’s — the power to “see” the real triggers behind global problems. Trendalyzed data dances with caffeinated animations that resemble nothing so much as a lava lamp on steroids — and leave Power Point looking like yesterday’s mashed potatoes. In the 59-year-old Rosling’s presentations, figures like national income, infant mortality, carbon emissions, and Internet usage (often represented by colored bubbles) soar and float, quiver and vibrate, bulge and shrink, with all of those movements representing changes in policy, time, climate, birth rates, and poverty levels — to name just a few. Best of all, time is not represented by a line, but acts like time itself, with passing seconds ticking off years and decades. Trendalyzer can plot dozens of variables simultaneously, and what’s more, the dynamic movement of the data can often reveal hidden relationships — between, say, overfishing of local waters in coastal Africa and a regional decline in human life expectancy, or the lowering of trade barriers in a developing nation and a spike in educational achievement. The technology is so powerful that Google bought it last year from Rosling and will distribute it for free. — MATTHEW MCCANN FENTON

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