Digital philanthropy: Part 11 – Electronic community – Building a network

By Todd Cohen

Philanthropy is rooted in the idea of community. At our best, Americans see problems and work together to solve them.

Harvard scholar Robert Putnam says those social connections are eroding. Americans, he says, are “bowling alone” and abandoning the civic connections that built our civil society.

Technology can’t force us to be better citizens or care about our neighbors and communities. But we can use technology to strengthen social connections within communities and help create new communities:

* In the privacy of their homes or offices, individuals can find causes to support and can contribute to them. International relief groups, for example, have proved the Web can be a powerful fundraising tool. 

* Philanthropic organizations can use technology to enlist and cultivate donors, members and volunteers. Web sites like and SERVEnet attract heavy use.

* Nonprofit advocates can use email and the Web to launch mass advocacy campaigns targeted to policymakers. TechRocks, for example, has generated hundreds of thousands of email messages to policymakers on issues ranging from arms control to auto emissions.

Ultimately, nonprofit and philanthropic groups can use technology to work together to tackle complex problems and share lessons they’ve learned.

Technology gives individuals and philanthropic organizations powerful tools to connect themselves to one another and in the process create a kind of electronic town common — a vast “portal” encompassing the linked interests, knowledge and resources of people who care about community.

That digital philanthropic community will emerge only through hard work on the part of nonprofits to identify and secure the hardware, software and digital and wireless access they need — and learn to use it.

To do that, philanthropy must recognize the value of investing in technology – for itself and for the charities it supports. And nonprofits must move beyond simply finding and learning to use technology, and evolve into organizations that are nimble, resourceful, competitive and collaborative.

Ultimately, if organizations that are savvy about technology learn how to share their tech know-how and tools with one another, an electronic commons can emerge that will be easily accessible to anyone, regardless of limits on their resources.

American culture values both individualism and cooperation, twin forces driving a marketplace whose invisible hand has produced philanthropy as a critical agent of social change.

Today, our society is riddled with paradox. Unprecedented wealth generated by digital technology hasn’t begun to unravel our seemingly intractable social problems.

Technology alone won’t heal and repair our communities. But philanthropic organizations can harness digital and wireless technology to make themselves stronger and to build the alliances that will make our communities better places to live and work.

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